Onslow Family Support Program – Waalitj Foundation

July 21, 2022

Written by Jim (James Atkinson).

The trip north kicked off on a very chilly Thursday morning; an early start for others in our group of 5, but a lazy 6:40am rendezvous for anyone on a normal AMCAP morning shift. Check-in was quick, and there were croissants and coffees waiting in the Skippers VIP departure area. The Waalitj crew were friendly and welcoming, and gave Simon and I (the other guest-volunteer) a good rundown on the plan for the next four days. I’ve never flown in a Dash-8 propellor plane before, so I Googled around to kill a few minutes – not a great idea really, as it turns out they had a history of landing gear problems and a few recent incidents and near misses (the Polish Airlines hydraulic failure in January 2022 was an interesting read!).

The flight was pretty good as it turns out, Skippers inflight food was nice, and the view was great as we cut over the coast around Dongara / Port Denison. By the time we hit the Pilbara, you could see there’d been a lot of rain over previous months. From the sky the land looked green and lush, normally dry rivers and creeks were still holding pools of water and the red Pindan had a darker luster than what you’d normally see. Touchdown was textbook, and by the time we collected our bags and regrouped outside the Onslow terminal, our local leader (Suzanne) arrived in the Waalitj mini-van.

We headed off to The Powerhouse (the local VSwans youth centre), to hang out with locals celebrating NAIDOC Week. Games, arts and craft, face-painting and a staff-cooked BBQ was a great introduction to town and a bunch of local kids and parents. Garth Taylor and I managed a tour of the Onslow Museum before we checking in to the Beadon Bay Hotel. Pub dinner at the Beadon Bay saw my last hopes of sticking to a Keto diet chased out the door. Good riddance too! You can’t be a north-west traveler without chips, bread and garlic sauce to go with your surf and turf. Thursday footy in the beer garden and an early night.

Breakfast at the Beach Club is a very civilized way to start the day, especially with a walk along the beach afterwards. We had a guided tour of Onslow to see some of the well known and lesser known sights. Well worth getting onboard if you are ever up that way (the Neil and Judy Baker’s Shell Collection is probably unique in Australia, and maybe the world). In some respects, the town hasn’t changed much since I spent time there as a young fella, and in other ways there’s big signs of modernization. A lot of buildings I remembered from 40-something years ago (and most of those were already old back then), the pub, the general store and most of the houses just off the main drag were just the same as I remembered them. But plenty of new ones have popped up as well – the Shire building and library, the Beach Club, waterfront apartments and the completely new section of town that Chevron built during the construction of the Wheatstone LNG plant (just outside of town). Although the caravan park was ‘chockers’ (school hols and Covid have been a boon to Pilbara tourism for the last couple of years), and there were a bunch of temporary contractors through the town, the town was essentially the Onslow I hoped to find. Time slows down, people are relaxed. The weather is perfect. The salt air and the open skies give your senses a major ‘refresh’ – basically like taking an existential ‘big deep breath’.

The plan for the afternoon was fishing at Four-Mile. I’d talked this up pretty big at work and at home – the only problem I thought I’d have was how to get all the fillets back to Perth on the plane without exceeding my weight limit. As fortune would have it, I avoided any excess baggage charges. We had a great time with the kids again, and lucky we had BBQ supplies. A couple of bream and an eel were caught, and despite a solid chomp on my line, whatever was ‘on’ spat the hook pretty quickly. The barbie was really good though, and the group was really friendly and down to earth.

Back to town for a quick wash and a short rest and then off to the oval for a bit of footy. Troy Cook had joined us earlier in the day, and although I knew he’d played AFL, I didn’t realise that he’d played 150 games for the Fremantle Dockers. Garth Taylor played 15 senior games for Freo too, so I can safely say I wasn’t the most pedigreed in the group (half a season of colts in 1989 just doesn’t cut it in these circles). After 20mins of kick-to-kick I’d done my groin, my back and my right calf. Let’s call it general soreness, but I rested myself for the remainder of the session and helped behind the goals, rolling balls back to the kids doing their kicking drills. There’s a fair amount of talent that’s obvious up there, I won’t be surprised if there’s league players coming out of Onslow in years to come.

Another amazing sunset, dinner at the club and back to our rooms for a decent sleep before the centerpiece of the trip – the corroboree at Peedamulla Station.

Peedamulla is about 60 clicks from Onslow, but about an hour’s drive for us due to some road washouts after the rains. The Thalanyji people have a deep connection to this land that goes back as far as we know. Some researchers say 40,000 years, others reckon it’s more like 60,000 years. In the grand scheme of things I guess we might as well say “forever”, and from what I’m told, that’s how Thalanyji people see things – the connection to this place is beyond the concept of time. Thalanyji country spans over 11,000 square kilometers, just think about that for a moment… 11,000 square kilometers… it’s big… really really big! Peedamulla Station covers about 1000 km2, making it one of the biggest in the world. Peedamulla is managed by the Parker family, and along with cattle, they have campsites and tourism ventures, cultural activities and experiences, and training opportunities for Aboriginal youth. I was fortunate to have a bit of a chat with Carolyn Parker about the area, just before she performed MC duties for the dance ceremony.

The Waalijt crew helped set up for the event, making sure everything was ready for sundown. Locals cooked up some awesome kangaroo-tail stews along with damper for the hungry mob (including yours truly). There was a bit of country and western music from a local singer-guitarist setting the mood with the wafting smoke from a big campfire. Carolyn’s dad silenced us all with the clapping of boomerangs and the calling song to the dancers. They appeared from behind a screen of brush, bodies painted for the ceremony. What struck me quite deeply was the concentration in the eyes of the dancers – this was not mere entertainment, this was serious business…, deadly serious. They danced some stories and songs. One of the youngest dancers came out as a devil and showed us how the seeds of distrust are sowed through the spreading of rumors and whispers. There were many more, but this one stuck with me as warning that resonates across cultures.

After the dances and songs, a few big joints of slowly roasted emu were bought out for the guests and performers to enjoy. It was a lot like lamb meat and I got the job of carving off meat for while there (with no complaints as far as I know). By the time we got back to Onslow, I was pretty well done-for. I was out like a light as soon as my head hit pillow.

The last day was really just pack up and travel day. Three hours in the bus to Karratha, driven by Troy. A couple of scenic breaks, first among the termite mounds that stand sentinel in the scrub, then just off the Fortescue river closer to Karratha. With a couple of hours to kill once in town, we headed out to the North Western Brewery for lunch and footy on the big screen. Voted “best steak sandwich in WA” apparently, but I went the buffalo wings to change it up a bit (great food). Steve Mills (or Millsy) from 6PR happened to be at the table next to ours, so no surprise that Troy and Millsy had a fair old yarn together.

The Virgin flight to Perth was uneventful. And now, in some ways, it’s almost like I was never away. It was a great experience, and one I won’t forget. Waalitj Foundation do important work in the area and more broadly across WA and interstate. I only got a glimpse of what they do, but it’s obvious they have solid connections and relationships in the community, and I know that these can only be built over time and by developing trust. I really would like to thank AMCAP and Waalitj for the opportunity to have this experience. I know more than I did before I left, and it’s great to see a side of the Australian experience, and the Aboriginal experience that is rarely available first-hand. If you ever get a chance to do something like this, jump at it.