Go north, way north, for a taste of life that goes back millennia, writes Alexander Robertson.
A half-lit waxing moon pierces fleece-like clouds, sending down just enough light so I can see the silhouette of my Yolngu guide stalk through knee-deep water, a traditional aboriginal spear in hand, as we hunt stingrays on the seafloor.
"Turn your torch off," my guide Marcus Lacey says as I follow him, walking backwards, scanning my head torch across the water, looking for eyes staring back at me. An eerie sea mist lies on the bay and though we are the hunters, I cannot shake the feeling we too were being hunted as we travel through darkness in the crocodile-infested waters of Nyinyikay Homelands, a small ancient settlement on the coast of East Arnhem Land.
An isolated region at the northern tip of Australia's Northern Territory, East Arnhem Land is home to the saltwater people, Yolngu, who have lived on the land for tens of thousands of years. The boundless, scabrous landscape is where light blue croc-heavy waters meet a continent of golden-sand beaches, as snake-like wetland networks with shrubby blotches of native bush meet face to face on shore. This is a place where eyes, ears and instinct are needed, all for one purpose: survival.
The journey to Nyinyikay begins with an eight-seater single-engine Cessna that leaves from the bleak and barren town of Gove, built solely to service the controversial Bauxite Mine, opened in 1970. Bauxite is extracted from the red dirt that surrounds the area and when we take off, the ground below appears wind-painted red from the mammoth open cast mine. Scars on the Earth's surface stretch for kilometres and processing machinery and infrastructure cover the entire peninsula.
The bluest waters are juxtaposed against the manmade operation like a scene from the film Avatar, where paradise meets man's reality.
It is a 20-minute flight to Nyinyikay over ultramarine waters, sparse Outback bush and verdurous snake-like rivers and wetlands feeding Arnhem Bay.
Our destination appears as a long red dirt runway, sitting on the edge of cliffs. After a silky smooth landing, an Aboriginal man, Randy, and two young girls appear from the trees and greet us with big, white glowing smiles.
"Welcome to Nyinyikay," they say, warmly, as they slap white clay on top of our hair and across our forehead, to represent freshwater meeting saltwater, a symbolic ritual to welcome new friends to their homeland.
As we make our way towards camp, a sudden howl rings out from behind a bush in front.
Randy hails for us to stop, with an urgent look in his eye. He, too, then begins to howl and starts kicking up red dirt from beneath his feet, crouching in a stalking predator-like pose and walking around us making deep woofing noises. Other children — and Marcus, the tribe's leader — emerge from behind nearby bushes, with white paint on their foreheads too. They start swarming around us as if we've just got off the wrong runway.
Marcus gets up close and starts sniffing me but, after one last howl from Randy, there are big smiles and laughter as they all say: "Gululu, welcome to Nyinyikay."
We have just been through Nyinyikay customs and have narrowly passed the test. We have arrived at our new home for three days, a place where I will leave part of my heart.
As we walk up to base camp, army-style tents can be seen on a terrace, looking out over a quaint bay.
The camp is basic, with solar-panel power, flushing toilets and cool running showers to wash the Deet from your skin at the end of the day. The water supply offers some of the best drinking water, pumped up from an underground bore. Visitors are taken back to real Australia — basic living, with little dependence on technology. So long, Wi-Fi and modern luxuries.
In a nature-dominated world, you are its guest. When living with taipans, black adders and pythons, I prefer a proactive, not reactive, approach. Before bed I recommend getting down on all fours from a distance with a head torch to make sure no snake is bunking below.
THE WAY OF LIFE
The tour is designed to give more than a snapshot of everyday life, visitors are immersed and encouraged to live it. Days centre on learning about cultural practices and history, nights are spent next to a campfire after a dinner cooked by quirky Outback drifter Phil O'Brien, who found himself in East Arnhem Land after choosing to live a nomadic life in the Northern Territory.
He tells stories of adventures with Randy's grandfather, when the pair were dropped by helicopter into grasslands above their heads as they hunted for crocodile eggs. Survival was a narrow squeak.
At dawn, soft, majestic birdsong echoes throughout the bush. No need for alarms here.
"Out here everything has a meaning. Every single thing. Even the steps that you take, the air you breathe, it all comes into one."
