Songs from the edge

On the Dampier Peninsula, Sian Prior discovers eco-tents in pandanus groves and musical royalty.

I'm no twitcher but show me a rainbow bee-eater and my heart rate increases. Right now I'm watching four of them doing aerobatic stunts in the warm afternoon breeze. The god of small things used practically the whole paint palette with these elegant birds: red eyes in black and blue stripes; ginger crown melting into yellow, green and blue body; orange underwings; and a fine black tail with two little streamers, just for fun.

The bee-eaters are residents of The Block, officially known as Mercedes Cove Retreat, a small indigenous tourism venture on Western Australia's Dampier Peninsula. Hosts Pat and Dave Channing are Kimberley locals who have been building up the business since they were granted access to the Pender Bay site about a decade ago.

Set among groves of lovingly tended pandanus palms, the solar-powered retreat includes a couple of eco-tents and a self-contained guest house. There's also an open-deck cabin with its own kitchen and six bunk beds, which is where we've spent the night listening to gentle waves beaching themselves less than 100 metres from our pillows. Visitor numbers are growing steadily at Mercedes Cove Retreat but the venture nearly ended badly. In 2005 the headland behind the cove was selected as the preferred site for Woodside Energy's proposed gas processing plant. The Channings campaigned hard to protect their lease, helped by the fact that about 1000 humpback whales sail past the cove every year, many of them stopping to calve in the calm waters of Pender Bay. Eventually the gas company moved along the coast looking for alternative sites.

We've been introduced to Mercedes Cove by one of Pat Channing's cousins, Josie Pigram. The Pigrams are akin to musical royalty in Broome; Josie's husband, Alan, plays guitar, mandolin and ukulele in the award-winning Pigram Brothers band and was one of the musicians in the original stage version of the musical Bran Nue Dae.

Alan and Josie have been giving us a weekend tour of the Dampier Peninsula, starting with the Aboriginal community of Beagle Bay, about 130 kilometres north of Broome. The community is famous for its gleaming white church, which features in the film version of Bran Nue Dae and is decorated inside with lustrous mother-of-pearl. Behind the church, though, where few tourists venture, are a couple of rundown brick buildings. Squat with low ceilings, they served as dormitories for the indigenous children removed from their families and placed in the care of the Catholic missionaries who ran Beagle Bay in the first half of the 20th century. As we poke our heads through the narrow doors and try to picture the empty rooms full of little beds, Josie mentions casually that her Aboriginal grandmother was brought here as a child but Josie doesn't know exactly where she was taken from.

Mercedes Cove is about 20 kilometres north of Beagle Bay but unless you want to lurch slowly along a sandy bush track, it's a 60-kilometre drive back inland then north-west again towards the small community of Middle Lagoon before the turn-off to The Block. The accommodation is perched above the pindan cliffs of the small cove with a perfect view of the sun setting behind a jagged outcrop called Chimney Rocks. You can walk through the bush around the point (which is where we spot our rainbow bee-eaters) to an even longer beach.

This is where Dave keeps his boat and most days he heads out to what he calls The Fridge, a secret spot in the bay where Dave reckons he's always guaranteed to pull up half-a-dozen fish for the visitors' dinner.

The day we arrive, Dave barbecues a fresh surf'n'turf feast while Pat provides the salads and baked potatoes, and then we sit around the open fire singing '80s pop songs.

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The Channings have a young German traveller staying with them courtesy of the international WWOOF (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) organisation; in exchange for accommodation and meals, she waters and trims the groves of pandanus palms for several hours each day. She doesn't know many of the pop songs but is happy to stick around listening to our chorus.

The next day, after breakfast on the open deck of our cabin, we take a short trip along the coast to the tiny Munget Community where Pat's nephew, Lenny O'Meara, and his wife, Jacinta, run the Whalesong Cafe and camping ground. The campsites are hidden in the bush but the cafe overlooks Pender Bay and an ochrous red sandy beach where Lenny takes visitors on beach-walking cultural tours, telling them about bush foods and medicines, marine life and shells.

We take in the view from the open deck, drinking giant banana smoothies and strong espressos and enjoying Jacinta's fresh-baked muffins. The cafe is decorated with mobiles made by Lenny and Jacinta's kids from shells they've gathered on the beach.

This indigenous small business is clearly doing well; dust-covered travellers come and go in steady waves while Pat and Lenny catch up on family news. Alan's keen for them to start some live music gigs at the cafe to employ some of the talented young Aboriginal musicians living in nearby communities.

Back at Mercedes Cove we pack up and farewell our hosts, then head north to Cape Leveque at the tip of the Dampier Peninsula. The lighthouse is surrounded by the cabins and safari tents of the long-established Kooljaman resort, and the complex seems huge after the micro-tourism retreats we've been visiting but the pink and white beach is breathtaking.

Alan describes how his father used to gather large cone shells on these shores when Alan was a child, to sell to specialist collectors.

The young Pigram brothers would sometimes tire of the beachcombing and bury themselves in cool pits of sand until their father had filled his bag and was ready to leave. We have a dip in the balmy sea, then detour eastwards for 20 kilometres to another small Aboriginal community at One Arm Point. The tide here surges like rapids between the mainland and a cluster of pale rocky islands before emptying into King Sound.

It's a great spot for fishing, Alan tells us, and we're all wishing we had a boat with us so we could go exploring.

Last stop on our tour is the community of Lombadina, 20 kilometres south of Cape Leveque and yet another location for scenes in Bran Nue Dae. The gardens here are lush and well-watered but the streets are all quiet this Sunday afternoon. We check out the old wooden church built in 1932 from sawlogs and paperbark and still in fine condition.

It's getting late and the corrugated road between Lombadina and Broome won't be fun in the dark, so we pile back in the car and turn southwards. Just as night falls Alan is forced to jam on the brakes as a pale grey donkey looms out of the darkness and wanders across the road.

As we pass the turn-off to James Price Point, Alan shakes his head in frustration.

This is where Woodside Energy plans to build its gas plant and he's involved in the new campaign against it.

I try to picture a rainbow bee-eater doing aerobatics among smokestacks and gas flares but my imagination fails me.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Virgin Blue flies to Broome with a change of aircraft in Perth for $339 one way, including tax, from Melbourne and $349 from Sydney. Qantas flies non-stop once a week from Melbourne (4hr 35 min) for about $327 while Sydney passengers pay about $336 and fly via Melbourne.

Staying there

Mercedes Cove eco-tents (sleep four) from $150 a night, open-deck cabin (sleeps six) and guest house (sleeps four to six) from $300 a night. Phone (08) 9192 4687, see www.mercedescove.com.au.

Whalesong Cafe and Campground, phone (08) 9192 4000, www.seebroomevisitorcentre.com.au.

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