A Nyikina man, Mark Coles Smith, and his fellow travellers began their 400km journey down the mighty Martuwarra (Fitzroy River) on a flood plain covered in giant spiders.
“Bird-sized” spiders were clinging to the canopy, jostling for space on branches protruding above flood water that stretched for kilometres in every direction.
“The first day through the flood plains, I was just totally tense, travelling through these huge corridors of giant spiderwebs, where the spiders could see you coming, and they weren’t happy about it either,” Coles Smith says, laughing.
Two days of that, he says, became a form of “arachnid exposure therapy”. Each morning when they paddled out, the raft was soon covered in them.
“We had some really big, hairy huntsmen crawling all over the raft and they ended up being the easiest to scoot on to a paddle and put on a branch. It got to the point where I was just picking them up with my hand and putting them on the tree.
“I got used to having these giant arachnids crawling up over my neck and on to my helmet, or down my arm while I was rowing. I just learned to accept it because I didn’t have a choice.”
The spiders were just the start for Coles Smith, an actor, writer and musician, who is from the river country. His mother, Dr Anne Poelina, is chair of the Martuwarra Fitzroy River council of traditional owners.
The 700km-long Fitzroy River is nationally heritage-listed for its environmental and cultural values, and the largest registered Aboriginal cultural heritage site in Western Australia. It is an ancestral being for all the traditional owner groups who belong to the river and its systems, including the Ngarinyin, Warrwa, Bunuba, Gooniyandi, Walmajarri, Mangala and Nyikina peoples.
In its wettest years it can carry 50 times the water of Sydney Harbour, sending 23,000 cubic metres each second over the bridge at Fitzroy Crossing.
2021 turned out to be one of its wettest years.
“There was a sense this journey was just continuing to level up,” Coles Smith says. “You could feel it early on, witnessing and participating in the energy of the river growing. On top of that, the weather system was continuing to brew … so that by five days in, we were under solid monsoonal rain clouds from horizon to horizon, and the big electrical storms were beginning.”
Coles Smith says the lightning arrived as they passed through Ngarinyin country in the east Kimberley.
“This is Wandjina country,” he says. “This is the country for the great Wandjina creator beings, the sky beings, and the rain, and the rain spirits. It’s an experience that’s hard to put into words, hearing and feeling that country.
“I think a lot about what language could be used to express a sense of the sacred, because you can feel it there. It’s not questionable. It’s undeniable. It’s really humbling, in a beautiful way, to be a little person with other little people, following the river further and further down into the flood.”
The rain “came in sideways” in the evenings, after tents were pitched far enough from the riverbank to be safe from flash flooding. But the voyagers were wet, day and night. It took two days to climb out of a rapidly flooding Sir John Gorge, which involved a 12km trek through “black mud and waist-deep creeks” and pushed them to exhaustion.
“The river deserves our respect, and all the traditional owners from the Martuwarra want fellow Australians and other people across the planet to recognise the global significance of the Fitzroy, and come and share and experience the amount of life, and the amount of spirit there,” Coles Smith says.
“It’s not until you’re on that river that you feel you’re a part of that environment. You realise you’re just a small part, but as human beings we have the danger of having such a big impact.
“The management of our river country should be led by the people who have cared for and shared the river since the beginning of time. We need to work together to protect the values of this biodiverse cultural landscape. The Fitzroy belongs to every Australian and, as the largest cultural heritage site, it belongs to the world.
“It’s not just future generations who have the right to a healthy river system, it’s the other life that is already living there, right now, which is so often not a part of the dialogue, because human interests are so narrow.”
Last year the WA government signed off on a national park along the river, extending the Danggu Geikie Gorge national park north to Dimond Gorge, an area spanning 173,000 hectares. The park will be jointly managed by the Bunuba Dawangarri Aboriginal Corporation and the state Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions.
But traditional owners say the river remains under threat from development. The WA government is considering whether to open it up to big agriculture and irrigation projects. Traditional owners say any decisions must be based on their informed consent, acknowledging their rights – and the rights of the river itself.
Poelina explains: “I say I am a woman who belongs to the river. That’s not a property right, that’s a law of obligation to protect our sacred ancestor’s rights to flow as a beautiful, living water system.”
She says there is a difference in the way Indigenous and non-Indigenous people understand the river’s value.
“We don’t talk about cultural flows, we talk about living water systems and the connectivity between freshwater and saltwater, so it’s a very deep relationship over multiple generations. My family are from the Fitzroy River and we’ve always been here, living with it, crying with it, loving it and sharing it.”
Traditional owners watched closely when, in 2017, the Whanganui River in Aotearoa (New Zealand) was granted personhood by an act of parliament, the first river in the world to be recognised as an indivisible and living being. Poelina’s research takes that idea even further – extending the legal protections of the Fitzroy to recognise its authority as a living ancestral being.
“My work has taken me into starting a conversation around the emergence of ancestral personhood, recognising that this is an ancestor that we have been living with from the beginning of time,” she says. “Everything is place-based because the river country and living waters are alive, they hold memory as part of that cultural and genetic landscape.
“This relationship recognises the ancestral serpent beings as the creator of our law. We have one law for the whole of the Fitzroy River in which all of the nations come together as one society, one ceremony, one songline. And we stand in unity to protect the river.”
Poelina says this relationship goes beyond discussions about water allocations, trading, markets and licences.
“As Aboriginal people we do not separate land, water and people,” she says. “The government’s perception – that for Aboriginal people to transition from poverty to wealth creation they need to get into the water market so we will give them allocations of water – this sounds all very interesting. Senior Walmajarri elder Mr Brown asks, ‘How can governments think they own the river? They’ve never been born alongside the river, we own the river. If they drain the water, it will kill the culture.’”
Late last year the McGowan government released a discussion paper on a water allocation management plan for the Fitzroy River which said it recognised the need to both protect the river and “support pathways for people to pursue economic development opportunities across the Fitzroy River catchment”.
It put forward two options: only allowing for the extraction of groundwater, capped at 108.5 gigalitres a year with restrictions on pumping from the alluvial and Devonian Reef aquifers; or allowing for both groundwater and surface water to be extracted, with the groundwater limit to remain at 108.5GL a year and surface water extraction capped at 300GL, released in stages, and with 90GL held in an Aboriginal water reserve.
Submissions on the discussion paper are open until August.
Poelina says the Martuwarra Fitzroy River council has spent the past 18 months researching and developing a conservation and management plan for the Fitzroy River catchment estate as part of its submission.
“From a customary law and governance perspective we’re saying this system is fully allocated to the river, it’s fully allocated to the environment, and it’s fully allocated for all our living systems.
“If you want to do any development in the Fitzroy River catchment, show us your science, let us peer review it, show us that you’re not going to create any foreseeable harm, and then we can negotiate in good faith and determine just development on just terms.
“It needs to be within boundaries that are going to sustain our livelihoods, our economies, and our spiritual and cultural identity and wellbeing.”