‘This place is a gem’: in remote Australia, a cultural festival thousands of years in the making

<span>The Jamba Nyinayi festival in Western Australia represents a homecoming of sorts for the Baiyungu people, who own and run the two-night cultural camping event.</span><span>Photograph: Violeta J Brosig/Blue Media Exmouth</span>
The Jamba Nyinayi festival in Western Australia represents a homecoming of sorts for the Baiyungu people, who own and run the two-night cultural camping event.Photograph: Violeta J Brosig/Blue Media Exmouth

Our tyres crunch on the dusty gravel driveway as we reach the edge of Cardabia Station. Peering out across its vast salt flats, Hazel Walgar falls silent, drinking in the beauty before our eyes. “Look at it … I’ve never seen it like this before,” says Walgar, a Baiyungu traditional owner who grew up on Gunjayindiya, as the station is also known.

“Wow, I’ve got shivers!” Walgar’s granddaughter Relisha Dingo chimes in from the driver’s seat.

“We were taken off this land but now we’re home,” Walgar continues. “I want to show people how special this place is.”

As the cultural director of Jamba Nyinayi festival, Walgar is taking me on a drive across the sprawling 2,000-sq-km station before the main event kicks off. About a kilometre in the distance, the festival village glimmers like a mirage in the stifling mid-afternoon heat. A huddle of tents and campervans stretch out across the blush-pink dirt and the rollicking thump of the sound check reverberates over the salt flats and out across the Ningaloo coast.

Later in the evening, a lineup of acclaimed Indigenous artists will perform under the stars, including legendary songwriter Stephen Pigram, blues and gospel singer Kankawa Nagarra and composer and playwright David Milroy. For now, festivalgoers are embracing Jamba Nyinayi’s catch cry, “rest awhile” – meandering between the beach and the station, and drinking cups of tea around the cooling embers of the campfire.

Jamba Nyinayi represents a homecoming of sorts for the Baiyungu people, who own and run the two-night cultural camping festival. For tens of thousands of years, Gunjayindiya was a meeting place for neighbouring language groups and the festival sees the station return to its ancient roots.

Established in 2023 to coincide with the Dark Sky festival at the total solar eclipse, this now annual event also marks an important step for the Baiyungu people in establishing their own self-sustaining cultural tourism offerings.

“We sit on the doorstep of tourism,” says Walgar, who has grand plans to build Jamba Nyinayi into a keystone annual event, as well as launching Indigenous-led whale shark swims, cultural camping in the Cape Range national park and astronomy tours.

It’s been a long, arduous journey to get to this point. Walgar was taken to Carnarvon Mission at the age of six, where she was beaten if she dared to speak her language. In 1998 the Baiyungu Aboriginal Corporation bought Cardabia Station back and in 2020 a historic Indigenous land use agreement gave Baiyungu and Thalanyji traditional owners the right to care for approximately 388,000 hectares of the Ningaloo coast.

“Here we are today, walking in the footsteps of our old people and looking after Ningaloo,” she says. “This place is a gem and no one will ever take it from us.”

Walgar worked closely with the festival director, David Chitty, more than 50 Baiyungu staff and performers, and many volunteers to present this year’s event. On the eve of the festival, the campfire sessions bring the 450 odd campers together for an intimate evening of music and storytelling, while feasting on traditional bush foods such as slow-cooked kangaroo and quandong braise.

The evening and the festival at large is MC’d by the cheeky and gregarious Ernie Dingo. A Yamatji man from the Murchison region of WA, Dingo is connected to the festival through myriad family ties: Walgar’s husband, Gavin, is his cousin, as is musician Fred Ryan.

“There are so many avenues of beauty to discover here,” Dingo tells me the next morning over a cuppa. “Souls just radiate in every direction of love, life, country, lore and language. It’s like a disco ball reflecting the light. It’s beautiful to watch.”

After breakfast and a cooling dip at Bills Bay, I head for the cultural workshops. I coyly watch from the sidelines at rapper Razzy Mac’s hip-hop workshop and swoosh my toes in the red dirt at a choreography workshop with Janine Oxenham. In the old shearing shed, Walmatjarri elder Kankawa Nagarra’s yearning, soulful drawl soars high above its rusted, timeworn walls.

At last year’s festival, Walgar instantly recognised Nagarra: she was Walgar’s “mission mum” at Carnarvon, offering love and care to six-year-old Walgar, who had been violently removed from her family. They hadn’t seen each other in 45 years.

“Everyone was crying,” Chitty says. “It’s incredible that through the arts and through a festival like this, we can bring people together from different regions who lost one another.”

As the sun starts to set on the festival’s second night, we gather around the main stage eagerly awaiting its finale. It’s a sticky 30C at 5pm and the flies are persisting, but the crowd is in good spirits – swelling to about 1,400 people as more campers and locals join the festivities.

A four-hour lineup of music ensues, filled with so many toe-tapping hits and virtuosic performers, I’m reluctant to leave my seat. But the evening’s most affecting moment comes when Pigram sings his 1997 hit Nowhere Else But Here.

“I like to tell people we’re about as far west as you can get – in this western belly of the land,” he says. There’s a palpable sense of concord among the audience when Pigram sings the song’s final lyric: “If there is one place we’re all free to be, it’s nowhere else but here.”

Dingo enters the stage again and, in a rare sombre moment, asks us to find our ancestors in the stars: “Even the ones we’ve let fade away. The ones who were there 45,000 years ago.”

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Looking up towards the hazy night sky, thick with clouds from a dissipating storm, I can’t see many stars. But it’s impossible not to feel some kind of cosmic presence in this mighty prehistoric land, where the desert meets the sea.

As the revelry concludes and I head back to my tent, something Walgar said earlier comes back to me. “My old people are all gone now,” she said. “But I strongly feel I’m fulfilling their vision for this place. I’ll never stop sharing their stories.”

Jamba Nyinayi festival was held 11-13 April. travelled as a guest of Tourism WA