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Roebourne, WA

Historic north-west town - oldest town between Geraldton and Darwin.

Roebourne is the oldest settlement between Geraldton and Darwin - the one isolated community on the whole vast and lonely coastline which is now the Kimberley and Pilbara. It was once the administrative centre of the North-West and, as such, has a fascinating Heritage Walk around town which focuses on the large number of buildings which were constructed between 1870-1900.

Location

Roebourne is located 1553 km north of Perth via Highway 1. It is 12 metres above sea level. 

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Origin of Name

Roebourne was named after the first Western Australian Surveyor–General, John Septimus Roe.

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Things to See and Do

Roebourne Heritage Trail
There is a downloadable Roebourne Heritage Guide (http://www.australiasnorthwest.com/docs/default-source/Heritage-Trails-information/roebourne-heritage-trail.pdf?sfvrsn=0) which lists 18 places of interest in and around the town. It is a combination of a walk and a drive which covers a total of 5 km and can be extended to 8 km. The first eleven places are all within easy walking distance. The remainder of the attractions are further afield and need to be accessed by driving. Each location has a detailed sign outside explaining its history and importance.

1. Roebourne Gaol
Roebourne Gaol, in Queen St, is now a combination Visitor Centre, historical museum, and local art and craft centre. This building was one of colonial architect George Temple Poole's first projects in Roebourne and work commenced in 1886 when four stone cells were built. 
The Shire of Roebourne Heritage Inventory notes: "The precinct is a rare example of the combined functions of Police Station, Courthouse and Gaol.
The complex includes: Roebourne Police, Court House and Goal Precinct comprises the Court House (1886), 1887 Cell Block, Kitchen Day Room (1887), 1887 Quarters, Smaller 1896 Cell Block, Larger 1896 Cell Block, Police Station (1896), 1896 Lockup, Warder's Quarters, Gaoler's Quarters (1896), House of Police Officer in Charge (1960s), Police Recreation Block (1980s), 1981 Lockup, Garage and Charge Room (1981), Sobering Up Centre (1960s) and the Dry Stone Retaining Walls (1890s) which separate the differing levels of the Precinct."
Local stone was used for both aesthetic and practical reasons. Aboriginal labour was used to quarry this readily available stone. Temple Poole's planning ability, which later received wider recognition throughout Australia, is clearly demonstrated in the design of this gaol complex. Removing several nondescript buildings from the central area in 1887 he replaced them with an unusual octagonal stone prison which became the focal point of the precinct. All the buildings relate to the octagonal design and a low stone wall built in 1892 helps to unify the whole complex whilst still giving the impression of a large informal courtyard.
The Gaol is now only open for tours which are held each day during the winter months at 10.00 am and 11.30 am. You simply turn up at the gates at either of those times.

Roebourne Police Station
Designed by George Temple Poole, the Police Station is particularly interesting because of its use of verandas which suggest an understanding of oppressive tropical conditions. Poole had spent some time in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and understood the value of a wide veranda around a building to provide shelter from the heat and glare of the sun.

2. Mount Welcome Homestead and Augustus Roe's House
Located at 64 Hampton Street, this group of buildings known as "Mount Welcome Homestead Group is comprised of a group of single-storey timber-framed, corrugated iron buildings with barrel-vaulted roofs, constructed in the North-West Vernacular style. The buildings are arranged into two wings, joined by skillioned roofed verandas. The wings are constructed of iron cladding over a timber frame. Several small iron buildings, which provided housing for the Aboriginal workers, remain on the site. They were built between 1864 and 1937. It was established by John and Emma Withnell who built a single roomed house constructed of stone, mud bats and the remains of their cargo. That first building was destroyed by a cyclone in 1872 and rebuilt immediately. Check out greater detail at http://karratha.wa.gov.au/Assets/Documents/Document%20Centre/LGHI/36._Mt_Welcome_Station_Homestead_Group.pdf.

