a Kimberley history tour …

The North kimberley is one of the last wildernesses around Australia, and is featured here in The Australian (paywalled): Northern Kimberley coast a forbidding treasure

IT all began with the glamorously piratical, hyper-literary William Dampier, who reached the far northwest coastline of the Kimberley at Cape Leveque in January 1688 and penned a bestselling narrative of his journey: the sights,…


Mount Trafalgar, overlooking Prince Regent River, in north Kimberley.

Mount Trafalgar, overlooking Prince Regent River, in north Kimberley. Source: News Corp Australia

An artist’s rendition of William Dampier’s ship Roebuck. Picture: Western Australian Muse

An artist’s rendition of William Dampier’s ship Roebuck. Picture: Western Australian Museum Source: Supplied

IT all began with the glamorously piratical, hyper-literary William Dampier, who reached the far northwest coastline of the Kimberley at Cape Leveque in January 1688 and penned a bestselling narrative of his journey: the sights, the animals and plants, the people too. “The inhabitants of this country are the miserablest people in the world,” he wrote: “They are tall, strait-bodied, and thin, with small, long limbs.”

Dampier was not only a fluent tale-teller and the unacknowledged father-figure of modern travel-writing: odd links bind him to the English literary tradition. He was born in East Coker, where TS Eliot is buried; he rescued Alexander Selkirk, the real-life original of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Dampier’s A New Voyage Round the World initiated a Western fascination for the north Kimberley shore that continues to our day, a fascination born of fear and wonder, as much as love or thirst for knowledge.

The coast provides the drama: it is a sequence of crescendos, curving northwest from Wyndham in a vast, jagged arc as far as Broome: cliffs, bays, reefs, cascades and promontories for 1000km. It is an articulate margin; its place-names trace the story of its contested discovery by Western eyes.

House of Hanover reigns still in Kimberley

French and British mariners brought their distinctive ways of seeing with them as they probed its depths and shallows in the first decades of the 19th century; they left clues to their respective national temperaments on the maps they made. Those charts and their punctilious atmospheric observations are still of value.

Even in our time this stretch of landscape, by far Australia’s most forbidding treasure, is more imagined than visited: it lies in a sun-scorched, monsoon-lashed region, where only luxury cruisers, hardy yachtsmen and coastguard vessels penetrate. These intruders see the ramparts of quartz sandstone, the basalt peaks and silent beaches, they edge between the shoals and tidal whirlpools, but few have much time to ponder the surveyors who first sailed that way.

Captain Nicolas Baudin, in command of a French scientific expedition to the South Seas, reached the Kimberley coast in mid-1801. He was a man of the Enlightenment, filled with a zeal for discoveries. On board his ships were 24 artists and specialists in the most advanced scientific disciplines: zoology, astronomy, mineralogy. Theirs was a venture to enlarge and fix knowledge; to dispel the unknown, and accordingly Baudin named the features of the coastline in obsessive detail after luminaries of Gallic science and literature.

Phillip Parker King, the Australian-born admiralty captain who followed in Baudin’s wake two decades later, had a different approach. He produced, in his Narrative of a Survey of the Inter-Tropical and Western Coasts of Australia, the first great record of the encounter between colonisers and Aboriginal peoples in the north.

As the chronicler of King’s voyages Marsden Hordern writes, King’s work would “markedly change New Holland’s nomenclature”. When the seas were rough, he labelled them accordingly: Point Torment, Foul Point, Disaster Bay — but in smoother waters he favoured as the source for his placenames “public servants, personal friends, sea lords, buccaneers”.

It was with this mindset that King sailed his survey crew westwards in September 1819, across a still, smoke-enveloped sea, towards, then round, a headland that presented him with his first sight of the Kimberley’s most lugubrious waterway. He christened it the Cambridge Gulf, in honour of Adolphus Frederick, duke of Cambridge, the son of King George III, and for good measure named the island midway down the channel Adolphus as well. Indeed, large parts of the coast still bear the names of members of the Hanoverian house that ruled Britain during those exploration years. King pushed on upstream, to the site of today’s Wyndham township, and reverted to a happier vernacular. He saw the mountain spur that dominates the Gulf and called it the Bastion. The channel between the cliffs and salt-flats he named the Gut. The place was steamy and haunted-seeming then, and it is so still.

Off an inlet beside the western shore lies Oombulgurri, the former Forrest River mission — or what remains of it: the community was closed down by the West Australian government in late 2011 and it is a ghost settlement now. A handful of its houses still stand, broken-down vehicles and stray toys and belongings dot the roadways, but life has gone. Here, in the mid-1950s, the young Randolph Stow spent a season as a mission worker and the country serves as the setting for his first novel, To the Islands, a tale of personal dissolution that ends with a flight to the northern coastline:

It was the sea’s shine, and the sea’s noise, shattered against rock cliffs. Ultimate indeed, at last found. And the sun that had led him hung close over the sea, not rising but setting, not lighting but blinding.

