Discover the secrets of the timeless landscape around Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse on a new tour lead by Josh Whiteland – Cape Cultural Tours.
The landscape of the northern cape of the Margaret River region is marked by two stand-out features; one natural and built. Sugarloaf, a gigantic granite rock-island, emerges from the Indian Ocean close to the mainland. The Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse, just as much a fixture of the landscape, is built from the limestone quarried from the bedrock.
A young Noongar custodian from Cape Cultural Tours is translating this terrain to us today. We’re at the meeting point at Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse carpark where the tour commences, and our guide Josh ‘Koomal’ Whiteland tells us the name for this place in the local Wardandi language is ‘Kwirreejeenunungup’, explaining it means ‘place of beautiful scenery’.
I can see why. We’ve driven only about 13kms from Dunsborough onto the Cape, but it feels timeless and serene.
We gather our small group together and head out along the gentle pathway. It’s only about 500m to the Whale Lookout, and as we pass the spreading melaleuca trees, Josh tells us this is a traditional tree that he and his kin still camp under.
“When they flower, it indicates the change of seasons – it means we are now in Kambarang (Spring),’ he explains.
He points out the tiny bright lime green flowers of the native peach, quandong, saying these and juk berries (native cherries) are the best eating now.
“You can eat them straight off the bush,” he says, happily demonstrating. The taste is slightly sweet, and a great lead into the next experience.
Josh is foraging up along the path and holds up a grey sprig of leaves. It’s not the most edible thing I’ve encountered, but as he explains, it’s one of the most significant coastal plants in WA.
“Saltbush tastes like salty spinach. It’s excellent with seafood such as paperbark saltbush wrapped fish.”
The salty taste switches my brain on to my surroundings. All that I can touch, taste, smell and hear around me is now in ultra focus. Our guide points out to sea.
“From here, we often see the whales twice during the year. They come past on their northern migration as they head for the warmer waters around June to have their calves. Then they return with their springtime babies. “
The whales haven’t heard their cue, but below us three dolphins are chasing each other through the breakers.
“Kwininan,” grins Josh, “ That’s our word for many dolphins. They operate in packs, pushing the schools of salmon close enough to the beach so you can easily spear them.”
We walk north into a forest of petrified wood. I would have mistaken it for rocks unless Josh had told me it was an ancient melaleuca forest.
“This is like our tool shed,” he says, explaining this was a tool site where the Noongar would use flint nap rocks – bits of churt and quartz – to make skinning tools to use on the small marsupials they hunted.
Behind us, he shows us an old midden mound I would never have spied – it’s made of ancient discarded shells of abalone and black periwinkles. Must have been a good feast.
The ecology of the coastal dunal system is fragile and the erosion caused by wind takes its toll on the exposed limestone rock. Plants and trees have adapted over time and, as Josh explains, his ancestors the Wadandi simply adapted their lives to what they found.
“Our people are hunter gatherers and we’ve always eaten well by taking only what we need and what the seasons offer us,” he says.
As we start off again, eating is definitely what’s on my mind. It feels like we’ve covered a lot of ground, but it would only be a few hundred metres from the car park.
We arrive at an open place on a cliff top where there’s a firepit, a BBQ area and jarrah timber tables. But my attention is captured by the view of Sugarloaf. It is just spectacular, and late afternoon against a setting sun is certainly the best time to appreciate its majesty.
“We call it Curbitchup,” our guide explains. “It’s named after the Western blue groper, or curbin, which come in and run along the reef shallows here during their breeding season.
“The time they come in is known to us because the balga (grass tree) flowers. It’s like the tree blossoms calling to the groper – they are always here at that time. They can’t help themselves. If you go crush up rock crabs and toss into the water they’ll come in really close like you conjured them up.”
Curbin can grow up to 30kg in weight and live to 50 to 60 years of age. Josh says the old gropers have the respect of the Wadandi. “You wouldn’t catch these fish.”
Respect of country is the backbone of Noongar people.
“This place is special,” he says. “It’s where the Nanga (sun) nearly gets to meet Meeka (the moon). The first new moon of the month is usually early, and often here at Sugarloaf you can see the old sun as he is setting and the Meeka rises over there. They almost meet,” he smiles as he takes out his firesticks and bends over the low fire pit.
He explains why he is using the long, sturdy grass tree flower stems.
“Mar-Midi is a soft wood and good for making fire the traditional way,” he says. Quickly rubbing the stick between his palms, he makes the friction to create an ember spark that falls on the fibrous Banksia flowers and Balga fronds. He blows gently and the flame catches.
Behind him, there’s an array of hunting and foraging tools and he shows us the spear throwers, hunting boomerangs, digging sticks and carrying bowls. I touch a soft kangaroo skin and Josh grins. “Plenty of those around here!”
He points to a wet white substance and explains it is wilgi ochre from nearby Wingerup. Taking a little extra water, he rubs it into a paste and smears it onto his forearm where it quickly dries to body paint.
We learn about the Noongar’s percussion instruments – tapping sticks, clap boomerangs and the didgeridoo. In an amazing demonstration, Josh makes the didge mimic the ‘rrrrraaaaaccck’ screech of a black cockatoo and the ‘bwwwoop bwwooooop’ of the tiny motorbike frog that, uncannily, sounds just like its name. He pauses to ask us if we would like to hear an original song. We so would! Josh produces a song story about all the animals he’s told us about today out of his Wandoo wood digeridoo. “This one’s in the key of C sharp. My favourite one is in E, but I like the diversity,” he says.
Someone in the background is conjuring up a food feast. The smell wafts over from the cooking BBQ as the last strains of the didgeridoo fade back into the peppermint trees. We’re presented with an array of traditional native foods and meats on a wooden platter.
There’s freshly made damper, kangaroo and emu chorizo and salami – all locally made – lemon myrtle butter and fat WA-smoked mussels. Best of all, there’s quandong chutney prepared by Josh.
The welcoming feel of this meeting place has us all united after the past couple of hours spent exploring a small patch of beautiful Cape country with our knowledgeable guide. Josh explains why he believes it’s important to create cultural awareness. “Part of my role as a custodian is about caring for the country.
“You tend to start caring for something when you are connected to it, when you understand it. Then it’s a natural progression you value it more.”