THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY© Christopher Earls Brennen
followed the river up
he got into the boab tree
he look up
Pigeon was right on top in the cliff - so he FIRE ONE shot he knock him in his thumb - so he fell down
an he sing out
"I shoot-im you can go in an pick-im up whenever you want"
... sure enough Pigeon laying there smashed up
... an that was the end of the old Pigeon story"
From "Pigeon Story" as told by Banjo Woorunmurra, Bunubu elder, 1985, who refers to Jandamarra as Pigeon.
It is Friday night outside the bar at the Lodge in the town of Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley region of northwestern Australia. Many of the local residents of the town (who are mostly aboriginals or native Australians) are gathered at the bar for the party that takes place every Friday and Saturday night. Only light beer (no other liquor) is served by the bar and even this cannot be taken out onto the patio. The night is young and sultry, the party is already lively and there is a growing tension, a sense of confrontation. I decide to take my leave, to make my way across the wide camping area to my tent. As I pass the security guard sitting at the side of the patio, another lodge employee approaches him and warns him to keep an eye on ``Mick'' because he, Mick, is already too lively. Apparently many such evenings end in fights among the local residents, fights most likely fueled by the continuing frustrations of the local native Australians. This is the ancestral land of the Bunuba who, along with other local tribes, have been edged off their ancestral lands that surround Fitzroy Crossing. With nowhere else to go, they have taken up residence in this poor and desolate town. While such scenes are commonplace in aboriginal communities throughout the Australian outback, this place has special poinancy for me since I have journeyed a long way to honor the memory of one Bunuba who, in the late 1800s, stood up with legendary and heroic resistance to the European hegemony and abuse. The young man's name was Jandamarra, though he was also called ``Pigeon'' because of his small stature and lively carriage.
When Janadamarra was born about 1870, the wide, lightly-populated desert landscape of the Bunuba was witnessing a major upheaval. The white European settlers from the south had finally pushed into this remote corner of western Australia bringing their cattle and sheep to graze on the flatlands, the huge flood plain of the Fitzroy River. This remarkable river had created a landscape with few equals anywhere in the world. Each year the torrents of rain that fell in the tropics to the north would funnel south into this broad desert and the flow of the Fitzroy would temporarily exceed that of any other river system in the world. Some years the lower reaches of the Fitzroy would be 100 miles wide. The sediment transported created a vast, flat plain stretching some 500 miles westwards to the Indian Ocean. The only features not submerged by this sediment were the remains of some ancient Devonian reefs left starkly protruding from the otherwise pancake landscape. The white men called them by names such as the Napier Range or the Oscar Range though the label ``range'' seems too exalted. These rugged protrusions were not very high or broad; they typically stood only 300 feet above the flat plain and were only half a mile wide though lengthwise they extended great distances across the plain. Despite their modest proportions, the precipitous cliffs and jagged rocks and gullies represented substantial barriers to the new arrivals and their cattle as they ventured to spread across the Fitzroy floodplain. A few tributaries had worn passages through these ranges and one such gap that features in this story is the beautiful Winjana Gorge cut through the Napier Range by the Lennard River. Unlike the white pioneers, the Bunuba knew every niche and crevice of these ranges and for generations had used this knowledge to protect their ancestral lands and now to stop the advances of the white men. The Bunuba particularly revered the lovely glen they called Windjana.
As a boy Jandamarra had been adopted by a grazer named William Lukin and his sheep station, called the Lennard River Station, close to the Napier Range. There the boy had learned English and been taught to ride horses, to shear sheep and to use a rifle. Indeed he became an excellent shot and grew up to be recognized as the finest aboriginal stockman in the whole region. William Lukin called him ``Pigeon'' because he was small, fleet-footed and had a cheeky but endearing personality. At the age of 15, Jandamarra returned to his Bunuba roots for his traditional rites of initiation. However, late in 1889 he and a close friend, Ellemara, were arrested in Windjana Gorge on suspicion of killing sheep. As had become the practice of the local police, they were placed in chains and marched about 70 miles to the gaol in Derby, the nearest town at the time. The charges were dropped when Jandamarra agreed to take care of the police horses. A year later when he had gained the trust of the local police, he went back to his homeland. However, as a lively young man he allegedly violated local Bunuba law, probably in consorting with a young woman whose company he was not permitted to keep. To avoid punishment, he returned to the ranch lands and took up residence at the Lillimooloora stock station, not far from the Lennard River station. Like so many native Australians, he had become trapped in the netherland between two very different cultures and sets of laws.