3. Hospital
Located at 51-61 Hampton Street, the Roeborne Hospital was constructed in 1886-1887 to a design by George Temple Poole. It cost £2,679 and comprised two rooms (one for men and one for women). It was designed in the Victorian Regency style with thick stone walls and wide verandas. For more detailed information check out http://karratha.wa.gov.au/Assets/Documents/Document%20Centre/LGHI/23._Hospital_Kitchen_Block__Quarters_and_Matrons_Quarters_Roebourne.pdf.

4. Old School House
Located at 60 Hampton Street, the Primary School "is constructed in the Victorian Georgian style. It comprises two tuckpointed random-rubble Karratha stone buildings with concrete block quoining to walls and reveals and corrugated iron hipped roofs. The schoolrooms extend over the verandah on all sides of the building. The school had quarters for the schoolmaster at the rear." It was constructed in 1891 and is now the Yaandina Family Centre. It was used as a primary school until 1961. It was the first primary school in the north west of Western Australia and was an early attempt to provide a building which was suitable for the tropical climate.

5. Mount Welcome Lookout
The lookout offers an excellent overview of the town and the surrounding countryside. In recent times it has included the silhouette statues of six Aborigines all with spear in one hand and standing on one leg. A plaque titled A View of Our Land explains: "Each of these six statues represents one of the immediate neighbours of the Ngarluma people and they are facing toward their country. These tribes reside in and around Roebourne and stand respectfully alongside the Ngarluma traditional owners of the land on which you are now standing. Each statue is looking toward their homeland. Tindjibarndi people are our immediate neighbours to the south, their lands commencing at the Chichester Ranges. Immediately south of their border, starting at the Hamersley Range are the Banyjima people. Our southernmost neighbours are the Kurrama people. The Taburara people are our neighbours to the northwest and the Martathunira people are our neighbours to the west. To the east our neighbours are the Kariyarra. Their respective boundaries with Ngarluma country are the Maitland River to the west and the East Peawah River to the east."

6. Holy Trinity Church
The Holy Trinity Church at 41-49 Hampton Street is a simple building of local stone which was constructed in 1894 and is now listed by the National Trust. For many years it was the only place of worship in the Pilbara. The building has been described as "The stone is laid in a random pattern in mortar, with pointing and tucking in composite concrete. The base of the walls meet a stone plinth around the perimeter. Adequate ventilation and lining the roof with felt were important provisions against the heat. It has an open timber framed porch and gothic arched heavy metal studded double doors which enter to the nave. The building is a simple rectangular shape, with six evenly spaced windows along each side and two in the front entrance and back walls. There are stained glass windows, articulated quoins and an octagonal apse at the gable end." on the Shire of Roebourne website. For more information check out http://karratha.wa.gov.au/Assets/Documents/Document%20Centre/LGHI/22._Holy_Trinity_Anglican_Church_Roebourne.pdf.

7. Dalgety House
Located at 48 Roe Street, Dalgety House was previously owned by Dalgety & Co Store and is currently occupied by the Yinjaa-Barni Art Centre. The Shire of Roebourne records that: "Dalgety House is a single story timber-framed building clad with corrugated iron, in the North-West vernacular style. The building has an ‘L’ shaped floor plan surrounded by a deep open verandah, partially enclosed on the northern and western sides of the building. The verandah has timber balustrades, and timber stairs leading up to it. The prominent timber-framed hipped roof is clad in corrugated iron sheets fitted with timber cyclone battens." There is evidence that it was built before 1866 by John Withnell, was destroyed by a cylone in 1872 and rebuilt that same year, destroyed by fire in 1888 and rebuilt out of jarrah and corrugated iron. The 1889 building is the one standing today. The building, which was owned by Dalgety & Co from 1901-1987 was purchased by the Shire of Roebourne in 2000.
Its importance is: "Dalgety House is significant as an example of a residence displaying the characteristic North-West Vernacular style, which has been designed, built and adapted to address the regional climatic demands. It is an uncommon example in Roebourne, and the North West more generally, of a mostly intact residence from the late nineteenth century."

