In the pre-dawn darkness on a beach named Lonely. Ritjilili Ganambarr sings out to the Dreamtime. She gazes across the bay and, with her keening voice, picks objects from the gloom: the boulders that disappear and re-emerge each day at the whim of the tides; the pelicans’ wings, dark against a diaphanous sky; the cyclone-buckled palm trees lying spent on the shore.
In great waves and with sobs spilling from her body, Ganambarr thanks the creation ancestors for everything around her, for the people who are here and the ones who have gone, for the saltwater crocodile floating out in the bay, for the morning star Banumbirr (Venus), which lit the way for the Djang’kawu sisters as they cast their songlines upon this land at the beginning of time. “The rays of sun touch everything in our country,” she wails in salutation to the slow seep of daylight.
The women-only crying ceremony is now over and a new day has begun. Ganambarr mops her tears with the hem of her skirt, pours tea from the billy and surveys the land of which she is a custodian. This is Bawaka, one of the homelands knitted together to form East Arnhem Land on the Gulf of Carpentaria. Accessible only by four-wheel drive or light aircraft, they are home to the Yolngu people, who have one of the oldest and most intact living cultures in the world. I’ve come here with Lirrwi Tourism, an Aboriginal-owned organisation developing a tourism economy in East Arnhem Land by offering immersive experiences with some of the Yolngu clans.
From the air, Bawaka is a dreamscape, a cushion of dunes speckled with foliage and lapped by a watery twirl of turquoise and white. It is shot through with those songlines, imperceptible Dreaming tracks upon which the creation ancestors walked as they sang the world into life. Everything here is interconnected through them: the casuarina trees and the dugongs, the sun, the moon and the morning star, the water and the wind, and the Yolngu people themselves.
On the ground, amid this ancient lattice of stories, we’d lumbered across tracts of bone-white sand, so soft and untarnished that it appeared to have been born just yesterday. We’d lurched along a ribbon of endless, empty beach and through forests of figs and wattles and paperbarks. Finally, we’d come to Lonely Beach – and a scattering of dwellings facing the broad scoop of a jewel-bright bay.
Ganambarr and her daughter, Djawundil Maymuru, were waiting for us. They’d placed djilka leaves onto the smouldering coals and, when they had started to smoke, brushed them and their fragrant outflow over our bodies. The negative energy that we napaki (white people) had brought with us soon dissipated and into the breach slipped Bayini, one of the benign spirits of Bawaka. “When tourists come here to Bawaka, they feel that someone is protecting them,” said Ganambarr. “It’s Bayini.”
The story of this spirit woman pulsates throughout the homeland of Bawaka, a legend at once tragic and uplifting. She was a princess, brought here as a slave by the Macassans as they sailed southwards from Sulawesi on the monsoonal winds. While they traded with the Yolngu – offering knives and other items in exchange for trepang (sea cucumbers) – Bayini was held captive on their prahu out in the bay. Then one day she was thrown overboard and swam all the way to the other side of the inlet, where she left her footprint on a rock. You can still see it to this day, says Ganambarr. We closed our eyes and inhaled the scent of the djilka leaves as the women fanned the sweet smoke around us. Bawaka will recognise us now that we’ve been cleansed and infused with Bayini’s spirit, said Maymuru. She will protect us from all harm.
On this day of the crying ceremony, we invoke Bayini as we set out to collect plants for weaving. It’s Dharraddharradya, one of six seasons that sweep over East Arnhem Land in slow and rhythmic procession. The oppressive heat of Rarranhdharr, when the stingray will appear and the stringybark will flower, has not yet set in. The fractious thundering of Worlmamirri, with its swelter and bounty of turtles, is still months away.
It’s August now, the perfect time of year; a breeze comes in from the east but the bay is smooth and unbroken. There’s no need to consult a calendar, for the day’s reminders are embedded in nature. The red flowers of the dharrangulk tree indicate that baby sharks are ready for catching, while the golden florets bursting from the gaypal (wattle) say it’s time to fish for mullet.
It’s a veritable pantry out here: kangaroos, bandicoots and goannas are mature for the hunting; barramundi and oysters are fat for the catching; yams and honey are sweet for the tasting. The supermarket is redundant – all nourishment is here, says Ganambarr, so long as the Yolngu take just what they need and leave this bounty’s surfeit for the future.
We ponder this law of nature as we walk through the stillness and heat, through forests of spear grass and towering palms, past trees drooping with broad leaves and flush with red blooms, and screw palms encircled with decorative collars. The men are crafting spears from malwan and gutpa trees, whittling their razor-sharp edges. They carry them out to the bay – last night’s moon predicted the tide – and thrust them at the shoals of mullet that the wattles have foretold.
But we’re busy with women’s business and Bayini is helping us to locate what we need. Ganambarr plunges a pole hook into a pandanus tree and extracts a frond from its crown. The remaining leaves snap back into place, easily concealing the wound. The other women are up to their waists in spear grass, digging for the plants that will colour their crafts, the scarlet bulbs and ochre tubers emerging kaleidoscopically from the earth.
We carry our haul back to Bawaka. Beneath a shelter on Lonely Beach, we set about stripping the leaves, peeling, tearing and pulling until they are reduced to wispy filaments. We grate the tubers with a stone, releasing their golden pigment. We crush the bulbs so they bleed in scarlet rivulets. We pile our bounty into enormous pots – pandanus and plant pulp together – and boil them until they are seared with colour.
The more difficult task lies ahead: the weaving of the dillybags in which the women carry their quarry of mud crabs, oysters, pipis and yams. The dillybag contains, within its fibres, the very story of this land. “There’s lots to learn about Yolngu culture,” says Maymuru. “It goes deeper and deeper and deeper.”
Ganambarr loops the strands around her big toe, ties them tight and begins to weave. Her fingers move deftly as she tucks the weave into itself, pulls it from a gap then threads it through again.
As her dillybag grows into something substantial, Ganambarr tells us about gurrutu, the network of relationships that underpins Yolngu culture. Gurrutu is like this humble dillybag, she says. It is a cylindrical life form that grows and expands, encompassing all the disparate strands as it goes so that when it is finished, they are independently discernible yet inextricably linked. The colours and the threads – the Dreamtime’s creation, she means to say – blend into one another, green and ochre and red, so that eventually you can’t tell where one has begun and the other has ended.