Connect with people of the Saltwater Country
WORDS CAROLYN BEASLEY
“Let the white sand run through your hands and rub it a bit,” says Darren ‘Capes’ Capewell. He crouches on the beach, explaining this area is called ‘Gutharraguda’ in his language, meaning ‘two waters’.
I’m in Gutharraguda, otherwise known as the World Heritage-listed Shark Bay in Western Australia. We're on the Didgeridoo Dreaming Night Tour, one of several tours offered by Capes’ company, Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Cultural Adventures, who connect visitors to the Saltwater Country of the Nhanda and Malgana people. “It’s important not just to see Gutharraguda, but also to feel it,” he says. Joining him on the sand, I feel the fine grains cascading through my fingers and wonder how many thousand generations of Capes’ family have walked here before.
Lose yourself in the stories of the Dreamtime on the Digeridoo Dreaming Night tour, thanks to Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Cultural Adventures.
The red-soil roads that are synonymous with much of Western Australia.
A SPIRITUAL SONG
Each tour starts by saying hello to Country. It’s a sign of respect to the environment and a cultural protocol, and Capes calls out loudly in his language. “I let the ancestors know who I am and where I come from, and that these people are my guests.” Following him along the beach, we sit beside a campfire to learn about these Saltwater People. The starry sky is intensely bright and as Capes pulls out his didgeridoo collection and plays, I feel the spirituality of the place coursing through me with the deep, earthy sounds. The ‘didg’ is traditionally a male-only instrument, and Capes encourages the men and boys of our group as they try the difficult lip-vibrating technique. Amid much laughter, the women try blowing the giant conch shell, which is similarly tricky.
Next, Capes lays three whole sea mullets on a bed of glowing coals, peeling back the charred skin and scales to reveal the succulent fish beneath. Like the Welcome to Country from earlier, we feel the immense connection to the environment and Capes' ancestors through this shared food experience.
Shark Bay is Australia's largest bay with more than 1,000 kilometres of pristine beach.
Shark Bay (Gutharraguda) was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1991. UNESCO noted the stromatolites — 3.7-billion-year-old colonies of microbes, extensive seagrass meadows, and the world’s most significant population of dugongs. Despite the international attention, none of this was news to Capes. “Our ancestors have been here for more than 30,000 years,” he explains. “We know there’s strong energy here. We know it’s significant, but it’s good that other people are starting to recognise that now.” Within Shark Bay are two national parks, and Capes is passionate about both. “Francois Peron National Park has amazing red sand kissing the white beach and the beautiful blue water,” he says. “Dirk Hartog Island has rugged limestone cliffs on an ancient fault line on the edge of Australia.”
Emus often frequent the bay and if it's hot enough, they'll even take a dip in the ocean.
“Our ancestors have been here for more than 30,000 years. We know there’s strong energy here. We know it’s significant, but it’s good that other people are starting to recognise that now.”
We’re on a full-day tour by 4WD in Francois Peron National Park. The trip takes visitors to Point Peron and Skipjack Point, to explore the raised boardwalk that leads to spectacular lookouts. Looking down, we see turtles, sharks and busy cormorant colonies below. We stop along the way for shy echidnas and sashaying emus and take in the incredible contrasting colours of sea and desert as we snorkel the aquamarine waters. Extended camping trips in Francois Peron and also Dirk Hartog Island National Park can be created, which feature sleeping in swags on the beach, with activities structured around guests’ preferences.
Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Cultural Adventures certainly know the best camping spots.
CULTURE ON SALTWATER
Being Saltwater Country, Capes says it’s important to physically connect visitors to water, and tours are offered by stand-up paddleboard or kayaks. “We want clients to own the experience, so it’s interactive. Kayaking and paddleboarding are silent, you’re at one with nature.” Feeling and understanding Country is the reason he says he started in tourism. He explains the name of his company, Wula Gura Nyinda, means ‘come this way you,’ reflecting the principles of education, understanding, and respect. As a member of the local Nhanda tribe, Capes can speak about local culture. “You can only speak for the place you are connected to,” he explains. But with this privilege comes responsibility. “Our job is ambassadors for this area. There’s no greater thing than to have a strong spiritual, physical, cultural, emotional connection to mother nature.”
Darren 'Capes' Capewell (second from left) leads a kayak tour for Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Cultural Adventures.
“We want people to feel it, to take away the memories and feeling they have when they’re here, so they can implement what they’ve learnt.”
It's an important part of Wula Gura Nyinda Eco Cultural Adventures, that even the younger visitors learn about the culture while out kayaking.
Capes is now training a new guide, his nephew Jack Capewell, and he’s pleased to have a succession plan, but he does not aspire to a tourism empire. “Tourism allows us to be on Country, to look after Country, it’s an opportunity to learn. Country’s been here long before we got here, and it’s going to be here a long time after we’re gone. All humans need to invest more time to understand our relationship with the planet.” It’s the ethos at the heart of all Wula Gura Nyinda experiences, and the reason I needed to hold the sand at the start of my tour. “We want people to feel it, to take away the memories and feeling they have when they’re here, so they can implement what they’ve learnt,” he says.
WAJAANA YAAM GUMBAYNGGIRR ADVENTURE TOURS
Coffs Harbour, New South Wales
For thousands of years before stand-up paddling was cool, the local Gumbaynggirr people have been making their own rules in canoes fashioned from trees along NSW’s north coast. Now you can stand-up and paddle with direct descendants of the world’s first stand-up paddlers. Wajaana Yaam translates to ‘from this country’ in the Gumbaynggirr language, and tourism through the 100% Aboriginal owned and operated Wajaana Yaam Gumbaynggirr Adventure Tours helps create a framework for that language to be kept alive. It's also two-and-a-half hours of adventure through Coffs Harbour’s beautiful Solitary Islands Marine Park, so it’s a win-win.
Paddle downstream with Wajaana Yaam Gumbaynggirr Adventure Tours, just like their ancestors have been doing for thousands of years.
Margaret River, Western Australia
In a very competitive field, the Margaret River coastline is up there with the most spectacular anywhere in Australia. Koomal Dreaming tours are the best way to explore this coastline, whilst also receiving authentic Aboriginal interpretive experiences in this special part of the world. Long before anyone was surfing these shores, the Wadandi people were establishing relationships with the rivers, seas, fish and animals. Walk along the breathtaking Cape to Cape track to get a deeper appreciation of the ecology, and to understand why the past is ever present to the land’s Traditional Custodians.
Koomal Dreaming takes you along the breathtaking coastline of Australia’s South West.