8. Union Bank
Built in 1888 and located at 46 Roe Street, the Union Bank " is a single storey masonry building with an impressive front portico in the Victorian Free Classical Style. It is made from local stone, random laid, with a gabled roof clad in corrugated iron. The corners are completed with cement quoins. Iron balustrades form a decorative feature on the facade. The interior walls are rendered and painted. The original layout configuration is almost intact, with alterations mainly to the ceilings. A strong room was included in the original construction and there is a safe in the strong room, which may be original. Living quarters were provided at the rear." 
The bank, but not this building, achieved a level of infamy in 1885 when " the bank manager Thomas Anketell and his bank clerk Henry Burrup were brutally murdered on 12th January 1885, in a tragic event that became known across the country as the Roebourne bank murders. The crime was unsolved; no motive found and nothing stolen from the bank. In memory of Henry Burrup, the Government Surveyor F.S. Brockman named the highest hill on Dampier Island Mount Burrup in August 1885. When Dampier Island was connected to the mainland by a causeway in the 1960s, it was renamed Burrup Peninsula." The current bank became the Shire of Roebourne offices in 1961. There is a very comprehensive and fascinating account of the murders at https://www.roebournebankmurders.com. The site has maps of old Roebourne, images of the original Union Bank, biographies, early sketches and other interesting information.

10. Victoria Hotel
The Victoria Hotel was built in 1866 and closed its doors in 2005 after the liquor licence was suspended. Located at 17 Roe Street the current building was constructed in 1893 and was the first two storey building in Roebourne. By 1894 it could boast that it was the ‘finest and most commodious Hotel in the North. Spacious balcony, Plunge and Shower Baths, Good Stabling and Attentive Ostlers. Loose boxes for racehorses." It enjoyed the mining boom in the 1970s with the staff increasing from 13 in 1969 to 64 in 1971 and construction and mining workers being bussed in to enjoy the ambience. The pub achieved infamy when, as explained on the Shire of Roebourne Heritage Inventory,  "On 28 September 1983, John Pat was arrested with others following an altercation at the Victoria Hotel which involved a group of police officers fighting with a group of Aboriginal men, during which John Pat was punched by a policeman and fell, hitting his head on the road. Witness accounts of the event testify to police brutality. John Pat tragically died in custody in police cells in the Roebourne Police Station, Gaol and Court House Precinct, aged nearly 17, eventually triggering the national Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1989." There is a major redevelopment proposed. Check out http://www.victoriahotelroebourne.com.au for more information.

11. Freddie Yee Palk's Bakery and Store
Located at 37 Roe Street and built some time before 1889 (it survived the 1889 cyclone) is a hugely important link to the Chinese who settled in Roebourne after 1870. The story of the owner is recalled by the Shire of Roebourne: "Freddie Yee Palk set up a commercial enterprise servicing the district. He established a bakery, store, tailoring business and market gardens from 1902. Evidence shows that Yee Palk dissolved a storekeeper's business partnership in Port Hedland in 1902. He started a tailors and outfitters business on Roe St in Roebourne, opposite the Mercantile Store selling the ‘latest European styles’ the same year. By the 1920s, the store was selling groceries and it is likely that it was also a bakery from this time or earlier. His market garden was located behind the store on the banks of the Harding River. The memoirs of EH Tuslove, a resident of Roebourne in the 1920s, state ‘I often went to Yee Palk’s for green groceries and would see several men in the room noisily playing Mah Jong and smoking... everyone firmly believed they were smoking opium.’
In 1955 the local health authority reported on Yee Palk’s bakery ‘Approx 50 loaves of bread made each week. The shop does a very limited trade.’ Yee Palk died a pauper in 1963 aged 75 and is buried in the Old Cemetery, Roebourne." Check out http://karratha.wa.gov.au/Assets/Documents/Document%20Centre/LGHI/18._Freddie_Yee_Palks_Bakery_and_Store_fmr_Roebourne.pdf for greater detail.

13. Roebourne Town Cemetery
Located at Andover Way, the Roebourne Town Cemetery was surveyed in the 1860s by the town's first magistrate. The Shire of Roebourne website explains: "This cemetery reflects the life and times of the area and the headstone inscriptions give a window on events and attitudes over time. Historically significant events are invoked through burials of people associated with the Flying Foam Massacre and the Union Bank murders. The changing social fabric of Roebourne is evident through separate burial grounds for the Asian and Aboriginal community illustrating hierarchies of class, culture and religion."

