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Derby, WA

Outback town in the Kimberley surrounded by unique attractions.

Given the relative proximity of Broome (it is only 222 km down the road), Derby has the quality of a Cinderella, overwhelmed by her more "important" big sister. It is a small service town with a huge wharf surrounded by unique and special attractions. Its importance for visitors lies in its position at the western end of the Gibb River Road; its closeness to Mowanjum Aboriginal Art & Culture Centre with its magical exhibition of Wandjina creation images; its fascinating, if disturbing, Boab Prison tree; its access to the largest coral reef in Australia; its regular flights to the magical Horizontal Falls; and its magical story of Jandamarra (Pigeon), the daring local Aborigine who outwitted the local police and became a hero to his people. Derby is a strange outback town which, like so many of the towns in the Kimberley, is more important because of the surrounding attractions rather than any appeal that might exist within the town. It is famed for its huge tides which, at their extreme, rise and fall up to 11.8 metres leaving the town surrounded by vast mud flats.

Location

Derby is located 2392 km north of Perth via the shorter, inland route or 2515 km via the coast road. It is 222 km north-east of Broome.

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Origin of Name

Derby was named after Frederick Arthur Stanley, 16th Earl of Derby who, between 1885-1886, was the British Secretary of State for the Colonies having previously been the Governor General of Canada.

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Things to See and Do

Jandamarra and the "Pigeon" Heritage Trail
The Pigeon Heritage Trail explores the legend of Jandamarra who led a successful, and at time amusing, armed rebellion against the rather incompetent early European settlers. The trail comprises two drives which include places around Derby as well as Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek.

The journey starts at the old cemetery in Sutherland Street the location of the grave of Pigeon's first victim, Police Constable Richardson.

Pigeon shot and killed Richardson on 31 October 1894 after the policeman had betrayed him. Richardson had employed Pigeon to track 16 Aborigines accused of stealing and killing stock. What Richardson didn't realise was that some of the 16 Aborigines were part of Pigeon's family and they warned Pigeon that he had to set them free because stockmen had been seen with over 500 head of cattle in the vicinity of Windjana Gorge which was part of their tribal lands.

Pigeon duly shot Richardson, freed the prisoners and with himself as their new leader they all headed off to ambush the stockmen near Windjana Gorge. The attack was successful. Pigeon and his men killed the two head stockmen and it was only because another stockmen, following behind in a wagon, heard the shots and fled, that news reached the police at Derby.

The police sent a posse to the area and in the battle that followed Pigeon was shot but, with the help of some Aboriginal women, he managed to escape capture. In the months that followed large numbers of Aborigines were killed indiscriminately as a reprisal for the attack on the stockmen.

Pigeon hid in Tunnel Creek Cave to the south of Windjana Gorge for two years. The Derby police were convinced he had been killed but in early 1896 he raided the Lillimooloora Police Station and stole a rifle and ammunition. This remarkable 'return to life' did much to ensure the legend of Pigeon. For the next few months Pigeon taunted the police and pastoralists. He was a superb bushman and his contact with the police allowed him to outwit them. He was finally cornered in 1897 and killed near his hideout at Tunnel Creek.

There is an excellent account of Pigeon's remarkable life and detailed information about the places where he lived around Derby. It is titled The Pigeon Heritage Trail: Aboriginal-European Relations in the West Kimberley, 1890s and it can be ordered from the Derby Tourist Bureau. They offer a postal service.

Old Derby Gaol
The Old Derby Gaol is located in Loch Street and is registered as a National and State Heritage site. It is the oldest building in the town, dating from 1906. It was carefully located halfway between the port and the centre of town and was part of the Police Station and the yards were used by the Police Horse Patrol. It is part of the Pigeon Heritage Trail.

Wharfingers House Museum
Located on Loch Street the museum is only opened on request. It has a range of displays relating to the history of the town including an exhibiton on the communications history; another on the SS Colac; and others on the town's early aviation and shipping history. Ask at the Derby Visitor Centre for the key.

Old Cemetery
The old cemetery in Lovegrove Street is part of the Pigeon Heritage Trail and includes the grave of Pigeon's first victim, Police Constable William Richardson. There is also the grave of the Aboriginal tracker, 'Larry' Kunamarra who was honoured for his services by Queen Elizabeth II.

