The desolate territories of western Australia are a world (and two deserts) away from Sydney's
Author MICHAEL DEIBERT Photography JEREMY SIMONS
FLYING WEST OVER Australia’s brittle and parched interior, the overwhelming sense one gets of the country below is of a vast and ancient emptiness, of a heavily eroded and sometimes blazing landmass. After a while, it’s easy to forget that somewhere back east there are actually thriving city centers. The Western coast, almost as far from cosmopolitan Sydney as New York is from Los Angeles, seems as likely to support life as the far side of the moon. • However, separated from the rest of the nation by the Gibson and Great Sandy deserts, Western Australia has among the more colorful histories of any region in the country, though one that’s more conflicted than any tourist board would advertise.
FNOEL NANNUP GREETS OUR SMALL FERRY AT THE dock on Rottnest Island. The fiftysomething Nannup is the bushy-haired, bearded elder of the Noongar people, an indigenous group that helps make up the estimated 500,000 members of Australia’s Aboriginal population. He can often be found at the docks here, welcoming visitors to the state of Western Australia and to Rottnest, 11 miles off shore. Within sight of the port of Fremantle and the suburban sprawl of the state’s largest city, Perth, Rottnest (called Wadjemup by the Noongar) nevertheless feels a world away.
An outcropping of scrub brush surrounded by perfectly turquoise waters, Rottnest is seven miles long and just under three miles across at its widest point. With a visitor’s center, cafés and bars, the island has long been a favored retreat for white Australians, who rent bikes and motor scooters to zip around the often-parched hills or to head out for barbecues along the many sheltered coves.
Nannup was born here, under the unforgiving Australian sun. “Where the rain falls, the water flows,” he says, quoting a saying of the Wadjuk, a Noongar tribe. “So does the spirit.” Even though Rottnest gets just 30 inches of rainfall a year, it’s a spirited, and spiritual, place.
“You might call its past checkered,” he says slowly. “Long before it was this magical place, it was the worst kind of prison.”
Now, that dark chapter of the island’s difficult history has come to the fore — a development that may change the significance of Rottnest Island to visitors to Western Australia.
It all started in 1838, when Rottnest (so named 140 years earlier when Dutch fleet captain Willem de Vlamingh mistook the native quokkas for rats) opened its doors as the largest — and harshest — prison for Aborigines in Australia. Men from all over the state, which is over a quarter the size of the U.S., were imprisoned in order to “pacify” them. The Noongar and Wongi tribes were represented, along with dozens more.
Having been forced to row in small boats across the channel from Fremantle, captives arrived in chains and were put in a windowless holding cell. The eight-by-four-foot chamber, which still exists more or less intact, held more than 20 prisoners at a time as they awaited processing, which could take weeks. The prison where they were eventually held is a hotel today — the Rottnest Lodge — and the rooms still remain claustrophobic, even after walls have been knocked down to combine two cells into one space. The rooms, once windowless, now feature balconies overlooking turquoise waters.
Worked hard during their imprisonment, Aboriginal prisoners constructed, among other edifices, the island’s seawall and the towering lighthouse that is perhaps its most recognizable landmark. What now serves as the kitchen for hotel staff on the island was formerly the prison hospital, where scores of Aborigines died in custody.
Behind the hospital, there is a large, unmarked burial ground of windblown sand and a handful of lonely trees.
During hotel construction, workers uncovered close to 400 separate cavities in the ground of the cemetery before the search for more graves ran out of funding.
“Of the 3,700 of my people who were brought out to the island, at least 364 are known to have died in prison,” Nannup says. “Sadly, the total is believed to have been many more.”
Last year, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized for Australia’s treatment of the Aborigines, referring to “this blemished chapter in our nation’s history…, the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these, our fellow Australians.”
It was a watershed moment for the nation (until then, there had never been an acknowledgement of the atrocities), but relations between Aboriginal residents of Western Australia and the wider society remain tense.
