The Ancient World of the Mitchell Plateau

Words and photos by Matthew Birch 

Deep in the bush, in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia, there exists a stronghold of ancient Australian Aboriginal culture: the Wunambal community, descendants of a continuous lineage that extends back to approximately 70,000 years ago.

Right now, the Kandiwal community on the remote Mitchell Plateau are facing challenges in passing on their ancient traditions and knowledge to future generations. The Kandiwal residents are what’s left of the once large Wunambal nation, who’ve returned home to Country after what can be referred to as government removal. Throughout 2022, I was lucky enough to live and work on the remote Mitchell Plateau, and during my time in this unique and mesmerising part of the world, I was incredibly fortunate to spend six months in close proximity to the Kandiwal community. The area is locally known as Ngauwudu, which roughly translates to ‘high land of much water.’ The mind-boggling extended history of the area, along with its epic natural beauty, made me want to learn more and more about the stories of the mysterious Ngauwudu.

As I spent more time in the area, I slowly gained more insight into Kandiwal’s story of hope, pride, struggle, and determination. Soon, I came to hear about the legal hurdles that have been thrown in front of this community, and the support and help that Kandiwal does not receive. It appears that the Australian government has abandoned their educational and social responsibilities to these people. That the Kandiwal people are still living on their tribal lands is a massive testament to their determination and commitment to live on Country, just as their ancestors did for tens of thousands of years before them. The other, much easier alternative would be to submit to the magnetic pull of the damaged Kimberley towns, just as many other Indigenous families and groups have done. It is no secret that these places are rife with drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and soaring crime rates; where the detrimental effects of Indigenous people being disconnected from their culture and heritage are painfully obvious. In contrast, the Kandiwal community is a safe haven for the Wunambal people, deep in the bush and far away from the dysfunction of the Kimberley towns.

The Mitchell Plateau

The Mitchell Plateau, or Ngauwudu, is one of the most remote areas in the Kimberley still accessible by road, where it takes 250km to travel to the closest store to buy milk or bread. Located in the region is the incredible Mitchell Falls (Punamii Uunpu), a four-tiered waterfall cascading 80 metres down a sandstone range, which could very possibly be an eighth wonder of the world. This place is home to the north Kimberley’s most powerful Wunggurr or Rainbow Serpent, who is believed to live in the largest pool of the falls. The area is the only part of Australia that hasn’t had a species go extinct since European settlement.

Throughout Ngauwudu, there are numerous, truly sacred Indigenous rock art sites scattered throughout the area, some of which date back to 40,000 years. This rock art depicts Dreamtime stories and lessons in cultural law, and the images have been instrumental in passing on Wunambal culture to countless generations in the area. This is a spectacular part of the world with extreme cultural and ecological significance—a place worthy of World Heritage status, or at least some support from the government departments and corporations who are meant to be representing them. Instead, Kandiwal has been left out on a limb.

A Brief History of Kandiwal

The Wunambal tribe have been present in the region for thousands of generations, but it wasn’t until the first contact with European Australians in the 1920s that their undisturbed and traditional lifestyles came to an end. With the arrival of missionaries in the mid 1930s, the Wunambal people were slowly coerced to becoming dependent on government rations that were issued through the church missions and government stations. Over the years, many families were moved into missions dotted throughout the Kimberley, far away from their spiritual and tribal home at Ngauwudu.

I had the privilege to sit down with Patricia Goonack, Kandiwal’s eldest member who has been living in the community since its inception in the 80s. ‘The old people [deceased Wunambal Elders] wanted to get their Country back,’ she said. A family of four brothers had significant influence in setting up the Kandiwal community and lobbying against the state government to secure Kandiwal’s native title, finally realised in 1987 after a 30-year quest to make it back home to their tribal lands.

Chris Brown, or ‘Browny’ has been a tour guide in the area since the 1980’s and worked closely with the community for years as their corporation manager and community advisor. He knew most of those Wunambal Elders personally, and explained that ‘the old men wanted their children, their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s children to be back on Country… Not to be in a place like Derby or Broome. These towns are poison to bush people, and kids don’t have the upbringing they deserve in places like that. There’s crime, there’s drug addiction and alcoholism.’

During the Traditional Owner’s absence from Ngauwudu, numerous mining companies took the opportunity to explore the area for bauxite, using strip mining techniques to search the entire Mitchell Plateau for minerals. Strip mining is an extremely damaging process and devastating to the land. Evidence of grid patterns, completely void of any vegetation, criss-cross the whole area and can still be seen clearly today almost 70 years later. It is inconceivable to think that they wanted to rip up the entire Mitchell Plateau, which could have caused the whole area to become barren.