Prison Boab Tree
Seven kilometres south of Derby on the Broome Highway is the Boab or Baobab Prison Tree and the Myall's Bore.

A sign at the tree explains its complex history: "Before Derby was established in 1883, Aboriginal people were kidnapped from the West Kimberley. The kidnappers, known as blackbirders, were settlers who were connected with the pearl industry. They wanted divers and workers for the pearling boats. They rounded people up, put them in chains and marched them to the coast. Some may have held their captives in the Boab Prison Tree while they waited for a boat ...

"The prisoners brought to Derby via the Boab Prison Tree came from as far away as Fitzroy Crossing and Christmas Creek. They generally walked from 24 to 48 kilometres each day, in chains, camping overnight at stations, waterholes or wells."

The boab tree was the last stopover point for patrols returning to Derby. Capable of holding a number of prisoners it has an entrance which is about one metre wide and two metres high.

Today it is recognised as a "Site of Significance" to the local Aboriginal people and there is a sign at the tree pointing out that the tree is protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 and that "The significance of the Prison Boab Tree derives from its reputed use as a rest point for police & escorted Aboriginal prisoners en-route to Derby, and principally, its prior but less publicly known connection with Aboriginal traditional religious belief." As a warning the sign also notes "that snakes are known to inhabit the tree."

Myall's Bore
The Bore, originally known as Miyarli Well, is located 7 km from Derby on the Broome Highway. In 1912 a man named Mayall sank a bore to a depth of 322 metres. It cost £2,700 and yielded a daily flow of 315,000 litres of water. The bore was capped in 1980. Beside the bore is a huge 120 metre long cattle trough which was built by the Road Board in about 1920. It is claimed that when the trough was in use 1000 head of cattle could be watered at one time. The water was high in minerals and reputedly had therapeutic properties.

William Dampier Memorial
Near the Derby jetty is a Bicentennial monument to William Dampier who reached the head of King Sound on 5 January 1688. He was a member of the crew of the Cygnet. When he returned to England he wrote A New Voyage Round the World. His comments on the area were to colour the British perception of the entire continent for the next century. He wrote: "The inhabitants of the Country are the miserablest People in the world. The Hodmadods or Monomatapa, though a nasty people, yet for Wealth are Gentlemen to these; who have no Houses and skin Garments, Sheep, Poultry, and Fruits of the Earth, Ostrich Eggs &c. as the Hodmadods have: And setting aside their human Shape, they differ but little from Brutes. They are tall, strait-bodied, and thin, with small long Limbs. They have great Heads, round Foreheads, and great Brows. Their Eye-lids are always half closed, to keep the Flies out of their eyes; they being so troublesome here, that no fanning will keep them from coming to ones Face; and without the assistance of both Hands to keep them off, they will creep into ones Nostrils; and Mouth too, if the Lips are not shut very close. So that from their infancy being thus annoyed with these Insects, they do never open their Eyes, as other People: And therefore they cannot see far; unless they hold up their Heads, as if they were looking at somewhat over them."

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Other Attractions in the Area

Mowanjum Aboriginal Art & Culture Centre
No visit to Derby is complete without stopping at the Mowanjum Aboriginal Art & Culture Centre to see the unique Wandjina figures. The Western Australian Museum explains these figures in some detail:
"Wandjina figures are some of the most visually striking of all images in Kimberley art. The Worrorra, Wunambal, and Ngarinyin people of the north-western and central Kimberley say that the Wandjina are the creator beings of the Dreaming, and that they made their world and all that it contains. They are found in many rock art sites in caves and rock shelters throughout the Kimberley.
"Wandjina are usually painted as full-length, or head and shoulder, figures, either standing or lying horizontally. Their large mouthless faces feature enormous black eyes flanking a beak-like nose. The head is usually surrounded by a band with outward radiating lines. Elaborate head-dresses are both the hair of the Wandjinas and clouds. Long lines coming out from the hair are the feathers which Wandjinas wore and the lightning which they control. Wandjina ceremonies to ensure the timely beginning of the monsoon wet season and sufficient rainfall are held during December and January, following which the rains usually begin (Source: Western Australian Museum).
Aboriginal people believe that if the Wandjina are offended then they will take their revenge by calling up lightning to strike the offender dead, or the rain to flood the land and drown the people, or the cyclone with its winds to devastate the country. These are the powers which the Wandjinas can use.
The Mowanjum Aboriginal Art & Culture Centre  on Gibb River Road is open seven day from 9.00 am - 5.00 pm from May to September and from Monday to Friday from 9.00 am - 5.00 pm from October to April. It is closed in January. For more information check out http://www.mowanjumarts.com.

