On Wandjina Time

Roderick Eime traces the path of Australia’s forthcoming epic motion picture through some of the oldest landscapes on Earth.

He stares down on me as if from the heavens, mute and limbless, his power over the elements is total. The Wandjina are the spirit gods of the Kimberley who control the weather and their images abound throughout the caves and craggy overhangs of this rugged and foreboding corner of Australia.

For countless thousands of years the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley, with such evocative names as the Ngarinyin, Umida, Wunambul and Unggarangi, kept watch over the Wandjina figures, just as their spirits kept watch over them. Today, privileged visitors can still see these images in all their mysterious glory gazing imperiously down from their cave ceiling frescos.

The landscape of the Kimberley is among the oldest formations in the world, dating back some 1.8 billion years.

“Where are the fossils?” I innocently enquire of Carly, my naturalist guide at the El Questro Wilderness Park.

“There are none,” comes the matter-of-fact reply, “these rocks were formed before there was any life to fossilise.”

It takes a moment for me to compute that data and I return my gaze to the deep orange hues of the ultra-hard sandstone cliffs along Chamberlain Gorge. The namesake river, replete with fresh, crystal clear water is home to a seemingly endless supply of mighty Barramundi, guarded by a permanent squad of freshwater crocodiles.

Just over one hundred years ago, white Europeans brought cattle to the Kimberley from the east in search of new pastures. Pioneering drover, the Irish-born Patrick Durack, established Argyle Station in 1886 after bringing 7000 head from Queensland and arriving with about half of them. If ever a harsh and unforgiving land epitomised the bush spirit of early European settlement, it is the Kimberley. Blessed with clean, permanent water, but cursed with oppressive heat and humidity, the Kimberley tolerates man’s presence, but offers no comfort.

The sprawling, 400,000 ha El Questro Wilderness Park is still a working cattle station and provides a range of accommodation options for intrepid visitors. From humble, riverside camping plots to the iconic, ultra-chic El Questro Homestead, visitors can indulge their outback passion no matter what their budget.

In 2006, the rumour mill erupted with word that acclaimed film producer, Baz Luhrmann would be filming an epic Australian film in the region and for several months in mid-2007, the area was swarming with cast and crew filming key scenes for the forthcoming production.

Now the secret is out and the film, ‘Australia’, with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman is set for release in November. The movie traces Kidman’s character, Lady Sarah Ashley, as she arrives from England in the 1930s in search of her renegade husband and his cattle station. The movie culminates with the dramatic bombing of Darwin some ten years hence.

A few kilometres south of Wyndham along the King River is the unassuming Diggers Rest, a knockabout homestead that was home to 90 crew during two months of filming. Now reverted to its regular persona of quaint fishing camp and simple lodge, the tiny bar and games room still bears the evidence – dozens of autographs scrawled on the wall above the flat screen TV.

“We had some pretty wild nights here,” confesses Alida Woodland, who runs the property with husband Roderick, “we put almost one hundred tents out the back and built that new ablution block. It looked like an army camp here for about two months!”

A few kilometres down the Karunjie Road are the wide mud flats used to film some of the stock mustering scenes. With the ample Pentecost River to the west and the vast Cockburn Ranges to the east, the scene will contrast the harsh territory and stark beauty of the Kimberley.

At the other end of the rough track is Home Valley Station, another site frequented by the cast and crew both on and off duty.

“Baz just loved the view across the (Pentecost) river toward the Cockburn Ranges,” says Nicolle Fenech who manages the station with husband Chris, “so he spent a lot of time filming the vistas and sunset panoramas you’ll see in the movie.”

Home Valley Station is a recently refurbished destination property offering visitors quality accommodation, food and even conference facilities. Owned by the Indigenous Land Council (ILC) on behalf of the Balanggarra people of the East Kimberley, Home Valley is an accredited TAFE training college where locals learn the art of hospitality as well as pastoral skills.

There’s a lot riding on Luhrmann’s ‘Australia’, including a major international marketing offensive for Tourism Australia designed to re-route the wayward “Where the bloody hell are you?” campaign.

Meanwhile, the Wandjina cast their hollow eyes down impassively on those below, their task long pre-defined in the Dreamtime, their destiny beyond our reach and comprehension.

Fact File:

Regional activities: Fishing, 4WDing, trekking, flight-seeing, camping

El Questro Wilderness Park (Google Map: -16.01, 127.98)
08 9169 1777
110 kilometres west of Kununurra by road

Home Valley Station (Google Map: -15.722, 127.82)
120 kilometres west of Kununurra by road
Phone: +61 (8) 9161 4322

Diggers Rest Station (Google Map: -15.64, 128.08)
(08) 9161 1029
37 kilometres south of Wyndam

Nearest Airport: Kununurra (KNX)
Serviced by Qantas, Skywest, Airnorth

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