Escape to the other cape: Cape Leveque in the Kimberley

Kimberley jewel: Whales give birth off Cape Leveque.
Kimberley jewel: Whales give birth off Cape Leveque. Photo: Supplied

Lenny O'Meara – former pearl diver, opal miner, cameleer and Indigenous guide – is sitting on the deck of the Whale Song Cafe (operated by his wife, Jacinta) describing how this culinary oasis, half-way up the Kimberley's remote Cape Leveque, acquired its name.

"We have humpback whales coming here to Pender Bay from June until the beginning of September," says O'Meara, pointing over the cafe's lawn, past the ochre-red sandstone cliffs and the vast, uncluttered beach to one of Western Australia's most sheltered bays.

"Pender Bay is a main nursing ground," O'Meara says. "The humpbacks give birth here, and nurse their calves in the warm waters. They usually start cruising south by the beginning of September.

Beetroot ash entree at Wildflower in Perth.
Beetroot ash entree at Wildflower in Perth. Photo: Martin Morrell

"When Jacinta and I moved here, we'd hear this thumping throughout the night. It was the whales breaching. Sometimes you hear the whales singing, which is how Jacinta came to name this place."

This is Bran Nue Dae country, where the classic movie was filmed a decade ago, and it has taken three hours in a 4WD, along a deeply rutted red-dirt track, to drive from Broome due north through the Dampier Peninsula to reach Whale Song Cafe. (And yes, it does live up to its reputation of serving the best coffee on the Dampier.)

O'Meara – ("I'm from the Bardi mob") – came back to live on his ancestral land with Jacinta in 1999: "We wanted to take care of the country, and let the country take care of us."

Fresh juices and pizza at Whale Song Cafe.
Fresh juices and pizza at Whale Song Cafe. Photo: Supplied

Whale Song Cafe (and its boutique oceanside campsite, which can house up to 25 overnight guests in their own tents or trailered accommodation) is open from May to August for breakfast and lunch only.

The cafe specialises in mango smoothies, fresh juices, plus Jacinta's cakes, muffins, dhal and pizza.

"Most of the stuff which goes into our food comes from our garden," O'Meara says. "All the sauces and bases are home-made."

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But I'm not here for the humpbacks, the whale song or even the dhal. I've come for the gubinge crush – a uniquely northern Australian sensation.

Gubinge? You might know it by another name. Terminalia ferdinandiana, green plum, billygoat plum, salty plum, or its most common English name, Kakadu plum, is an Indigenous flowering tree that grows between the Dampier Peninsula and eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The olive-sized bush fruit, with a flavour some liken to English gooseberries, is known for having the highest concentration of vitamin C of any fruit in the world – at least 46 times more per gram than a typical orange.

However, before I taste the gubinge crush, O'Meara treats me to a guided walk around the property, looking for the fruit.

Wildflower in Perth is known for its use of indigenous ingredients.
Wildflower in Perth is known for its use of indigenous ingredients. Photo: Supplied

"We don't grow gubinge, we harvest it. It grows wild here," O'Meara says when I ask what kind of soil is perfect for planting. "Harvesting usually begins on Christmas Day, after lunch. My wife, my children and I go out and harvest a few kilos, and continue until February."

In a typical year, O'Meara's family will gather about 600 kilograms of fruit, plus any extra they can buy from neighbours. The fruit is freeze-dried, then ground to a powder, before being packaged, labelled and sold only at the Whale Song Cafe. It can be added to dishes or even applied to the hair and skin.

Increasingly, inventive restaurants in WA are using Indigenous ingredients such as gubinge and adopting the six-season calendar of the original Australians.

Gubinge (Kakadu plum) has the highest concentration of vitamin C of any fruit in the world.
Gubinge (Kakadu plum) has the highest concentration of vitamin C of any fruit in the world. Photo: Supplied

The best-known is Perth's Wildflower on the rooftop of the state's former Treasury building, now the Como Hotel. Chef Jed Gerrard's five-course $145-a-head tasting menu for Djilba season ("when wattles come into season ... large birds nest to hatch their eggs and popular foods include kangaroo and emu") features slow-cooked Doodlakine pork served with Davidson plum and powdered Kakadu plum.

Should you wish to experience the nursing whales of Pender Bay, but lack the ability to pitch a tent (or drive a motorhome over dirt track roads), Mercedes Cove Exclusive Coastal Retreat offers a similar Dampier experience.

Owner Pat Channing, another Indigenous Australian with a fascinating family history, shows me around the three comfy cabins and two eco tents they've built, pointing out exquisite views over Pender Bay, and explaining that her mother's name was Mercedes, hence the resort's title. 

But it's time to move even further north.

Kooljaman at Cape Leveque is at the very tip of the Dampier (unless you count the historic lighthouse). Jointly owned by two Indigenous communities (Djarindjin and One Arm Point), Kooljaman – the Indigenous name for Cape Leveque – has been a "must-visit" destination for grey nomads and European backpackers for a couple of decades. Most are attracted by the spectacular views, the fishing, the walks, the safari-style tents.

But for the past six years there's been another reason to make that long trip north.

Since he became the head chef of Raugi's Restaurant in 2011, Irish-born Joseph McGrattan (trained in Michelin-starred restaurants) has become another culinary pioneer.

His ever-changing menu features edible flowers, berries, seeds and other Indigenous ingredients he forages on walks on his days off.

A favourite is bush apple. McGrattan turns it into a gel that he serves with pork belly. He also serves riberries (lilly pillies) as a compote with smoked kangaroo, camel rump and emu.

And that gubinge crush at the Whale Song Cafe? I forgot to drink it.

Where to go

Whale Song Cafe and Campsite Pender Bay, Dampier Peninsula, 08 9192 4000, whalesongcafe.com.au

Mercedes Cove Retreat Off Cape Leveque Road, Dampier Peninsula,  08 9192 4687, mercedescove.com.au

Raugi's Restaurant Kooljaman at Cape Leveque, 08 9192 4970, kooljaman.com.au/dining

Wildflower Como The Treasury, Perth, 08 6168 7855, wildflowerperth.com.au

Steve Meacham travelled courtesy of Tourism Western Australia.