01.10.2012 Spirituality

Spirit of the Kimberley

The Kimberley in far north Western Australia holds a powerful spiritual attraction. Daniel Sowelu recounts his recent camel trek. i

These camel treks have been a yearly event since 1998 when long-term Broome resident and multi-skilled healer Lorraine Lee, Nyikina/Mangala elder Harry Watson and I co-created this physical and spiritual journey through the West Kimberley. Each trek takes in the abandoned cattle station at Mt Anderson, the Fitzroy River catchment and the twin Grant Ranges, all part of the traditional lands of Harry's people around their community of Jarlmadanga.

The two stars of these treks are the extraordinary power and beauty of the environment, and Harry, senior lawman, ex-stockman, bushman and tracker and an active force in the teachings of traditional values, practices and skills for not just his own people but also at-risk youth from places like Broome and Derby. Recently, he and his bother John played themselves in the movie Mad Bastards as the role models they are for young Aboriginal people.

And so, on a warm morning under a vast blue sky, a group of 13 participants, nine staff, two boys, six camels and a support vehicle moved out from our gathering point at Mt Anderson. Most of us were on foot, with the vehicle with all our gear, going ahead to our first camp, a billabong four hours' walk away. After our cantankerous, but loveable, camels walk off some of their initial morning friskiness, we rotate as to who gets to ride, an initiation for many, including my nine year old son Xavier and his older friend Galen.

Heading east in parallel to the Fitzroy's main body, we spend the mornings walking and riding to the next camp, usually a billabong with good shade and abundant firewood. After lunch, many billy teas and time out, everyone gathers for circle work, for checking in, different meditations, healing work and some experiential astrology to juice things up even more. The cooks then get on with the evening meal while it's still light, with great help from small groups of the participants. Then follows quality time with Harry and his "boys" Bo, Kanny, Sarnald and Ewan, around the fire in the cold midwinter evening.

This particular group was exceptional in the way they bonded so quickly, became great co-operative units in their small groups and were very open and available, emotionally and spiritually. The adults, aged from 29 to 68, covered the whole range of life experiences, from singles to parents and grandparents. They devoured every experience we were able to provide for them.

Their creative input was equally fabulous. Our one couple, dance teachers among many other things, would launch spontaneously into a tango at any rest point or get an impromptu class going. Our evenings were filled with stories, songs, bursts of Shakespeare, great conversations, laughs and more cups of tea. Rich, full days that would leave us gratefully sleepy in our swags and mozzie domes under the great Kimberley sky.

Each trek is coloured by different archetypes, depending on the astrology of the time. They reflect both the collective energies around but also some of the main purposes of the event. This trip followed closely on an eclipse in Gemini and passage of Venus over the Sun, and the first peak of the massive Uranus/Pluto square, one that speaks of the potential for life changing experience. Two sub-plots present in the trek's chart were also to do with Saturn, the tough love teacher and wise old man within, and Hekate, witch queen, guide for souls and medicine woman.

The two manifest dramatically in the sudden death of the father of one of the women. A vehicle appears from the community on our one day of silence with the news. Two friends break their silence to support and hold the daughter with great tenderness. Camp coordinator Lorraine, who has been a midwife to the dying a dozen times in as many years, takes on the practicalities of transport and emergency flights. Xavier's mother Cloudia, also a midwife and medicine woman, takes over from Lorraine, holding the space for the rest of the camp still in silence. Holding a bigger space around all of us, Harry appears as the daughter is about to leave and wraps his arms around her. Everyone melts.

This seeming fracture in our group opens up lots of territory to do with fathers, with the struggles of men in our world, of the ways we parent and the legacy we leave our boys. It's a poignant area for us in the context of being held so powerfully by Harry as he embodies the wise and sacred masculine.

In the predawn next day, we climb a local peak to watch the reawakening of the world as the Sun slowly appears over the desert in the east, lighting up the red earth ranges and plains beneath us. This experience of incredible beauty and of renewal is a welcome balm. The whole group is taken into deeper territory and able to tap deep veins of healing. This, in turn, prepares us for the next big experience.

Our next camp is a billabong called Police Camp. As its name implies, this was a stop-off point for early and often punitive patrols, conjuring images of proud Aboriginal men in neck irons for protecting their land, spearing sheep or retaliating for the rape and abduction of their women. Some of the police were Aboriginal themselves, or survivors of Gallipoli and the Western Front, equally wounded men.