Once the mining tenements were finally revoked by the state government in 2012 and the Native Title Act instated, the Traditional Owners were able to move back onto the land. But this means little if the Traditional Owners cannot get the infrastructure they need. The mining company had promised Kandiwal that the exploration camp would be handed over complete with buildings, accommodations and some vehicles that would help to establish a permanent community. But there was a change of heart by the company and all the dongas and infrastructure were auctioned off, leaving the Wunambal people with concrete slabs to come home to.

Voicing Community Concerns

There are only around 30 people who live at the community permanently, however the community hopes to have 170 Indigenous people living back at Kandiwal. This could be possible if Kandiwal received its allocated funding from the government, but it has instead turned into a neglected community dream. A damaged solar-power system needs to be fixed, the septic system needs to be upgraded and funding for additional housing is needed before Kandiwal is able to bring the rest of their family back home to Ngauwudu.

‘We are trying to get families back on Country to help our next generation know their culture, so they can learn that and pass it on to the next generation and the next one,’ Cathy Goonack said. ‘So our tradition won’t fade away…’

Jeremy Cowan is one of the last people to still know the Wunambal language, traditional songlines and Dreamtime stories, and he openly expressed his concerns to me. ‘I want to share my knowledge with the kids, teach them how to sing corroborees and all that, and show them what I have learnt from my grandparents. Now that our grandparents aren’t here, I’m the one who must be a teacher for the kids, showing them the art sites and things.’

Jeremy has mentioned he wants to move back to Kandiwal, but he is not able to due to the lack of housing and employment opportunities at the community. He is an essential figure to pass Wunambal culture, language and knowledge onto the children, and if funding was secured, it is possible that he could be employed as a cultural teacher at the local school where he could teach the Wunambal culture to to the young ones. Presently, none of the community members can speak in their native language, and instead these bush kids are being forced to learn Indonesian as the alternative language in the current school curriculum.

‘Here’s this little struggling school that’s scratching around for funding and being run on a shoestring, when there should be Traditional Owners here teaching the young people their own language, their own stories, their own Country,’ Browny said. ‘Not talking about elephants from Africa,

or European history, or learning Indonesian. I can’t believe it. That’s not what Aboriginal children in their own country should be learning… Why should you learn a foreign language, when you could be learning your own language and your own identity? That’s what is going to be more important to these people.’

The Government decided not to proceed with funding for the school and instead consolidated a School of the Air (SOTA) education service, which is a questionable education model for a remote Indigenous community. Kandiwal’s school tutor Paula MacDonald often spoke to me about the shortcomings of remote online learning. ‘Each child has their own laptop and their teachers teach online from Derby, and I facilitate their offline learning. I find this difficult with the kids… They are hands-on, they are bush kids, so to sit them in a room in front of a laptop doesn’t quite work at times.’

The Preservation of an Ancient Culture

The Western Australian Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage created the Kandiwal Layout Plan back in 2010, and pledged to support ‘education, job training, health services, work and housing for members’, as well as ‘encourage members to keep and renew their traditional culture’. It has been over 12 years since this document was created and little has changed for the community.

Kandiwal is located 518km from Kununurra, the nearest Kimberley town that has a hospital and medical services. The journey is across unsealed, extremely corrugated and unforgiving dirt roads. During the time I was living on Ngauwudu, there were several emergency health scares that resulted in RFDS retrieval and transfer back the hospital in Broome. The very real and present danger of venomous snakes in the area, pre-existing medical conditions prevalent in the community, and a complete lack of health services at Kandiwal all contribute to an underlying concern for the health of the population.

Kandiwal is supposed to receive healthcare support from the Derby Aboriginal Health Service (DAHS) every six weeks, but the community seems to have dropped completely off the radar despite being listed with this government department. ‘Simple things like immunisations, anything for the younger children, like dentists… I’ve lived here for a year and a half and haven’t seen a dentist or doctor up here,’ Paula said. Having a health clinic up on the Mitchell Plateau would enable families to stay at Kandiwal year-round and receive basic health support as needed.

Traditional Owners are fighting through red tape in the struggle to pass on their culture to future generations of Wunambal people. The Kandiwal community expressed concerns that their heritage is at true and impending risk of being completely lost to the rapidly changing world that we live in today. Without any support, more and more Indigenous children in the years ahead will be poorly educated, and the opportunities for them to be gainfully employed on Country, in the remote tourism industry of Kimberley, may be lost forever.

Anyone looking to assist Kandiwal in their mission to upgrade housing infrastructure and school facilities, please get in touch via email to [email protected]

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