“As we got close to the artwork, a few of us gazed downstream and saw wind patterning on the water in the shape of a massive snake. The big boss was watching us...”
Martuwarra was formed in the beginning of time. This sacred River is the source of life in the West Kimberley. Each wet season, when the monsoon rainclouds finally burst, the Serpent awakens. A vast torrent surges through ancient ravines, pitching giant trees over foaming rapids. Tall, slender figures with outfacing palms stand sentinel, as a colossal volume of water cascades down to replenish the River Country.
This year, a group of emerging leaders, artists and scientists rafted a 400-kilometre stretch of the River. They paddled unaided for two weeks through Ngarinyin, Andijan and Bunuba Country. Following the natural path of the water, connecting physically and spiritually with Martuwarra.
The expedition was an on-Country think tank hosted by the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council (MFRC). MFRC is an alliance of Elders and emerging leaders, from the six independent Nations of the Fitzroy River Catchment, in the Kimberley, Western Australia. MFRC is an entirely Indigenous-led organisation, on the frontline in the battle against climate change.
Country is a great teacher. We want our young people to experience Country, learn from Country, know Country, and have Country know them.
The River created and sustains everything that lives along its banks. It links humans, animals, plants, weather patterns and spiritual beings in a system of relationships. For those who belong to Martuwarra, every element of life is shaped by this connection. The River, and its natural cycle, inform us of how all species, including human beings, respond to less or more water. It is a system designed through thousands of years of communication, not domination.
The MFRC Elders have identified the need for First Law principles to govern the Martuwarra Catchment into the future. They are encouraging young people to respond to climate change and unjust development, ensuring the continuation of culture and Country.
The team launched at the headwaters of Martuwarra. Navigating a loaded raft through thick paperbark forests, treacherous rapids and days of mind-numbing flat water was a steep learning curve.
A rhythm quickly developed within the group. Isolated from the white world, deep in the sauna of wet season. Waking with the sun, following the path of the Serpent each day. They could start to feel Country.
Waking up every day in such natural Country, not distracted, just focused, you can imagine and appreciate the sense of community that existed before colonisation.
Nyikina artist Nelson Baker belongs to Martuwarra, yet he had never experienced the River like this. “I grew up on the lower Martuwarra, towards the mouth,” Nelson explains. “I had never been up the River and seen where the water comes from, and how embedded the River is in every element of culture and life for each tribe.
“The ancient rock art cascading down the cliffs is a glimpse into the society that lived here. They had everything right here, in this magic place. You know Country better after a trip like this.”
Within days the team had entered Bung-ie, a place of great significance to Ngarinyin people.
Beautiful and extremely rare pockets of Central Kimberley rainforest throughout Bung-ie, provide refuge for threatened and endemic fauna, including the Gouldian Finch. A species that flourished in the hundreds of thousands and has now been reduced to two thousand.
The group soon learnt that they were travelling through a mining lease. Odessa Minerals has acquired the tenement and is planning to mine diamonds. They have indicated plans to construct an open-cut mine that could be larger than the famed Argyle Diamond mine.
“It’s really sad to think they would even go anywhere near these places to mine. This freshwater system will never be the same, and the water is part of the community,” Nelson reflected.
Donny Imberlong, a Jaru man, felt the magic of this place. “When we were there, there were these moments,” he says. “The first was when we had begun walking up the side of the gorge toward a huge rock art panel. Led by one of the guys whose grandfather belonged to this part of the River. Nearby was a deep hole, where the boys mentioned that the big serpent-boss of the River lived. As we got close to the artwork a few of us gazed downstream and saw wind patterning on the water that was in the shape of a massive snake. The big boss was watching us.”
It’s sickening. You can’t mine that. The fact that all that remote and fragile Country can’t be cared for and appreciated the way it is. Makes you wonder how these people can sleep at night.
For the past 12 months the MFRC team has been focused on recording and registering previously undocumented ancient rock art and heritage sites around Bung-ie, with assistance from Elders and the community, successfully slowing down planned works.
MFRC is working with communities to design sustainable alternatives to these invasive, unjust developments. With the goal to protect the River from the head to the mouth, as a whole living system.
In the lower catchment, there is excitement as the first group of Martuwarra River Keepers are living and working on Country to repair and regenerate Martuwarra.
MFRC Chair Dr Anne Poelina says it is about ‘bottom-up’ governance, and designing sustainable economies based in Indigenous science, tourism and restoring cultural custodianship.
This is how we can build the capacity of the community to look at culture, conservation and science. The River Keepers have already been studying the Boabs, the water table, how climate change is impacting the Country, and what we can do to right-size this.
To see and connect to the lower catchment watch Babanil on ABC iView.