14. Watson & Tee Store
Located at 47 Sholl Street, the Watson and Tee Store was built in 1888 out of local stone in a Victorian Georgian style. The site had been sold to Robert and Arthur Bunning who constructed the store on the site. Harry John Watson and George Tee ran the store for a decade. There was a drapery section and a general merchandise section.

15. Post Office
Located at 69 Sholl Street, the Roebourne Post Office was designed by George Temple Poole and built in 1887 by Robert and Arthur Bunning (the founders of what is now known as Bunnings - the nationwide hardware store). "The workers included three stonemasons and numerous Aboriginal prisoners acted as labourers. Stone for the building was locally obtained and carted to the site by bullock dray while the timber utilised was jarrah shipped up from the South-West. The building was completed in three months." 

16. Old Reserve and Two Mile Cemetery
Known as the Aboriginal Cemetery, the 2 mile Cemetery is now owned by the Department of Indigenous Affairs. It is located on the eastern side of the Harding River on a track heading southwards. The Shire of Roebourne records: "Between 1952 and 1972, 159 Aboriginal people were buried at the Aboriginal Cemetery (2 Mile). The people buried here were living at the 2 Mile and 5 Mile reserves in Roebourne at the time of their deaths. However, their traditional country varied and encompassed many areas of the Pilbara, including Roebourne, pastoral stations south and east of Port Hedland and the tablelands of the Chichester and Hamersley Ranges. There are several unmarked burials located outside the cemetery which pre-date the 1950s.
"Roger Solomon, who undertook work to protect and manage the cemetery, passed away in April 1993. It was his wish to be buried in this area on the banks of the Harding River. This led to the cemetery being reopened, extended and upgraded." For more information check out http://karratha.wa.gov.au/Assets/Documents/Document%20Centre/LGHI/01._Aboriginal_Cemetery_2_Mile_Roebourne.pdf.

17. Nor West Jockey Club
This is the oldest continuously run racing club in Western Australia and is located on the North West Coastal Highway fronting the Harding River. The town has been holding race meetings since 1867 and this site has been used since 1890.

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Other Attractions in the Area

Emma Withnell Heritage Trail
This 52 km driving and walking tour of the region commences at the Gaol and takes in Wickham, Cossack and Point Samson. There is a brochure available at the Karratha Visitor Centre and a very detailed, and fascinating, history of Emma Withnell which can be downloaded at http://therangeskarratha.com.au/files/4314/7651/2726/Heritage_0306_Emma_Withnell.pdf.

Aborigines and the Roebourne Gaol
The period from around 1885 until 1912 saw Roebourne grow and saw the construction of a complex which consisted of the Gaol, Court House and Police Barracks. During that time the inmates of the Gaol were almost exclusively local Aborigines. A law had been enacted to ensure that the local Aborigines were virtual slaves to the local landowners and, tragically, this ensured that there was a constant stream of Aborigines into the prison. During the 1870s the Western Australian government had introduced an indenture system to prevent the exploitation of Aborigines in the rural labour force. An employer could be fined for failing to provide basic conditions relating to food, clothing and health. Aborigines in turn were obliged to remain with their employer. The system may have been created to protect Aborigines but it worked against them. Any Aborigine who breached the contract was subject to imprisonment. The pastoralist was liable to a fine which the authorities failed to enforce or the offender failed to pay. As a result hundreds of Aborigines were sentenced to imprisonment for absconding from their contracts. For many years the Roebourne precinct provided for the day-to-day arrest, trial, and imprisonment of these Aboriginal ‘offenders’. 
This situation was compounded in the 1930s when, under the misguided notion that "all Aborigines are the same" neighbouring tribes - the Tindjibarndi, Banyjima, Kurrama and Marduthunira - were moved onto a local reserve and mixed together.
Ongoing conflicts between Aborigines and police continued well into the twentieth century. They has not been resolved and the town was still experiencing racial problems as recently as 1985.

