Guiding for Venture North I get to lead some extraordinary tours into some very extraordinary parts of the bush! My recent safari up through the North East of Arnhem Land was no exception and to say I’d been looking forward to this trip, would be a huge understatement.
Picking up the guests in Darwin I could feel the excitement bouncing around the car and it was clear that I wasn’t the only person excited about this tour. When you talk about Aboriginal culture in Australia it’s hard to go past the Yolngu people of NE Arnhem Land as a prime example of people who have managed to not only maintain their unique and fascinating culture but have become leaders in the wider aboriginal community and have fought for and initiated so many movements that have benefited both Yolngu and many other Aboriginal people throughout Australia.
One example of this is the homelands movement. Started in the 1960’s and gaining momentum in the 1970’s and 1980’s Aboriginal people were facilitated to move off the mission camps and communities and head back to their clans homelands in some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the country so they could once again hunt and collect bush tucker, be closer to sacred sites and uphold the ceremonies and creation trails of their ancestors.
Our trip commenced at Bagetti Homeland on the beautiful Wilton River, 30km from the community of Bulman on the Central Arnhem Road. We met Lazarus Murray in Bulman and I was greeted as if I was an old friend. He was as excited as we were to have us see his country and share in his culture. The drive from Bulman to Bagetti was a glimpse of what was to come as we bumped along the bush track passing huge herds of wild buffalo, donkeys and horses following Lazarus in his Toyota. On arrival we were introduced to his family, given a welcome to county and with wide eyes and open jaws shown the Wilton River and the country they have called home for thousands of generations. After setting up camp, it didn’t take long for the real adventure to begin. “We’re going to go out hunting for a young bulloky (wild cow) for some tucker if you mob want to join us?”. Not everyone’s cup of tea but two of the three guests and myself jumped into the back of the Toyota and set off, cameras ready and excitement building. If you’ve never been hunting with Aboriginal people it’s an incredible experience as trained eyes scan the horizon for not just any old cow that moves but for just the right one. Lazarus eventually found what he was after and took the shot on foot instantly knocking down the young buffalo. Skillfully he set to work with a knife, ensuring that nothing was wasted and showing a heartening respect for the animals life. Back at camp we enjoyed a delicious campfire meal under a billion star restaurant, listening to stories of creation that had been retold and passed down since the beginning.
Next morning we woke to the bush alarm clock of tweeting and whistling birds calling in a new day and for us, a new adventure. After a lazy breakfast we settled into the pace of Arnhem Land life and after collecting the mob from their various camps, we were taken to a stunning little spring fed creek. The old ladies told us that the crystal clear water was a great spot to hunt turtles and file snake (a fatty, loose skinned aquatic snake abundant in the area) and during the right time of year the young boys knock down flying foxes from the trees with homemade shanghaies, all very popular bush tucker. As we were listening intently I noticed some stirred up mud coming from a clump of water grass and pointed it out to an old man who picked up a spear and handed it to me saying “here, could be fresh water crocodile”. Eager to prove myself I tentatively stepped into the shallow water doing a great impression of someone who knew what they were doing and hurled the spear into the clump of grass.
You’ve got to be joking! I didn’t let my face show my utter shock as the spear jerked around, I grabbed it pushed it deeper and pulled out the biggest sleepy cod I’d ever seen.
Feeling like the great white hunter and earning the respect of our hosts we headed back to camp for lunch.
The afternoon was taken up sitting in the shade of a big paperbark tree on the banks of the Wilton fishing, drinking tea and collecting fresh water mussels. Collecting the mussels was a highlight and a rare opportunity to hop into the water and cool off in country that ‘Ginga’ the saltwater crocodile usually wouldn’t allow. The shallow fast flowing water is safe from crocs and once we’d filled a bucket full of big juicy mussels we relaxed back at camp for a special experience Lazarus had in store for us.
Toyotas poured into camp and it became obvious that the whole of Bulman was turning out to put on a ceremony for their special guest…..US! What a privilege to watch a ceremony that had once been performed in front of the queen. As didgeridoo droned and clapsticks kept the beat to a song that sang up the spirit of the ancestors it was hard not to be caught up in the moment and when a little black hand painted in white ochre grabbed mine pulling me up, I had no choice but to join in the stomping movements of Lazarus’s children.
Trying not to embarrass myself too much I copied them feeling very inadequate and imagining I must have looked like my uncle trying to do the moonwalk at a wedding.
We were all blown away with Lazarus and him family’s passion for culture and their willingness to share it with us. Saying goodbye the next day was with heavy hearts and none of the guests wanted to leave. Lucky for me I get to go back!
