Things changed after the Welcome to Country. Before the welcome, the scientists and traditional owners were camped next to each other on the Kimberley Bush Blitz, but there was not much mingling.
That morning we had driven in convoy along the Gibb River Road from Home Valley Resort to Jack’s Waterhole, in Ungarinyin traditional land. Well – sort of in convoy. At one point all the scientists pulled over to the side of the road, vehicle after vehicle halting in plumes of dust.
“Does anyone know for sure that we’re going the right way?” asked Mark, an entomologist from Perth, stepping out of the leading car. “Because, for the last half hour, I haven’t been following anybody. I’ve just been, like…. driving…” The traditional owners, we hoped, were still somewhere ahead of us.
“It’ll be fine,” reassured Kate, the expedition leader. “I’m sure they’ll wait at the turn-off.”
And they did. They led us down a rough track, over a cracked pavement of rocks the size of sofas, to park in deep drifts of sand. The landscape seemed absent of moisture, but less than a minute’s walk brought us to Jack’s Waterhole, hidden behind a fringe of white-trunked cajaputs (paperbarks).
A fire was conjured on the sandy bank and puffs of smoke soon poured forth.
Don, a senior man in this country, stood at the summit of the bank and gave an eloquent Welcome to Country in Ungarinyin. It was moving to hear the language spoken amid the landscape that had shaped it – red rock, sand, silent water and melodious honeyeaters. We walked a circuit of the fire, letting the sweet river-gum smoke flow over us, then gathered on the bank in the shade.
The traditional owners introduced themselves and the scientists, in turn, told who they were and what each was looking for in Ungarinyin land. The scientists asked if it was okay to take photos of traditional owners (yes) and Don pointed out a locality on the map that we were not permitted to enter.
The formalities over, conversations sparked. The ichthylogists began discussing fishing with the local fishermen; the botanists and entomologists eagerly quizzed the traditional owners about the locations of special habitat types such as areas of blacksoil, gorges, springs and waterfalls.
A crowd of children gathered around Glenn, a marine fish expert, while he rubbed and patted their little dog. Earlier the dog had gone missing, presumed eaten by a crocodile. Now we smiled to see it lying contentedly in the sand, panting happily while the kids narrated its genealogy, and the fates of its unfortunate siblings.
Brian, Field scientist, Bush Blitz
Bush Blitz is a partnership between the Australian Government, BHP Billiton Sustainable Communities and Earthwatch Australia. The innovative program sends scientists out into the field to record the fascinating plants and animals in conservation areas across Australia.
The Kimberley expedition was run in partnership with the Kimberley Land Council and the Indigenous Land Corporation.