7 – 10 June
Because of friends we made at the Pilbara, we decided to overnight in Fitzroy Crossing rather than just visiting on a whirlwind day visit from a free camp up the road. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the Kimberley for us!
We arrived on a Friday afternoon and were greeted really warmly by the two Aboriginal women who run the visitors centre (the first time we’d seen this on our trip!). Joleen who had booked us the tour of Tunnel Creek shook my hand when she realized I was Joanne, and they were both tickled pink that Otto could recognize Tunnel Creek when he saw it on a promo video.
Otto had noticed the library in the room next door and was pestering me to take him there. I explained it was closed so we couldn’t go there – but then Joleen offered to open it up for him! So we were immediately taken with Fitzroy Crossing just from this warm welcome.
We made our way to Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency and again, were warmly welcomed this time by a woman who originally hailed from Melbourne. She explained how the centre was set up, that the artists don’t work on Fridays so the studio was empty, turned on a DVD for the kids about an old desert man returning to a waterhole he is the custodian of with his family and performing a dance there – it was all in his language and was amazing to say the least. Unlike Mowanjum, there is no gallery space here so all the canvases are stacked up against the walls, on tables and you just take your time going through them all. I’ve now been there three times and haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of looking at all the paintings available to buy!
I read the biographies of some of the artists and some of the older ones remember walking out of the desert when they were kids. These women are called ‘first contact’ people and it’s rare to meet them these days. The woman also explained it’s the two tribes of desert people who have been the driver of many of the initiatives in Fitzroy Crossing because they felt they had so much to learn – needing to learn English, how this new culture worked etc. So they set up the language centre which is now the Adult Education Centre, the local radio, the arts cooperative (owned and managed by the artists themselves).
I wanted to see the artists working so was keen to extend our stay through to Monday morning….
We met up with our friends Em and Tom for a BBQ and stayed at the caravan park as it’s really beautiful. The Fitzroy River Lodge is owned by the Aboriginal community and is on the banks of the Fitzroy with lush green grass, lots of shade and nice amenities. It was such a nice, relaxing day we chose not to rush off to Geike Gorge but just chatted and Hugo got to challenge Tom to another game of Chinese Checkers.
That night we watched a beautiful sunset over the river and then forced ourselves out of our lethargy to eat our left over snags while watching the local footy match under lights and took the kids to the fun fair which was in town (and handily located at the footy oval!). It was a night to remember. There was a small crowd watching the match and a handful of people at the fun fair and other than the fair/ride operators we were about one of two white families we saw the whole night. It was the first time I was the minority while in Australia and it was a nice feeling to be a minority among a big group of Aboriginal people.
The kids had a great time and had their very first go on dodgem cars that were completely dodgy. Poor Isobel got the slowest car! And the longest jumping castle time ever that required at least 3 stops for water for each child!
Next day we went out fishing with our friends at a beautiful spot on the Fitzroy. They had borrowed 2 kayaks so Simon took Hugo and Isobel out on a kayak and had a go at catching us some barra. Then all the kids and Simon got to go out on Em’s brother’s tinnie! How lucky are we? Tom caught a good-sized barra and kindly gave it to us as we weren’t going to be staying there like he is. It was absolutely delicious! Thanks Tom.
Em’s brother is as generous as she is, and offered us to borrow his kayak so we could come back the next day and camp. So we did! He even gave us a hand line and suggested we put a hunk of meat on it to see if we could catch ourselves a croc. We didn’t try.
On Monday I went back to Mangkaja on my own and watched the women paint and was very disciplined and didn’t buy anything – I’ll buy one or two of Rosie Tarco’s painting when we’re back in Brisbane with an income coming in!
The following morning I ran into the shops and thought that one of the older women sitting down on the footpath was Rosie, one of my favourite painters. So I stopped and talked (well tried to talk) but I had a lot of trouble understanding the kriol she speaks. But I told Rosie that I love her painting and helped her up. Then I discovered the woman with her was Nada Rawlins – another of my favourite artists! I couldn’t wipe the grin off myself after I left these women. Both of them can remember walking out from the desert as girls.
We had showers, washed our vomit-strewn linen and clothes (Otto had been sick the night before) and left Hugo and Isobel with Em while we did the errands that needed to be done. When we got back Em had prepared lunch and packed us off with a cake for Hugo’s birthday (a surprise for him), some healthy, homemade biscuits, her own homemade pesto and some fresh basil and chillies! She is so warm and generous. We missed seeing Tom by about 45 minutes but we’d been in Fitzroy Crossing so long we couldn’t really delay our departure any later.
So Tom and Em’s warmth and hospitality, combined with the amazing, vibrant art of Mangkaja, the fun fair and footy and barra fishing were the reasons we had such a great time here and it’s one of our favourite places in the Kimberley! For most travellers it’s an overnighter at best but boy, they miss out on a vibrant, welcoming town where the majority of the people are Aboriginal and represent one of four different language groups. It’s got us thinking about how we could live and work in a place like this for a while…