The spear­ing of din­ner is best left to the lo­cal ex­perts in Arn­hem Land, as James Jef­frey dis­cov­ers

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THE first mud crab to suc­cumb to the spear is skew­ered as it scut­tles among the man­grove roots. As my host Djawa Bu­rar­rwanga lifts it drip­ping and snap­ping from the tepid wa­ter of Port Brad­shaw, small reef sharks rip­ple the sur­face. The tung­sten-coloured clouds of the build-up are murk­ily pil­ing in tow­ers in the east Arn­hem Land sky, drown­ing the light and threat­en­ing the first proper rain of the sea­son.

‘‘ Wet might start early this year,’’ Djawa com­ments as he sets back to work. Mind­ful of fin­gers, the crab’s claws are quickly re­moved: huge, glad­i­a­to­rial-look­ing ap­pendages that, with a snap, end up as lit­tle more than ar­moured meat safes. Steve, who’s stand­ing nearby, says in­stant dis­ar­ma­ment is the way to go. I ask him if he’s ever been nipped.

‘‘ Yeah, once when I was show­ing off,’’ Steve says, his face dark­en­ing at the me­mory. ‘‘ Now I just get straight down to busi­ness.’’

We head back through the shal­low wa­ter and its lum­ber­ing pla­toons of her­mit crabs and dis­cover the oth­ers have been suc­cess­ful as well. The crab and its claws are added to a small pile and as the triple prong of the spear is pulled from its back, it’s left with a tri­an­gle of holes in its broad, nearly black cara­pace, which makes it look strangely like a 10-pin bowl­ing ball with legs.

Djawa looks pleased with the haul and as the oth­ers pack their spears away, he takes out his knife to scrape away at a new woomera he’s been mak­ing. ‘‘ Just an emer­gency one,’’ he says with a grin. Then we’re all back in the old LandCruiser, driv­ing through this mag­nif­i­cently empty stretch of Yol­ngu coun­try, cross­ing a pale scythe of beach to­ward Bawaka as the heav­ens fi­nally open the sluice gates and turn the sea white. IF you’ve won­dered how it might feel to be trapped in the spout of a ket­tle on the boil, Arn­hem Land in the build-up to the wet should pro­vide an an­swer. As I step off the plane at Nhu­lun­buy air­port a few hours ear­lier to meet Djawa and his crew from Bawaka Cul­tural Ex­pe­ri­ences, I feel as if I’ve walked into a bowl of soup, but the shock doesn’t last. By the time we make it into Nhu­lun­buy (the town oth­er­wise known as Gove) I’m re­lax­ing into the heat.

Djawa, who is also known as Timmy, is ac­com­pa­nied by cousins Djali Ganam­barr, Jonathan Mun­rar­ryun (a dancer who per­formed at the Syd­ney Olympics open­ing cer­e­mony), Aaron Bu­rar­rwanga (a dancer and ac­tor who has just re­turned from tour­ing with a play cel­e­brat­ing the long re­la­tion­ship be­tween Ma­cas­san traders and the Yol­ngu) and Steve Smith (a ba­landa, or white man, from south­ern NSW, who’s found Arn­hem Land life more to his lik­ing).

Djawa ex­plains he is par­tic­u­larly keen for the lo­cal baux­ite min­ing com­mu­nity to un­der­stand more about the Yol­ngu peo­ple they live among. ‘‘ They’re more likely to know about the cul­ture in Bali,’’ he says. ‘‘ But it’s im­por­tant to know the cul­ture of the peo­ple who own this land. What we are do­ing with th­ese cul­tural tours is all about learn­ing, build­ing bridges and spread­ing knowl­edge.’’

Be­fore head­ing south to Djawa’s home of Bawaka, we stop at the Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity of Yir­rkala — near the Top End’s east­ern­most point — to pick up sup­plies and see the Buku-Lar­rng­gay Mulka art cen­tre. ‘‘ Art is never just art,’’ Djawa says as we walk in. ‘‘ Art is about ed­u­ca­tion and knowl­edge. It’s about eco­nomics and laws and our re­la­tion­ship with the land. It is like our GPS.’’

The walls vi­brate with an­i­mal and hu­man forms in an ex­plo­sion of cross-hatch­ing, enig­matic shapes, codes and sym­bols. The most strik­ing are the Yir­rkala church pan­els, two monumental pieces de­pict­ing the sep­a­rate yin and yang-like halves of the Yol­ngu world, Yir­ritja and Dhuwa, and their re­spec­tive cus­toms, cer­e­monies, sto­ries and bond with the coun­try. The pan­els were cre­ated in the early 1960s when that bond was once again un­der threat.

As the cen­tre’s art co-or­di­na­tor Andrew Blake writes in Sea­wa­ter — Yir­rkalaBarkPaint­ing­sofSeaCoun­try : ‘‘ If you slow down and lis­ten to what the peo­ple and artists want to tell you about the works, the art be­comes en­chant­ing. The Yol­ngu, through non-sec­u­lar paint­ing, are ask­ing other peo­ple to lis­ten to their mean­ings of ex­is­tence, philoso­phies and rigid rules re­gard­ing kin, all of which are en­tirely con­nected to the land and to the sea.’’ But then Jonathan points out some pos­sums and birds in the pan­els and solemnly in­tones: ‘‘ They rep­re­sent break­fast.’’ There is much guf­faw­ing.