We'd camped here on earlier treks without any obvious problems, but for unknown reasons, I suspect because of the spiritual potency of this group, the psychic trauma of this place is palpable and rising to meet us. Even Harry is surprised at how poisonous the place feels, but it's too late in the day to move. Our circle work is dense, with a deliberate focus on directing healing into the place, grateful for what we can do. Even so, it's a rough night for many and we are pleased to move on the next day towards Honeymoon Camp in the middle of the Grant Ranges. It feels like leaving the Underworld and everyone's spirits lift as we start towards a place of great beauty.

And the contrast is great. In the main valley, 400 metres wide between the twin ridges of the range, there is a natural circle of trees for the camp, a cool spring in remnant rainforest halfway up one ridge, an overhang with rock art at its base and flowering wattle saplings adding colour to the red rock and soil. The spring draws everybody after a solid five hour walk in the building heat of the day, cool and refreshing in its moist shade.

By this stage our mob are a well-oiled machine, domes are up, fire's lit, billy's on, lunch on the way, prep for baking bread in the camp ovens well advanced and cooks debating the menu as the fresh food gets low. Lorraine oversees it all with eyes everywhere, with a foot in both white and black worlds. Cloudia and I are plotting ceremonies for our second last day; Harry sits back and enjoys being the benevolent patriarch, while his young men have lost some of their initial shyness around the white folk, particularly the women. On cue, some of the Aboriginal women, including Harry's wife Linda, arrive from the community to have some time with us, an added treat. All in all, we're a very happy bunch.

Galen and Xavier are now well and truly bush kids and Harry's natural focus as a lawman leads him to create an 'initiation' experience especially for them. Taking them and the other men to another spot in the range, the boys are invited to swim across a deep pool, covered in green slime fermented from cattle dung and then to climb up a small, but inverted, cliff, using tree roots as handholds in order to get to a clear pool on the ledge above. The more bush-wise Galen leaps at the chance, drawing the more cautious Xavier into the experience and they both make it to the top with all the breathless exhilaration that comes from conquering some significant fear. In the evening, the boys take up a talking stick and share their triumph with the whole group.

This is a time when the men and women naturally start to go off separately to do their 'business'. The next day the women gather around a boab tree to have a rich, lengthy ceremony to honour our youngest participant who, at 29, is in her Saturn Return, a major transition point in anyone's life. Just as the women are completing, they rise to see the men, with Xavier and Galen, appear at the top of a massive rock island in the middle of the valley, another bush initiation for the boys.

As it's our second last day, we start a series of culmination and completion rituals, as the next day we will be in reach of the outside world. Using the experiential astrology wheel to get everyone in touch with their own Saturns, their own inner wise one, we then welcome our Saturn Return participant into this circle of elders, as another initiation into deeper spiritual and personal maturity.

Then, the whole group moves in silence to a third space used by previous generations, where we link up, through meditation, the energies of Saturn with those of Hekate, a kind of sacred marriage. It all goes well, very deep, with the spirits of the ancient ones very present.

The next morning, we reluctantly pack up our camp, just as an unusually strong wind picks up, one which stays for days. Fortunately, it's at our backs as we head to our final stop near Jarlmadanga. Still, it stirs up the camels, one of which we discover is pregnant and hormonal, refusing to let anyone ride her this day. It's a relatively short walk and the rest of the day is filled with preparing a final feast for ourselves and people from the community. The camp ovens are in full use, with more bread and then apple crumble for dessert. We get a welcome surprise when an unusually heavy log collected for the fire turns out to be full of bush honey, which has everyone digging in to the traditional delicacy.

The mood of the last morning is both subdued and grateful, as we prepare for the bus that will take us to the community for a quick visit on the way back to Broome. Here we say and sing our thank yous to Harry and his "boys", his young men. Galen and Xavier are honoured as the first children to complete a trek with scrolls containing acknowledgements from all the adults. Our one Scottish participant says sorry to Harry and his people for any harm done to them by her own in the past and he steps forward to hold her, holding back his own tears.

He thanks us for treating him like a king. At 74, this will be his last full trek and the baton is passing onto the other men and women but, knowing him, he won't be able to stay away from these trips altogether.

In past treks, we carted everything on the camels and were self reliant for long periods, something we all appreciated. But the loading and reloading of the sometimes unpredictable camels could only be done by Harry and his sons and nephews, a task both laborious and time consuming. Now, with arthritic hands and many wounds from cattle days, this is no longer necessary or appropriate.

On future treks, Harry will be our special guest and will continue to hold us under his powerful spiritual umbrella. Long live the king!

Daniel Sowelu

Daniel Sowelu (BSc Dip Ed) is a therapeutic astrologer, primal therapist and groupleader in his 35th year of private practice.