Windjana Gorge National Park
At the entrance to Windjana Gorge is a sign which reads "380 million years ago in the Devonian period, huge colonies of tiny lime secreting organisms lived and died here. Ever so slowly the accumulation of the limestone skeletons of calcareous algae, stomatoporoids and corals built up this Devonian Reef." What it doesn't tell you is that the huge, grey cliffs on either side of the gorge are part of that reef and that, originally, it was a reef which was actually larger than the Great Barrier Reef extending from far out into the Indian Ocean all the way into what is now the Kimberley. As The Geology of Australia explains: "By the mid-Devonian there was a major embayment of the sea between the Pilbara and Kimberley regions, under the present Great Sandy Desert. This basin had major reefs and intertidal carbonate environments along its northern side. These limestones are exposed inland of Fitzroy Crossing, in the walls of Geigie and Windjana gorges."
It is estimated that the reef, which started to the east of Kununurra and swept around in a huge arc to the north of the Kimberleys before crossing the current land mass near Derby and becoming exposed to the south and north of Fitzroy Crossing, was 20 km wide and over 1000 km long.
As the visitor walks into the gorge (there are freshwater crocodiles in the pools) there are other signs indicating that Aborigines have been in the area for up to 60,000 years and that there was a time when megafauna - huge kangaroos and wombats - roamed through the gorge. The walk along the river bed is particularly impressive and the idea that the cliffs on either side are a fossilised coral reef is quite disorientating.

The Horizontal Falls
The Horizontal Falls are tidal waterfalls created by narrow channels in the McLarty Ranges and a tidal range which can reach 13 metres. The location is Talbot Bay which is surrounded by steep cliffs. There is no road access. Only boats and seaplanes can reach Talbot Bay where the tidal range is typically around 8-9 metres and which, during the summer king tides, reaches a huge 13 metres.
The Indian Ocean is separated from the bay by two narrow, rugged cliffs where sheer iron-red outcrops rise 150-200 metres. The cliffs are cut by two narrow gorges. When the tide is turning these two gorges - one is about 10 m wide and the other is about 24 m wide - look like wild rivers as the tide rushes in and out.
The rush of water which is like rapids is not produced by water racing downstream. This is water falling like a waterfall. It is water produced by the ebb and flow of some of the planet's largest tides and the water in the gorges is up to thirty metres deep. It has been claimed that the amount of water which flows through the gorges during a King Tide is equal to the water in Sydney Harbour.
The falls can be visited from Derby. Passengers are collected from their hotels at 8.15 am, taken to Derby Airport where fourteen people (that is all the plane holds), board a seaplane.
The total experience takes about six hours. Before landing the pilot makes multiple passes over the falls so passengers have a good idea of the terrain and the phenomenon. The seaplane lands on Talbot Bay and moors beside the houseboat. Safety jackets are donned and the ten passengers board a high speed Jet Stream boat which is powered by two 250 hp engines and is capable of speeds up to 60 knots (110 km/hr). The boat is constructed with two rows of seats that are more like saddles or gym vaulting horses. You hold on to a metal bar at the front and dig your knees hard into the sides to gain a firm grip. The experience is like running the rapids on a particularly violent river with the water boiling and bubbling as it breaks from what appears to be a mirror-like lake and cascades into Talbot Bay. The experience of riding the falls lasts about thirty minutes - but it is unique. For a more detailed description check out http://www.aussietowns.com.au/town/horizontal-falls-wa.

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History

* Prior to European settlement the area around Derby was inhabited by the Warrwa for around 40,000 years.

* In 1688 a Captain Read sailed down the coast of the Kimberley and around King Sound in the Cygnet. One of the crew was William Dampier who, when he returned to England, wrote A New Voyage Round the World.

* From 1818-1822 Phillip Parker King explored the coasts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory including King Sound (which is named after him).

