By Erin Parke
PHOTO: Tour guide Robyn Mungaloo shows tourists rock art in the Kimberley.
In a remote corner of the Kimberley, Aboriginal elders have hit on a way to keep their culture alive and their rock art safe.
They are capitalising on the booming cruise ship industry, to create jobs and income on a stretch of coastline accessible only by boat or plane.
Freshwater Cove lies 200 kilometres north-east of Derby.
Its vast white beaches, red rock formations and ancient cave paintings are the stuff of tourism advertisements broadcast around the world.
The cove lies on Worrorra country. Senior custodian Donny Woolagoodja says his people's connection to the land remains strong, despite most of them now living in Derby and Mowanjum.
We used to paint on the cave walls, now we paint in acrylic, on canvas. It feels good.
"I love this country, it's a gift to us. It's something that we belong to that country," he said.
For years, Mr Woolagoodja's wanted to get Worrorra young people back on to country. In 2009, cultural tourism became a way to do that.
He teamed up with businessman and conservationist Pete Tucker, who for years had been running a fishing camp at Freshwater Cove.
"The idea was that we wanted to get young kids up here to live on country and work and earn some money, and cultural tourism became a way to do that," Mr Tucker said.
Tapping in to cruise ships
However, getting tourists to such a remote spot was always going to be difficult, so they decided to tap into the flourishing cruise ship market.
"The number of cruise ships travelling the Kimberley coast has exploded in recent years," he said.
"These cruise boats do about 1,000 kilometres of the Kimberley coastline and this is the only place they actually get to meet traditional owners."
Wandjina Tours now hosts more than 2,000 cruise ship passengers a year; interstate and overseas visitors who are hungry for the kind of authentic Indigenous experience that cannot be recreated in a tourist shop in Broome or Sydney.
Robyn Mungulu is one of the tour guides that greets the guests and takes them on a guided tour of the cove.
"We teach them about culture, take them to cave sites, sacred areas and tell them stories about the areas," she said.
During quiet times she paints artwork on the beach, paintings that are sold direct to the tourists without city galleries taking a cut of the profits.
"We used to paint on the cave walls, now we paint in acrylic, on canvas. It feels good," she said.
Ms Mungulu said the business has given her a reason to learn Worrorra language, the stories of the Wandjina rock art and spend time on the rugged coastline where her ancestors lived for thousands of years.
"Working back on country is really good, because you learn a lot more than when you're living in town," she said.
"Out here, it's better living than what you get in town, because this is fresh air and you're surrounded by nature.
"You feel really heavy when you're leaving, and when you come back you sort of feel really light and happy to be back on country."
Gaining control of tourism
For Pete Tucker, the benefits of remote, on-country tourism are multiple.
He said it is not so much about making money, as empowering traditional owners to know and inhabit their country.
"We now have tourism en masse on the coast, and it puts a lot of pressure on not just the local environment, but very much so on cultural sensitive areas," he said.
"This is where Wandjina Tours plays a good role, in that they can have some control over what places [people] are visiting and the numbers that visit."
For Donny Woolagoodja it has been hard work to get the business to where it is now.
But he says he could not be happier to see Worrorra young people showcasing their culture and country to curious tourists.
"The younger generation like talking to people, they love it. It's given them something to be proud of for themselves, because they're doing something good," he said.
"We're learning our younger generation, and we're also learning non-Aborigines something, and it feels good. It's something our older generation never does.
"A lot of non-Aboriginal people don't know much about Aboriginal culture, they just look at it and don't know much about it. We need to teach them some more."
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