On the way out, we pause be­fore a screen show­ing footage of cer­e­mo­nial danc­ing shot in the ’ 60s: a pole at the epi­cen­tre of an in­ner cir­cle of painted men, all turned in­wards with their spears and ghostly faces, and an outer cir­cle of women mak­ing a trench in the sand as they or­bit. There is much mur­mur­ing and a few chuck­les be­tween Djali and Djawa as they recog­nise faces. THE road to Bawaka turns soft. Some­body, pos­si­bly fol­low­ing an un­happy ex­pe­ri­ence, has deleted a digit from the sign at the start of the dirt, leav­ing it to an­nounce: Cau­tion loose gravel road — Ad­vi­sory speed 0. The red dirt turns to sand as we bounce along (‘‘As good as a mas­sage,’’ says Djawa) and low shrubs fire kalei­do­scopic broad­sides of par­rots across our path. The con­ver­sa­tion grows louder, veer­ing be­tween English and Yol­ngu, with its rapid vol­leys of vow­els and vel­vety con­so­nants.

Af­ter the crab­bing ex­pe­di­tion, the world opens up into a vast bay fringed by white beaches and dune coun­try rich in Yol­ngu cre­ation myths. This is where the Djang’kawu sis­ters came ashore and set about bring­ing the world into be­ing, nam­ing ev­ery­thing and cre­at­ing fresh­wa­ter springs. Djawa and Djali very po­litely but firmly tell me to put my cam­era away while we’re in the pres­ence of the sa­cred dunes.

We ar­rive at Djawa’s fam­ily home, a small green house with so­lar pan­els, perched at the edge of the beach and look­ing out across the wild bay. Djawa’s clan was moved from here by mis­sion­ar­ies early in the 20th cen­tury and only man­aged to re­claim it in 1975. His fa­ther is buried in a splen­did grave near the house, but his mother Bar­bara is alive and well and, when we ar­rive, busy teach­ing her grand-daugh­ters how to weave bas­kets from pan­danus palms.

She traces a fin­ger around the bas­ket’s con­cen­tric cir­cles of orange and yel­low and pur­ple, ex­plain­ing

how the dif­fer­ent lay­ers rep­re­sent the womb, life, birth, knowl­edge, learn­ing and the spirit world. To­mor­row she’ll take the lit­tle girls into the scrub to show them what roots and plants to use for mak­ing the dyes.

Af­ter a lunch of suc­cu­lent crab and sweet­lips cooked on the fire, we drive out briefly to where Port Brad­shaw ends and the Gulf of Car­pen­taria be­gins. Over a fringe of baux­ite eroded into Gaudi-es­que tow­ers, we spy schools of fish and the rip­pling disc of a stingray. We pluck bush plums — loaded with vi­ta­min C— and wild apri­cots, savour­ing their faint sweet­ness and tangy seeds. On the way back we pass terns and waders stand­ing to at­ten­tion on the sand­bars and low trees fes­tooned with glee­fully rau­cous flocks of corel­las. A small fam­ily of wa­ter buf­falo jogs away at the sound of the en­gine, only to stop af­ter a short burst and eye us with sus­pi­cion.

By the time night falls, the clouds have peeled back and re­vealed the stars. I sleep on a thin mat­tress on the cov­ered porch, wrapped in the warmth of the night and the sound of the wa­ter and, give or take the odd thought about what might be in­volved if a croc­o­dile wan­ders up dur­ing the night, it feels divine.

Daz­zling light greets us in the morn­ing and the men are once again scan­ning the wa­ter for fish. It’s hard to make out what they see among the rip­ples and shad­ows, but see they do and we of­ten fin­ish up with a fish flap­ping on the end of a spear.

Even Steve, who’s been hang­ing out here for a cou­ple of years, is awed: ‘‘ Ob­vi­ously they’ve been do­ing it all their lives, but even so, their eye­sight is amaz­ing.’’ Over the two days, I do learn to spot the mud crabs: vague ovals of dark­ness mov­ing be­neath the dim­pled sur­face, us­ing the clear wa­ter to purge the man­grove murk from their sys­tems. The crabs, like ev­ery­thing, have a sea­son when they can be hunted. Many of the sea­sons are marked by a cal­en­dar of veg­e­ta­tion; for ex­am­ple, the red flow­er­ing kur­ra­jongs now turn­ing much of the scrub ver­mil­ion mean it’s the time of year when sharks have enough fat on them. They’re safe from hunt­ing for much of the year, but not to­day.

‘‘ Look at that fella com­ing,’’ Djawa cries as he grabs his spear and wades into the wa­ter. The reef shark be­lat­edly sees Djawa and be­gins to turn, but not quickly enough. It even­tu­ally joins the mud crabs and an ar­ray of mul­let, milk­fish and hefty jew­fish on the fire; Djali and Aaron in par­tic­u­lar seem to have been on a two-man mis­sion to empty the sea. I’m afraid to say that my crab­s­pear­ing at­tempt is marked by com­plete in­ep­ti­tude, but I’m al­lowed to join the feast in the shade be­neath a tree.

Our last stop is near the other end of the beach where Bar­bara has set up camp with her grand-daugh­ters on their plant-gath­er­ing ex­pe­di­tion and we join them for damper and honey freshly har­vested from a bee­hive. De­spite the prob­a­bil­ity I have eaten my body weight in crab in less than 24 hours, Bar­bara sud­denly seems con­cerned I may be on the verge of star­va­tion and sees to it that I eat.

The damper’s lovely but the honey is ex­tra­or­di­nary. As I sit there with a bel­ly­ful of crab, the heav­enly honey ooz­ing down my chin and what is prob­a­bly a com­pletely spaced-out ex­pres­sion, Djawa glances over.

‘‘ So you had a good time in our coun­try?’’ he asks, but I can tell from his grin he knows the an­swer.

Pic­tures: James Jef­frey

Good tucker: Clock­wise from main pic­ture, Djawa Bu­rar­rwanga flour­ishes a reef shark; spear­ing lunch; Bar­bara Bu­rar­rwanga weav­ing

Rocks of ages: Baux­ite forms dra­matic nat­u­ral sculp­tures at Port Brad­shaw

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