Shark Bay Aboriginal cultural experience

Guide Darren 'Capes' Capewell treats a tourist to traditional fare. Photo: Supplied - WA Tourism
Guide Darren 'Capes' Capewell treats a tourist to traditional fare. Photo: Supplied - WA Tourism
Guide Darren 'Capes' Capewell treats a tourist to traditional fare. Photo: Supplied - WA Tourism

Guide Darren 'Capes' Capewell treats a tourist to traditional fare. Photo: Supplied - WA Tourism

Guide Darren 'Capes' Capewell treats a tourist to traditional fare. Photo: Supplied - WA Tourism

Guide Darren 'Capes' Capewell treats a tourist to traditional fare. Photo: Supplied - WA Tourism

Guide Darren 'Capes' Capewell treats a tourist to traditional fare. Photo: Supplied - WA Tourism

Guide Darren 'Capes' Capewell treats a tourist to traditional fare. Photo: Supplied - WA Tourism

Darren "Capes" Capewell is staring out at his land, the rich red earth, the white sand, the clear waters of the Big Lagoon.

"So where's your mob from brother-boy?" he asks, turning to me.

My mob? I'm not even sure. "Scotland, I guess," I reply. "Well – actually right now they're from the Gold Coast."

Capes laughs. "Deadly."

My mob have been in the Gold Coast for about seven years now. Capes' mob, the Nhanda and Malgana people, have been here in Shark Bay, Western Australia, for about 20,000 years.

They're saltwater people, those who learned to survive off the land and the sea, and their culture lives on. "Don't listen to anyone who tells you Aboriginal culture is dying," Capes says. "It's just been dormant. It's been sleeping. But it's waking up now."

And one of the main players shaking it to life is Capes. Born in Carnarvon, a few hours to the north of here, he's been living in Denham most of his life, and runs Wula Guda Nyinda, an ecotour company that passes on local Aboriginal customs to visitors in the area.

Most of those visitors, Capes says, aren't Australians wanting to learn more about Indigenous culture. They're from overseas. "Australians reckon they know about Aboriginal culture already. So it's mostly the foreigners who come out with me."

Right. I have to admit to Capes that, apart from a few days spent in Uluru, this is the first Aboriginal tourism I've done. That's normal, he says. "This'll be good for you."

And so off we go, bumping along a sandy 4WD track that leads out from Denham into Francois Peron National Park, ready for a day of kayaking in shimmering blue waters. Capes jokes that we'll get to eat turtle today. "Proper blackfella tucker," he laughs. "I'll catch us one."

Does the government regulate how many turtles his people are allowed to catch?

"Brother," Capes says, "we've been regulating ourselves for 20,000 years. We don't need a government to tell us how to do it."

Fair enough. Later in the day, while us tourists pause on the shore of the lagoon to rest shoulders weary from paddling, Capes jumps in a kayak and glides out, sitting on his knees, scanning the water.

We're all watching with mild interest, not sure what's going on, when Capes launches himself into the water, disappears for a second, and then emerges brandishing a flapping, fairly unhappy turtle. Said turtle is placed in the kayak and rowed ashore for us to gawk at, before Capes pats it on the back and then sets it free, back into the emerald waters.

We all look at each other. Like the turtle, most of us aren't entirely sure that what just happened, actually happened.

You forget, as an Australian, that this stuff exists. You forget that there's an ancient, unique culture that thrives on our shores, that we're all free to go and experience and learn about.

If you'd asked me a few weeks ago what Aboriginal culture was in Australia I'd have probably mumbled something about dot paintings and didgeridoos. You'd go to the Northern Territory for cultural tourism, but that's where it begins and ends.

The truth is vastly different. Here is a varied culture that thrives. And there are plenty of Aboriginal tour operators happy to share it.

You can learn about rock art up in Cooktown. You can experience the connection to country in the Kimberleys. You can meet elders in the Yorke Peninsula. You can visit a remote community on Bathurst Island, NT.

And you can spend time in Shark Bay with Capes, maybe going on a kayaking trip around Big Lagoon. You can snorkel in the water and hike the red and white dunes – white sand from the sea, red sand blown in from the desert – while learning about Capes' culture.

You can camp out overnight and hear stories over a campfire. You can do a 4WD trip and learn about bush tucker.

It'll make you realise how little most of us have experienced of Aboriginal culture. I've travelled a long way to learn about other indigenous people – in Zimbabwe, in Peru, in Guatemala and Canada. But I've never sought out experiences with Australia's people.

Right now, Capes is back in his kayak and leading us into a small estuary, where more turtles come to take shelter, and small reef sharks flit through the shallows. The sun beats down. The water sparkles.

It's hard to believe this is the same Australia as the laneway bars in Melbourne, or the fine-dining restaurants of Sydney. It's hard to believe this is happening in the same country inhabited by the meter maids and middle classes of my mob's home in the Gold Coast.

But this is all Australia.

This story Shark Bay Aboriginal cultural experience first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.