The Warlu from Warlu Song

Two Snakes
Yijala Yala Project/
Stu Campbell

Getting caught on the wrong side of the tracks on your way in to Roebourne—a small town in the Pilbara in Northern WA—could mean waiting 20 minutes for the longest train in Australia to pass. When I was in Roebourne in April 2014, plans to duplicate the line were underway. Should we anticipate a 40 minute wait? It sounds like a long time. In a place where every viewpoint presents an endless vista of spinifex, marshland and little else, waiting anytime for anything seems absurd. But these days, Roebourne sits in the middle of a hive of industrial activity and that 20 minute wait is accelerating the largest transformation of the landscape since the ice age 5000 years ago. The train runs 24-7. It travels from deep in the Pilbara to the West Australian coastline where cargo ships wait to ship the iron ore off to China or Brazil or somewhere else far away. I don’t really know where they’re going. I just see them leaving full and coming back empty.

This repetition of industry is a fixture more permanent than some of the hills surrounding Roebourne. In a short drive from Roebourne to Point Samson, I remember pointing toward the Cape Lambert horizon and asking my colleague, Tyson Mowarin, “Wasn’t there a hill there?” “Sure. There was one there, and an even bigger one there.” He gestures off to the right. His hand pans across the landscape and stops in line with one last big hill: “They’ve left that one so you can’t see what’s happening on the other side.” Tyson’s remark reminded me of a tactic used in my hometown of Burnie, Tasmania, where the loggers would leave a row of trees standing so you couldn’t see the deforestation happening behind them.

Tyson is a local Ngarluma man, who’s lived his whole life in this area. “Do you wanna take a look?”, he asks, as he steers the car up a little gravel road leading up the hill. “It’s funny,” he says, “they’ve even created a lookout for us.” As we drove up the hill, I observed signs that notified the next explosion times.

This lookout is dedicated to watching, from a safe distance, the destruction of the landscape. I have to admit I was excited by the prospect of seeing an entire mountain explode but Tyson’s solemn face soon hampered that feeling. When we got to the top, it was clear how painful it must be for him to see the landscape flattened. Visitors to the Pilbara always comment on how striking it is. They talk about the contrast between the perfect blue skies, the vivid green spinifex hills and the rich red earth. From the lookout all we could see was red: red earth and a cloud of red dust. In the dust, massive trucks – looking as small as ants from the distance – moved machinery and rubble back and forth. We were overlooking a fresh scar: the new home for the Cape Lambert expansion project. Cape Lambert is already home to some of the largest mining equipment on the planet and now it’s doubling in size.

Tyson is an artist and filmmaker and, like myself, he is working on creative projects that aim to transmit the cultural heritage of the region and his people. I work for Big hART – an arts and social change company – on the Yijala Yala Project. Tyson has his own company, Weerianna Street Media, where he has produced dozens of short documentaries and films that he hosts on his website.

Both Yijala Yala and Tyson’s Weerianna Street Media are being funded under a federal conservation agreement. In 2007, Woodside Energy (Australia’s largest independent oil and gas company) entered into an agreement with the Commonwealth Government to support projects that work to protect, identify, manage and transmit knowledge regarding the heritage of the Dampier Archipelago. This area includes Murujuga, also known as the Burrup Peninsula: a UNESCO listed heritage site that is home to over 1 million ancient petroglyphs, some of which date back 30,000 years.

The ancient carvings tell us stories of how people have lived for thousands of years. They are some of the oldest records we have. As the mining industry carves a new narrative in to the country, we ask ourselves what stories will define this era and what stories do we want to preserve? The great Rio Tinto snake that carried the ore on its back from the centre of the earth, or the Yindjibarndi Warlu (snake) that carved the river beds and brought the storm?

One of the aims of the Yijala Yala Project is to ensure the cultural resources of the area are seen as equal to the mining resources. Since 2010, we have worked with the Aboriginal community of Roebourne to develop skills and create content that communicates their cultural heritage to a wide audience. Using technology and current forms of storytelling like comic strips and videogames, we have created a new range of story resources.

In Neomad, more than 50 members of the community imagine a Roebourne of the future as an interactive iPad series where the mining industry has been replaced with space tourism. In the nationally touring theatre show Hipbone Sticking Out, we retell the story of the Aboriginal people from Roebourne through the lens of the early death of 16-year-old John Pat, who recalls the 400 years of events that led to him being involved in an altercation with the police, hitting his head on the pavement and left to die in a Police Cell in 1983. In Murru, we recorded original songs with the inmates of the Roebourne Regional Prison. For lovepunks.com, we worked with young people to create Roebourne as a stop-motion videogame with zombies and magical crystals. Through all the projects, we’ve set out to highlight the cultural heritage of this area as living, continually evolving and in the ‘here and now’.

Stu Campbell works with the Yijala Yala Project, a project funded by Woodside-operated Pluto LNG through a Conservation Agreement with the Commonwealth government that aim highlight, present, transmit, manage, conserve and research the cultural heritage values of the Burrup Peninsula (Murujuga) and the Dampier Archipelago.