January 17, 2014

Yothu Yindi, Dugout Canoes and a Dingo. A Beach Walk in East Arnhem Land

I needed a long walk. The beach walk from Nhulunbuy to Yirrkala is about 12 km. Some of it requires clambering up small rocky cliffs, but mostly it is on the fine white sand. I popped into the Police station first, just to tell them where I was going in case I got into difficulties and did not make it back on time. They were totally nonplussed as to why anyone would want to do such a walk when there was a perfectly serviceable road connecting the towns, but they duly noted my details in their log book and reminded me to confirm when I returned. The officer on the desk shouted out to me as I left to "tell them if there is anything worth seeing".

As I set out, I passed Yolngu people spearfishing, a practise that had not changed for centuries. They ignored me, concentrating on catching their food. Stopping briefly to admire the blood red sea (See this blog entry for more) I continued past the washed up remains of dug out canoes, and many large trees carried down from logging operations in the interior of Papua New Guinea, across the Arafura sea. The walk was easy, with the hardest parts being crossing tributaries running into the sea. I had to head inland on a couple of occasions to be able to cross safely.

At one point I saw a small young crocodile sunning itself on the beach. As I gingerly approached at a fair distance behind it, it waddled into the sea, keeping its head and eyes just above the waterline as it watched me pass by.

Wandering around a headland I found a party in full swing. Just outside the boundary of Yirkkala, a dry settlement, a number of Yolngu were swigging cans of VB and laughing. Grog is a real problem for aborginal communities, although this party was limited by the fact only one carton of beer was available, and no shops were nearby to replenish supplies. Now VB is one of my least favourite beers, and being warmed by the sun for four or five hours does not actually improve the taste, but I was tired and these were the first Yolngu who had not totally ignored me, so I had to stop and try the proffered beer.

Their life stories were so different to that of a modern white man. They hunted and fished for a few hours a day, and then spent the rest of the time socialising, having the odd drink, and playing music. One of their number had been a member of the successful aboriginal band Yothu Yindi, and at eighteen left Arnhem land for the first time to go to Sydney, Berlin and then tour North America. What did he think of the world outside? "Too noisy, many people, no fresh food" was his succinct answer, followed by "And shit cold weather".

Was there anything he liked in the outside world? "Those silver birds were Deadly*, free beer and all" he said to much laughter, "And I got to play music every night in big rooms with my mob".   He picked up an acoustic guitar and started strumming a very slow and mournful version of 'Treaty' one of Yothu Yindi's better known songs. I stayed for many hours, until all the beer was gone, chatting, listening to music and playing with a small Dingo puppy on the sand. I would have stayed longer, but I had to get back to Nhulunbuy and tell the Police I had safely returned, and that there was indeed plenty worth seeing on the long walk.

* Deadly means cool, or fantastic, in Aboriginal slang.

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