Each year, a tiny outback town comes alive when Indigenous Australians gather to perform a rare traditional ceremony that’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for lucky visitors.
By Leah McLennan
Mowanjum is one of the most remote Aboriginal towns in Australia, and every July it is lit up with a sacred corroboree – an ancient ceremony performed by Aboriginal Australians, which involves songs and dances that can go on well into the night.
This is not a watered-down show for tourists. Here in this tiny community in Western Australia, Aboriginal traditions run deep. A trip to Mowanjum not only gives you the unique opportunity to witness the world’s oldest living culture; it’s also a chance to immerse yourself in the Kimberley, one of the world’s last true wildernesses. It really is an incomparable experience.
Small town, big corroboree
Mowanjum corroboree – one of the largest gatherings of Aboriginal Australians in the nation – sees the town’s population swell well beyond its normal 300-400 people, with about 1500 visitors, families of participants and some 200 performers making their way there for the ceremony. Corroborees are an important component of Aboriginal culture, used to pass traditions down through generations. But the Mowanjum Festival is also a great excuse for a local reunion, with Aboriginal people from across the Kimberley using the event as an opportunity to come together for an annual catch-up. You’ll see plenty of emotional reunions and happy smiles as friends from near and far come together for this special event.
Learning from Aboriginal artists
While the corroboree starts at around 6pm, other festival events will take place from about 2pm. In previous years you could create your own ochre painting to take home, take a workshop on traditional bush medicine, or learn how to carve the nuts of the boab tree, one of the region’s native plants. Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre, which has a reputation for producing outstanding traditional art, will also be open throughout the afternoon. You can look through the gallery, purchase paintings and hand-carved boab nuts, and even watch a film about the Mowanjum people to get an idea of local Aboriginal heritage before the day’s main event.
Come sunset, it will be time for the main event, when some 200 ochre-painted adults and kids will emerge onto a semicircular performance space from behind painted screens. Under a blanket of stars, they’ll sing, dance up a storm and play traditional instruments, including the didgeridoo and clap sticks. But the most moving aspect of the three-hour corroboree, according to many, is witnessing the passing of culture from grey-haired elders to the youngsters.
Call of the Kimberley
Experiencing Mowanjum Festival is all the more special for its setting in the Kimberley region. Roughly three times the size of England, this massive chunk of north-western Australia offers culture, adventure and majestic scenery. Geographically, the Kimberley stretches from the outback beach town of Broome in the west, to the Northern Territory border in the east. Mowanjum community is near Derby (three hours from Broome) on the Gibb River Road, a 660km (410 mile) former cattle route that runs through the heart of the Kimberley.
While in town, don’t miss the “prison tree”, a large hollow boab just south of Derby. For something different, explore Bungarun, the old Derby leprosarium, on a day tour. For an epic 4WD adventure, head down the Gibb River Road to Tunnel Creek, with its myriad freshwater crocodiles. One Kimberley attraction not to miss is the Horizontal Falls, described as “Australia’s most unusual natural wonder”. Several operators offer trips to the “waterfalls”, which are accessible by seaplane or boat.
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