The gulf’s eastern head is guarded by Cape Domett, a stark rock: all around it, mangrove and mud. It marks the northmost extent of Carlton Hill cattle station, and one of the hinge events of recent Australian history unfolded there. The queen of the Kimberley, raconteur extraordinaire Susan Bradley, was on Carlton Hill throughout the 1970s and used to drive out often to the cape, with artists Paddy Carlton and Mignonette Jamin; they would watch the turtles nesting in the bleak solitude there. So she was surprised, one July morning, just after the Kun­unurra Races weekend, when she heard the two-way radio chatter. Station manager Peter Harpham, who stood six feet six inches (198cm) and had a stern authority about him, was checking in with grader driver Clifford Ogilvy, a rough-and-tumble operator at the best of times.

“What’s up, Oges?” said Harpoon, a little apprehensively: he’d sent Ogilvy to grade the long track from Nimbing waterhole to Brolga Springs up by the coast. “Come out quickly,” Oges answered, quite beside himself: “Come out — the yellow peril! The yellow peril’s arrived!”

Harpoon could almost picture the scene: Oges had a huge birthmark over half his face, which got redder after he had been drinking. “You’re in the DTs, Oges,” he snapped back. “Stop drinking and just keep grading the road.”

Next morning’s schedule, the same thing: “They’re all here, the yellow peril, I need more beef, bring some meat out fast!” “You must be drinking the brake fluid by now,” said Harpoon, sighing, and he drove out all the way on the twisting track. There before him was a boatload of Vietnamese, their frail fishing vessel stranded in the mangroves, run up on a full tide. “Excuse me,” one asked him: “Is this Australia?”

They were the first Indochinese boatpeople to reach haven in this country in the wake of the Vietnam war. Harpoon brought them to Kun­unurra; the town embraced them, and made much of them, and put them all up in the public works hostel. And there they stayed until Immigration and Quarantine descended and assessed them, and packed them off to freezing Tasmania, where many of them remain to this day. Bradley was passing through Fitzroy Crossing years later when she met one of the Vietnamese again: he was the chef at the Crossing Inn, and he was working his way gradually across the Kimberley, hoping to get back to Carlton Hill and see it once again: “I was happy,” he told her, “when I came ashore there.”

AND so the coast runs, story-punctuated, rich in shipwrecks, ends and new beginnings — like all coasts, only more so, the tropics being a zone of excess; rich in memories, as well. The cliffs darken, their ramparts rise higher. Baudin’s Cape Rulhieres memorialises an academician who chronicled the rise to power of Catherine the Great; his Cape Saint-Lambert recalls not a divine but an 18th-century poet and erotomane — and so we reach the austere trident of Cape Londonderry, the northmost point of Western Australia, which King charted, in extremis:

We were now very weak-handed: three men being ill considerably reduced our strength, insomuch that being underweigh night and day, with only one spare man on the watch to relieve the mast-head look-out, the lead and the helm, there was great reason to fear the fatigue would very much increase the number of complaints.

Londonderry? Not the city in Ulster but the second marquess, better known as Lord Castle­reagh, the British foreign secretary and hero of the Congress of Vienna, the deviser of a peace in Europe that endured throughout his century; a distinctive figure on the diplomatic stage but one much loathed by the London pamphleteers and poets of the day for his support of repressive domestic measures. Here is Shelley, in The Mask of Anarchy, in savage form:

I met Murder on the way —

He had a mask like Castlereagh —

Very smooth he looked, yet grim;

Seven bloodhounds followed him …

Tormented, depressed and paranoid, Castle­reagh’s mental powers began unravelling even as he held the reins of government. His wife, in fear for his wellbeing, removed the razor blades from his private quarters, but Castle­reagh managed to find a penknife and committed suicide by slitting his throat — and had he been able to sail past the low, gaunt, blood-coloured headland that bears his title to this day, he would surely have been moved to stab the knife into his heart.

Yet Cape Londonderry has a charm for some: it played a special role in the life of the north Kimberley’s most determined Benedictine monk, Father Seraphim Sanz, for decades the mainstay of the remote indigenous settlement at Kalumburu, just inland from Napier Broome Bay. Sanz was a man of God with a practical streak: he was a linguist and a polymath of natural science; he was also a prolific inventor and devised an anti-snoring gadget made from the inner tube of a four-wheel-drive tyre. It was 1939 when he reached the mission compound on the King Edward River and set about his task of building an ordered, productive Catholic Aboriginal society there.

