During WA’s resources boom the Pilbara was known for three things – mining, Red Dog and the beating sun. The remarkable landscape barely rated a mention.
Ask anyone during Western Australia’s resources boom in the 2000s to describe the Pilbara and three themes would often come to the fore – mining, Red Dog and the beating sun.
And while the region has long benefited from those venturing to Karijini and the Kimberley, the fledgling organised tourism experience revolved around a handful of industry tours and boat charters.
Then, in 2013 a young diesel mechanic who had plied his trade at Woodside’s Karratha gas plant and Rio Tinto’s Dampier operations, made an important decision.
Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi man Clinton Walker had seen tourists wandering around Murujuga’s Ngajarli (Deep Gorge) wondering where all the petroglyphs were – they were told this was the world’s largest rock art gallery.
The rock carvings were there but many would mistakenly look for ochre paintings synonymous with the Kimberley.
Already fuelled with a desire to turn sharing culture into a career, that moment in Ngajarli proved the catalyst for Mr Walker to change course.
A quote from a 2014 travel article a year after founding Ngurrangga Tours gives insight into Mr Walker’s motivation at the time.
“A lot of people have it in their mind that the Pilbara is a mining hub, they don’t think of it as a tourist destination, with beauty and spectacular scenery,” he said.
“My job is to prove them wrong because I have been going to these spectacular sights all my life.”
A blank canvass
Mr Walker said starting a business in an industry which was close to non-existent in the region was daunting.
He was confident leading tours on Ngurra (country), but admits he was flying by the seat of his pants when it came to running a business.
“It was tough but luckily I didn’t start out alone,” Mr Walker said.
“Myself, my sister, Cherylea, and my school friend, Jolleen Hicks, were two years into a business and the tourism was something I really wanted to create and offer people.
“It was so good having the three of us there where we could bounce ideas off of each other.”
Ngurrangga Tours proved to be the cultural brush Pilbara’s tourism canvass needed and quickly morphed into Karratha’s marquee destination product.
Within three years, Mr Walker amassed one of the largest social media followings in the region by showcasing the remarkable landscapes his tours took people to.
Awards followed quickly – from local chamber gongs to 2021, when he was inducted into the WA Tourism Hall of Fame.
Changing hearts and minds
That big award marked an important mindset shift.
In an interview following his award win, Mr Walker admitted he had rarely sung his own praises.
He was candid too about battles with depression and anxiety.
Despite his success there had been times of self-doubt, times when going back to mining seemed an easy way out of a hole, and others where gripes about lacking support boiled to the surface.
“I have found it happens every few years and it is when I get burnt out or I get some financial hardships or there’s something happening, like COVID,” he said.
“What I found has gotten me through, it is reaching out and speaking to other business people, other family, getting that support network around you and not shouldering all that myself.
“In just speaking about things like that people see I am struggling, and it is not all roses – I want people to see that.”
Today, Mr Walker, with his partner Lucy and baby boy Atreus by his side, is a man who finally appears at peace.
He knows how valuable Ngurrangga Tours has been in changing the perception of the Pilbara as a dusty mining hub, and how powerful it is as an employment vehicle for traditional owners.
“We are well established, people know about the business and come here to come on tours from around the world, which is great,” Mr Walker said.
“I have that support from big industry as well where they are getting employees to come on tours and cultural awareness, which helps to keep us afloat.”
The next goal
Ngurrangga Tours now counts four guides on its books alongside a small administrative staff.
Among those guides is Mr Walker’s 21-year-old nephew, Elijah.
“He loves it because he gets to live his culture 24/7, he is out on country all the time and gets to share it with people,” he said.
“That’s one of the big highlights for me is having an opportunity for our young people rather than going out and mining, which is great to get a trade and everything but eventually it gets tiring.”
Asked what drives him now that he has achieved much of what he set out to do, Mr Walker does not hesitate.
“It is always going to be the culture, promoting and protecting our country here,” he said.
“We have the world’s largest art gallery right here on our doorstep and that is the most important thing – that is my heritage, it is where my family is from, it is the legacy they left for us, so if we can continue to teach people about that and grow the industry around it, that is my ultimate goal.”
And for those young dreamers in the same position he was in 10 years ago, he said passion was pivotal.
“You have to find it, keep it and grow it,” he said.
“When you grow that passion, it drives you forward, and it makes everyone around you passionate as well.
People see that and want that passion for your product too.”
Today those themes of mining, red rocks and searing heat still hold true for the Pilbara but the beauty, culture and history of the region now hold their own in the conversation.
As to Mr Walker’s desire in 2014 to prove the mining hub image wrong, Murujuga’s regular features on tourism platforms suggests he has gone a long way to achieving that too.