Traditional owners open hidden Eden

Aboriginal elders Rita Cutter and Frank Wongawol sit at the foot of Katjarra, a sweeping red range that rises spectacularly out of WA's Central Desert plains.

Katjarra, or Carnarvon Range as named by Europeans, is precious to Martu people like them, not only as a majestic sight.

The 2000sqkm is unique, culturally and ecologically, but has long been a largely unknown and unvisited part of WA until now.

This month the Martu people, who have exclusive management rights, will open Katjarra to the public after six years of closure.

Its custodians and Birriliburu rangers showed The Weekend West Katjarra's secrets in an exclusive tour of this remarkable haven of history and nature.


Anthropologist Hamish Morgan said Katjarra had changed little over thousands of years because it had been scarcely visited and not used pastorally.

"It's a really significant range," he said. "It gets up to 300m higher than the surrounding country.

"It is a very special place with lots of interesting hills, valleys and waterholes. It's got everything: claypans, rocky country, sand dunes. All the country in Birriliburu is here."

Katjarra was an important meeting place for Martu people because it has permanent water.

"In summer when all the rock holes dry up … all the families would come together to have their law business and wait for the rain again," Dr Morgan said.

Ms Cutter, 61, said she loved Katjarra because it reminded her of life in the desert as a child.

"Nobody's been here. It's still how it was back in the early days, how they had it," she said.

Katjarra is the most significant part of the Birriliburu Indigenous Protected Area, 66,540sqkm of national reserve that spans the Little Sandy Desert, the Gibson Desert and the Gascoyne.

Its remoteness, about 200km north-east of Wiluna, is difficult to comprehend.

After five hours driving through desert, bush and stations from Wiluna, the red range is breathtaking. A pristine spring flows from the top of Katjarra all year, attracting a huge diversity of plant and animal life.

Bush Heritage Australia ecologist Vanessa Westcott leads a program of fauna and flora monitoring in a bid to protect rare and threatened species, such as the bilby, blind desert mole, mulgara and endemic plants.

"It's super diverse," she said. "It's just a special place."

Katjarra also attracted and sustained generations of Martu people, as shown by its hundreds of rock art drawings. Rock art of wildlife, dreamtime, landscapes and daily life points to habitation back 25,000 years - thought to be the longest continuous occupation in the vast Western Desert.

Ms Cutter came out of the Sandy Desert as a little girl with her family about 1950 and went to live in Wiluna Mission.

"I used to hear a lot of stories about this place," she said. "The old people used to say they would shout … in their own language and water used to come down gushing from up top."

Dr Morgan, who works for Central Desert Native Title Services which helps manage the protected area, said it was sacred to the Martu because the snake - a dreamtime creator being - is still embodied there.

In June 2008, the traditional custodians were awarded native title for the Birriliburu area.

They soon closed Katjarra to the many tourists who visited en route to the Canning Stock Route.

The visits harmed Katjarra's landscape and archaeological artefacts were damaged or stolen.

During the closure, traditional custodians were trained as rangers and they developed ways to manage tourism and do archaeological and ecological surveys. In April last year, Birriliburu was declared a protected area under a Federal Government program that enables traditional owners to manage land as a reserve.

Almost 70 permits have been issued to visit Katjarra this month, with rangers ready to show and speak about the area. Dr Morgan said they hoped to open Katjarra every July, though numbers would be limited.