Cliffs of Napier Range near Tunnel Creek Ruins of Lillimooloora Station with Napier Range behind
As he settled down again to station life at Lillimooloora, Jandamarra formed a relationship with a capable and experienced stockman called Bill Richardson. In 1894 Richardson was recruited by the local police and he, in turn, recruited Jandamarra and another Bunuba named Captain as trackers. Despite an official prohibition against using tribal members against their own people, Jandamarra and Captain accompanied Richardson in a systematic roundup of Bunuba outside of and not attached to the stock stations. On one occasion Jandamarra saved Richardson's life when they were attacked by a group of Bunuba. One of the first Bunuba captured was Ellemarra, an elderly and highly respected Bunuba leader who had been involved in many conflicts and skirmishes with the white men. He had been captured several times before, dragged in chains to the Derby gaol but eventually escaped and found his way back to the Napier Range. He was a man whose commitment to the Bunuba cause was deeply admired by others in the tribe including his captor Jandamarra. His capture was followed by that of several other important Bunuba leaders and warriors including Jandamarra's brother-in-law and longtime companion, Lilamarra. Soon the 17 Bunuba who had been rounded up were shackled, accused of killing stock and readied for the march back to the gaol in Derby. However, Richardson delayed his departure probably because his remuneration increased as the days passed. Meanwhile, Jandamarra's discomfort deepened especially as his fellow Bunuba suffered in their chains. The captives, especially Ellemarra and Lilamarra, worked on Jandamarra's conscience, reminding him of his tribal obligations and promising him reprieve from his earlier tribal transgressions if he was to help them.
Aboriginal prisoners posing with a policeman Looking out at entrance to Windjana Gorge
Almost inevitably, Jandamarra snapped and, on the night of Oct.31, 1894, he entered the Lillimooloora homestead and killed the sleeping Richardson with a single shot. Then, he and Lilamarra released the other prisoners, collected all the firearms they could find and with the Bunuba families who had taken up residence around Lillimooloora headed for their traditional hideouts in Windjana Gorge, just a short distance away. There they planned to ambush the posse of policemen and deputies who would inevitably follow them.
Today, Windjana Gorge is part of a National Park of the same name. Over geological time it was carved diagonally through the Napier Range by the Lennard River that flows freely during the wet season but dries to a series of pools during the dry season (between May and September). Only about two miles long it is a beautiful glen with abundant vegetation nourished by the river and the shade. Paperbarks, cadjebuts, native fig and leichhardt trees abound while freshwater crocodiles laze in the river and along the banks. The entrance from the south side is particularly impressive, a narrow opening only about 150 feet wide with vertical cliffs over 100 ft tall on both sides.
Jandamarra's Rock The author with the group of Bunuba schoolgirls
Our group was on its return journey to the coastal town of Broome after a five-day tour of the Kimberley that included a visit to the strange and wonderful Bungle Bungles. We had driven from Fitzroy Crossing along the dusty dirt of the Fairfield-Leopold Downs road to the parking area on the flat lands just outside of Windjana Gorge. From there, we hiked the few hundred yards along the trail into the Gorge. Looking up we could see the many nooks, crannies and caves that permeate the cliffs on both sides of the sandstone entrance and provided the Bunuba with endless refuges. A little over 100 yards inside, the gorge widens and a sandy beach provides a convenient spot for a reflective pause. While I looked around at the cliffs a large 10ft crocodile that was basking on the beach decided it might be safer to float and so swam lazily away. At the head of this beach stands a very prominant and solitary boulder that figures large in the Bunuba memories. For reasons to be described it is now known as Jandamarra's rock though it was notorious for other reasons in ancient times. Specifically, it was one of those prominent places that had special significance for women. The Bunuba believed that a woman who climbed to the top of the rock would get pregnant. As I stood near it a group of young Bunuba high school girls with several consorts entered the gorge laughing and cavorting. One of them climbed to the top of the rock only to be severely admonished by one of the consorts. They seemed a lively and happy group so I introduced myself and they allowed our photograph to be taken. Despite the many remaining difficulties faced by the aboriginals it seemed to me an extra-ordinary contrast with the interactions that took place at this very spot just over a hundred years ago.
