white limestone cliff by the sea

Cape Mentelle: a Profile

A limestone headland, looking down the prevailing wind from across the Indian Ocean. When the light is right, you can see the profile of a face jutting out from the stone: a vision of the spirit of place, the personification of a wild and rocky coastline.

Cape Mentelle is a rugged series of steep, cliff-lined bays. The soft tamala limestone was formed by rain seeping into sand dunes blown onshore by the south-westerly wind. The fragile stone is protected from the waves by a submerged portion of reef, but wind and rain have weathered the cliffs into bizarre shapes; delicate sand sculptures that can be obliterated in a moment by the passage of feet.

In 1801 a French expedition sailed by, surveying the coastline and collecting specimens for science. Captain Baudin named the headland Cape Mentelle after his geography teacher. Edme Mentelles’ enduring legacy was the invention of a multi-layered globe, by commission to Louis the 16th, the last King of France. It was made for the young Dauphin, but after the prince died of tuberculosis in 1790, the King gave Mentelle permission to use the globe for his own private lessons. He would assemble the layers of the globe during a series of twelve lectures, to some very mixed reviews. The globe now resides in the Dauphins’ room in the museum of Versailles.

Despite having strong associations with the Kings family, Mentelle survived the French revolution. But he was criticised by his contemporaries for his style of geography, which was more about lists and names and locations than the inspired reading of people and landscape that might be expected from the age of enlightenment. There is a subtle irony here; that his name was bestowed upon a feature in a land already loaded with meaning, by a man from an alien culture aboard a passing ship.

The rocky headland already had a name and a personality bestowed by Aboriginal custodians: tales about the making of the Margaret River that snakes out to sea just around the point, and it’s meeting with the sea. Those are powerful stories of place. Stories that grew and adapted over the millennia, as the sea rose at the end of the last ice age, drowning the coastal plain that stretched far to the west, and creating an island out of the granite outcrop now known as Old Man Rock.

However those stories are not mine to tell. They belong to Aboriginal custodians, and not appropriating them is an important way for others to acknowledge Noongar ownership of country.

But we need stories. Myth and histories have a way of connecting us with country. They can be read from the shape and sound of the land itself by looking out for the spirits of place; the shapes in the stone, the way of the birds that nest there, the song the waves make with the shore. By engaging with them we grow a sense of belonging. And with belonging an ethic of custodianship, so we can better respect, protect, and share this unique landscape.