Deep in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia lies Kandiwal, a stronghold of ancient Aboriginal culture. This community of Wunambal people are descendants of a continuous lineage that extends back approximately 70,000 years ago – but the future of their culture and traditional lifestyle is at risk.

The Kandiwal community, on the remote Mitchell Plateau in the Kimberley, are facing challenges to pass on their ancient traditions and knowledge of Wunambal culture to future generations, and there are fears the culture may be lost. 

The Kandiwal residents are the remnants of what was once a large Wunambal nation inhabiting the Far North Kimberley region, who have returned home to Country after what can only be called government removal.

Throughout 2022 I was lucky enough to live and work on the remote Mitchell Plateau, and during my time in this unique and mesmerising part of the world, I was incredibly fortunate to spend six months in close proximity to the local Aboriginal community at Kandiwal. 



The Mitchell Plateau, where the community is situated, is locally known as Ngauwudu, which roughly translates in language to ‘high land of much water’. I was extremely intrigued by these people and this community, as the mindboggling extended history of the area, along with its epic natural beauty, made me want to learn more and more about the stories of the mysterious Ngauwudu. 

As I spent more time here, I slowly gained more insight into Kandiwal’s story; one of hope, pride, struggle, and determination. Soon I came to hear about the legal hurdles that have been thrown in front of this community and the total lack of support and help that Kandiwal receives. 

It appears that the Australian government has abandoned their educational, training, and social responsibilities to these people.

The fact that Kandiwal community members are still living on their tribal lands and home of Ngauwudu is a massive testament to their determination and commitment to live on country, just as their ancestors have done for tens of thousands of years. 

The other, much easier alternative for them would be to submit to the magnetic pull of the damaged Kimberley towns, just as many other Aboriginal families and groups have done. It’s no secret that these places are full of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and soaring crime rates; where the detrimental effects of disconnection from culture and heritage for Aboriginal people are stark and painfully obvious.

In contrast, the Kandiwal community is a safe haven for the Wunambal people, deep in the bush and far away from the dysfunction of the Kimberley towns.


The Mitchell Plateau

Ngauwudu / Mitchell Plateau is one of the most remote areas in the Kimberley that’s accessible by road. It’s over 250km to travel to the closest store to buy milk or bread. 

The area is well known for the incredible Punamii Uunpu / Mitchell Falls a four-tiered waterfall cascading 80m down a sandstone range, which could very possibly be the eighth wonder of the world. This powerful place is home to the north Kimberley’s most powerful Wunggurr or Rainbow Serpent, who’s believed to live in the largest pool of the falls.

The area receives the highest annual rainfall in the state, averaging 1400mm per year and is also the only place in Australia that hasn’t had a species go extinct since European settlement

Throughout Ngauwudu, there are numerous truly sacred Indigenous rock art sites, some of which date back 30-40,000 years old. This rock art depicts Dreamtime stories and lessons in cultural law, and the images have been instrumental in passing on Wunambal culture to countless generations in the area.

This part of the Kimberley attracts huge numbers of intrepid travellers every year, where people come to soak in the humbling power and enormity of Punamii Uunpu and the extremely remote surroundings of the plateau. 

This is truly a spectacular part of the world with both extreme cultural and ecological significance and is a place worthy of World Heritage status, or at least, some support from the government departments and corporations who’re meant to be representing the land and its people. Instead, it seems that Kandiwal has been left out on a limb.

A Brief History of Kandiwal

The Wunambal tribe have been present in the region for thousands of generations, but it wasn’t until the first contact with European Australians in the 1920s that their undisturbed and traditional lifestyles came to an end.



With the arrival of missionaries in the mid-1930s, the Wunambal people were slowly persuaded and coerced to become dependent on government rations that were issued through church missions and government stations. Over the years many families were moved into missions dotted throughout the Kimberley, namely Kunmunya, Wotjulum, and Mowanjum. These places were on foreign soil from a Wunambal perspective and were far away from their spiritual and tribal home at Ngauwudu

I had the privilege to sit down with Patricia Goonack, Kandiwal’s eldest member, who’s been living in the community since its inception in 1987. 

‘The old people wanted to get their country back,’ she said. 



The ‘old people’ being the Wunambal Elders who have since passed on. They were the four brothers that had significant influence in setting up the Kandiwal community and lobbying the state government to secure Kandiwal’s native title. 

She explained that by the mid-1950s, the majority of the Wunambal tribe had ended up in the Mowanjum mission near Derby, and by that point, the tribal Elders were determined to take their families back home to Ngauwudu and the Mitchell Plateau.

