Our first day on our Outback Spirit Arnhem Land trip began with a Welcome to Country at Wirrwawuy Beach. We were welcomed by the Gurruwiwi family and their spokesperson Allie. Normally Djalu Gurruwiwi, one of the Galpu clan leaders and custodians would lead his family in dance and song but, due to illness, his wife and elder Dhopiya was explaining the meaning of the dance. The Galpu’s totem is Djari or the Rainbow Serpent so rainbow colours were worn by the women dancers.
We were invited to sit and listen to Larry, Djalu’s son play the yidaki or didgeridoo, while his nephew Jason, the songman sang the stories, as Dhopiya translated – English is her 4th or 5th language. We sat still respectfully, checking first if it was OK to take photos. It was. We watched as the dancers enacted brolgas dancing, leaping and jumping down to sit cross legged, then leap up and hunt wallaby or collect plums or dig for yams. At one point, Djalu’s brother Dennis came right up to me in the front row like an emu with his hand to his face as if to shake my hand. So I shook it, much to his hilarity. It seemed to warm us up to interact further and the next thing all the men were asked to stand in a line and all the women opposing and suddenly we were all dancing the Welcome to Country. A lot of laughing and jumping about occurred as we tried to follow the beat of the Bilma or clapsticks and the instructions from the dancers. Finally everyone mingled about and we were told we were ‘maymak’ – good. It was like no other bonding session any of us had ever experienced!
We were in Nhulunbuy. Nhulun is the sacred place named by Wuyal, the Sugarbag Man, a Creation Ancestor who travelled through the land naming places, plants and animals. The hill which provides a view of the East Arnhem coastline is a registered sacred site and was almost destroyed by bauxite mining giant Nabalco when the Gove Land Rights case brought by Yolngu traditional elders in 1969 failed. Roy Malika, with his brothers and other elders had written a bark petition for land rights in 1963. This now sits in the the federal parliament building in Canberra. Despite the government passing the Land Rights Act in 1976, it wasn’t until 1992 that the traditional owners gained leasing rights over the mine at Gove. It continues today.
Our tour continued on to Shady Beach – Ganarrimirri where we had a picnic lunch under the trees. Dhopiya, her sister Dorothy, her granddaughter and Allie were there in their Land Rover waiting for us. A big kerosene drum full of water was heating on a fire and they were steadily preparing and soaking leaves for a post lunch healing ceremony. We sat on low stools. Allie explained that as this was women’s business, the ladies were wearing Dhopiya’s family colours which were yellow – a distinction between Dhuwa and Yittija, the opposing moiety systems. One by one we were asked which part of our body needed healing and the wet leaves, slimy with mucilage, were rubbed on the offending part with the healing hands of one of the three women. It was a silent peaceful gathering. We all felt better even if, in my case, I had brown stains down the front of my shirt!
Our next destination was the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka (face the east sun) Art Centre at Yirrkala. Yirrkala is ancestral land belonging to the Rirratjinu Gumatj clans. Inside the museum are hundreds of totem poles. Traditionally these were used as burial sites, the bones of the deceased laid inside. Now they form a story telling function. We watched some of the artists – many internationally renowned – painting on bark. The paint is ochre, white clay and charcoal and the brushes a single hair plucked from a child’s head. A copy of the bark petition is also displayed and deep in the museum, away from cameras and destroying sunlight, the beautiful church panels depicting the Yolngu Creation story, as presented to the first missionary. These were banished by his successor as evil and heathen. They lay rolled up under the church for many years. Fortunately they survived and we can view them in all their complexity.
Our final destination was Macassar Beach, where archeological evidence of the outlines of praus or fishing vessels form a circle of stones on the headland. Macassans from Sulawesi traded with the Yolngu from the 1600’s, catching trepang or sea cucumbers, a Chinese delicacy in exchange for tobacco, tea, cotton and metal implements. The shady tamarind trees are a reminder of their influence, marking the landing spots on the Australian coast for the Indonesian trading vessels.