Millstream Chichester National Park
Located 148 km from Roebourne, 105 km from Karratha on the Warlu Road, and 97 km from Pannawonica (only the road from Karratha is sealed), the 240,000 ha Millstream Chichester National Park is a landscape of spinifex hills, escarpments and tree-lined watercourses. There is also the lush oasis of the Millstream wetlands and Fortescue River pools. The area forms part of the Yindjibarndi homeland and had been a pastoral station, Millstream Station, since 1865. It became a national park in 1970 and was expanded in 1982.
When you visit the park first call at the Millstream Homestead Visitor Centre to obtain information on the park’s many features and learn about the interpretative walk trails. The visitor centre, which is normally unattended, has rooms dedicated to the Yindjibarndi people, the early settlers and the natural environment. It offers an important introduction to the park's attractions.
The land around Millstream's water pool supports typical vegetation of the tropical north, such as palms, although introduced species such as date palms and cotton palms have spread out along Millstream Creek. From June to August the winter rains encourage the growth of colourful wildflowers. Black flying foxes, a range of birds and dragonflies and damselflies are also found around Millstream. Euros are found in the rocky areas and red kangaroos on the plains.
There is an excellent, downloadable brochure - https://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/sites/default/files/downloads/parks/20140464_MillstreamChichesterNP_v4.pdf - which lists five Millstream Trails and five Chichester Range Trails with information about difficulty levels and attractions.
The trails are:
Millstream Trails
* Homestead Walk - 750m – 30 minutes return – a path through the Millstream Wetlands with interpretative signs about the wetlands.
* Warrungunha Trail - 8 km – 2.5 hours return – links the Millstream Homestead with Cliff Lookout and crosses areas of melaleuca woodland, hummock grassland and riverine woodland. 
* Red Roo Trail - 9 km one way – 3 hour walk - begins at Miliyanha Campground and ends at Deep Reach Pool. 
* Stargazers Link Trail to Deep Reach - 5 km return – a 500m track links Stargazers Campground to the Red Roo Trail. A further 2 km along the Red Roo Trail is Deep Reach.
* Cliff top walk - 600m return, allow 20 minutes – a 300m cliff top walk links three vantage points from which you can view the Fortescue River and the distant Hamersley Ranges. This trail can be accessed by vehicles from Millstream Road.

Chichester Range Trails
Python Pool - 100m – 20 minutes return - a trail along a dry creek bed to Python Pool which is a permanent freshwater plunge pool located at the base of a cliff in the escarpment. The water is often suitable for swimming.
McKenzie Spring - 4.5 km – 2.5 hour return – From the Mount Herbert car park to McKenzie Spring. The spring was once a watering hole for camel and bullock teams.
Mount Herbert Summit - 600m – 25 minutes return – From the Mount Herbert car park to the base of Mount Herbert, and then to the top of the mountain for a panoramic view. 
Chichester Range Camel Trail - 8 km – 3 hours one way or 16 km – 6 hours return – the trail crosses the rugged basalt and sandstone terrain of the Chichester Range. It includes steep gradients, natural obstacles and consists of variable surfaces including loose rocks. 
Cameleers Trail - 4 km – 1.5 hours return – Follow the trail towards Python Pool and head up the hill. There are natural obstacles including washouts and the surface is loose and rocky. 
The Millstream Chichester National Park is situated in a remote area and travel on dirt roads is necessary to access the park. Road conditions change frequently especially in summer with rain. In the cooler months, the park is generally accessible by 2WD vehicles but it is best to contact the park office or the department’s Karratha office beforehand. Check out https://parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au/park/millstream-chichester for detailed information. 

Harding Dam
Located 31 km south-east from Roebourne, the dam is a popular day outing with grassed areas and picnic and barbecue facilities. It is the main drinking water source of Dampier, Karratha, Roebourne, Wickham and Point Samson. The dam has a catchment area of 14 square kilometres, a capacity of 64 billion litres and the dam wall stands 52 metres high. Not surprisingly the dam cannot be used for fishing or boating. It is possible to go bushwalking around the shores. For more information check out http://karratha.wa.gov.au/Assets/Documents/Document%20Centre/LGHI/20._Harding_Dam_Lake_Poongkaliyarra.pdf.