On his first voyage around the coast to Wyndham to collect supplies he and his crew on the mission lugger ran aground close to the cape: Sanz discovered a petrified mangrove outcrop there, a geological curio he longed to see again. He was able to fulfil his wish 66 years on to the day when he made a helicopter trip out to the headland’s tip in August 2005 and guided the pilot in to the exact spot. It was a windy time of year and the sea was rough; the scene was just as he remembered it from long before.

A coast of cyclic repetitions and shadows; of martial ploys and feints as well. When the wartime allies were building their secret air force base at Truscott, close to Kalumburu, and planning the first heavy bombing raids on the Japanese in Java, the fear of retaliation was intense. Japanese attacks across the remote north were continuing: Zero fighter squadrons scoured the country for signs of a hidden airstrip, in vain.

As it happens, the sole documented Japanese landing on Australia’s tropical coastline had already come ashore, on the peninsula where Truscott now stands. It was in the last days of 1943; Japanese intelligence reported that the Americans were building a naval base in the Kimberley. The fishing vessel Hiyoshi Maru was dispatched from Kupang with a small team under Lieutenant Susuhiko Mizuno on a long-range mission of reconnaissance and espionage. They reached a deserted embayment, dropped anchor and explored the region for two days, even making a record of the landscape with a movie camera. But they found no one and nothing, except, Mizuno remembered four decades later, “red rocks, small trees and terrible heat”.

IT would be fair, though, to regard the region as, in name at least, an enduringly military zone: west of Truscott lies a maze of points and islands, and even a body of water named Admiralty Gulf in honour of the naval bureaucracy that underwrote King’s work. And Osborne Island, Sir Graham Moore Island, Port Warrender, Pickering Point, Walmsley Bay — they are all cap-doffing mementos of “gallant” members of the admiralty board.

How different things had been a few years earlier when the French savants in Baudin’s crew went sailing by. They kept out to sea and passed amid a scatter of vestigial rocks and islets. Fancy and free imagination were already fully engaged, as the narrative of the journey makes plain: “We found here in this archipelago the bizarre shapes of ancient tombs, levelled platforms, regular pyramids and elevated cones.” The gulf they entered next was smooth, and calm, and full of islets too: these became the Institute Islands, in honour of “the famous society of which our fatherland is so proud”.

This group of two dozen isles and sandbars received a spectacular array of names, which lend this portion of the coastline of the Kimberley a strange distinction: it is a gazetteer of philosophers and litterateurs, rivalled in all the world only by the street-grid of Mexico City’s Polanco zone. Sailors edging through these shallows may blink a little at the charts, but there the names are: Fenelon, Pascal, Corneille, Racine, Moliere, Montesquieu, Descartes, Condillac — a Pleiade in the tropics.

And it is clear that there is a great book begging to be written here: a reflective record of a cruise through these waters, matching the works and thoughts of each islet’s name-giver to the setting: land, sea, sky. The format would be perfect: Corneille Island’s sharp, rearing peak suggests fate and drama; Moliere and Racine, side by side, prompt thoughts on the closeness of the comic and the tragic. Pascal, with its outlook to the blank waves of the Indian Ocean, draws the mind towards the afterlife. But the greatest flourish, fittingly, comes with Cape Voltaire, a sharp basalt outcrop that looms up imperiously to scan the waters, and makes a strong contrast with the sandstone of the surrounding coast. One can almost hear the old rogue’s voice in the emptiness: “Ecrasez l’Infame!” But would he really have been at home here, at the edge of the earth: that same joyful, cynical Voltaire who loved his luxuries and whose principal interests in life were algebra, the stockmarket and women’s underwear?

SOUTHWEST of the islands and the gulf, a narrow river flows inland: the Prince Regent, straight as a die — and well up it are King’s Cascades which, when in flood, tumble over the deep-red rocks in a curtain of frothing, dancing foam. The cascades are among the north Kimberley’s more frequented tourist spots. They are much photographed, filmed and admired, but a pall hangs over them: it was here, in the late wet season of 1987, that American model Ginger Meadows was attacked and taken by a 4m-long long saltwater crocodile.

It was just a bush disaster, like many another — but somehow it caught the headlines: the primal, remote setting, the beauty of the victim, the random nature of her fate. Meadows was in waist-deep water on a ledge beneath the waterfalls, another young woman was close beside her. The warning came, they rushed for safety but the crocodile resurfaced: it seized its prey. And the atmospherics of that moment still seem to linger: there is a grief in the landscape, even in the blazing sun the cascades seem dark.

A controlled reserve surrounds the Prince Regent. It is there to protect nature, but it guards a long, half-forgotten history of colonial endeavours and reverses as well. Camden Harbour, site of an ill-conceived and disastrous attempt at settlement, lies close by, near the ruins of Kunmunya Presbyterian mission, home for many years to JRB Love, a decorated World War I light-horse officer turned clergyman, and the author of the ethnographic classic Kimberley People: Stone Age Bushmen of Today.

