A new Indigenous tourism venture in the Kimberley is opening doors for Balanggarra people to keep their country healthy, and in their hands.
As you cruise along Gibb River Road beside the Pentecost River, you’ll find Balanggarra country – 2.9 million hectares in the northern Kimberley, where Barramundi is famously abundant, gracious Brolgas dance, and iconic Boab trees flower.
For tourists, this part of the world is a marvel worth flocking to like Red-tailed Black-cockatoos flock to the lush gorges and pools that fill up when the rains arrive.
For the Traditional Owners, Balanggarra people, it is their country. They call the land, sea, rivers, islands and everything within it their Gra, and their law and culture gives them rules and responsibilities for looking after it.
This year, they made a significant step towards looking after their land in perpetuity when the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation awarded them the tender to manage Home Valley Station, a cattle station turned tourist operation.
Set on nearly 250,000 hectares in the bottom corner of their country, it is the perfect base for community to meet, tourists to converge, and caring for country activities to get underway.
“Home Valley provides an opportunity on Country for the community to benefit from commercial business, sustainable tourism, economic development and employment,” says Cissy Gore-Birch, Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC’s Chair and Bush Heritage’s Executive Manager for Aboriginal Engagement.
“Now, Traditional Owners have a base to run tours on Country, and we are working in partnership with them to develop their businesses,” she says.
It is also an important step in Balanggarra people’s long-term vision of On our land – everyone on their country.
“Having access to a property opens up the doors to the rest of our country and for our people to take ownership of our land and how we look after it,” says Cissy.
Some Balanggarra people remain seasonal hunters who understand and use every intertwined element of their Gra. They can read their country like a book – when the liija (turkey bush) flowers, it’s the best time to pick oysters; when the Wuluwurr (Woollybutt) is in flower, Mangkuru (sea-turtles) are mating and laying their eggs.
In 2012, Balanggarra people developed a Healthy Country Plan which set out goals to help protect their cultural sites, animals, bush foods and medicines, and improve the health of their Gra.
They're now able to use Home Valley as a base to support their Healthy Country Plan goals. In addition to providing an Indigenous tourism product, the plan is for the property to become a training and research hub for the community to continue to build capacity in sustainable land and cultural management.
In late 2020, Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC approached Bush Heritage with their vision for Home Valley, resulting in a two-year partnership initially focussed on the securing of, and short-term planning for, Home Valley.
Bush Heritage has also provided capacity building funds to support the recruitment of Balanggarra’s first chief executive officer, a position that provides critical strategic and day-to-day management capability to oversee the Home Valley project and broader implementation of Balanggarra’s Healthy Country Plan.
“It is about helping Traditional Owners through well-rounded and holistic management,” says Luke Bayley, Bush Heritage’s Head of Region for Western Australia and South Australia.
“This type of nature-based cultural tourism creates opportunities to learn about the ecological and cultural significance of Balanggarra Country.”
“You’ve got people coming onto Country, witnessing and learning about the biodiversity as well as the cultural elements from the Traditional Owners.”
The success of Home Valley’s first year has proven just that. In their first season, Balanggarra met their goals of running the business with 85% Indigenous staff, including hiring Home Valley’s first female Aboriginal General Manager.
Cissy hopes people will learn more about Balanggarra culture when they visit – to be in the presence of the Traditional Owners, on country.