The fleeing group of Bunuba warriors and their families secreted themselves in the nooks and crannies of the cliffs on the south side of the entrance to Windjana Gorge. There they patiently waited for the white authorities to arrive. The ambush was set. However, the first white men to enter the Gorge were two stockmen unwittingly driving their cattle to water in the Gorge. As they lounged near the rock, Jandamarra appeared on top with his Winchester rifle and opened fire killing one of the stockmen. Then, with other Bunuba, he followed the second stockman on horseback as he fled from the gorge. They killed the second stockmen and ransacked the weapons and provisions stored in a cart outside the gorge. This incident provoked a massive response from the white authories who mounted a multipronged attack on the Bunuba stronghold in Windjana Gorge. Under the cover of darkness, one contingent entered the gorge from the other, eastern end and took up position looking up at the cliffs on the south side where the Bunuba were holed up. Another group approached from the plateau above the Bunuba position. Dawn brought a round of gunfire that lapsed into a stalemate that lasted for hours until a Bunuba mistake. Ellemarra attempted to vault down from his small foxhole to Jandamarra's cave and, in the process, was picked off by a rifleshot that killed him. This caused great shock and consternation among the Bunuba for Ellemarra was a legendary figure in their tribe. The black troopers in the police units sensed this shock and prepared to advance on the Bunuba position. However, Jandamarra grabbed his Winchester and emerged from his cave with his rifle blazing and thus to repelled the police forces. Under this cover most of the 100 plus Bunuba, warriors, women and children, were able to slip away through the tunnels and escape. Inevitably Jandamarra was shot several times. Though severely wounded, he was able to escape through the maze of caves and perhaps with the help of his mother and his wife. He made it all the way along the Napier Range back to his hideout in Tunnel Creek Cave, about 20 miles away. So ended the Battle of Windjana Gorge that figures large in the legends of the Bunuba.
At some time about 20 million years ago the stream known as Tunnel Creek penetrated a crack in the 350-million-year-old limestone Devonian reef known as the Napier Range. Erosion enlarged that passage to the size it has today, one of the oldest cave systems in Western Australia. Though just over half a mile long, the cave spans the entire breadth of the range. It is, of course, best known today as the hideout used by Jandamarra. But the many aboriginal rock paintings and speleothems that decorate the walls indicate extensive ancient use of the cave by local aboriginals. The entrance on the north side is well hidden by fallen rock and foliage and so is difficult for the uninitiated to find.
Tunnel Creek entrance from outside Looking back at the entrance
The cave is a half mile in length and reaches from the southern side of the Napier Range to the northern side. It has a maximum height of about 40ft and a maximum width of about 50ft. It was once known as ``The Cave of the Bats'' with at least five species of bat inhabiting the cavern, including ghost bats and fruit bats. Stalactites hang from the roof in many places. The floor of the cave is mostly flat and sandy since it gets washed through during the rainy season. There are large pools of water on the floor in which freshwater crocodiles reside (freshwater crocodiles are smaller and less aggressive than saltwater crocodiles; they are only a danger if you happen to step on one). Water only flows through the cave after heavy rainfall but the pools indicate that the water table is just below the present floor surface. Halfway through the cave the roof has collapsed providing another entrance and exit. Legend has it that, at one point, the police thought they had trapped Jandamarra in the cave and stationed people at both ends judging that he had to emerge one way or the other. However, Jandamarra escaped by way of this midway entrance/exit.
