Interactive Map

The location of the coastline of Cockburn Sound since the end of the last ice age.4

A Changing Coastline

Derbal Nara or the Estuary of the Salmon is the Nyungar name for Cockburn Sound.

This area includes the water of Derbal Nara, the islands of Derbal Nara, which are Wadjemup (Rottnest), Ngooloormayaup (Carnac) and Meeandip (Garden) Islands, as well as the dunes and coastal plains behind the dunes and the freshwater lakes and waterways.

Nyungar oral histories recount how these islands were once connected to the mainland, during the last ice age when sea levels were much lower.

Go to this page to view a photo gallery of the changing coastline.

Traditional owner Nyungar Elder Dorothy Winmar narrates one story that was told to her:

My grandmother used to live along the river right down there and she reckon they [ancients] used to walk right out to Rottnest Island; that it was all sandbanks way back. And they used to walk across there and because Rottnest Island is a hill and it stood out when there was no water there. They stayed for a time and then walked back. But believe or not, I don’t know. I couldn’t understand it, but in those olden days, things were a lot different.1

Traditional owner Fred Collard also spoke of the time when Rottnest was connected to the mainland and his people used to walk out there... 

Rottnest is Wadjemup, you know. I was never much into following what went on over at Rottnest. Earlier, Uncle Felix and them used to say kura kura, Nyungars used to walk across there, that was a long time ago, he said. Kura means a long time ago. Nyungars jenna koorliny, means walk. So someone had handed it down to him. If he was alive today, he would be around 150 and you see a lot of older people handed it down to him. 

They said six to eight thousand years ago, you could walk across from Fremantle to Rottnest and it’s only in the last six to eight thousand years ago that the sun has been melting the ice in the south. The water has been rising around Rottnest. Uncle Felix used to tell us a story about Bibbarn. Bibbarn was an old Nyungar man who used to be living around Brookton. Bibbarn was a warra moort, you know, a bad old fellow. He was reputed to have killed about a hundred Nyungars. He killed my grandmother in Brookton where the Brookton football ground is now. She had a big savage dog and he put that dog to sleep and then he went and he done her in, (motion of pinching the throat). Wort buranginy, pinch your throat. When they came home, she was bleeding out of the mouth. 

After a while the Nyungars used to go out, they were called blacktrackers, the Nyungar blacktrackers, like a police aide, and they used to track Bibbarn and they would track him and he went into an anthill, then they would just take off. He was a warra moort; he could turn himself into anything. So before they caught him, all the Nyungars around Brookton, when they went to sleep in their little mia mias, they always slept way over in the bush. They put three little blackboys (Balga bush) and cover them over and make out it was them and they would be watching from the bushes. When they caught him, they took him over to Wadjemup (Rottnest) and put him in there. They just left him on the boat, you see, with the police over there. When they come back, there was a wardong on the mask and the captain looked up and said, I never seen a crow riding on the mast before. When they got back here to Fremantle, they said Bibbarn was missing. He was back here. He turned himself into a crow and he was back here ever since. When he died in Woodanilling, he was fairly old. 

I know there was four or five young people that I knew; they reckon he died all screwed up because they could see all the spirits of the people that he had killed coming to him. So, they were trying to straighten his arm and leg up, Frank Jones, Oliver Ward and Arthur Morrison. They were together all trying to straighten his legs and, you know, like all young seventeen or eighteen year olds, they started laughing and poking fun. One fellow let the arm go and the arm came up and caught one fellow around the neck. They thought he was alive and took off. That bloke dragged the body, ha ha. That was a common story you see. Uncle Felix used to tell us that sort of story. I think Bibbarn is in the history books isn’t he. He is a person in the archives recorded in 1875 at Rottnest. So he is one person who is in the archives. He was a real boolyada man, you know. He could do a lot of powerful things.2

click to play sound bibbarn

click to play sound derbal nara

click to play sound meeandip

click to play sound ngooloormiyap

click to play sound wadjemup

click to play sound woodanilling

Click the sound files to hear the Nyungar words on this page.

Karen Jacobs 3, traditional owner, has worked for the Rottnest Island Authority and she describes the old uses of Wajemup and the changing coastline.

Even going back while I was heavily involved in the Rottnest Island Authority looked at going back prior to 6,000 years ago when the sea levels were a lot lower and doing a study on the movement of aboriginal people from even this area of Fremantle right the way across to Rottnest for ceremonial purposes or for other purposes. I mean Rottnest Island doesn’t look anything like it does now but to think that the land mass is basically one leading up to that point Rottnest was a high point and used for ceremonial and spiritual purposes and a lot of our artefacts because all out in the hard rock comes from the very west end of Rottnest which did actually go out a lot further than where it finishes now at the west end. So knowing the movement of people and I often when I’m reading something or doing my own research or talking to somebody I actually try and place myself in that situation at that time what it would be like. I mean the environment was completely different. I mean if you think this area was so heavily treed to get through it there was a massive amount of protection and to have European Society move in and just wipe it out literally and environmentally just remove every blade of grass. You look around and it is not the same as what it was and it’s really hard for me as an Aboriginal person in this day and age to sit here and even try to imagine what this country was like prior to colonisation. Very, very different. We didn’t have a port there, the river was a lot shallower than what it was now, it didn’t take on the appearance of what it does now, none of this was here. It was just straight beachfronts that went straight around and straight up to the West Coast.


1. Collard, L., S. Harben & R. van den Berg. Nidja Beeliar Boodjar Noonokurt Nyininy: a Nyungar interpretive history of the use of Boodjar (country) in the vicinity of Murdoch University, Perth Western Australia. Murdoch University. 2004, p.45.

2. Collard, L., S. Harben & R. van den Berg. Nidja Beeliar Boodjar Noonokurt Nyininy: a Nyungar interpretive history of the use of Boodjar (country) in the vicinity of Murdoch University, Perth Western Australia. Murdoch University. 2004. 

3. Karen Jacobs, oral interview, held by Laura Stocker, Curtin University and Len Collard, UWA.

4. Gentilli, J. & Scott , D. R. The Cockburn Lowland. Nedlands, W.A., University of Western Australia, (1961)