Each day is littered with group and gender-specific activities; while male visitors learn the art of traditional spear making, women are taught how to make baskets from resources from the bush.
"Woomera [spear] represents the power that only a man will have and it represents authority, leadership quality and also that you're a hunter and gatherer," Marcus says.
The first step is to head into the bush ourselves to find a tree that will be used to make the spear, or galpu, used to hunt land and sea animals and which were also used in battle.
The weapon consists of two parts: the spear, which can be up to 4m long; and a handle used to launch it. The process takes hours, from felling a small eucalypt called a Gadayk, to shaping it with power tools — a modern approach to save time, as the traditional process would have taken days.
Arnhem Land has a human population of about 16,000, the majority of whom are indigenous. These people have called it home for more than 50,000 years, yet European explorers who came across the land in the early 1700s described it as uninhabitable with its wild coastlines, vast river systems, monsoon rainforests and billabongs.
The Yolngu culture has a deep connection to its ancestral roots and learning the way of the people is a major focus of the trip. Sitting beneath a shaded tree on the edge of the beach one morning, we are taught about Madayin, the way of life and law that Yolngu follow. Marcus talks of sacred times when strong spirits, ancestors to Yolngu, ruled the Earth with water and fire creating what is here today. Madayin also ensures all resources are used sustainably. Yolngu take from Nature only what they need. If they hunt stingray one day, they'll hunt for emu the next, and so on.
The culture's first foreign contact, recorded through song, was around the 1300s with Makassan traders who arrived from what is now known as Sulawesi, east of Malaysia. A solid, respectful and peaceful relationship lasted for centuries. Each year when the westerly winds picked up, thousands of Makassan traders sailed to Arnhem Land to barter resources that were originally foreign to Yolngu, such as steel tools, clothes, pottery, rice, coffee, alcohol, tobacco and spices.
"It was basically an open sea market," Marcus says. In exchange, the Makassans would farm and take trepang (sea cucumber) as a delicacy. The mix of cultures also had a lasting impact on the Yolngu language. About 2000 new words, such as those for hat and shoes, were created after interactions with the Makassans. "They were the first people who taught us how to read and write and navigate beyond our seas," Marcus says. Some Yolngu also travelled back to Malaysia — their adventures were recorded and passed down through song.
LIFE ON THE LAND
The Yolngu people use different trees and animals for food, everyday duties and medicinal purposes. Every plant and tree has a use, from relieving toothaches, boils and stingray stings, to an insect repellent, to portable torches, and flavoured leaves to infuse cooking. There is also a deeper relationship between the bush and the sea. Subtle changes to plants at certain times of the year warn of other changes elsewhere: when certain plants blossom it signals baby sharks and stingrays are ready to hunt, and deadly jellyfish are on their way. Questions bubble in my mind about the trial and error the ancestors must have gone through to pass down this knowledge.
A trip to this region is not for the faint-hearted. It is for adventure-seekers and well-seasoned travellers wanting something deeper, a connection with indigenous locals and an understanding of their everyday life.
In partnership with the Yolngu people, Intrepid Travel has launched a week-long trip to East Arnhem Land.
"It is one of the indigenous cultures that has been most strongly retained anywhere in Australia," says Geoff Manchester, Intrepid Travel co-founder, who is here to experience the tour for the first time. "They [travellers] get a small experience of what a more intact culture of an Aboriginal community is really like."
I survive our night-hunting expedition, but 11 stingray, one reef shark and a large crab do not. Hunting and gathering with the Yolngu people is the ultimate glimpse at their being at one with nature. Their connection and understanding of the land is like no other and after the terrifying crocodile infested hunting expedition I can't help but replay Marcus' words over and over again in my head. "It doesn't matter if you do not see a crocodile, it is always there."
THE END MULKA CENTRE
On the last day, visitors have time to visit to the famous Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala. Yirrkala is a Yolngu settlement that sits on the beach and is home to arguably the best Aboriginal art in Australia.
The most highly regarded Aboriginal artist, Nyapanyapa Yunupinju, is sitting there painting as we start the tour of the gallery, museum and archive centre.
This is a must stop, showcasing another layer of the beauty of Yolngu, but also chronicling the struggle they've been through.
Intrepid Travel's 7-day journey into East Arnhem Land expedition is from $6825pp, twin-share, departing September 20 this year, and September 19, 2019.