However, the fortunes of the Aborigines are shifting. There’s tremendous resource wealth in Western Australia, and native landowners in the northern regions recently inked a deal with a large energy firm granting the company access to residents’ property in order to develop a natural gas export hub. Presumably this will mean abundant employment for Aborigines, though one wonders if anyone but the landowners will benefit.
Last year, the Rottnest Island Authority and indigenous groups drafted a Reconciliation Action Plan, which seeks “to support the process of recognizing and respecting the important connection” of Aborigines with Rottnest Island. The Reconciliation Action Plan was finalized and approved, and it is thought that the state government of Western Australia, which owns much of the land where the prison once stood, will hand it back to its traditional owners, perhaps as early as this year. There are hopes among local Aboriginal groups that beyond becoming simply a place for holiday fun, the island can also be a place of remembrance.
“I think this is a healing place, not just for us as Aboriginal people, but as a society,” says Nannup, whose own family had three members imprisoned on the island — one of whom died while in custody. The tide has turned on Rottnest, though the rain hasn’t yet started to fall.
NORTH OF PERTH, THE remote pearling town of Broome serves as a gateway to northwestern Australia’s wild Kimberley region, a California-size wilderness and, like Rottnest, a place whose rough-and-tumble past is increasingly giving way to the logic of tourism.
Viewed from a plane on approach to Broome, the landscape alternates between a shimmering red and an exhausted, eroded yellowish-white, as if the earth itself had been worn down to the bone. Then, suddenly, the narrow peninsula on which Broome resides appears, with blue-green whitecapped surf extending to the horizon.
Broome was once the home of the Jukun and Yawuru tribes and a booming center of the pearl industry. Today, it still shows the pronounced influence of the Japanese (masters of dangerous turn-of-the-century pearling techniques) in the slat-roofed wooden homes of its tourist quarter. In many ways, Broome has retained a better sense of its identity than many towns in the region: Economically, tourism still runs second to pearling.
Situated between the outback landscape of Kimberley and the sea, and bombed by the Japanese during World War II, Broome gradually reinvented itself in its current incarnation as a classy tourist center. It was a transformation accelerated by the opening of the luxurious Cable Beach Club Resort on the site of a former trailer park. The resort remains the most lavish of the half-dozen or so operating in town and one of the only one with a swath of beach as its front yard.
With its jungle paths, Asian artifacts throughout its grounds and collection of horse sculptures, the resort is a cool and sophisticated refuge from Broome’s often-sweltering heat. Though the sun beats down relentlessly and the rough surf occasionally carries stingrays, the hotel’s studio apartments come with their own private quasi-Japanese verandas, which add considerably to the place’s charm.
Unlike much of Rottnest, Broome has stubbornly resisted a wholesale whitewashing of its raucous past. Sun Pictures, an open-air movie theater built in 1916 in the downtown Chinatown district, still regularly screens films, and willfully unpretentious spots abound, including the Roebuck Bay Hotel (which houses several bars, ranging from the boisterous to the subdued) and Bloom’s Café, a pleasant lunch spot. Camel-crossing signs are frequent.
The town is also a musical mecca, mostly on account of the internationally renowned Pigram Brothers, who have been making Aboriginal-themed folk-rock in Broome for two decades. A collaboration among seven brothers of Anglo-Irish, Philippine and Aboriginal descent, the Pigrams, despite their growing popularity around the world, have steadfastly refused to leave their outback home and regularly gig in local spots such as Zeebar. Conscious of the mixed blessings that development brings, and sitting feet away from a 100-year-old mango tree in the yard of a house that his family has owned for generations, the group’s guitarist, Alan Pigram, speaks for many in Western Australia when he envisions the kind of future that never loses sight of the past.
“We’re subject to a lot of influences here,” says Pigram, as he issues a few quivering notes from the slide guitar resting on his lap. “If people want to come here, they should come for the beauty of the place and the mixture of the people who created it. If we lose that mixture, we’ll lose the beauty.”
Based in Paris, MICHAEL DEIBERT is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press).