Little-known island of riches wants to become a tourist hotspot

Groote Eylandt is well off the beaten track. Photo / TripAdvisor
Groote Eylandt is well off the beaten track. Photo / TripAdvisor

A spectacular, mineral-rich island perched in the pristine waters of Australia's Gulf of Carpentaria has a simmering battle on its hands.

Traditional custodians of Groote Eylandt are grappling with a formidable challenge: reaching for a future in sustainable, community-driven tourism, while continuing to reap phenomenal royalties from a thriving manganese mine.

The battle to wean off royalties, which have delivered untold wealth for more than 50 years, is laid bare by Groote Eylandt's waters.

A steady stream of bulk carriers bobbing in and out of the harbour shift up to five tonnes of high-grade ore produced at the island's open-cut mine every year, with production to continue until at least 2027.

The metal is a critical alloying agent in the production of aluminium, copper and steel, with the island contributing more than 15 per cent of the world's total manganese production.

Tied up alongside the behemoth ships sits a fishing vessel adorned with indigenous motifs - one of two such boats in a locally-owned fleet.

Onboard is fishing tour guide Johnny, a tradesman at the manganese mine, who moved to the island about 10 years ago.

Dropping the throttle and leaving the big ships in our wake, Johnny neatly captures the predicament facing Groote Eylandt - which was named by explorer Abel Tasman in 1644 and means "large island" in old Dutch.

"The fishing tours are a lifestyle job ... but the mining gig pays the bills," Johnny says of his own situation.

"Let's go and see Australia, and find you some silver ones," he says, with a thick layer of zinc smeared across his face, and a grin from ear to ear.

These tours are a key plank of Groote Eylandt's fairly recent foray into the tourism market.

The fishing in these waters, we're told, is among the best in the world, and you can go three to four days without spotting another boat.

With a plethora of lures tied to our rods, we spend the day trolling through mangrove-lined rivers around Arnhem Land.

It's not long before a just-big-enough barramundi hooks on, and after a bit of a tussle, climbs aboard.

Other fish show lukewarm interest at random intervals during the day, though none of them are worth eating, and ultimately the gory croc yarns are much more common than prize catches.

Late in the day, the winds and tides conspire against us, and we make a choppy return to land.

We're staying at Groote Eylandt Lodge, not far from the main town of Alyangula, which has 60 waterfront bungalows and rooms with magic archipelago views.

A consistent turnover of mining contractors and workers ensures a daily buzz around the place come dusk.

Among lush, tropical gardens alongside the swimming pool, some top notch cocktails work their wonders to knock the green gills away, while chefs at the lodge's Seagrass restaurant whip up our lonely fish into a hearty group meal.

Access to the remote island poses a significant hurdle to Groote realising its tourism dream.

Connecting AirNorth services from the mainland are fairly infrequent and many seats snaffled by the FIFO set, which threatens to push prices to a prohibitive point.

This is a shame, because the island home of the Anindilyakwa people is truly special.

A morning scenic flight with pilot Vaughan drives home its scenic beauty.

The vivid greens, reds, golds and browns of the coastline, ancient rock formations and dunes are impossible to capture with my smart phone camera. So I put the gadget away, sit back and soak in the views.

An on-land introduction to Anindilyakwa culture illuminates some of Groote Eylandt's key tourism strengths - its rich history, traditions and connection to country.

An art centre alongside the lodge showcases an array of pieces crafted by local artists, with nearby rock caves offering a journey back in time.

Motifs of fishing, hunting, water and water creatures adorn their walls.

The journey to the caves, however, highlights another serious challenge facing the Groote Eylandt community: lack of infrastructure.

The natural beauty of Groote Eylandt

A photo posted by Groote Eylandt Lodge (@grooteeylandtlodge) on

Properties in the township dominated by South32's GEMCO mine sport manicured lawns, with a golf club, community pool and shopping hub nearby.

But in the communities outside this zone, facilities are much more stark.

Abandoned cars and electrical equipment gather rust in back lots, while local media reports highlight overcrowding in houses and efforts to eliminate scabies.

A recent high-profile case of royalty theft has shone a spotlight onto the problem.

A former public officer of the Groote Eylandt Aboriginal Trust was this year sentenced to five years prison for stealing close to A$500,000 ($524,781) in royalty payments between 2011 and 2012.

The beneficiaries of the mining payments are all Aboriginal people who are members of traditional clans in the area.

The Anindilyakwa Land Council, the peak representative body for traditional owners of the Groote archipelago, has pledged a renewed focus on investing royalties into community-based infrastructure as they work through new mining lease deals.

A cornerstone of this vision is harnessing the island's tourism credentials.

While this plan is still in its relative infancy, it is plain to see the enormous potential Groote Eylandt has to offer travellers.


GETTING THERE: Groote Eylandt lies about 50km off the eastern coast of Arnhem Land and, measuring 2687kmsq, is Australia's third largest island. AirNorth flies regular planes to Groote from Darwin, flying time 90 minutes approx. The NT capital is around a four-and-a-half-hour flight from Sydney and Melbourne, four and a quarter hours from Brisbane, and around three and a half hours from Perth and Adelaide - via multiple carriers.

STAYING THERE: Groote Eylandt Lodge offers a relaxed and friendly tropical atmosphere. Rates vary.

PLAYING THERE: Fishing tours, scenic flights and indigenous art tours can be booked through the lodge.

* The writer travelled courtesy of Groote Eylandt Lodge.


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