Making the South West of Australia my home since moving here from the tropics has been a mission for me. I explain it to people with that old expression ‘kith and kin’. Your kin is your familiar family and friends. I have that here. What I am missing is my kith.
Kith is what is familiar to you in your connection with the natural world around you. The closest I can get to centering it is by comparing it to the connection indigenous Australians have to country. Your kith usually begins in childhood. Mine was discovering cicada shells on trees, watching the moon rise through a coconut tree and falling asleep to the calls of a curlew. I’ve been seeking my South West Australian kith since arriving and I felt I connected with it solidly for the first time during an afternoon spent with Josh Whiteland.
(photo below: Josh Whiteland by Elements Margaret River)
As I follow Josh up the trail to a sacred site, the bush on both sides pulses with colour. Pink myrtle jostles with yellow hibbertia, while cowslip and donkey orchids push their heads skywards. It’s Djilba in the Noongar calendar and the land is fecund, lush. “The kangaroos are fat,” smiles Josh. It’s springtime in the Margaret River Region.
Josh and his family have been here for generations. Together with his wife Jessica, he operates Koomal Dreaming and gives visitors to the Margaret River Region a window to look inside his culture. Koomal, which means brushtail possum, is Josh’s traditional name and was bestowed upon him by his Wadandi/Wardandi elders.
(photo below: Josh Whiteland by Elements Margaret River)
He seems knitted into the landscape as he walks me up the lichen-mottled face of Big Rock. Earlier, he was excited as he described the highlight of his week – finding a new cave and visiting a local waterfall. He talks a lot about enhancing the five senses. “People today have become unconscious of living; of the connection between all things. The roots are here,” he says, tapping his foot on the solid rock.
Spending time with Josh opens up a portal to the Dreaming – the time before the white people walked this land. Pointing to a marri tree (pictured below), he runs through its traditional uses. “We call this the blood tree – see the colour of the sap? And this is pink myrtle – you make an infusion with it – it’s good for digestion.”
I feel myself stirred with a connection, thinking of the lemon myrtle the Aboriginal rainforest people used for the same purpose in my other home; Cairns. I ask Josh about the Noongar Rainbow Serpent, knowing this to be a Dreaming story replicated all around Australia. “Oh, you mean our Woggle,” Josh says.
Standing on Big Rock, he gestures outwards, explaining the boundaries of his homelands. (See map below).
“Quedjinup, where we are now, is an ancient look out point across our boundary lines. See how the bay wraps around here towards Preston River? Then follow the escarpment south across the low lying plain to Nannup, which is near the Blackwood River that separates the traditional groups from the Cape to Cape region. Back in the day, if you looked across this land from here on a clear morning you’d know if anyone was in your traditional area because you’d see smoke from their fire, “ Josh explains.
I show Josh the Sharing the Dreaming app I’ve put on my phone to teach myself the rudiments of language and culture of the Noongar, the overarching name for the traditional custodians of Australia’s South West. Josh thinks it’s a start. “There are 14 different language groups here though, so there’s never going to be a ‘one size fits all’ for our culture,” he says.
Noongar boodja – country – covers the entire South-western portion of Western Australia. For over 50000 years, the Noongar lived harmoniously with the land, grazing from it if you will, travelling to trade with other families in different regions. In this way, precious items from the coast were exchanged with their forest dwelling neighbours, who in turn traded theirs with their kin in the arid places that are now WA’s wheatbelt.
The South West Boojarah (Margaret River) region takes in the Wadandi/Wardandi and Bibulmun/Piblemen Noongar language groups and includes the towns of Capel, Margaret River, Witchcliffe, Augusta, Windy Harbour, Northcliffe, Pemberton, Manjimup, Bridgetown and Nannup.
In the Nyitting, or the Dreaming, a magic man named Wooditch created the Margaret river, which the local Noongar people know as Wooditchup.
Sites of cultural significance in the Margaret River Region include caves that are home to ceremonial sites, rock art, paintings and artefacts. Major caves include the Nannup Caves, Ngilgi Cave (pictured above), and Devil’s Lair Cave, the site of one of the earliest known indigenous settlements in Australia.
The Wardan Aboriginal Culture Centre, named for the sea god Wardan and situated at Injidup Springs Road in Yallingup, is a good place to visit to form a cultural understanding of the Wardandi people. As the traditional owners, the Wardandi are the custodians of the Cape to Cape Margaret River Region and its many caves. The Wardandi believe the caves to be their passage to the after life.
Wardan Aboriginal Culture Centre has an interpretive experience, a gallery which sells excellent local art, a picnic area and a bush ampitheatre where the Wardandi dancers perform corroboree. The centre’s cultural activities – boomerang and spear throwing, a story trail through the bush, and dance that interprets the local stories of the Dreaming – operate at different times through out the day. Opening times vary from summer to winter, with closures applying, so it’s recommended to check on the website and call ahead when planning a visit.
Josh’s people lived by six seasons, not four. After Djilba, the October/November season is Kambarang, followed by Birak, Bunuru, Djeran and Makuru. Traditionally, hunting and gathering groups would stay only two months i.e. one season in each place, allowing the land ten months to regenerate after they moved on.
As he says goodbye to me, Josh tells me my name, Mia, means home. I’m starting to see it – to feel it: my South Western kith. I’m off in search for a full moon shining through the marri trees. And I’m very grateful to you, Josh.
A selection of Noongar words
Kaya/Kiya – Hello
Waugal/Waakal/Woggle – Noongar Rainbow Serpent; from the Nyitting
Balga – grass tree
Miamup – place of huts
Yallingup – place of caves
Quindalup – the place of quenda’s (small bandicoot-like animals)
Nannup – meaning “stopping/camping place” or “place of parrots”.
Cowaramup– “Cowara” is the Aboriginal name for the Purple Crowned Lorikeet.
In Noongar country, the 14 language groups are Amangu, Ballardong, Yued, Whadjuk, Wardandi, Kaniyang, Pinjarup, Goreng, Bibbulmun, Wilman, Minang, Njaki Njaki, Wudjari and Njunja.
For a full Noongar Dictionary click here
Josh and his wife Jessica are passionate about educating young Aboriginal people on appreciating their culture and tradition, and why the simple fact that tourism visitors place a value these intrinsic elements can lead to an excellent career in hospitality and tourism.
Last year, the couple were instrumental in Kambarang, an inaugural event which brought together Noongar artists and musicians and blended the traditional bush flavours of the South West with contemporary international cuisine
It returns again this year, as will renowned Aboriginal chef Mark Olive aka ‘The Black Olive’, who Josh and Jessica worked with closely to craft last year’s successful production that saw all proceeds going to the Outback Academy Hospitality Program which encourages Aboriginal people into careers in tourism and events.
“On November 20, we’ll be taking you on a journey that you won’t get anywhere else and will leave you with an experience you are not likely to forget!” says Josh.