This dream held by the four brothers of returning home to Ngauwudu was finally realised with the beginning of the establishment of the Kandiwal community in 1987. Wilfred Goonack, Alan Balngu, Laurie Uttemorrah, and William Bunjuk all held fiercely to this dream for nearly 30 years. The fact that these people made it back to their home of Ngauwudu reflects their knowledge, love, and connection to their tribal lands and country and is a story worthy of being revered in wider Australian culture.

Chris Brown, or ‘Browny’ has been a tour guide in the area since the 1980s and worked closely with the community for years as their corporation manager and community advisor. He knew most of those Wunambal Elders personally.

‘The old men wanted their children, their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s children to be back on Country… Not to be in a place like Derby or Broome. These towns are poison to bush people, and kids don’t have the upbringing they deserve in places like that. There’s crime, there’s drug addiction and alcoholism,’ Browny told me. 

Cathy Goonack explained to me what the kids get up to around Kandiwal.

‘They’re in the bush. They go hunting, fishing, they do anything around here you know. It’s quiet and peaceful,’ she said.

However, during the Traditional Owner’s absence from Ngauwudu throughout the mid-1900s, numerous mining companies took the opportunity to explore the area for bauxite – a mineral that’s extracted and refined to make aluminium. Miners set up a camp where Kandiwal is presently located today and used strip mining techniques to explore the entire Mitchell Plateau for minerals. Strip mining is an extremely damaging process to the environment, and the result of exploration has considerable devastation to the land. Evidence of grid patterns completely void of any vegetation criss-cross the whole area and can still be seen clearly today, 70 years later. 

It’s inconceivable to think that they wanted to rip up the entire Mitchell Plateau, which would have certainly caused the whole area to become barren. Once the mining tenements were finally revoked by the state government in 2012, it allowed the complete possession of the Nguauwudu area by the Traditional Owners through the Native Title Act, but this means little if the Traditional Owners cannot get the infrastructural support they need to continue to inhabit their traditional lands. 

The mining company at the Mitchell Plateau had promised Kandiwal that the exploration camp would be handed over complete with buildings, accommodations and some vehicles that would help to establish a permanent community. There was a change of heart by the company and all the dongas and infrastructure were auctioned away in Derby, leaving the Wunambal people with concrete slabs to come home to.

Voicing Community Concerns

Throughout the conversations that I had with Elder Kandiwal community members, it became very clear that these people are extremely concerned about the loss of knowledge of their ancient culture. There are several contributing factors that are limiting Kandiwal’s growth as a community and it’s imperative that we find a way to get these people the support that’s deserved and to help make the changes that are needed to preserve this precious Indigenous heritage.

There are only around 30 people who live in the community permanently, however, there’s a community aspiration to have 170 Aboriginal people living at Kandiwal, back on their tribal country. This could be possible if Kandiwal received its allocated funding from the government, as a community development strategy was designed by the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage way back in 2010. However, since then, nothing has changed and this has instead turned into a neglected community dream. 

A damaged solar system needs to be fixed, the septic system needs to be upgraded, and funding for additional housing is needed before Kandiwal is able to bring the rest of their family back home to Ngauwudu

Cathy explained to me why the community needed government funding and additional housing. 

‘We’re trying to get families back on country to help our next generation know their culture, so they can learn that, and pass it on to the next generation and the next one. So our tradition won’t fade away,’ she said. 


In that moment I realised that this is about the preservation of the oldest continuous culture on the planet.

Jeremy Cowan is one of the last people to still know the Wunambal language, traditional songlines, and Dreamtime stories and he openly expressed his concerns to me. 

‘I want to share my knowledge with the kids, teach them how to sing corroborees and all that and show them what I have learnt from my grandparents. Now that our grandparents aren’t here, I’m the one who must be a teacher for the kids, showing them the art sites and things,’ he told me. 

Jeremy has mentioned he wants to move back to Kandiwal, but he’s not able to due to the lack of housing in the community. He’s an essential figure to pass Wunambal culture, language, and knowledge on to the children, but currently, there are no employment opportunities for him on Ngauwudu. If funding was secured it’s possible that he could be employed as a cultural teacher at the Kandiwal school where he could teach the Wunambal culture to the young ones. 

‘We wanted to have the school up here for the kids to grow up in, because a lot of bad things are going on in town with drinking and smoking,’ Pat said.

During my conversation with Pat, she explained that the community doesn’t receive any financial support from the government, and instead the community has had to pay to educate their children out of their own pockets. 

‘We have to pay the schoolteachers to stay here with our own money, with the community money,’ she told me.