Gliding comfortably over the corrugations in our flash Toyota Sahara we were heading north to our next destination, Yilpara. Yilpara was our first glimpse of saltwater country and one of the larger homelands in NE Arnhem Land. I’ve read so much about the landmark high court decision known as the ‘Blue Mud Bay Decision’ giving Yolngu the traditional ownership and hunting rights of the water surrounding their land that I could hardly believe I was sitting under a tamarind tree staring out over the azure Blue Mud Bay chatting to our guide for the rest of the trip Waka. Meeting Waka, a senior Djapu clan elder was an honour in itself. Waka’s father Wonggu was a tribal leader of the Djapu clan and his story is a huge part of Northern Territory folklore with a strong relationship with Donald Thompson the famous anthropologist, another story I’ve read in numerous books with zeal.
Waka introduced us to some of the Traditional Owners as we were taken around to family homes where Yolngu were painting on bark and making spears for upcoming fishing trips. We were taken to sacred sites of huge importance and told how in the beginning of time ancestral beings created the landmarks remaining today as a reminder of their journey. We were shown ceremony grounds used for initiation and funeral business before being taken to an enormous stingray dreaming site sculptured in the sand. Before hunting trips you sit in the hollows that make up the stingray eyes, throw sand and sing up the name of the hunting grounds ensuring a plentiful bounty of ray’s.
A new day brought us to a new adventure and the trip into Bukudal homeland was an adventure in itself. After winding through tree lined bush tracks, entering deeper and deeper into the wilds of Arnhem Land I got us bogged! We were so close! The weight of the trailer was just too much for the deep, soft sand but like all good adventures the journey becomes the adventure. Luck was on our side and our hosts the Mununggurr family met us on the track. Digging, towing, bogging other cars, more digging, a lot of laughs and lots of lost sweat we got the car out and I was adopted as a brother with the skin name Balandji.
Sean Mununggurr whilst only a young man of around 30 is a famous actor in a film called Yolngu Boy and with another film coming up he’s a well know guy, but you wouldn’t know it. Sitting around another campfire under another star twinkling, moonlit night sky we were treated to stories from Sean and an old man named Lulpangi as the rest of the family sat quietly. Before retiring to our cushy swags for another night of restful sleep we bid the family goodnight. As the family walked off the young girl turned around, playfully calling back “watch out for the buffalos”. I laughed and ensured the guests that there was nothing to worry about.
Walking to the shower moments later I spied the silhouette of what looked like a huge buffalo! It can’t be! Squinting in the darkness I quickly realised it could be and was!
He strolled over the sand dune and started heading towards where we were camped. I ran and woke up the guests as well as Lulpangi who was asleep by the fire. I know what these big buffalo are capable off and when the local camp dog started barking and running straight for the beast I was very nervous as to what would happen next. This dog was brave! He proceeded to chase this big bull buffalo out of our camp and didn’t return until he was sure that he had chased it far enough away that it could no longer harm us. What a fortuitous series of events. Who knows what would have happened if that dog wasn’t there. I made sure to reward him the next morning with copious amounts of left over bacon from the morning campfire cook up.
Another sad farewell saw us heading for the biggest Aboriginal community in NE Arnhem Land, Yirrikala. Upon arriving, Waka took us into the art centre (Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre) where we wandered through what is in my opinion the best art centre I have ever seen (I’ve been in a lot!). There's so much to marvel at and such an impressive showcase of culture and art.
There was a buzz of excitement in the air around Yirrakala and it had nothing to do with Australia’s Prime Minister’s visit to town in a couple of days. The local AFL football grand final was on tomorrow and as we were driving out to our last outstation, Bawaka I couldn’t help feeling like we were missing out on something. I love AFL and bush footy is as good as it gets! Bumping, sliding and skidding down the very soft, sandy track into Bawaka I couldn’t stop thinking about that game.
Coming over a sand dune and getting our first glimpse of the coast put all thoughts of footy well and truly out of my mind. WOW! This place is the next level of beautiful!
Arriving at a version of paradise reminiscent of a travel agent brochure of a faraway destination, we hopped out of the car. I walked over to Waka. “Do you mob wanna go to the Footy tomorrow?” YES!! My answer left my mouth before his sentence had ended. The guests and I had already talked about how good it would be to go, so there was no group consultation required.
Sunset over Bawaka is an experience that will have me longing to return and waking up to the salty smell of clean sea air at a place like that is hard to beat.
The mornings adventures included spearing fish in the clear waters and digging up some turtle eggs to cook up and take to the football. It was all skillfully done by a group of people that were born to the land and sea, showing a respect for the fish and turtles that can’t really be fully comprehended by Balanda (non Aboriginal people).
The football was worth all the anticipation and excitement! We sat around, watched a great game of footy and ate fresh fish and boiled turtle egg with our yolngu friends, something none of us are likely to forget.
We all know the adage ‘all good things must come to an end’ but that was no consolation as we sat at the Walkabout Hotel in Nhullunbuy having a farewell lunch and saying our goodbyes and thank you's to Waka. What other tour can you go on that after seven days you are fighting back the tears as you contemplate leaving and saying goodbye to a place and people that have taught you so much.
Waka left me with a spear, a spear thrower and a friendship that I will cherish forever. I look forward to guiding the next trip out to NE Arnhem Land even more than I did the first.
Writen by Venture North head guide David McMahon.