A warning stops us from driving any further. Overgrown shrub shrouds the narrow, sandy track, and obscures the ‘No Access’ sign from view.
Up at Cape Leveque, almost every camp is full. Its school holidays, and families have travelled from far and wide to the remote, but picturesque peninsula. Escaping the crowd is impossible. Frustrated and curious, we proceed past the sign.
I stop at a rusted red iron gate. Behind the adjacent fence, a pig squeals and scampers off into the thick spinifex grass. It seems visitors aren’t a regular occurrence. Through the scrub, I can see abandoned tin humpies scattered between pindan and pandanus fronds. The place feels eerie.
I leave the car at the gate out of the car and walk warily towards the first shack. I hear the cries of an elderly aboriginal lady. Strangely, she is alone.
“Hello, Auntie,” I say.
The frail woman shuffles towards me, glancing up with intense curiosity.
“I’ll be right to stay here for a bit?” I ask.
“What it’s just you two and the dog?” she says. “Yeah you right. You gotta go down there and see Reggie first though.”
She points me towards a camp in a rocky cove, a boat floundered beside a tent and a makeshift tarpaulin shelter. Six people sit clustered around a fire burning inside an iron drum. They greet us with scepticism.
“Didn’t you see the bloody sign,” a bald Maori man yells.
Mark is not as welcoming as Margaret, but he warms to us with the offer of a cold beer.
Reggie, a kindly old fisherman from Queensland, recovers from the shock of our unannounced arrival and gives us permission to stay on his land.
“Go up there, and you can have that spot to yourselves,” he says, waving us towards another cove a few kilometres up. We have our own private beach.
Most communities in the area are open to cultural tourism, and visitors are an unobtrusive source of income. But Margaret and Reggie are happy to keep their lives simple, and the fish plentiful.
Because of her aboriginality, Margaret was taken away from her parents at the tender age of seven, and sent to live in a dormitory at Beagle Bay. She stayed there until she was 21, when she was trained to be a community nurse.
But a few years ago, she was granted an exclusive Native Title lease on her traditional country. In his younger years, her husband Reggie built almost everything by hand, using mostly recycled materials from outposts scattered around Cape Leveque.
All of Margaret’s close relatives used to stay here, but all have either passed away or moved on.
“Only the tough ones stay out bush, darling,” Margaret mutters.