I’m writing this from the Bungles … Purnululu National Park in the East Kimberley.
The Bungles is a bit like an adjoining township to both Kununurra and Halls Creek but these days, of course, is a World Heritage area and is much more “known” than good old “Kuners” or Halls Creek.
Hall’s Creek, sometimes called “Hell’s Crack” these days, was once the best known town in North Western Australia. During the late 1880s and well into the 1890s, star-struck prospectors, dreamers, desperates and adventurers from all over Australia descended on the place, hoping to make their fortune in gold. At one point Halls Creek was the biggest provincial centre in W.A. but within 10 years the lustre had worn off and Hall’s Creek had shrunk to small town status. The gold was notoriously hard to find and was scattered over a wide expanse of rugged, waterless country. Nonetheless Hall’s Creek has always retained its importance to surrounding cattle stations and Aboriginal communities as a supply centre and one-time meeting place for rodeos, races and the like.
Kununurra appeared out of nothing in 1963 on the Ivanhoe and Weaber Plains alongside the mighty Ord River. Like a mirage on a windy day it transformed the whole region from yellow-brown, sun-baked flood plains into miles of greenery and flourishing crops watered by the Ord River Irrigation Scheme. Kununurra went through very tough times when the now familiar “bust” after the mining boom of the 60s robbed the place of government support.
In time, though, private farmers persisted to finally pull the Ord Scheme out of “white elephant” status, and into the state of productivity that we see there today. Unfortunately in some ways now the expansion of the Ord has been handed by government over to big agri-business and now most of stage 2 is owned by overseas interests. The small farmers pulled the place out of the quagmire but they didn’t have the sort of grunt to take over the expansion. Nevertheless, Kununurra and the Ord have a pretty bright future and compared to many other rural centres around Australia we’re blessed indeed.
I’m playing the role of a caretaker down here at the Bungles right now. It’s damn hot and dry but a dribble of people, mainly overseas adventurers, still tackle the dirt track into here to enjoy its domes and mystery-laden landscapes. I hasten to clarify that I’m not working for Park and Wildlife these days I’m caretaking the Safari Lodges owned by Australian Pacific Touring. I did work here as a ranger some 18 years ago and I remember those days and my old workmates with a lot of fondness. The Park has seen some really good improvements over the years. Things like telephones rather than radios came in but they’ve been superseded now by computers and even wifi! But that’s only in the infrastructure zone where the rangers and the tourists camp and enjoy 5 star facilities and food.
I recall camping here with little groups of tourists when there were only very rudimentary camping facilities available and the supply of a drop dunny and a tap were like ‘heaven on a stick’. We used to carry a role of hose with normal fittings which we could hang from a tree for a refreshing shower for the troops and we thought that was the bee’s knees! These days if there’s not an en-suite bathroom and restaurant style tucker the punters won’t come … my my … things have changed.
Out there where the heat ripples and dances on Purnululu’s massive sandstone escarpments, things haven’t changed much at all. This is another magical place like the Mitchell Plateau … an energy centre if you like … where any person should be able to feel very powerful forces of nature just by sitting alone, quietly taking in the scenery. It might be hot this time of year (we haven’t had many, if any, days under 40C for more than a month now) but it’s also quiet and serene.
The usual rolling truck-loads of paying guests have ceased operations until next season and the whole area has returned to the domain of the hill kangaroos, the bower birds, cockatoos and kookaburras. The sounds of wind in the trees and bird calls both near and far are the humming activities of this place now. I’m keeping a bird bath topped with water here in this safari lodge where I’m staying. The never-ending parade of different species during the day is fascinating. They all seem to know their own times and they come in waves to overrun the pool. Some, like my mates the Blue-Winged Kookaburras, are constant residents and take shelter from the heat of the day under the large dinning pavilion adjacent to the bath or in the nearby trees. I think I’ve seen upwards of 20 different species of birds at different times. Being alone here they’re the main source of communication for me most days and we’ve never had an argument. J
We get some really windy days and they’re a worry with things so dry because as you know out east it only takes a spark. With the horrific fires out there of late I can only think that it’s just a matter of time before fires sweep this park again. They usually originate from fires coming in from settlements or towns further afield but very soon, with the build-up, lightning strikes will become the biggest source. But the rangers here have really done their preparatory work during the winter. I can see the fire breaks and cool burns they’ve been doing during the year all around as I drive around the place. I heard you say your grandfather used to say …”burn or be burned” and that’s just so true!
I’ve fought many fires and lit many back burns up here in this country over the years and I’ve come to understand that fires have an energy, almost a consciousness, of their own. No matter how well prepared you might be, a fire can turn on a penny and rush like a wild herd to catch even the old hands unawares. One of the things that fires need in order to get out of control is fuel. We can’t control the wind or the searing temperatures but we can have a huge impact on fuel.
Fuel reduction burns should have become sacrosanct religious activities every week across the continent of Australia decades ago. When we first started loosing swathes of houses and worse still wonderful Australians to fuelled-up, out-of-control wildfires we should have taken a leaf out of the Aboriginal land management manual.
For 65 thousand years the Traditional Owners of our continent managed not only the landscapes but the fire volatility with consummate precision. They developed the ‘science’ of fire management into an art form! I’ve studied Aboriginal mythologies from many parts of Australia and they have myths that sublimate natural upheavals like cyclones, wind-storms, floods, droughts and earthquakes. In fact all things that could pose a threat of wholesale destruction to communities of people were covered in the mythologies.
One natural element I haven’t seen or been able to find in the stories of the Dreamtime is rampant wildfire. The sorts of fires we’re seeing in Australia today haven’t been seen since before the Aboriginal people took control of the landscapes of our continent.
I think it’s not just illogical and the height of stupidity, I think it’s a crime against Australia and Australians if we don’t “fight fire with fire”. All our fire fighters and fire controllers have been saying the same things for decades … that is, we need to dramatically increase funding and support for fuel reduction burns across the board in Australia. This needs to be a proactive strategy and not a reactive fire-fight to save lives and property. This should be a federal issue and funding should be made available yesterday to put fuel reduction burns – no matter where – on the top of every land management list.
I’ve spoken to many people from the east and they all say “…oh, the greenies are stopping the fuel reduction burns”. That sounds incredible to me because “greenies” should be the ones up front lighting the control burns … they of all people should understand the cycles of nature and the reliance of the Australian bush on regular small scale, ‘cool’ burns. Surely resistance to fuel reduction burns can’t be that easily explained? If it is then federal legislation is needed to overrule ridiculous infantile and self-destructive voices like this! The care and good management of the bush and the people who live near it are far more important considerations than the whims of the lunatic fringe.
Anyway, that’s just my ramblings and from here in the wonderful expanses of the Bungles. I find it hard to understand the way some people in the urban-elite think these days. Fire along with water, wind and earth are the great physical elements that make up our universe and as with all the elements they need special management and constant attention.
I’m outta here at the end of November. When they close the national park I’m off back into Kununurra and then on to Darwin … I’m flying back to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand for my yearly pilgrimage to those wonderful temples, villages and rice paddies of Siam. The amazing stillness within the valleys of Purnululu are reflected in the serene and blissful grounds of Buddhist monasteries everywhere in that hazy country.
This is where I get to breath and infuse that contagion that we once talked about. Do you remember the epidemic we desperately need to let loose in Australia? Yep, it’s happiness and it’s still almost palpable in the countries of South East Asia where people have so little, but so much.
Take care all,
No fixed address
(Reprinted courtesy of our good mate Macca, “Australia All Over” ABC Radio.)