The Top End of Australia has been deluged with a particularly heavy wet season, so wet that 4WD tour buses are unable to traverse the unsealed red roads. Our tour leader Rob informed us with a hint of glee, that we would therefore be travelling in 2×12 seater Cessna aircraft throughout our trip. It was one of many up close and personal experiences of our 12 days together.
We flew over Arnhem Bay and the extensive Arafura Swamp landing in Ramingining, the town made famous by Rolf de Heer’s movie Ten Canoes.
A short drive to the Murwangi Safari Camp by bus and we were ushered into our luxury Safari tents overlooking the billabong part of the Arafura Swamp, which extends for 700-1300 square kilometres. We were warned about the ‘freshies’ and ‘salties’ lurking in the swamp and told to keep within the camp perimeter, much to the frustration of the birdos among us. Our guide on the billabong was Riko, the traditional owner of the area leased by Outback Spirit for its camp. Riko is a tall dark streak of a young man, economical with words and a very good AFL footballer. He pointed out herons, egrets, whistling kites and the various uses of the water lily.
In the afternoon, we jumped into the Jeeps for a bush tucker tour with Frankie, Riko’s uncle and Dave, the camp manager, as translator. Frankie spoke in his clan’s Yolngu language first and then in English. We finally caught on to the joke he kept playing on us – telling us in language to get back into the Jeeps with him and Dave, to move on to the next stop. We learnt about Cathedral termites, the milkwood tree for making canoes, ironwood for making spears, tasted green ants and watched Frankie give a demo of how to paint with ochre, charcoal and white clay.
In the evening we were treated to gourmet meals prepared by Sean, the Murwangi’s chef and over drinks, serenaded by Gerard with his mini guitar. Gerard so successfully warmed us up with his song about Patricia, who transformed into Delisha, the stripper, that our real Patricia’s husband Mike, had to protest his wife’s innocence.
Dave told us about the history of the camp. The original white settlement Florida Cattle Station was established in the 1890’s by John McCartney, who set up a cannon on the verandah of the homestead where our camp’s communal centre now sits. Over 300 Yolngu who tried to take his cattle in reprisal for taking their land were massacred and buried in a pit at the end of the camp’s runway. Frankie told us we could see the story in the Ramingining Bula Bula gallery.
The next morning was spent in Bula Bula Art centre in Ramingining. The artists were lined up to shake our hands, never mind about COVID restrictions. Upstairs, the gallery features photos and memorabilia from the making of Ten Canoes. We met Bobby Bunnungurr, an actor in the movie and the artist of the massacre painting. Bobby, who has exhibited in New York, Paris, Hannover and is a renowned songman, explained that the painting was a story to be remembered but that we needed to walk on in the future together as humans in peace, no matter what our skin colour. We watched as his wife Daisy carefully painted water lilies with a pandanus fibre. It was quite a humbling experience.