Windjana Gorge: loving country, loving culture

Deep in the remote savannah of the West Kimberley lies Windjana Gorge, a place where country and culture combine to create one of the most spectacular locations in Northern Australia. The Gorge is a steep-sided valley where the Lennard River cuts through the Napier Range, a fossil reef that dates back to the Devonian era 375 million years ago. Known as Bandilngan by the Bunuba people, it has been integral to culture and economy for over 50 000 years.

Bandilngan is also one of Australia’s most iconic tourism destinations and despite the remote location is visited by thousands of people each year. But a curious visitor might miss the cultural significance altogether if they rely on a Google search of tourism websites or on posts from Instagram. They could walk the trail through the gorge, photograph freshwater crocs in the pools, sleep in the campground beneath the towering cliffs, drink the sacred water from the taps and still remain completely unaware of the rich cultural heritage that surrounds them.

For the Bunuba, Bandilngan is about more than surface features of cliffs, fossils, flora and fauna. Bunuba people call this country their muwayi, a term which in its broadest sense means land, but is a concept that has deeply interlocked layers of meaning that connect people and place. Archaeology has provided a European context for the depth of Bunuba experience of the landscape around Bandilngan. At nearby Carpenter’s Gap, excavation uncovered a ground axe dated at 49 000 years, the oldest example of such technology in the world. Archaeologists also found a soil sequence revealing plant use dating back 40 000 years; the oldest known symbolic use of ochre in Australia, and marine shell fragments transported hundreds of kilometres inland.

But the landscape also holds darker, more recent layers of history. Bandilngan is the heartland of the Bunuba resistance, one of Australia’s most legendary uprisings against British colonisation. In 1894 Jandamarra, a young Bunuba tracker, shot a policeman and released Bunuba elders from the Lilimooloora lockup, now a ruin just a few kms from Windjana campground. Retribution from colonisers was swift. The group was hunted down and there was a shoot-out in Windjana Gorge. Jandamarra escaped and for a short while led resistance against the colonisers, but in 1897 he was killed at nearby Dimalurru, or Tunnel Creek.

Ruins at Lilimooloora

The death of Jandamarra was the end of the Bunuba Resistance. White pastoralists ruled the land, Bunuba people were dispossessed, and mismanagement of the landscape has since had a devastating impact on muwayi. The threads of dispossession echo down into contemporary unrest and discontent in the Kimberley. But the legend of Jandamarra has only grown over time, and his story is now an integral part of Bandilngan culture. In this short video, elder Joe Ross shares the story of Jandamarra on location at Tunnel Creek.

In 2013, Bunuba were awarded Native Title over some of their muwayi. Their custodianship of country has also been recognised in the new dual naming of Bandilngan-Windjana Gorge National Park. The Department of biodiversity, conservation and attractions (DBCA) has drawn up a dual-management plan with Bunuba elders, and central to this plan is the creation of opportunities for custodians to establish their own tourism ventures. Sadly, this has been a difficult process despite the support of government agencies.

In 2021 the Bunuba Dawangarri Aboriginal Corporation negotiated to hand over a significant proportion of land held under Native Title to National Park in return for greater funding for Bunuba rangers and tourism ventures. However as elder Joe Ross explains, the government requires both activities to be covered by insurance, but insurance companies refuse to cover them.

Another barrier is the culture of tourism itself. In their management plan the DBCA recognise that a major threat to the landscape around Windjana Gorge is a lack of awareness of its importance to Bunuba culture by visitors. How can we foster a more ethical tourism that empowers Bunuba people?

Sign to show Bunuba Country
On the road between Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek

The best way to do this is to take a tour with a Bunuba-run company. There are options of day tours, overnight camps, week long treks. But despite the increasing numbers of visitors, only a very small proportion take up the tours offered from the visitor centres at Derby and Fitzroy Crossing.

Taking a tour with elders may not always be possible, and many Australian travellers prefer to do their own thing. This might seem trivial to people without Indigenous heritage, however it is one source of ongoing disharmony between cultures. It is customary for visitors entering another people’s country to seek permission from the elders. That this is seldom done disempowers custodians, but knowing who to seek permission from, and how, is a major challenge for visitors.

So what can visitors do to support Bunuba culture? The first step is to be aware. Seek out information and respect local cultures by learning about them and their responsibility for country. Check in with the visitor centres at Derby and Fitzroy Crossing. Ask if there are any events. Visit some of the art centres, like the Mowanjum Art Centre or Mangkaja Arts. Talk with Indigenous artists and perhaps buy some art. Sit in a park and chat with the locals. Breaking through the cultural barriers might seem intimidating, but it is worth the effort.

Interlaced smiling tree
The welcome tree, Windjana Gorge

There are also opportunities to show support using social media. There are some fantastic Facebook pages by Indigenous groups, such as Bunuba Country and Gooniyandi Rangers. Or, when posting images to social media platforms try using hashtags like #bunubacountry. This might seem like a small act but such acknowledgement is significant and won’t go unotice

The more the history of custodians, their connection to country, and the history of the Bunuba resistance is drawn in to visitor experience, the more travellers can become aware of the political and social context of place. This knowledge is key to protecting muwayi from unintentional damage by visitors.

The benefits are enormous for Bunuba and visitors alike. In the modern era of fast travel it has become too easy to skim over a place and leave with a shallow surface image. Reflect, consider your impact, put something back, look after country. By paying attention to Bunuba culture we allow ourselves be open to a deeper experience, the chance to reflect on our own history and on the spirits of place.