Ute Junker explores country on a Tagalong Tour while staying at Kooljaman, an Indigenous wilderness camp north of Broome on Cape Leveque.
I’ve never seen a beach like this. It’s not just the whiteness of the sand or that it seems to unspool towards the horizon in an endless ribbon; what strikes me is its scale. If this were a road, it would be an eight-lane highway. Right now, though, this sandy highway is completely deserted but for the long-legged wading birds that pick their leisurely path along the shell-strewn shore.
But Brian Lee is about to change all that. “Jump in your car and follow me!” he calls, turning over the motor of his fourwheel drive and flooring it. He roars ahead along the beach.
I’m at the northernmost tip of Cape Leveque in the Kimberley, 2.5 hours north of Broome, staying at Kooljaman, an Indigenous-owned wilderness camp of cabins and safari tents. There may not be a cocktail bar or infinity pool but this is the Western Australian outback at its rawest, where red-dirt roads meander through scrubby bush and ancient mangroves are framed by rocky plateaus.
This is also a chance to explore the region with Bardi man Brian Lee, whose Tagalong Tour offers a hands-on way to understand the area (book through Kooljaman). With his flowing white hair and broad smile, Lee has an easy warmth; it doesn’t take long to realise he also has a strong connection to country. Take the beach we’re on, a place that Lee knows both as a playground – he shows me how in his younger days he turned periwinkle shells into whistles – and as a larder, where he can spearfish in the shallows.
We park our four-wheel drives further down the beach – safely above the high-tide line – and I follow Lee on foot as he heads into the bush towards Hunter Creek, chatting along the way. A born raconteur with a cache of hilarious tales, Lee tells me about his diverse family – he has Japanese and English heritage, a Chinese stepfather and an Italian wife. But it’s far from a one-way conversation; he’s equally interested in my family and lifestyle. “You learn about me and I learn about you,” he says, smiling.
I find out about the landscape that we’re walking through: where large mud crabs shelter, which plants are good to eat and which will sting unwary travellers. “The wattle is in bloom – that means the stingrays are good to eat and the mullet are spawning,” explains Lee. It’s also a great time to eat golden trevally, mangrove jack and sweetlips fish “so let’s see if we can catch some”.
We make our base in a pretty clearing overlooking the river. Lee shows me how to make a spear from a wattle bush and asks if I want to try fishing. I decide on a swim instead. Lee does a quick scan for saltwater crocs, known to lurk in the area, before giving me the all-clear. I splash about while he takes care of lunch, catching a large trevally and cooking it over a fire.
“I love doing these tours but what makes me happiest is that the young ones are starting to get involved,” Lee tells me. As an Elder, he takes young men into the bush to learn traditional practices but is now also preparing them for the future by having them play a part in his tours.
“They’re getting used to talking to strangers, to being more extroverted. For us, that’s something you need to get used to,” he says, laughing. “I feel good about our children becoming teachers, helping to impart the knowledge of country to the people who come to visit.”
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Image credit: Yane Sotiroski