Arnhem Land…July 2019 Part 3.

To reach Seven Spirit Bay we travelled north up the Cobourg Peninsula about 350 km east of Darwin. The Peninsula covers a land area of about 2,100 km².  It is virtually uninhabited country with a population ranging from about 20 to 30 in five clans living in outstations; the same language, Iwaidja, is spoken by all.

It is estimated that 250 Aboriginal people were living here prior to the arrival of Europeans, In the 1940s and 50s, the whole population was moved to nearby Croker Island. By 1974 the peoples were allowed to return and in 1981 the National Park was declared, leased from the traditional owners.

Garig Gunak Barlu National Park is a protected area on the Cobourg and some adjoining waters.


Arriving at Port Essington, we stopped at the Black Point Culture Centre located at the Black Point Ranger Station which seems a million miles from anywhere.  Exhibits showcase the rich history of Aboriginal people, Macassan traders and European pioneers.  Displays include traditional Aboriginal bush tucker, history and artefacts, evidence of Macassan trading and a history of the failed Victoria Settlement. A display on some recent history shows how an Indonesian fisherman was blown across from the Indonesian islands in his canoe, which is now in the museum.

Out timing at Black Point was short as it was critical we catch the tide. Seven Spirit Bay wilderness lodge had sent it posh new boat to take us across the Port to the glamourous  resort which can be reached only by boat or by air via the resort’s private airstrip. Port Essington is so big that apparently the British boasted it could hold all the boats in the world. After more than a week travelling through such remote country, the luxury of the resort was welcome.



But least you think it too friendly, there were warnings:


The Aboriginal calendar is not divided into the Wet and the Dry, as Europeans divide the weather in the topics. The indigenous people have seven seasons and each of the seasons has seven spirits. Presumably the genesis of the name.

The next day it was back to the boats as we travelled across the Port to reach Victoria Settlement; on a cliff overlooking a white sand beach, are the stone ruins of the settlement a small group of British marines called home from 1838 to 1849.



The Port Essington settlement was the third attempt to establish British sovereignty in the region. This outpost of Empire was meant to show every other European navel power, including the Dutch and the French, that Britain controlled the north of this land.  Aboriginal ownership to them, was and continued to be, irrelevant until the last quarter of the next century.

Besides establishing sovereignty, the British wanted to cash in on the trade route to Asia. They also hoped to benefit from the lucrative trade in trepang, or sea cucumber, which had brought Macassan fishermen from modern day Indonesia to Port Essington for centuries.

In October 1838, 36 Royal Marines, and a few of their wives and children, sailed into Port Essington. At its height 300 people are said to have lived here; ruins indicate  24 houses and a hospital.

The settlement was plagued by disease, and many marines unaccustomed to the climate or the landscape, died of malaria and fever. And yet it wasn’t until late 1849 that the settlement was finally abandoned.

The ruins of the settlement especially the old graves in a bush setting are sad, veering on the eerie.


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Yet in the surrounding bush, there was beauty:



The next day in the resort’s new fishing boats we explored the mangroves of Trepang Bay and chased the elusive catch though not for sustenance.

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Not only was there an elegant lunch spot prepared for us, the lodge boasts great culinary skills generally, the highlight being a degustation dinner.

Who would think that here in the remote wilderness, we would options like:

  • cured fish, wasabi sorbet, soy meringue and pickled ginger; or
  • kangaroo fillet, crumbed pork head, fennel and caper salad?

There were equally grand beef and chicken choices on the same menu.

The final afternoon we drove around the National Park looking for buffalo. Here there were bloodwoods, ironbarks and stringy gums as well as the palms;




Here also can be found Bypa, the mangrove palm in one of its 3 only global habitats.


On the final day of the Arnhem Land journey we waited at this remote bush airstrip = Seven Spirit Bay International – for the Cessna Gran Caravan  which would take us on the 45 minute flight across van Diemen Gulf to Darwin


And to Arnhem Land, I say farewellDSC09591



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Arnhem Land…August 2019 Part2

The dreaded Covid-19 lockdown has opened up time for all those things I never got around to but meant to finish one day. It has taken so long to return to this blog I have mislaid my notes and rely on memory.

My discursive narrative does no justice to the rich cultural homelands where Australian First Peoples have lived for 10s of thousands of years. It is extraordinary to hear that here in Central Arnhem Land there are more language groups than in any other region in the world.

This part of the trip I travel west to Murwangi onto Barramundi Lodge ending up at Mount Borradaile, six days of very different experiences and different landscapes.

Perhaps I chose the wrong month to visit as this week coincided with the Gamma festival out of Gove plus a few funeral ceremonies so that many were away on sorry business. Added to that, the Art Centres were being run with few people because the upcoming Art Fair in Darwin and a print exhibition in Paris meant that many people who might have been in the galleries for discussion were not available.

Our first 2-night stop was at the elegant Murwangi Safari Lodge. (Murwangi was once a failed European cattle station and now under the control of an Aboriginal pastoral company).


From there we explored a corner of the 1,300 sq kilometre wooded Arafura Swamp an important Aboriginal cultural area.


