January 12, 2014

An unhappy island. Groote Eylandt. Northern Territory.

Groote Eylandt had always held a fascination for me. Maybe it was the exotic name ('Great Island' is the English translation from the name chosen by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1644) or the fact it was so damn remote and hard to get to, a small island sitting in the middle of the Gulf Of Carpenteria. I had not paid much attention to what to do there, as there was virtually no information on the island available.

I managed to arrange to fly in for a day a private plane as a paying passenger with some miners, returning to the island from some 'R and R' in Darwin, via Nhulunbuy airport. A small Cessna, buffeted by some pretty exceptional air turbulence, made the journey down to Port Bradshaw and across the sparkling blue waters of the Gulf. Talking to the miners and pilot gave me an impression, albeit somewhat one sided, of life on the island. Basically it is a BHP island, producing manganese for export, with a very bored workforce. The workforce fished or they drank. Mostly they just drank. They dreamed of moving to their investment properties in Cairns. Relations with the local Anindilyakwa aboriginals, were poor and they had a reputation for violence, which was unusual compared to their passive neighbours on the mainland, and guns were a problem.

I was supposed to get a permit, but everything was closed, so I borrowed the Pilots car and explored the island. It was similar to East Arnhem land in its geography, sandy beaches, pandanus and palm trees, but with more forest and huge dirt roads for the mining trucks which crossed the island. Tourism is not developed, or really encourged, but local cultural tours are available, although not on Saturdays.

I ended up in the main town of Alyangula, a smaller, more run-down version of Nhulunbuy. The one place seemingly open was the Grog shop in the centre of town, but its only customers seemed to be Police. I later learned that there had been an armed robbery a few hours earlier. It did have a rather striking mural on the wall opposite, which I photographed.

Passing the Anindilyakwa housing outside the town, the difference between Yirrkala was striking, the housing was decrepit, and slum like, and the locals were distinctly unfriendly in their gestures towards me, they probably thought I was a BHP worker. I headed back to the airport, my eight hours on the island were up.

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