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History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area had been home to the Ngaluma Aboriginal people for over 25,000 years. The dominant language in the district is Yindjibarndi.

* William Dampier travelled down the coast in 1688 and 1700.

* In 1821 Phillip Parker King travelled along the coast and named Nickol Bay.

* Francis T. Gregory explored the coastline in 1861. Gregory’s favourable reports on the area encouraged settlement by pastoralists. 

* The first European settlers to arrive in the area were Walter Padbury and John Wellard in 1863. 

* In 1864 the Withnells travelled upstream from Cossack and settled at a pool on the Harding River. Emma Withnell was the cousin of Francis Gregory and she was the first woman settler in the Pilbara. She is now known as 'Mother of the North West'. The Withnells arrived with two children, 1000 ewes, 50 rams, 10 horses and 10 head of cattle. Their one room house made of mud and grass was the first building in Roebourne.

* The town was established in 1866 and proclaimed that same year.

* In 1867 a magistrate and police constable arrived and a post office and a Court House were built. That same year the first race carnival was held.

* In the 1860s an outbreak of smallpox decimated the local Aboriginal population. Emma Withnell became involved with the local people nursing them as best she could. She was later admitted to the tribe.

* In 1874 Peter Warburton reached Roebourne after travelling from the Overland Telegraph Line across the Great Sandy Desert.

* The first primary school was built in 1878.

* Roebourne’s moment of glory came in the 1880s when gold was discovered in the Pilbara at Marble Bar and Nullagine. 

* The Union Bank opened in 1882.

* In 1887 the local Post Office was completed.

* By 1897 the Roebourne Post Office employed eight adults and two messenger boys.

* Roebourne remained the most important coastal centre in the Pilbara until 1912 when the construction of a railway from Marble Bar to Port Hedland ensured the immediate decline of Roebourne, Cossack and Point Samson.

* From 1885 until 1912 the town grew substantially. Most of the interesting buildings in the town date from this time. 

* In 1922 a plane flying from Geraldton to Port Hedland stopped at Roebourne airport.

* In 1942 the postal service from Roebourne to Cossack ceased.

* In the 1970s the town experienced a boom as the mining industry in the area grew rapidly. This resulted in the local post office employing 17 people.

* In 1983 the death of an Aborigine, John Pat, at the Victorian Hotel during a brawl with police led to the famous Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission.

* The town was hit by Cyclone Orson in April, 1989.

* In the late 1990s the Victoria Hotel was closed down.

* In  2005 the Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi Native Title claim was granted over the district.

* In 2013 the Victoria Hotel was purchased by the Juluwarlu Aboriginal Corporation.

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Visitor Information

Roebourne Visitor Centre & Old Gaol Museum, Queen Street, tel: (08) 9182 1060.

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Useful Websites

The official local website can be found at http://www.australiasnorthwest.com/Destinations/The_Pilbara/roebourne and https://www.karratha.wa.gov.au/map-listing/roebourne.

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Got something to add?

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

2 suggestions
  • Hello, I am trying to find some information on my great grandfather who I believe was Mayor of Roebourne sometime after WW1. His name was Frederick Charles Godfrey. If you have any information on him it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    Janelle Wootton (Hill)
  • Hi, my parents owned a property on the left as you came into town from Karratha, possibly owned it from the 50’s to the 70’s, we used to come up from Perth in the school holidays in the mid to late 60’s and the early 70’s. Not particularly significant age wise. I have been to what is left of the property in 2002, there is only the brick construction which were originally offices that I think my father had built, one was occupied by Clough, their first office in the Pilbara region. There was a large shed behind them that was the laundry. “Dolphin Laundries” it was called. I don’t know how long that operated but it was sold as a going business when mum’n’dad sold the whole place. Behind the laundry there were demountables which were our accommodation, further toward the river there was a steam and water supply for the laundry, there was also a high shed on the western side which a man named Tom Dean leased to repair mostly trucks but also cars. My parents were Lloyd M and Valerie MT Callard. In 1999/2000 I met a lady in town that told me her sister was working in the laundry for some years. I have wonderful memories of Roebourne as a kid. Dene

    Dene Callard