The film, The Ten Canoes, the only film made in an indigenous language, was shot here and went on to win a number of Australian Film Industry awards. Unfortunately, because of sorry business or illness the local indigenous guides weren’t available but a guide from the camp took us to the swamp billabongs left when the Clyde River evaporates in the dry months.




He pointed out special flora used for food and medicine or for stripping and twining to be used for weaving. The Milkwood  was traditionally used for body paint or for preparing adhesive for rock art. And the pandanus here was used for basket weaving.




Grooves in the rocks showed where food had been pounded for thousands of years.


This country has two main types of  termite formations.There are thousands and thousands of termite mounds across the Top End. Termites came to Australia 100 million years  ago and were originally found at the tops of trees. Across the world there are 250 species of termite and 150 of them are found in Australia. Only 7 species eat wood and generally all are part of the natural cycle providing food for birds and insects.

My favourite was the Cathedral mound said to grow as tall as 9 metres and reminiscent of eerie and grand shapes from childhood stories.


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The shorter Magnetic termite hills with the razor sharp edges and thin profile are also impressive en masse. Were life long enough, the study of termites would be fascinating.


Later we went boating and  luckily there was a generous twitcher with us who over the days took trouble to point out some of the hundreds of birds I sometimes glimpsed – including the jabiru, whistling kite, kingfisher, the blue winged kookas, egrets, brolgas and the tiny Jesus bird. This last is so called because s/he walks from lily pad to lily pad so that it appears to be walking  on water,


The next day we visited the Bula’bula Art Centre in Ramingining and I was struck, as so often on this trip, by how central these art centres are to the economic wellbeing and cultural preservation of local communities. While we were able to visit the Centre and look at some of the delicate, intricate work being created, here as in all other stops in communities, we were not allowed to wander into or around the townships – just into and out of the cultural centres.



On the road again driving west; by the road I noticed a sign saying we were passing a ceremony site and the fine for being there without permission was $30,000.

And there were palms:


Our next two-night stay was at Barramundi Lodge. The Lodge is apparently a premier fishing destination and indeed the next day loaded boats took off to cast tourist lines into the Liverpool River. Some were experts in the making and others landed their fish. I was hopeless and didn’t enjoy being so.


Some distance from the Lodge is the township of Maringrida home to about 4,000 people and servicing around 30 outstations. The catalyst for the town was trade. It was a trading post in the 1930s when local goods such as turtle shells were exchanged. By the 1950s people started trading bark paintings and a township developed.

The Maringrida Art and Cultural Centre, the Djomi Museum of traditional craft and history and the Barbara Women’s Centre were some of the highlights of the trip. To my delight I found that the 8-foot weaved piece in my Sydney hallway called The Mermaid, came from here. This intricate open weaving is the local signature style. Maringrida has produced a number of well-known artists. In 2004 John Mawurndjui was one of a number of Aboriginal artists commission by Musee de Quai Branly in Paris.




The newly opened Djomi Museum is a gem with some exquisite examples of traditional craft and culture.


Unfortunately, the Women’s Centre where some impressive stencilled fabric is produced was not a hive of activity for the women were off preparing either for an exhibition in Paris or the Darwin Art Fair.



The next day we drove to Mt Borradaile leaving green landscape for stone country. On the trip we passed a number of variations in landscape including some wonderful – and my favourite – termite hills.


Mt Borradaile was, for me, the highlight of the trip because of the wonder -full rock galleries.

The sunset cruise on Coopers Creek nearby was second on the list of memorables for the peace, the beauty and the birds:






And, of course, there’s this fella and his mates…


Some of the country we walked through to get to the rock galleries


Mount Borradaile is a rock shelf 1.4 to 1.6 billion years old. In 1875, the first European explorer saw the castle rocks with their painting and parcels of bones wrapped in bark from the melaleuca.





In1975 Max Davidson, buffalo shooter, came across the spectacular art galleries. The Mount Borradaile sites are classified under the aboriginal Sacred Sites Act,1978.

Habitation in the catacomb caves range from 500 to40,000 years. We were told the white/yellow echres in the paintings could be 200 years old while the red ochres could be 40,000.


These galleries have the largest painting of the rainbow serpent (below) recorded anywhere.


It filled me with awe to see the ash from old, old cooking fires on the floor of the caves and the grinding stones that may have been in use thousands of years ago.


The final in the Arnhem Land blogs will be a short one – the last stop, Seven Spirit Bay.



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Arnhem Land… August 2019 Part 1

Arnhem Land is in the northeast corner of the Northern Territory of Australia. It is First Nations’ country.


Covering approximately 98,000 sq kilometres, Arnhem Land Reserve was proclaimed in 1931. The first public political action by the local community was in 1963 when the Yirrkala people concerned about land rights and the incursion of mining, presented the Australian parliament with the now famed Bark Petition which gave Aboriginal peoples hunting rights and the right to protection of sacred and other sites. In  1977, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 was proclaimed.

Arnhem Land is under Northern Land Council control and the Council issues permits for entry. Unless you have business there such as servicing and supporting the 12,000 indigenous people who live in small settlements and outstations, you are unlikely to get a permit for anywhere but peripheral areas.

