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Yajula from above. By Benjamin Broadwith
Yajula from above. By Benjamin Broadwith

Ngapa Kunangkul – Living waters

Words by: Amelia Caddy
Location: Karajarri Country, Western Australia
Published 13 Jan 2023

A long-awaited return to sacred water sites on Karajarri Country provides Elders and rangers with the chance to preserve knowledge and protect country for future generations.

Karajarri Elder Mr J ‘Tarrika’ Watson bends down between bullrushes to fill his speckled blue enamel mug with the waters of Yajula, a pajalpi (wetland) fed by a permanent jila (spring) in the Kimberley region of north Western Australia.

Straightening back up, J brings the mug to his lips, takes a deep sip, pauses, then suddenly spurts the water back out. It’s as though he’s tasted something foul.

Yajula is a pajalpi (wetland) fed by a permanent jila (spring). By Benjamin Broadwith

Yajula is a pajalpi (wetland) fed by a permanent jila (spring). By Benjamin Broadwith

Then something unexpected happens: J passes the mug to the man behind him who repeats his actions, before passing the mug to the woman behind him. And so it continues until one-by-one, the entire group has sipped and sprayed the waters of Yajula into the dry desert air.

They are not thirsty, nor does the water taste bad: “This is freshwater, you can drink this water,” J reassures. He and his companions are practising a tradition that is as old as time, and one that hasn’t been carried out at this site for a while.

In September 2022, Karajarri and Nyangumarta Elders and Rangers, Juwaliny and Mangala Elders, members of the Karajarri Traditional Lands Association and ecologists drove for two days to reach the 17,729-hectare Kurriji PaYajula Nature Reserve, where Yajula is located.

Tucked away in the westernmost corner of Karajarri Country, 222km south-west of Broome as the crow flies, Yajula is hard to access and even harder to manage.

“It’s important to visit most of the sites on Karajarri Country ... see how it’s going out there and what it needs done. Does it need to be maintained? Does it need to be untouched?” says Sharee Dolby, one of the younger Karajarri Rangers on the trip.

Karajarri Elder, Mr J ‘Tarrika’ Watson at Kurriji. By Benjamin Broadwith

Karajarri Elder, Mr J ‘Tarrika’ Watson at Kurriji. By Benjamin Broadwith

For seven days, the group camped, sang, shared stories and engaged in two-way learning: combining traditional practices with modern monitoring techniques to fill in knowledge gaps about the area’s immense cultural and ecological value.

For many millenia, Yajula and its sister wetland Kurriji, have sustained Karajarri, Nyangumarta, Mangala, Juwaliny and Yulparija people as they traversed the red quartz sand dunes and salt plains of the Great Sandy Desert, providing them with food, fresh water, shelter and medicine.

These were places of trade and connection, where marriages were made, knowledge exchanged and ceremonies carried out. But for Traditional Owners to access Yajula now takes coordination, time and resources that are in short supply. As a result the stories, songs and traditions that contain the secrets to its management are at risk of being lost.

“Most of us haven’t been in this country before, but we seen photos and films of old people here back in the days,” says Jess Bangu, Elder and Karajarri Ranger who attended the trip.

As Karajarri Rangers, Sharee and Jess are part of a small team of Traditional Owners who are combining traditional knowledge with western science to care for their country. Given that country spans 3.2 million hectares, an area about the size of Belgium, this is no small feat, but they’re not alone.
Rangers and Elders enjoy shade and lunch beside Yajula. By Benjamin Broadwith

Rangers and Elders enjoy shade and lunch beside Yajula. By Benjamin Broadwith

A healthy country plan outlining key cultural and ecological targets helps them; prioritise a Cultural Advisory Committee made up of Elders, guides their annual operations, and involves partners, including Bush Heritage, that provide vital logistical support and funding.

For the rangers, the work is more than just a job; it’s the fulfilment of their cultural responsibility, embedded into Karajarri traditional law, to look after country for the next generation.

“It’s a very well understood principle that if Karajarri people aren’t on Karajarri Country – and it’s a big area – then their sacred places are not being taken care of because they need people to maintain them,” says Karajarri Land and Sea Manager Jesse Ala’i.

“In the desert, a lot of those sacred places are wetland areas. And because we’re in the desert, they’re also, generally speaking, important ecosystems,” he says.

Yajula is a pukarrikarra, a dreaming site, created and inhabited by a pulany, powerful serpents who must be respected and approached in certain ways. On Karajarri Country, pulany inhabit all jila.Karajarri people refer to their jila as ‘living waters’, a translation that could equally refer to their creator beings or to the fact that they allow life to flourish in the harsh arid environment.

Birds, bats and threatened species such as the Night Parrot all rely on these desert oases for food, water and shelter.

Kurriji and Yajula also harbour a unique assemblage of plants that are rare or absent elsewhere in the region, such as White Dragon Trees, Desert Walnuts and Bullrush, leading the area to be listed as a threatened ecological community.
Karajarri Rangers at Yujula. By Benjamin Broadwith

Karajarri Rangers at Yujula. By Benjamin Broadwith

Today, camels, weeds, uncontrolled visitor access, changed fire regimes and climate change all threaten the health of Kurriji Pa Yajula. Cultural practices such as sipping and spraying the waters of Kurriji into the air provide the rangers with one method of monitoring their impacts.

“That tells us, ‘okay’, by virtue of the Elders saying that’s okay for us to do, the water is in a healthy state’,” says Jesse.

At the same time, the rangers are working with an ecologist from Environs Kimberley, Dr Matt Macdonald. Matt collected drone imagery and water samples from Kurriji pa Yajula to help shed light on any changes in plants and animals around the water sites.

For the rangers, these on-country trips with their Elders and partners provide invaluable guidance as to how their country should be managed. More than that though, they provide a chance for Karajarri people to reconnect with their land and culture.

“Coming out on Country, seeing the Elders’ faces – they feel the Country is healthy, you know? And it makes yourself feel good inside, too. The more you look after Country, make Country heal, you’re actually healing inside, too,” says Sharee.

Karajarri pronunciation tips:

K – G like Gone

T – hard D like Dog

Rr – soft D like Dee

Ny – like Bunyip

Ng – like Bang

We thank and acknowledge the Karajarri Traditional Owners for generously sharing this language and knowledge with us. We’d also like to extend our thanks to the Karajarri Rangers’ other supporting partners, Environs Kimberley and Western Australia’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, who helped make the trip to Kurriji Pa Yajula possible.

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