T for Tunnel Creek

TAfter our experience on the eastern end of the Gibb River Road (see Z for Zebedee Springs), our enthusiasm for rough rocky roads was waning. For some people bouncing along on sharp stones and corrugations, creating clouds of dust, is a dream come true but for us, the bitumen is the preferred highway.

Screen Shot 2019-04-01 at 10.36.30 amAs we drove into Derby we discussed the options. One was to leave the van in the caravan park and take the tent to Windjana Gorge, as we had done at El Questro. John’s brother had done the same thing a few years previously and had spent much of his time driving back to Derby to replace the tyres he had wrecked.

The option of taking a day tour to Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek started to look appealing. We read the following advertisement for Windjana Tours and were impressed.

Let us take you on a culturally insightful journey through the heart of Windjana Gorge as your local Bunuba guide Dillon Andrews from Bungoolee Tours reveals a side of this spiritual place few get to experience. Then, journey deep beneath the limestone of the Napier Range and relive the real Legend of Jandamarra with Dillon and discover the secrets of Tunnel Creek and its spiritual significance to the Bunuba people.

I must admit we had not been on any Aboriginal guided tours before as we tend to save money and do our own thing but I had high hopes that this would deliver more than we would experience on our own.

Looking at my diary entry for that day I wrote.

“Wow, what a day it was!

We were picked up at 8.10am in a seriously four-wheel drive bus. First stop was a 1500-year-old Boab tree with a mass of feathers beside it. We thought they were emu feathers because of the box. Our guide explained they were the feathers of a bustard which had been shot for food and plucked on site by the local people.

We were off the bitumen and onto the corrugations but the bus flew along the top of them at 100 km per hour. Turning off the Gibb onto the Windjana Gorge Road we arrived at the Gorge for coffee and biscuits.

We walked in single file through a crevice in the rock which opened onto a wide, sandy path. The walls were studded with fossils and the river was full of crocodiles. Definitely no swimming for us today.

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The ruined police station

Our guide told us the story of Jandamarra who led his people from captivity to the cave at Tunnel Creek. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful and the tragic story in this setting was all the more devastating. Back on the bus, we drove to the ruined police station where Jandamarra freed his people.
At Tunnel Creek, we heard the tragic end to the story as we walked in semi-darkness through a water-filled cave. Afternoon tea was waiting for us when we returned. It was a long trip home but the sunset was spellbinding.

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Tunnel Creek

I will try to summarise the story of Jandamarra in a few words but told by Dillon, the story was moving, tragic and yet still humorous in parts.

Although Jandamarra was born into the Bunuba tribe he grew up on Lennard River Station where he learnt to ride horses, shear sheep and use firearms. He spoke English confidently and was called “Pigeon” because he was small, fleet-footed, cheeky and likable. At 15 he returned to his traditional land for initiation and became a skilful hunter. The arrival of sheep in the area was seen a bounteous gift for the hunters and soon Jandamarra was arrested for killing sheep. Charges were dropped after he agreed to serve the police by caring for their horses. He returned to Lennard River and then to the mountains where he violated Bunuba law (over a woman maybe?). Leaving his tribe in a hurry he worked at Lillimooloora Station, forming a close friendship with a stockman, Bill Richardson. Richardson joined the Police Force and Jandamarra followed him as a tracker. They were assigned to an abandoned farmhouse 113 km from Derby where Jandamarra helped locate and capture Bunuba warriors.

The turning point came when sixteen Aboriginal prisoners were chained up outside the police station. What happened next was horrifying. Suddenly he turned on his friend, shot and killed him as he slept, and then released the prisoners. Maybe he was offered forgiveness for his tribal transgressions. The prisoners told him that the invasion by Europeans would mean the end of their way of life. He must release them if he was a true Bunuba man. What a dilemma for a man who had grown up in two cultures!

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Windjana Gorge

From then on he was an outlaw. Fifty ochre-painted warriors fought the white settlers in the major battle of Windjana Gorge on 16 November 1894. We looked at the cliffs on the other side of the river where Jandamarra sat in a small cave firing on the enemy. He hoped to repel the white invaders by accumulating enough weapons for an Aboriginal army. Severely wounded he escaped and spent two years hiding from the police. Although he caused his people great suffering, they credited him with supernatural powers.

At Tunnel Creek we imagined him leading his people into the cave. Troopers camped outside, expecting to force the people out when food ran low. As the caves opened at the other end the people escaped.

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The other end of Tunnel Creek cave

Finally, Jandamarra was shot at Tunnel Creek by another tracker, Minko Mick. You might wonder why Minko would side with the whites to shoot Jandamarra. Dillon told us his children were taken by police and he was told they would be killed if he didn’t comply with their wishes.

Jandamarra has become a legend in a similar way to Ned Kelly. They both fought against the repression of their people by a stronger power. They both lost their lives doing so, and in Jandamarra’s case, his people lost their way of life forever.

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4 thoughts on “T for Tunnel Creek

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