* In 1837 George Gray and John Stokes explored the eastern coast of King Sound naming the Fitzroy River after Captain Robert Fitzroy R. N. and naming Stokes Bay.

* It wasn't until 1879 that Europeans began to settle the area occurred. That year the explorer Alexander Forrest travelled through the area and sent back glowing reports which described the district as being "well watered land suitable for pastoral purposes, besides a large area suitable for the culture of sugar, rice or coffee".

* In 1880 the Murray Squatting Company established a sheep station at Yeeda, 45 km from Derby. That same year a landing port was created at Derby and the following year a ship called The Ruby under the command of Captain Pemberton Walcott landed the first cargo.

* In 1883 the town was laid out to the south of the present jetty and Derby was proclaimed. At the time there were eight sheep stations in the area .

* In late August 1883 a shipment of wool waiting on the mudflats was swept away by the tidal wave caused by the Krakatoa volcanic explosion.

* The town's first jetty was built in 1885. That same year Charlie Hall discovered gold at Halls Creek and miners and prospectors poured through the port on their way to the goldfields.

* 1885 saw the MacDonald brothers reach the area after they had overlanded cattle 6,440 km from Goulburn in New South Wales.

* The Halls Creek goldrush was short lived and by the 1890s the port had reverted to exporting live cattle and sheep.

* On 31 October 1894 Jandamarra, known as Pigeon, shot Constable Richardson  after the pair had tracked 16 Aborigines accused of stealing and killing stock.

* Pigeon was finally cornered in 1897 and killed near his hideout at Tunnel Creek.

* In the early years of the twentieth century the Worrorra, Ngarinyin, and Wunumbal tribes were brought together in the Kunmunya Presbyterian mission.

* In 1951 iron ore mining commenced at Cockatoo Island and this revitalised the town.

* The local Aborigines were forced to move. They eventually settled at Mowanjum, 15 km from Derby, in 1960. They now run the Mowanjum Aboriginal Art & Culture Centre.

* In 1964 a new jetty was built to export live cattle.

* The last passenger ship visited Derby in 1973.

* In 1980 the last commercial ship visited the port. In the port's last full year of operation 51 vessels visited consisting of 13 overseas ships, 34 interstate, 2 naval vessels, 1 customs vessel and a refugee boat.

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Visitor Information

Derby Visitor Centre, 30 Loch Street, Derby, tel: 1800 621 426 and (08) 9191 1426.

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Useful Websites

There is a useful shire website - http://www.sdwk.wa.gov.au - as well as the Western Australian tourism website - http://www.australiasnorthwest.com/Destinations/The_Kimberley - which has useful advice about accommodation.

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Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

4 suggestions
  • Norval Gallery in Derby is a must see attraction. One of the most interesting art experiences in Australia.

    Alan New
  • I would like to point out in your History section above the first dot point is incorrect.
    This states…
    • Prior to European settlement the area around Derby was inhabited by the Worrorra, Ngarinyin, and Wunumbal tribes, which make up the Mowanjum community, for around 40,000 years.

    The original inhabitants in the Derby were Warrwa. The Mowanjum Community is not a constituent of the Warrwa people either. This community was planted here from the people who were removed from Koolin Island a missionary.

    Corrected on 30/4/2018 – Bruce Elder. I accept the accuracy of this comment but would like a source or a confirmation, please.

    Stephen Hunter
  • I, Rodney Malcolm Prouse, have about 15-20 relative’s who are born & bred in Derby and still live in Derby and would like too know if we have a little or large connection too any indigenous tribes, and what is their tribal name? My cousin’s range from 3 yrs too 65??? All Born and bred!!!

    Rodney Malcolm Prouse
  • My dad Dario De Biasi (deceased), started prospecting the various minerals in the Kimberley in 1964-1997. He owned Kimberley Colourstone Industry in Derby. Extracting many varieties of granite marble and colourstone. His workshop was the white shed which although no longer used for this purpose is situated next to the road that leads to the jetty. His later years (1985-1997) his workshop was relocated to Nimlibublica (half way point between Derby & Broome). It would be good if this info was documented in your records as I feel it was significant. The colourstone was used in the construction of the paved areas and features prominently at Federation Square in Melbourne. Happy to provide further info if interested

    Eda Albert nee DeBiasi