Welcome to Arnhem Land

Want to experience some of Australia’s most remote, wild landscapes and a thriving 60,000-year-old culture? Arnhem Land is where it’s at.
By Peta Burton June 10, 2021 Reading Time: 5 Minutes Print this page

“Baruuuuu!” Franky Maliburr sings out across the lily-covered billabong. He waits a moment. Then, wading further into the water, he again trumpets his people’s word for crocodile.
Silence. “He’s sleeping!” the local guide announces with a grin. “Croc here, but too early for him,” he adds. 

I’m travelling with a small tour group across Arnhem Land, a 34,000sq.km portion of the NT’s north-east that contains some of Australia’s most remote landscapes. We’re on Outback Spirit’s 13-day Arnhem Land Wilderness Adventure that’s taking us, in luxury four-wheel-drive coach comfort, from Nhulunbuy in the east to the Cobourg Peninsula in the west. 

This is an off-the-beaten-track adventure that’s taken the tour operation’s owners, brothers Courtney and Andre Ellis, and the Arnhem Land people years to plan. The brothers have a rare connection with the local Yolŋu people, who have one of the world’s oldest surviving cultures, practising traditions going back at least 40,000 years. The tour is designed to be an experience full of outback hospitality, fascinating conversation, exceptional cuisine, ambience worth bottling and sublime safari camps set in unblemished scenery. It’s proving a mix of education and exploration, igniting a love affair with an extraordinary people and their land and water environments.

Right now we’re deep in the Arafura wetlands and woodlands around Murwangi Safari Camp, near Franky’s home of Ramingining. “We use the land like you would a supermarket, hardware store, chemist and paint shop,” Franky says, stripping pliable layers off a paperbark tree and shaping them into a water carrier. 

Arafura Swamp is one of Australia’s largest freshwater wooded wetlands: it’s 700sq.km in the Dry and expands to 1300sq.km in the Wet. During a 12-month period the area will support up to 300,000 waterbirds. It is a breeding ground for salt- and freshwater crocs and is home to native fish. It has strong cultural significance for the Ramingining community.

The people of an ancient land

There are more than 16,000 Yolŋu people here, comprising 16 clans speaking a common tongue – Yolŋu Matha. They are divided into two moieties, Dhuwa and Yirritja, and everything from nature to culture belongs to one of the halves. Dhuwa and Yirritja are like yin and yang and govern Yolŋu life and relationship to Country. Together, they form Yothu Yindi, which means mother–child and is the most important principle of Yolŋu ancestral law. Language, ceremony, songlines, dance, art and Creation stories are diligently passed down by Elders to ensure survival skills and culture remain strong.

We had our first taste of Yolŋu ceremony back at the start of our adventure. In shady woodlands at Wirrwawuy (near East Woody Beach), on the edge of Nhulunbuy township, we found ourselves enveloped by the mellow strains of a yidaki (didgeridoo) played by Djalu Gurruwiwi during the Welcome to Country ceremony. 

During the ceremony, Djalu sounded out a continuous hum on his instrument as his family, the Galpu clan, embraced us. We delighted in mirroring our colourfully clad instructors and Djalu’s face glowed as Yolŋu and Balanda (non-Aboriginal) blended into one. “This,” his daughter, Zelda, said to me, “is Bäpa’s ultimate wish.”

Yolŋu Elder Djalu Gurruwiwi plays the yidaki (didgeridoo) during the Welcome to Country ceremony at Wirrwawuy, near the township of Nhulunbuy.

Yolŋu art offers spectacular insight into the culture. Visitors travel to Arnhem Land specifically to buy Indigenous artwork from places such as Yirrkala’s Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre and Ramingining’s Bula’bula Arts Aboriginal Corporation.

At Bula’bula Arts I find Mary, Julie, Margaret and Matjarra huddled in a nest of pandanus fibre and kurrajong bark. Matjarra, Julie’s daughter, explains. “They chopped down the trees, then stripped, softened, dried and coloured the string to make ceremony skirts, headbands and bush bras for an interstate festival,” she says. 

Cross-legged by a window is Bobby Bunungurr. I learn of his world travels as an actor, artist, songman, dancer and law man. “Law is the way we live,” Bobby says, his tone matter-of-fact but precise. “It’s how we’ve lived on the land and water for thousands of years. We can’t change law. Footprints can’t be changed.” 

After a pause, he adds, “Black man and white man must sit together and share their story, then make one idea, one voice and one body. We can live together. It is possible to live in harmony wherever we are in the world.”

From east to west

The Blyth River divides East and West Arnhem Land. After crossing it we reach Maningrida, home to the Kunibidji people. More than 100 clans live in the surrounding 7000sq.km. They speak up to 15 distinct languages, making this one of the most linguistically diverse areas, per capita, in the world. 

The number of skilled artisans in Maningrida is astonishing. As a collective, the Maningrida Arts and Culture centre, which includes the Djómi Museum, has worked with 1000 artists during the past decade. 

Maningrida is famed for the hundreds of kilometres of untouched waterways around it. It is in this setting the Tomkinson and Liverpool rivers and Arafura Sea become our marine playground for a couple of days as we join Arnhem Land Barramundi Lodge’s Indigenous guide, Colin Dudanga, and fishing guide, Greg Patterson, to try and land some barramundi.

We then venture west to ancient stone country and into the hands of Lachy Harrison, tour guide with Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris. “The late Max Davidson and Charlie Mangulda were mates,” Lachie explains. 

“Charlie saw Max as a blackfella with white skin and asked him to look after his Country. They formed a lease and discovered many rock-art galleries here.”

Our introduction to this 700,000ha wilderness begins with an 500–800-year-old Rainbow Serpent. We gaze at the 6m-long image, trying to sense the intensity of the Indigenous spirit world in this living museum.

Incongruous Cornish-style chimneys stand as memorials to Victoria Settlement on the Cobourg Peninsula. After 11 years this ambitious attempt to establish a trading hub at Port Essington was abandoned in 1849.

We continue to the Cobourg Peninsula and through Garig Gunak Barlu National Park to Port Essington’s eastern foreshore, where three boats await us. Just after pushing down the throttle, skipper Rob Robinson spies a flock of birds, sets a rod, calls for one of the tour guests to hold tight and before long a substantial Spanish mackerel lands on deck. It’s a thrilling welcome to another stretch of Arafura blue water.

A night at Seven Spirit Bay Wilderness Lodge is our last. As we climb away from the lodge’s airport, a bird’s-eye view of Van Diemen Gulf opens up before us. I sit back and let the impact of my journey wash over me. I recall Dhuwa and Yirritja and their yearning for balance. With departure there must be arrival. I’m leaving, but I will return. 

Visit Outback Spirit for more info on this amazing adventure.