Clinton Walker shows off some rock art above Karratha. Picture: Tom Zaunmayr

To the untrained eye the Pilbara can seem to be a land hostile to life, dotted with holes of riches which have driven our economy for decades. Tourism representatives have said those holes, created by the mining industry, could provide a second financial windfall as tourism ventures.

There is another largely untapped resource for Pilbara tourism and it has been around for thousands of years.

The West Pilbara is Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi land. These people have called the area home for more than 40,000 years and the knowledge carried from their ancestors is greater than any training or education could provide.

Ngarluma man Clinton Walker stands on the mudflats near Karratha at low tide and points out to the ocean. "About 10,000 years ago we used to catch kangaroo out there; it was all bulgarra (spinifex) country. The sea was about 150km outwards." Mr Walker talks as if he was there, highlighting how well the knowledge is passed down.

For the past year Walker has used that knowledge to help increase the profile of tourism in the region. Ngurrangga (say Ng-oo-d-un-ga) Tours operates out of Karratha. It gives locals and tourists a unique, hands-on insight into the rich indigenous history of the West Pilbara.

"Not many people have experienced the Pilbara so the slogan for my business is to come and see the real Pilbara. A lot of people have it in their mind that the Pilbara is a mining hub, they don't think of it as a tourist destination with beauty and spectacular scenery," Mr Walker says.

"My job is to prove them wrong because I have been going to these spectacular sights all my life. I want to give people different experiences each and every time. No tours are ever exactly the same, not only for them but for myself."

Tours range from half-day Burrup Petroglyphs tours to full-day Millstream-Chichester National Park expeditions, and overnight four-wheel-drive tagalongs into uncharted tourism territory. There are no set time frames. At this stage it is simply a case of ringing a few days in advance and letting Mr Walker know what you want to see.

The half-day Burrup tour is Ngurrangga's most popular, taking tourists into the culturally significant Deep Gorge just 20 minutes out of Karratha.

"Deep Gorge was a place where everybody used to gather for storytelling, camping, food and all sorts of stuff. The reason why there is so much rock art is because there is a little fresh water spring there that's always running," he says.

"The fresh water enabled people to live there and tell their stories in the rock. There is no other place in the world where you can find this much rock art in one location."

Without the eye of an expert the rock art is easily missed but with his guidance, thousands of different engravings can be seen on the faces of the red rock hills, each one with its own tale to tell.

Ngurrangga's full-day tours take tourists out to the waterholes and cultural sites of Millstream- Chichester National Park two hours from Karratha. Millstream is a place of high cultural significance for all indigenous people. It is the final resting place of the Barrimirndi (sea serpent) which created the Fortescue River and waterholes around Millstream, the water which enabled life in the region.

You can read the indigenous history of the area on signs around Millstream but listening to Mr Walker retell the stories of the Barrimirndi invokes much more passion and a more personal connection than an information board could ever provide.

"(The Barrimirndi) came out because he was chasing two boys who had broken the law. He swallowed them up and their families got very upset. The serpent got sick of the crying so he flooded the area and created what Millstream is today," he says.

"We can also go out to Gregory's Gorge which has a lot of cultural significance.

"It is basically the birthplace of Aboriginal culture, a lot of people can trace their heritage back to there.

"It is also a very pretty spot to go and visit in the Fortescue Valley. There are nice pools, paperbark trees and lots of native palm trees."

Ngurrangga Tours' next venture is bush tucker. The Pilbara has a surprising array of native food which Mr Walker will soon unveil to tourists in the region.

The idea of the bush-tucker tours is to show people what to look for, have them go out and find it, then cook it up at the end of the day.

"As long as you know where to look you can actually live off lots of different stuff. My people have been doing it for about 40,000 years. We are in what people refer to as a food bowl," Mr Walker says.

"Aboriginal people know the landscape, the behaviour of animals and the season of plants. It's that training from a young age."

He has already received a lot of interest for bush-tucker tours and has started testing ideas to get them running shortly.

FACT FILE

Tours run on demand for everyone from couples to big groups. Everything is supplied; just bring walking shoes, camera and warm clothes for overnight trips. Tours can be personalised.

Half-day Burrup tour, four hours and costs $110 adult, child $65, under 7 free.

Full-day Millstream tour, eight hours and costs adult $220, child $110, under 7 free.

Full-day Millstream + Gregory's Gorge tour, 10 hours and costs $330 adult, $165 child, under 7 free.

For information, phone the Karratha Visitor Centre on 9144 4600, Clinton Walker on 0423 424 093, or see gurrgura.com.

The West Australian

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