I chose to travel with a travel company since they are the only ones with a special arrangement to drive across the country and stay at specific camps; as the driver kept telling us, the conditions attached to the permit were stringent. On some sections of the main earth road (travelling from Katherine to Nhulunbuy) you must conclude your travel within eight hours; on others, there is no stopping at all, even for a cup of tea.

The driver told us more than once that we should think of this as another country, one that required a visa.

Apart from the 12,000 indigenous people who live here, there are an additional 4,000 people many of whom work for the large bauxite mine on the Gove peninsula, adjoining the town of Nhulunbuy, our starting off town.

Mining in Gove has long been contested. In 1971, the Yolngu people took court action against the Commonwealth of Australia and Nabalco, and lost. In 2002 the alumina refinery had a major expansion and Rio Tinto took over.

Mining is contracting substantially. Nhulunbuy had a population of 4000 in the 1970’s; it is now 2,500. The week I was there the Arnhem Club shut its doors. The town is looking to diversify in the chase for future employment.

The first full day we took a look at the old works where bauxite had been refined to alumina. Now closed they present a huge industrial landscape, eerie in this remote corner, sunk capital in a wasteland of useless infrastructure.




Right now other miners, specifically the frackers, are reported to be sniffing around Arnhem Land

I joined a tour— 10 couples, a single bloke and me. (Having a different lifestyle, I had forgotten how all encompassing coupledom was). We were to travel from east to west, from the Gove peninsula across the top to what is almost the top tip of Australia at Seven Spirits Bay northwest of Darwin. (See map on part 2.)

We moved in a huge Mercedes transport. The company takes a transport through ever 2 days in the season. There are 5 stops on the 12 day tour.

First stop: Gove Peninsula

I flew into Gove airport and stayed in Nhulunbuy, which services mine workers, tourists and local Aboriginal communities. Eighteen ks south is the town of Yirrkala with a population of 809. The Yolngu people have lived here for some 60,000 or more years and have given Australia artists, a famous model and footballer, not to forget the rock band Youthu Yindi or members of the Yunupingu clan, Mandaway the musician and Galarrwuy a political leader.

Yirrkala is home to a number of leading artists whose work, primarily bark paintings, are in galleries around the world

Welcome to country

Our visit to Yirrkala started with a set piece welcome to country at Wirrwawuy beach enacted by members of the Galpu clan. I wondered whether they got tired of the repetition every second day from early May to late September but then I figured it is really just their job.  First there were a number of short dances followed at another beach by a demonstration of traditional healing where women poured a special boiled leaf liquid over ageing tourist bodies.

The whole troupe was not there because some had travelled days away to attend a ceremonial funeral.


Men sang and played the digeridoo and clapsticks while other members of the clan danced. The women dressed in rainbow colours to honour their totem, the rainbow serpent


How could anyone resist the youngest of the dancers?

Best of the welcome was meeting 89-year-old Djalu Gurruwiwi a traditional custodian of the yikadi (didgeridoo) for all of Australia. This gentleman has played the didgeridoo for many eminent people including the English Queen. The didgeridoo is made from the trunk of the stringy bark gum that has been hollowed out by termites. The stringy bark is shallow rooted and when water logged hollow trunks fall over in the wind.


This gentleman, as the Custodian of the didgeridoo, has meet the English Queen.

We finish the visit to Yirraka with a visit to the art centre. Art is integral to cultural tradition and its maintenance and is now a generator of employment in remote outstations and towns.


Watching the women paint, weave, screen print across Arnhem land impresses with its complexity, skill and dedication



Great painting on the side of a building

Makassan trade

The day concluded with a visit to the Makassan Beach Interpretative walk. Yolngu traded with the Makassan people from Sulawesi (and possibly from as nearby as Timor) in return for their right to fish for trepang (sea cucumbers). Trade was happening in the mid 1700s while some historians say it started as early as 1640; some rock art carbon dating supports even earlier visits. Trepang was prized for its culinary and medicinal values. About 1,000 Makassans arrived with the northwest monsoon each December; trade only stopped towards the end of the 19thcentury when the English authorities began to impose custom duties. Crews set up on beaches where they boiled and dried the trepang to enable it to be transported for sale to Chinese merchants.

The exchange involved the trade of cloth, tobacco, metal axes and knives, rice and gin. The Yolgnu also traded turtle-shell, pearls and cypress pine and some were employed as trepangers.


Helpful signage on the interpretative walk

On the road

Leaving the Gove Peninsula we drove for more than half a day on the Central Arnhem road through my first exposure to country.

First impressions were of the clean sharpness of the colours, the spearmint green of new gum growth, the bauxite red of the road, the cobalt blue of the seas, the strong green of the red gums.

Eventually the roadsides became lined with fairly standard wooded acres.


Hour after hour, the road is ochre and sometimes red ochre


Lunch on a barrel by a peaceful creek

For four hours all we saw were a few work trucks on the road and a landscape punctured with large, maybe 6 foot, termite nests. In the last hour trees, blown down by a previous cyclone, lay end to end, their dead skeletal trunks resonant of sculptural shapes.

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Next stop Murwangi – the Arafura floodplains


















































Arnhe land

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