Sharing women's business – shell painting

I’ve signed up for a week’s tour in remote Arnhem Land. It’s a women’s group, run through Lirrwi Tourism. We are to visit two Aboriginal communities learning something of their culture, perhaps sharing in some secret women’s business and bush medicine.

It’s the land of the Yolngu nation. The area we are visiting is perched on the edge of the mighty Gulf of Carpentaria. It’s three-and-a-half hours south of Nhulunbuy, which is about an hour’s flight east of Darwin. But as our plane commences its descent to the small airport of Gove, we pass over a patchwork of weirdly coloured ponds, a strange mutation on the landscape.

Rio Tinto’s residues

It turns out the ponds are the residue of Rio Tinto’s 40 years of alumina mining and they’re full of iron, titanium and aluminium – worth about $124 billion if Rio can figure out how to extract the stuff. It’s a nasty contrast to the stunning paradise we are about to discover below.

But my mind for now is on more immediate concerns. Weeks before, Lirrwi had sent me an indemnity “deed” to sign. It was the first hint this was to be no ordinary tourist trip – I could well have bitten off more than I can chew, with “bitten” the operative word.

“The tour involves exposure to the natural elements, which may include sun, high temperatures, wind, storm, slippery and/or unstable surfaces, deep water, water hazards, dangerous animals, stinging plants and biting insects,” the deed says.

Beauty and plenty

“Dangerous animals may include wild cattle, buffalo, pigs and horses, estuarine and freshwater crocodiles, stinging jelly fish, stone fish, sting rays, centipedes, spiders, scorpions and other stinging insects. Such exposure brings with it attendant risk of sickness (including allergic reactions), injury or death.”

For some perhaps obvious reason the image of scorpions is the hardest to shake as I wonder if this time I really have gone a little too far out of my comfort zone. But then, surely this is just the insurance people being hyper-precautionary, as they always are.

Maybe. Within two days an older woman from the Southern Highlands kicks a young King Brown snake on her way back from the campfire.

The teenagers from Bukudal, our first homeland, make short shrift of the creature, rushing out and with a few shouts and skirmishes, it’s all over in less than a minute or two.

Singing and dancing by the campfire

It’s no big deal, we’re assured, but just as well since the young King Brown has no idea how to control its venom so it’s much deadlier than its adult relatives.

The next day a young German girl picks up a lovely shell admiring its long tentacles stretching along her finger. It’s a dangerous, sometimes deadly cone shell. Thankfully another of the young homeland members notices and slaps it from her hand.

Early another morning Randy, our guide, is obliged to track Marta, an installation artist, who has wandered off to absorb the sounds and sights that will find their way later into her work. Randy isn’t worried about the crocodiles in the water this time – we’ve been warned to stay at least three (or was it five?) metres from the water’s edge – he’s worried about the wild water buffalo that like to charge at anything they see moving in open spaces. These animals brought to the north for their meat in the 19th century are now in hopelessly plague proportions.

A rare splash, with many eyes watching the water

There’s a satellite phone in one of the cabins, but still it’s three-and-a-half hours by bumpy road to the nearest medical facilities at Nhulunbuy. Or a helicopter.

So we quickly learn to obey the rules. But it’s not easy.

I’ve been to the Central Desert and The Kimberley where the climate is extreme. But everything there, from the plants and animals to the people, speak to need for hyper-vigilance and an equally extreme form of sustainability and resilience to survive.

Here, the dangers don’t add up with what we can see: a land that’s majestic and abundant, stunning wide beaches and calm waters, teeming with fish.

It’s so easy to be lulled by the natural glamour of this place and it’s a struggle to take the warnings seriously. But we do, and it’s surprising how quickly we adapt to the local ease: follow the rules and all will (almost certainly) be well.

We’re guests after all, here to enjoy what must be one of the most rare and special privileges on the tourist map: an opportunity to enjoy the hospitality of a people who have lived on this land for 40,000 years and learnt its secrets and laws of co-existence. We’ve been promised a glimpse into some “women’s business”, perhaps some bush medicine, but most of all exposure to the beauty and rhythms of the land itself, its spirit.

Our hosts are generous and open. At each of the two homelands we visit we’re welcomed with a smoking ceremony. At Bukudal the whole village lines up – young and old – to shake our hands and personally welcome each of us.

