Western Australia: life off the grid

Sometimes you need to disconnect before you can hope to connect with your surroundings.

Walking with a traditional owner across his country, you soon realise the bush is not what it seems.

A muddy river is jumping with fish; you just have to stick a line in. Walking over an estuary after the tide recedes and only a sharp nip on your toes provides a clue that the sand underneath your feet is thick with crabs. The grey bark is an anaesthetic that could kill a horse and there are trees heaving with plums that contain more vitamin C than any other fruit.

The grey and green gums, the grey mud flats and red dirt hum and teem with so much life and abundance that it stops your heart to think a gas hub was almost installed here.

There is so much food and medicine hidden in plain sight that once you know where to look you could live off the land and not want for anything.

Traditional owner Bruno Dann does just that. He and partner Marion Manson live on the Dampier Peninsula, 150 kilometres north-west of Broome.

Spend a few days with Dann and Manson moving between different ecosystems and you can see just how indigenous people in this area survived. Dann takes us to bushland, woodland, a creek system, freshwater lakes, saltwater creeks, the mangroves, the ocean and the reefs to show us the huge variety of food that is available in the wild.

The couple are off the grid and live without a phone, mobile coverage, internet, sewerage or electricity. Home is a basic bush camp - a shipping container for sleeping and a shed for cooking, which consists of a couple of poles holding up a tin roof, and an open fire.

Four other Sydneysiders and I are their guests for the week at the Twin Lakes Cultural Park.


From Broome we drive along the famous unpaved red dirt "road" - little more than a dried-out creek bed - that runs up to Cape Leveque.

When we arrive a fire is going strong and Manson is mixing us a brew of jilungin - a herb that grows everywhere along the peninsula. "It's a tonic," says Manson. "A sort of cure-all that gets you going in the morning, but also helps you sleep at night."

But the superstar of the Dampier Peninsula is gubinge - a fruit that grows wild in coastal areas.

Dann and Manson harvest the light green fruit in the wet season. It is then sent down south where it is made into powder or mixed with agave for juice.

In juice form it tastes a little like pear juice, but lighter, with more of a kick, and a faint lemony after-taste.

Life on the Dampier Peninsula unfolds at a completely different pace to the city - or even laidback Broome.

No electricity means that our bodies soon adjust to going to bed not long after nightfall, and getting up about 4.30am, when the area's 116 species of birds start to chatter. I'm used to the gargle of Melbourne's magpies and the squawking of Sydney's rosellas but these birds speak a whole other language. They grunt and groan, they sing arias at ear-splitting pitch, some sound almost human. I lie in the tent for hours each morning, eavesdropping.

We sleep in swags - and the clothes brought up have to be thrown out back in Sydney due to four days without a shower and that fine red dirt everywhere that gets under your nails and into your hair.

And then there is life without the internet. Twin Lakes is a place for sitting around the fire talking, or spending the day out with Dann searching for our next meal.

Dann is an elder of the Nyul Nyul tribe. Taken from his family aged four and sent to a Catholic mission in Beagle Bay - continuing the Nyul Nyul traditions and sharing them with others has been his life's work.

Now aged 62, it is difficult to keep up with Dann as he practically glides across his country.

The next few days are a window into how the Nyul Nyul people lived and survived off the land for thousands of years.

We hunt for our first dinner in an area around Quandong Point beach.

We roam across a landscape the likes of which I have never seen - it starts off salty, like walking on a giant crust. Beyond is a pristine beach with no footprints except that of a kangaroo.

On the salt plains Manson points out a giant print like something from Jurassic Park - a brolga has been here recently.

However, I don't stop to look too closely as I'm not wearing shoes and the ground is as hot as coals.

Dann and the boys are specks in the distance. I am trying to keep up but am walking on what feels like a combination of quicksand and mud. I step on what I think is a flat surface and then sink thigh-deep into mud.

"Goodbye world!" I sing out. "It's been a good life, but I knew sooner or later I would disappear into the ground and never be seen again!"

"Just walk quickly," urges someone from the banks. But no sooner do I manage to pull my legs out of one deep patch of mud, than I put my foot in another one and become stuck again.

Covered in mud, doubled over laughing at the absurdity and also the joy of being swallowed whole, I catch up to the others for a spot of line fishing.

Dann uses a net to catch bait so enormous and juicy that I think it is the actual fish we will be eating.

It's about 3pm, the tide has come in and the fish in the creek are just gagging to be caught. There are nine of us along the water in a row and the mangrove jacks are jumping out on people's lines (except mine).

Dann tells me that he only catches what he needs. "No need to catch any my dear, we have enough for everyone." He and Manson "live in the day," taking only what they need for that one day.

That night we cook the mangrove jacks on coals and eat in front of a bonfire, with a side serving of min-min, a bush herb that we picked around the mangroves that morning and which tastes like snow-peas.

The next day we go out crabbing near Beagle Bay, searching on mudflats and around mangrove trees in the afternoon when the tide is out. The surface extends to the horizon, baking under the sun, eerie and lunar.

Dann gives us steel rods with crab hooks on the end. We look under rocks where the crabs might be hiding before hooking them out alive and putting them in bags.

Dann gets upset at having to kill things and often will sing to the crabs and stroke their shells to put them to sleep before sticking a knife in.

"Don't make anything suffer," he says.

Despite the sorrow of having to kill our crabs, they make one of the most memorable meals I have had.

We are sitting on a long table with a bonfire roaring and a full moon overhead. A perfect damper has been cooked over the coals, where the crabs are now. We open them with a pair of pliers, pulling out enormous fingers of crab meat, sucking up the eyes.

We drench the damper in crab juice, fill our bellies with meat, the table is a mess of bones and shell and discarded lungs. We stagger back to our tents with a sort of primordial contentment that can only come after spending the day outside - having hunted, killed and eaten your own dinner.

Despite the dirt and the heat and lack of internet, it's hard to describe how right I feel out here. Lying under the massive moon and enjoying the cooling breeze that runs through the tent, the joyful birds and the fresh food, the sparkling heat, the bush baths in a tub - everything seems so simple and sensual.

Back in Sydney, tucked up in my bed, a roof over my head, and the air still and stale, every cell yearns to be back up north, outside, following Dann as he shows me a different way to see our country.

The writer travelled at her own expense.



Qantas flies non-stop from Sydney to Broome on Tuesdays and Saturdays. See qantas.com.au. Hire a car and take the road up to Cape Leveque to get to the Dampier Peninsula. You'll need a 4WD to negotiate the dirt tracks.


Twin Lakes Cultural Park is on the Dampier Peninsula, 150 kilometres north-west of Broome, on an area of land held by the Manowan Aboriginal Corporation on behalf of Nyul Nyul families. We camped in swags and brought in our own provisions. Food was mostly caught and cooked on a fire. There are no toilet facilities, running water or electricity. See twinlakes.net.au.