Presently none of the community members can speak their native language, and instead, these bush kids are being forced to learn Indonesian as the alternative language in the current school curriculum model, rather than their own culture and traditional language.



‘Here’s this little struggling school that’s scratching around for funding and being run on a shoestring, when there should be Traditional Owners here teaching the young people their own language, their own stories, their own country. Not talking about elephants from Africa or European history or learning Indonesian, I can’t believe it,’ Chris Brown said. 

‘That’s not what Aboriginal children in their own country should be learning…Why should you learn a foreign language, when you could be learning your own language and your own identity? That’s what is going to be more important to these people.’ 

The government decided not to proceed with funding for the school and instead consolidated a School of the Air (SOTA) education service, which is a questionable education model for a remote Indigenous community. Kandiwal’s school tutor, Paula MacDonald, often spoken to me about the shortcomings of remote online learning. 

‘Each child has their own laptop and their teachers teach online from Derby, and I facilitate their offline learning. I find this difficult with the kids,’ Paula said.



‘They’re hands-on, they’re bush kids. So to sit them in a room in front of a laptop doesn’t quite work at times. I mean they do well, but it’s not the model that I think would be best for children that are very practical. On country learning is the best way that these kids learn,’ she told me.

Let Down Promises & a Lack of Health Care

The Western Australian Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage created the Kandiwal Layout Plan back in 2010, and pledged to help contribute and ‘support education, job training, health services, work and housing for members’ as well as ‘to help and encourage members to keep and renew their traditional culture’. 

It’s commendable that a community development plan was made for Kandiwal by the WA State Government, but I question the integrity of their promises. It’s been over 12 years since this document was created and since then little has changed for this community. What I observed during my short six months on the Mitchell Plateau is a small and determined remote Indigenous community that’s been struggling to stay on country due to a lack of funding and support from the organisations and corporations that are meant to be representing them. 

Kandiwal is located 518km from Kununurra, the nearest Kimberley town that has a hospital and medical services. The journey is across unsealed, extremely corrugated, and unforgiving dirt roads. 

‘We are very remote and we don’t have any doctors, or clinics around here,’ says Jazzlyn, a Wunambal woman of 22.

She shared with me her concerns about the lack of basic healthcare up on the plateau. During the time I was living on Ngauwudu, there were several emergency health scares in the community and surrounding areas that resulted in Royal Flying Doctor Service retrieval and transfer back to the hospital in Broome. 

The very real and present danger of venomous snakes in the area, as well as pre-existing medical conditions that are present in the community, along with a complete lack of health services at Kandiwal, all contribute to an underlying concern for the health of the population. 

Kandiwal is supposed to receive healthcare support from the Derby Aboriginal Health Service every six weeks, but the community seems to have dropped completely off the radar despite being listed with this government department. 



Paula is concerned about the lack of basic healthcare available to the community.


‘Simple things like immunisations, anything for the younger children, like dentists. I’ve lived here for a year and a half and haven’t seen a dentist or doctor up here,’ she said. 

Having a health clinic up on the Mitchell Plateau would enable families to stay at Kandiwal year-round and receive basic health support as needed. 

The Preservation of an Ancient Culture

‘We know for a fact that Aboriginal people, Australia-wide, were the first groups to come to this country around 70,000 years ago, and one of the main entries into Australia was this very area right here (Mitchell Plateau),’ said Chris Brown.  

‘This is a very ancient land and a very ancient lineage of people who have been custodians for this country, and now the young people growing up here need to have the best possibility, and the best opportunity to carry on what people have been doing here for tens of thousands of years, literally,’ he said.

Traditional Owners are fighting through red tape and are up against an unfair system in the struggle to pass on their culture to future generations of Wunambal people. The Kandiwal community expressed to me their concerns that their heritage is at a true and impending risk of being completely lost to a rapidly changing and fast-paced world. 

Without any support, more and more young Aboriginal children will be poorly educated, and the opportunities for them to be gainfully employed, on country, in the remote tourism industry of Kimberley, may be lost in another generation or two. 

This is only one example of a wider problem that’s affecting many Indigenous communities Australia-wide. In what’s one of the most remote locations in Australia, the Kandiwal community need well-deserved help and support to continue to live on their ancestral lands and tribal country; to upgrade housing and infrastructure in the community, bring families back home to Ngauwudu, to employ cultural teachers in the school, and to teach and pass on Wunambal culture to the next generation. 


If anyone wants to assist Kandiwal in their endeavours to upgrade housing infrastructure and school facilities, please get in touch via email to