Augustus Island, a long-time base for Macassan trepang fishermen, is just offshore, but the superior harbour is the wide, sombre St George Basin, almost wholly sheltered by red ranges from the sea. King passed by here on his second voyage and careened his ship Mermaid, and had its name carved on a boab trunk that still stands; the great flat-topped peaks of the basin he named, tellingly, for Britain’s twin Napoleonic War triumphs, Trafalgar and Waterloo — and they are overwhelming, their massifs dominate the coastline in imperious style. At their base is flat land, mangrove and spinifex: the setting for one of the most quixotic and lavishly recorded pioneering ventures in the story of the north.

Its hero was that scapegrace capitalist Joseph Bradshaw, a speculator and schemer, a man with the frontier in his eyes. In 1890 he leased 400ha round the wild Prince Regent. In 1891 he married an attractive musician, Mary Jane Guy, and sailed with her up to his unseen bush estates on a new ketch-rigged schooner, upright piano, homestead equipment and other neces­sary chattels on board.

Along with him came his cousin Aeneas Gunn, a young man “of the best class of bohemian”, plunged deep in literature, restless and wide-eyed. The cruise from Cape Londonderry past “huge scowling cliffs and bluffs of sandstone, faces scarred, gashed and wrinkled by the eternal onslaught of the elements”, had made a strong impact on him, but it was nothing compared with what he found at the settlement, on a promontory Bradshaw had christened with a version of his wife’s maiden name, Marigui. The country became the raw material for a minor masterpiece.

Gunn is the baroque prose fabulist of the Austral tropics, a love-child of some ungodly union between William Beckford and Edgar Allan Poe. His recollections of his Kimberley sojourn, first printed in the Prahran Telegraph, are now collected in a slender volume, Under a Regent Moon. The stories build into a sustained flight of prose poetry, both precise and exorbitant, both cold-eyed and hysterical. There are passages on Wagner’s music, on near-nervous breakdowns in the mangroves, on the temptations of idleness, on the bush, above all, and Marigui’s wilderness surrounds.

The coast from north-east to north-west was like a ragged edge to the silky skirt of the mobile sea. Promontories and peninsulas tore it with great gashes, and rounded headlands were scalloped out of its smooth folds. Hundreds of islands lay like dark holes in it. Away out towards the horizon, behind which ships sink down and continents lie hidden, grey curtains of rain draped it with a fringe.

This is the writing of a man who has experienced a build-up season in the north Kimberley: that landscape marked Gunn for the remainder of his brief life.

He retreated to Melbourne, ­became a lib­rarian, then felt the call of the north again. He took a young wife of his own, Jeannie, later to become famous for her heart-warming Territory tale We of the Never Never, a text Gunn himself had most likely written as a gift for her. He died unknown, aged only 41, on Elsey Station, which the book put on the map. His wife survived him by 58 years, the author of a single, anomalous, bestselling frontier tale.

Gunn’s word torrents and Bradshaw’s Fitzcarraldo journey might seem the strangest north Kimberley tale of all — stranger than the stories told of 8m crocodiles up Walcott Inlet, stranger even than Wilson Tuckey’s dream of hydropower on the horizontal falls at Talbot Bay — but that would be to reckon without the tense “incident” of 1876 on the island group of the Lacepedes.

These slim strips of sand and coral, home to vast seabird breeding colonies and named accordingly by Baudin in honour of a well-born naturalist, were mined extensively for guano; the trolley-line tracks from the diggings to the beach jetties survive to this day. A Victorian firm had the monopoly until a band of chancers, dispatched by the US consul in Melbourne, Samuel Perkins Lord, claimed the group for America and flew the Stars and Stripes from a flagpole on Middle Island.

“Yankee audacity,” thundered the West Australian press when word got out. The stand-off continued all through the year, until president Ulysses S. Grant, in what was surely the only backdown of his long life, repudiated the rogue consul’s annexation claim.

To establish order on the islands, the governor in Perth dispatched the bookish, Irish-born Richard Wynne as administrator, harbour­master and justice of the peace, and built him, in due course, a two-room limestone dwelling, Lacepede House. It doubled as a jail.

Within two years the guano was almost all gone, and drunkenness prevailed among the remaining population.

A cyclone blew the administrative compound out to sea. Wynne and his party, including constable, Chinese cook and boatmen, had retreated to the mainland and the straight, sandy promontory that runs unbroken north from Broome: the same peninsula Dampier saw in the last year of the 17th century on his cruise aboard the Roebuck, and which King eventually named in his honour. Red sands, fierce tides — the low, mysterious shore where the romance with the Kimberley coast began.

Buy the paper for more.

More photos at the link provided.

About Tom Harley

Amateur ecologist and horticulturalist and CEO of Kimberley Environmental Horticulture Inc. (Tom Harley)
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