The wonders and miracles of Ningaloo

Back when distant travel was on my radar I never even thought of visiting Ningaloo, on the northwest edge of Australia. Now that I’ve connected with what master storyteller Tim Winton has to say about it, I regret that oversight.

Winton’s new television series about this astonishing place touches on everything that is important to our lives today. Delivered in his trademark simple, direct language, it uncovers deep truths about the human story.

What inspires his insight is, like Tasmania’s wild places, a treasure of nature. In Winton’s promotional spiel, wondrous Ningaloo “offers lessons in the present and choices about the future, not just here but for all our wild places”.

World Heritage protection was given to the extremities of this corner of the continent, encompassing Ningaloo Reef and Cape Range. But mining pressure denied that protection to the unique ecologies of Exmouth Gulf, the vital third link in the chain, and the equally astonishing, sea-fed Lake Macleod to the south. 

The first two episodes have focused on these places and their living inhabitants, and there’s an abundance of raw material. As Winton says, “the deeper you dive into [Ningaloo’s] secrets and wonders, the more there is to learn and share and celebrate”.

We know from tourism publicity that Ningaloo is an exceptional location, perhaps the world’s best, for seeing marine megafauna up close. We see humpbacks breaching, orcas hunting whale calves, giant manta rays and whale sharks being groomed – rare glimpses of wild nature in a world fast falling captive to human demands.

Winton’s investigation goes well beyond Ningaloo’s spectacular megafauna. He takes the trouble to explore the region’s ecologies, connections between myriad plant and smaller animal species including shore birds, mangroves, blind cave fish and copepods, not to mention cyanobacteria and the ecological significance of an emu diet.

And humans. This is where the Ningaloo story gets really interesting. 

Winton weaves into his narrative an account of an archaeological dig at a Cape Range rock shelter. Opponents of local Aboriginal land rights had argued that the land was abandoned by Indigenous people before Europeans arrived in Australia, a fallacy exposed by fragments of recent origin found near the surface of the shelter’s midden. 

“How must that feel?” asks Winton. “Having been starved off country, used as free labour, stolen as a kid, dragged off to reserves and missions, to be told, ‘you were never here’?” 

There is no trace of rancour in the face of local elder Hazel Walgar as she recounts in that rock shelter her people’s life on country and their varied diet, including the eggs and on special occasions the flesh of the emu, one of their totem species – “our creator”.

We have long underestimated the depth and power of Aboriginal integration with the land and its ecology. Deep knowledge of country underpinned their whole existence. They knew their place on the land, never taking more than just enough. To be master of the land, as Winton points out, is also to be its servant.

Wildness, says Winton, is when an ecosystem is “living its best life… able to be itself, to conduct its business, to yearn for increase, to go in all directions rather than to be constrained”. And with humans on board. Nature without humans is nonsense to traditional owners. We are within nature, and we move against it at our grave peril. 

Nightfall at the end of the series’ second episode sees Winton looking at “a signal of clear and present danger” – the flames of gas flares on the horizon. 

“Ningaloo is surrounded by the fossil fuel industry,” he says. “The rigs are just out beyond the World Heritage area. The corporations that own them want to keep drilling for decades to come… These flames are burning the past, and cooking our future. The choice before us could not be any clearer. It’s life or death for Ningaloo, and for every wild place, and every human community, on Earth.”

Ningaloo is unique, yet every Australian state and territory has its own versions, its own special places. The scale of damage done to these places for short-term gain, whether by drilling or mining or clearing old forest – “conquering” nature – is nothing short of criminal. 

Rising numbers of European Australians are feeling real fear and despair at what is being done to the planet. For us, politicians’ moves to criminalise public protest against that desecration is like sanctioning mass murder. It is a grotesque violation of trust, their duty of care to land and nature – a nature that must include us.

Ningaloo-Nyinggulu concludes tonight on ABC2.

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