In this timeless part of Australia, Sam Mccue learns about country and culture from the Yolngu on an extraordinary Indigenous cultural experience through Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.
Ahead of me under a moody sky, four women slip in and out of view as they stride through the dense bush. They’re gathering pandanus to weave, looking for leaves and roots that will become dyes or medicines, and digging up yams they’ll roast over hot coals. The youngest, barefoot and bare-armed, wrenches at a crown of upright fronds, briefly cursing green ants that are unhappy at being displaced. It’s a timeless scene enacted over generations, centuries, even millennia. I ask if I can take her photo. The response – “Is that an iPhone 11?” – jolts me into the present.
This is Arnhem Land, where the Yolngu have kept their culture strong for thousands of years. Bordered by Kakadu National Park and the Gulf of Carpentaria, Arnhem Land is about the size of Portugal and occupies most of the top-right corner of the Northern Territory. And unless you’re one of the 16,000 or so people who live in this vast region, it’s a long way from home.
I’m visiting with Lirrwi Tourism, a Yolngu-owned organisation that takes small groups to traditional homelands between April and October. Several operators offer trips here and it’s possible, with a bit of planning, to put together a self-guided journey but Lirrwi invites travellers to stay with and learn from the Yolngu themselves.
My fellow guests are Meg, a language teacher, and her retired husband, Carl, from Geelong, and a Byron Bay couple, psychologist Michelle and her filmmaker husband, Michael, a self-described “New-Age guy”. We spend a few fascinating hours at the renowned Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in Yirrkala, before arriving in the tiny seaside community of Nyinyikay in East Arnhem Land, about 30 minutes by light plane from Nhulunbuy.
We’re greeted by a delegation of elegant women flanked by a posse of dogs with various levels of dingo ancestry, young dancers emerging from the bush, a palmful of white ochre smeared across our foreheads and a heartfelt message: “We want you to think of this as your home.”
Accompanied by Yolngu hosts Kingsley Dhamarrandji and Noella Mununggurritj, our group is led by Megan Balatj Ganambarr and we’re absorbed into the cluster of four households centred on the well-tended grave of her father, revered elder, artist and lawman Mowarra Ganambarr. His widow, Nancy Mutilnga Burarrwanga, also an artist, is the matriarch around whom a constellation of children, grandchildren and assorted visitors revolve.
Most of life here takes place outdoors. We sit on bright mats in the shade or around the campfire watching yams blacken in the coals as the waves of Arnhem Bay lap the shore. We sleep well on comfortable beds in huge safari tents, with windows that look out to sea. Each morning I wake to birdsong, the sand outside my tent embossed with the tracks of innumerable hermit crabs.
Daily activities are loosely structured but strictly gendered. Young Tiana comes to tell us that “the ladies”, her aunties, are ready for us to join them at Nancy’s place. Meg, Michelle and I try – and mostly fail – to replicate the grace with which Megan and the other women sit cross-legged and the precision with which they strip and split the pandanus fronds, turning each leaf into eight strong pliable fibres that will be dyed with roots, bark, leaves and ash. Under their tutelage, we learn to stitch and weave the fibres into earrings, little baskets and mats. “Show the old lady,” Mavis tells me when I’ve managed to complete a couple of circuits of weaving. By now we know “old lady” is a highly respectful term for Nancy and I’m chuffed when she nods her approval.
Our Mavis, it transpires, is Mavis Warrngilna Ganambarr, one of Australia’s leading fibre artists. That she’s a patient, expert teacher and generous with her time is confirmed when I return to my weaving the next morning – a few more rows have magically appeared overnight.We sit and weave and talk. We learn that dingo tears formed the land we saw this morning and how, if you’re lost in the bush, “you can dig yams, use paperbark to stay warm and light a fire to keep the buffalo away”. Later, Megan shares some women’s stories that we’ll keep to ourselves. It’s a deeply moving experience. “I’ll never forget their warmth and willingness to share,” says Meg. “They’re moving into the future, using the best bits of our culture but not forgetting the past.”
Meanwhile, the menfolk have been crabbing and fishing. They’ve nabbed a dozen or so crabs with spears handmade by the Yolngu men (Tiana, apparently, can catch a crab using only her hands). Carl and Michael are scratched, insectbitten, mud-streaked and grinning from ear-to-ear. Their combined haul means a crab each – each! – for lunch next day.
The seafood is a high point against a background of meals that, it must be said, are reminiscent of a school camp. Tour leader Howard Veatupu, an affable and knowledgeable Sydney-born Tongan the Nyinyikay ladies fondly refer to as “Cookie”, keeps us fuelled with meat and vegetable stews, wraps and plenty of fruit. The community is dry but after a day of foraging, weaving, chatting and learning, a cup of tea and a Tim Tam feels just right.
Anyway, this isn’t about wining and dining. One morning, the men go bush and return with a length of stringybark. Less than 24 hours later, Nancy’s son, Tony, and his wife, Heather, have transformed it into an intricately painted functioning didgeridoo or yidaki now proudly owned by Michael. “I’m not sure what my expectations were,” he says. “But the experience of going out with Tony, finding the right tree, cutting it, bringing it back and then painting it up – all within 24 hours! You see so many in the shops but to recognise the tree the yidaki comes from, carry it out on your shoulder – that’s worth it all on its own.”
Over a meal back in Nhulunbuy, we all agree that these few extraordinary days will stay with us. “Heather said to me, ‘Hold this in your heart’,” says Carl. “It sustains you to see the next generation coming through who are absolutely imbued with respect for their culture. They haven’t rediscovered it; they never lost it.”
A week after returning home, I’m still finding white ochre dust on my sunglasses and in my hatband – a tangible reminder of East Arnhem Land that I don’t really need. I’ll hold it in my heart, always.
Choose your Arnhem Land adventure
Tour with the experts Remove all the guesswork with an organised tour. Indigenous owned Lirrwi Tourism, operating out of Yirrkala near Nhulunbuy, allows you to connect directly with the Yolngu. Lirrwi offers day trips but we recommend a multi-day tour. Outback Spirit’s 13-day trip from Nhulunbuy to Darwin includes time at Mt Borradaile, known for its Aboriginal rock art, and Seven Spirit Bay luxury lodge in Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, Western Arnhem Land.
Drive yourself – if you’re game
The six-to-nine-hour drive from Darwin – depending on the condition of the road – to Wiligi Outstation passes through Kakadu National Park and Western Arnhem Land and ultimately rewards you with ocean views on arrival. You’ll need a 4WD vehicle and your own food, though you can hire a boat and try your hand at fishing. Plan to stay a few days to fully relax in the seafront campsites or cabins but check availability and conditions well ahead; the road is often impassable and includes the tidal crocodileinfested Cahills Crossing. Wiligi traditional owner Reuben Cooper is authorised to issue permits to visitors and is the go-to for updates on road conditions and the best time to attempt Cahills Crossing.
Fly in and make your own way
Flights to Nhulunbuy depart from Cairns or Darwin. Allow several hours to immerse yourself in Aboriginal art and culture, including watching artists work, at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre in nearby Yirrkala. Stay at the Walkabout Lodge in Nhulunbuy or head to Banubanu Beach Retreat on beautiful Bremer Island, a short flight away. Banubanu offers fishing tours out of Bremer Island or Nhulunbuy but anyone can test their seafaring skills with Gove Boat Hire. In the Northern Territory, you don’t need a licence for recreational boating.