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Investigating Australia’s Top End Outback

James Fisher A raised safari bungalow at the Bamurru Plains bush camp, in northern Australia.

Photo: James Fisher

Beyond Kununurra lie the East Kimberley plains, fenced in by sprawling cattle stations. We traverse a parched salt flat fronting the Cockburn Range, hook onto Gibb River Road, then ford the Pentecost River. A cluster of boabs and a new stone wall indicate the entrance to Home Valley Station. Held in trust for the Balanggarra and Ngarinyin peoples by the Indigenous Land Corporation, which fosters sustainable partnerships for native title landholders, this 615,000-acre parcel is managed by a stockman named Nick Bradley. He grew up at Carlton Hill Station, where Luhrmann shot key location scenes for Australia. Bradley shows me around the campgrounds and livestock paddocks, discussing the station’s Aboriginal education mission. “I’m not out here to play cattle king,” he says. “We have a training program for the locals that gives them skills and pays them to learn on the job. Some have never had that.”

Nick’s brother, Richard, unexpectedly flings open the car door and jumps into the backseat. When Richard hears I’m eager to get back on a horse, we saddle up for a ride in the scrub. A thrill-seeking jackeroo who wears custom-made Spanish riding boots, Richard can cling to a bucking horse—at least, until the saddle bunches forward and he’s thrown to the ground. Since my Tony Lama boots keep slipping out of the steel stirrups and I have no desire to eat eucalyptus, I keep my mount at a safe trot. When we finally dust off the trail, I meet Nick and Richard’s mother, Susan Bradley. (Luhrmann says locals call her “Queen of the Kimberley.” He consulted her about outback life at Carlton Hill.) She directs a campaign to protect the isolated northwest Kimberley, a wild region lacking much modern infrastructure, from industrial development. Not only is the Top End rich in minerals, it has untapped reserves of uranium ore and natural gas, some of them temptingly sited on Aboriginal land trusts. “This is a powerful country of great extremes,” she says. “Some things should not be for sale. I have lived in the Kimberley for 40 years and hate to think my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will not be able to camp out under the stars in unpolluted river gorges.”

At last, I see a willy willy. It blows across our path on Gibb River Road when Saliba and I start the long trek eastward toward Darwin. Shirley Drill, who belongs to the Willy Willy Dreaming, mentioned it during our visit days ago in Purnululu. Perhaps it’s her parting gift. These harmless twists of wind puff up randomly; as the dust storm dances ahead of the car, I watch leaves whirl upward in a column before they drop onto the spinifex plain.

It takes a day to drive to the Mary River floodplain, three hours beyond Darwin, on the doorstep of Kakadu National Park. We gratefully unpack at Bamurru Plains, an eco-conscious bush camp that occupies a stretch of Swim Creek Station. The earth-toned lodge has a collection of modern Aboriginal art, a communal dining table, and an open bar of coveted Australian vintages. That night, I eat kangaroo shepherd’s pie by kerosene lamp. After my first hot shower in many days, I collapse onto a soft platform bed, as wallabies hop around in the brush outside.

At dawn, Bamurru Plains manager John O’Shea takes me out on the river in a Tornado airboat. A former Australian army commando, he wears a .357 Magnum strapped to his belt as defense against crocodile attacks. When I ask how good his aim is, he just smiles. We drift through clumps of blooming pink sacred lotus. Magpie geese and long-legged jabiru hunt for breakfast among rushes. O’Shea steers toward the opposite shoreline, and nudges the flat-bottomed boat between acacias growing in a backwater clogged with algae. Our only croc sighting is a coy pair of ridged eyes; however, a foot-long barramundi churns to the surface and, just as quickly, disappears again.

After two thankfully uneventful nights on the Mary River, Saliba and I finally leave the Top End. By the road, halfway to Darwin, we pass a small nature marker. The sign depicts a frilled-neck lizard, its spiny orange ruff extended in full display. A jolt of recognition leaves me unnerved. This creature inhabits savanna woodlands across northern Australia, and for Aborigines it’s a powerful totemic rainmaker, bringing both emotional storms and cleansing. I’ve seen this lizard only once before—after the Warmun joonba, glittering gemlike in the absolute darkness of a dream that Peggy Patrick predicted for me. When I confess this to Saliba, she doesn’t even blink. “Mate, they let you in for a second,” she says. “They’re in your heart, and you are in theirs.”

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