Elder conducts Rotto bus tour
Elder conducts Rotto bus tour

Dr Noel Nannup is an optimist. A childhood plagued by poverty, punctuated with family woes and coloured by racism has had a remarkably positive effect on this Aboriginal man.

But while the 62-year-old Nyoongar elder is warm, passionate and inspiring, beyond his gentle demeanour and twinkling eyes, this outspoken and respected activist and environmentalist has a steely determination.

Dr Nannup talks a lot about the past and the injustices that Aboriginal people have suffered but he is determined not to indulge in self-pity or rants. Reconciliation is what he is interested in and dedicates his life to.

The youngest of 10 siblings, he left home when he was 14 only to return when his Nyoongar father and Injarbardi mother split up. It was the teenage Noel Nannup who watched over his suicidal father and supported him through the tough times.

"I came back because dad wanted to take his own life. I kept him on the rails," he reminisces.

It did not mar his outlook on life. There is no bitterness, only gratitude towards his parents. It is, according to him, his parents' life lessons which give him hope through his darkest hours.

"My parents groomed me to respect others. I was blessed to have their guidance, love and understanding," he says.

Dr Nannup peppers our conversations heavily with "we lead a different way of life".

He is keen to gain respect and acceptance by establishing the differences. At times, he becomes quite defensive. But he warms up considerably after I tell him that I am an indigenous person from Borneo.

We share and exchange views on the troubles of the indigenous peoples worldwide from native land grab, disappearing cultures, racism and a lost generation confused about their identity. He tells me about the rainbow snake and totems.

"The thing that drives the Aboriginal people is our spirituality which is deeply ingrained in the land," he says.

It is mesmerising to listen to him talk about this spirituality; a notion which he says is far removed from our current society. He weaves spellbinding tales of Dreamtime and spirits. All plants and animals which dot the Australian landscape are meaningful.

"It's all about the small things. The more you use your imagination, (the more) you understand us," he says as he guides curious tourists on the Wadjemup Bus Tour on Rottnest Island.

Dr Nannup is in his element when on the bus. He becomes the storyteller, the guardian of ancient magical tales. As the bus trundles around Rottnest, Dr Nannup points out leaves, stones, waterholes and birds which all have their places in Dreamtime.

"We still sing to the whales. We would hear them and they would hear us," he explains.

"Our land is everything to us. (We) lose our land, we lose our identities."

It is hard to feel unmoved when Dr Nannup speaks of atrocities committed against his people.

"(Australia) has always recognised the Aboriginal people but it's tokenism," he points out.

Though he chooses his words carefully, his quickening speech and tone of voice betray his frustration. "If we can't learn (from the past), then we're destined to repeat the same mistakes. We would be absolute fools, so we look ahead through the past," he says.

He worries about the Aboriginal youths who end up making headlines in the media. "My heart aches for them. I want to make it better for them," he says.

"A lot of the young people don't know who they are. Unless they do, they're always going to behave inappropriately.

"They are frustrated."

The Wadjemup bus lumbers to a stop and we step out to bathe in the sunlight.

Dr Nannup smiles brightly. He points out pods of whales and dolphins frolicking in the sparkling sea. "I've never seen so many before and not on the tour. We're very lucky," he says.

My encounter with Dr Nannup leaves me humbled and inspired. "We're not so different after all," he says.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West