Hit the Gibb River Road out of Derby, Western Australia, and you find yourself heading towards the northern Kimberley plateau, a breathtaking landscape of sandstone ranges, rivers and boab-dotted savannah country. About 63,000 square kilometres of this land is Wilinggin country of the Ngarinyin people and their connection to country dates back 60,000 years.
- Above: The sun sets on Gibb River Road, Wilinggin Country. Below: Wunggurr rangers Kane Nenowatt (left) and Dean Wungundin (front) have a break by the four wheel drive.
One of the first stops towards Wilinggin country passes the Queen Victoria Head a rock formation bearing an uncanny resemblance to the famous monarch. While it’s a blunt reminder of colonialism, it’s also the gateway to an area that until very recently had far more dubious name – the King Leopold Ranges, named after the Belgian king responsible for grievous atrocities, brutal oppression and enslavement of African people.
An estimated 10 to 15 million Congolese people died under his brutal regime. Leopold is a figure among many whose inappropriate immortalisation has been brought to the global stage by the Black Lives Matter movement.
- Top: Robin Dann and partner Tanya Spider on country in the Ngallagunda community. Tanya Spider also sits on the Wilinggin Aboriginal Corporation board.
Below: Adock Gorge, about 5km from Gibb River Road (Wilinggin country).
But after two years of work behind the scenes, traditional owner groups made some new headlines with a historic name change to the Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges. It’s a hybrid name to represent both the Ngarinyin (Wunaamin) and Bunuba (Miliwundi) traditional names.
- Ngarinyin woman Hayley Smith at Adcock Gorge, 5km off the Gibb River Road on Wilinggin country.
Since then, another seven places in this conservation park have changed back to their Ngarinyin name.
Since the Wanjina Wunggurr Wilinggin native title determination in 2004, the Ngarinyin people have made significant moves to empower their community and return to, and care for, country. One of the first things they set up after determination was an Indigenous ranger program: the Wunggurr Rangers.
- Top: A brown kite rides the thermals searching for prey.
Above: Head ranger Robin Dann inspects a purple crowned fairy wren nest in a pandanus tree by the Gibb River. This species is a key conservation target in the Healthy Country Plan, a 10-year management plan decided and implemented by traditional owners.
Ngarinyin man Robin Dann was one of the first rangers employed and is now head ranger, living on country in the Ngallagunda community, with his family. His younger brother Kane Nenowatt is more recent addition to the Wunggurr rangers while his wife, Tanya Spider, sits on the Wilinggin board of directors.
- Top: Kimberley wildflowers.
Above: Wunggurr Ranger Kane Nenowatt after a very long day in the field.
Below: A fire welcome ceremony for visitors entering country.
Dann’s granddaughters Anastacia and Lizinta Jumburra provide boundless energy and infectious smiles, but they also represent a new generation for the community.
- Anastacia Jumburra and and Lizinta Jumburra (back left) at a lookout near the Wunaamin Miliwundi Ranges; formerly known as the King Leopold Ranges.
“These changes are about time, mate, but we always kept the names when we worked on country anyway – they never went away. But this does give us recognition and that makes us proud,” Dann says.
- Pandanus trees at dusk.
One of locations changed back to its traditional name iss (the formerly named) Barker pool, now Dudungarri mindi. The name refers to the dreamtime story of the Wanjina spirit and the Yawarlngarri jirri (blue catfish) which live in this pool. This represents a rich and ancient history that Ngarinyin people hope to share with visitors alongside the staggering beauty of the region.
- The corrugated dusty road out of Gibb Station.
For the Wilinggin Aboriginal Corporation, this moment also highlights the benefits surrounding native title. With it comes a genuine economy: employment and investment brought to the region by the people themselves. With a second ranger group on the way the determination of the Ngarinyin people to stand on their own is a shining light in an uncertain world.