Learning language

We cluster around a whiteboard in the sand and learn some basic vocabulary; we’re introduced to the massively complex kinship system that threads together people, and it seems all living creatures and the elements around us. Connectedness is key. We are all connected, everything is connected, we learn. And all is balanced, like yin and yang: there is Dhuwa (Earth) and Yirritja (sea). We’re honoured with skin names, a moiety and a totem.

We spend an entire day painting shells, another making necklaces, all to a defined traditional pattern, learning patience and the art of sharing resources among us so each can finish our work.

The pace is slow, relaxed, with good humour and ready laughs. Two teenage boys saunter along the beach, one playing didgeridoo and the other dancing,

Shell painting

in traditional style, thumping at the sand to connect with the spirit of the land. There’s dancing around the campfire at night, spear fishing, and time to drift off and simply watch and listen.

I worry a little about the potential for tourism to commodify the culture and ask Ruth, Bukudal’s elder, what worries her most about the tours. Is there a conflict with the culture? Not a bit, she says. Her biggest fear is “losing a tourist”.

I get the same answer from Djawundil, our host at Bawaka, the second homeland we visit.

Djawandil might have had in mind the pet crocodile that lives in the water alongside the camp. He is five, maybe six metres in length and is named Nike. The story goes that Nike was trapped as a youngster by fishing nets on the homeland’s foreshore. Djawundil’s father cut him loose and Nike clearly felt this was an invitation to stick around and make the friendly beach his home.

Preparing beads

Our hosts point to a line of coconuts placed along the sand. Nike stays on his side and we on ours we’re told.

I can’t help but wonder whether Nike has agreed to this pact.

Our hosts later throw him some freshly caught fish and he seems happy as he manoeuvres his huge body slowly onto the sand and then snaps at his feast. That night he stations himself further along the beach so he’s directly in line with our campfire, listening and watching, as we tell stories and laugh uproariously at our attempts to do some traditional dancing. I hope Nike doesn’t think we’re laughing at him.

Big demand but big challenges

The tours are just four years old and already they have given a boost to the local Indigenous communities, not just financially but by way of a sense of pride in their culture.

Smoking ceremonies and skin names are part of the honour

In 2015 Lirrwi won the Banksia Indigenous Leadership for Sustainability Award. But there’s a sad after story. As I do some due diligence ahead of finalising articles on this trip, I discover the business has been placed in special administration. This is not a death knell; there are hopes the business can be brought back to financial health.

The business’s survival will mean a lot to Randy, our guide on the tour. He’s an elder in training from East Arnhem Land, and says these tours are especially important for young people, giving them a sense of purpose and strengthening their culture.

Matt Grooby

Lirrwi manager at the time, Matt Grooby, says the demand from both the tourists and the homelands has been huge.

He tells me he has 10 homelands on the program and another 15 lining up to come aboard. Key blockage is staff – finding the right people to be tour guides, such as our highly esteemed guide Randy.

“You don’t find people like Randy every day,” Grooby says.

Stuart Ord, general manager, Tourism Central Australia visits our camp during the week, and says the appetite from tourists for Aboriginal cultural experiences has been growing for many years, but programs that meet the demand have been frustratingly slow to materialise.

At the time of my trip Grooby is chasing funding from both the Northern Territory and federal governments to help develop opportunities. He would like to see some sealed roads, and in the homelands, better ablution blocks and cooking facilities.

I voice a personal preference that things remain authentic, in other words, as they are now, including the dirt roads, but the feeling is that the better facilities are needed to attract overseas tourist.

Grooby tells me, “Australia’s got thousands of miles of unsealed roads; you can fill your boots with them. But try running a business or living in these parts.”

The trips are hellishly expensive to run, Grooby later tells me. Costs for everything skyrocket in the Far North – fuel, buildings and transport. The cost of transport alone is huge with the rough roads and long distances chewing up expensive four-wheel drive vehicles and fuel. The going rate to be driven from Nhulunbuy to Bukudal, we learn, is $800. Which sounds like extortion until you get the back story.

It was incredibly sad to find that the Lirrwi Yolngu Tourism Aboriginal Corporation was in January placed in special administration by the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations.

There are hopes it may be able to trade out of its problems if enough support can be found, especially from the corporate sector.

It certainly would be massive loss if we were to waste the massive work and hopes that have clearly gone into building this unique and most precious of tourist experiences.

The Fifth Estate shared costs of the trip equally with Lirrwi.

Following is a photo gallery from the tour