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