Midway tunnel exit/entrance Tunnel exit
Like Windjana Gorge, Tunnel Creek is a National Park and the tunnel cave is a popular tourist destination alongside the Fairfield-Leopold Downs road. The turn-off is 35 miles south of the Gibbs River Road and 43 miles north of the Great Northern Highway. The Fairfield-Leopold Downs road and parts of the Gibbs River Road are only passable during the dry season (April 1 to November 1), consequently Tunnel Creek and its cave are inaccessible during the wet season. We had come to this ionic destination early in the dry season of the year 2016, to experience the place and to recognize the contributions and sacrifices that Jandamarra made for his people. The story reminded me of the sacrifices my Irish ancestors made for their people in their struggles against tyranny and how the legends created by their efforts underpin the modern nation of Ireland.
After the Battle of Windjana Gorge, a severely wounded Jandamarra somehow made it back to his Tunnel Creek cave hideout, probably with much help from his family. There he remained hidden for many months while he recovered and while his legend grew. Among the Bunuba and other local tribes, he had transcended mortal status. He had become a person with magical powers; in the Bunuba language he became a ``Jalnggangurru''. This helped explain his ability to appear and disappear, his remarkable recovery powers, his apparent ability to defy death. Moreover, when he recovered from his wounds, Jandamarra used this reputation to conduct a reign of terror against his now terrified white enemy, raiding and then disappearring, spreading fear among the white agressors that dissuaded them from infringing further on tribal territory. Occasionally he would misjudge his ability to escape, as when he, his wife, mother and Captain were taking their ease in Windjana Gorge and were surprised by a group of black police deputies. He was successfully able to bargain for his mother's release but he never saw his wife again. Captain spent the rest of his brief life in gaol.
In November 1895 Jandamarra and his gang raided Lillimooloora police station, shocking the white men who had thought him dead. Again, in late 1896, they humiliated the police at Lillimooloora. Jandamarra and twenty others attacked Oscar Range homestead. A number of his party were killed and wounded, but their leader escaped. By this stage most of his gang had been captured or killed. He was almost alone.
The end was inevitable. Police presence in the region had been substantially enhanced. In particular it had been decided not to employ local aboriginals but, instead, to recruit black deputies from further afield so as to avoid conflict of interests. One particular, black deputy recruited from much further south was a skilled tracker and shot known as ``Micki'' or ``Minko Mick''. Minko Mick tracked down Jandamarra to a spot on the south side of the Napier Range some miles away from Tunnel Creek. There Minko Mick managed to shoot and badly wound a lone Jandamarra who struggled to get back to his tunnel refuge. There he crawled into his sanctuary under cover of darkness. As the sun rose the next morning, April 1, 1897, Jandamarra collected his Winchester and few remaining bullets and walked out to face his adversary. He climbed to the top of a limestone pillar in front of the Tunnel Creek entrance and stood there defiantly facing his lone adversary hidden behind a boab tree. The bullet that killed Jandamarra toppled him over side and he fell 100ft to his death.
The entrance to the Tunnel Creek cave is obscured and almost blocked by large boulders. It is necessary to clamber over and around these boulders and to wade through several pools of water to make it into the cave where the hiking becomes much easier due to the sandy bottom. Once inside the cave opens up to well above head height but you need a headlamp or flashlight to find your way. There are extensive shallow pools to wade through (freshwater crocodiles live in these pools but present little danger provided you make sure not to step on one). After several hundred yards you will see the light from the entrance/exit midway through the cave and, when you reach this point, it is a serene place to sit and rest. Resuming the hike it is just a few hundred yards before you will see the light at the exit from the tunnel on the north side of the Napier Range. Once there, it is another lovely place to sit and enjoy the wooded glade into which you have emerged. There is a shaded pool just downstream of the exit where you can enjoy a swim if you are willing to forget the freshwater crocodiles.
It is said that Jandamarra's body was buried here at the exit at a secret and highly revered location. His head, however, had been chopped off by his adversaries and sent to Perth to frighten the aboriginal population. Such might have been the temporary effect of his demise. But the much larger and lasting effect of his heroic resistance against grievous wrongs and overwhelming odds was to make him a legend among the aboriginal people and among repressed native peoples everywhere. Still to this day he represents the possibility of redress against those wrongs. His story will live forever not just in the land of the Bunuba but in every corner of the globe where might thinks it is right.
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Last updated 4/18/16.
Christopher E. Brennen