Bridging the gulf
The Northern Territory’s four-day Garma Festival is all about both-ways learning
A SALTWATER crocodile about 3m long is lurking just off Timmy Djawa Burarrawanga’s beach. As crocs often can, it looks like a killer handbag, but this isn’t your average salty.
‘‘His name is Nike — like the track shoe,’’ says Djawa. When the champion runner Cathy Freeman visited this remote part of the Gove Peninsula some years ago, she saw the crocodile and named him after her sponsors. So, I wonder aloud, how did she go with the marketing motto? My shoes are killing me?
We are on a sublime stretch of Arafura Sea coast on the far northeastern tip of Arnhem Land, 650km east of Darwin.
This Eden-like cove in Djawa’s traditional homelands has a truly apt name, bestowed on it by early Macassan traders: Bawaka, or Unknown Heaven.
If it weren’t for the salties and their snap-happy ways, and that Arnhem Land is a restricted Aboriginal region, resort developers long ago would have staked out these translucent waters and creamy sands for the next Phuket.
Timmy has brought about 20 of us — mostly whitefellas and several indigenous Yolngu men — down here to the coast for some men’s business, away from the Garma Festival of traditional culture that’s in full swing up on the plateau behind us.
On the way we netted for fish, standing waist-deep in the muddy waters of Port Bradshaw.
‘‘No crocs in here, I trust?’’ I ask the guy next to me, optimistically. He shrugs, grins even more optimistically and introduces himself as Mathias, a professional didgeridoo player from Basel, Switzerland. Here for his third Garma, he tells me he is one of no fewer than eight full-time yidaki didgeridoo performers in Switzerland. ‘‘But I also play the alpenstock,’’ he adds.
Beneath shade trees at Bawaka we barbecue the fish that we (well, the Yolngu guys) netted earlier, then sit talking on the sand. Men’s business here simply means each man introducing himself and saying a little about where he’s from, where he’s at and where he might be going. No wannabe exoticism or secret-sacred pretences — just people being people.
Nike turns up and Djawa slings him a few fish. His jaws snap shut like a rat trap. No matter how heavenly this scene might be, none of us is swimming here. Djawa reckons that he could, but we blokes would probably get eaten. Right. We climb into the four-wheel-drives and wind back along a beach framed with pandanus and granite, then climb through stringybark and speargrass country back to the festival.
Garma is an East Arnhem Land Yolngu word meaning ‘‘both-ways learning’’. About 2500 people have turned up for the 13th annual festival, a four-day gathering that features visual art, storytelling, dance (including the celebrated bunggul performances) and forums. Organised by the local Yothu Yindi Foundation, the festival draws people from the GoveNhulunbuy-yirrkala region, clan groups from across Arnhem Land and the Top End, and many visitors from the rest of the country.
We non-yolngu people, or Napaki, range from tourists, families and politicians to greenies, earnest Byron Bay types and even that Swiss didj muso.
The festival grounds at Gulkula, nicely shaded by stringybarks, sit on an escarpment facing the Gulf of Carpentaria. Djawa has a festival-within-a-festival called Cultural Experience happening around his camp site for those who’ve paid a bit more. He and other Yolngu men teach tourist tribe guys skills such as how to make metal-pronged fishing spears and ceremonial poles.
Meanwhile, the women of the Burarrawanga family are instructing Napaki women visitors in how to weave mats and dilly bags from reeds. In the men’s shelter I find Sydney chef Tony Bilson wielding a large knife. Not much new in that, except that he’s squatting on the ground and stripping the bark from a 2m pole. When it’s bare and sanded, he will paint it, turning it into a larrakitj ceremonial pole, Sydney Chef Dreaming-style.
Garma has a pup-tent city — hundreds of fully equipped tents erected for paying guests — and is fully catered. It’s little surprise that morning’s army-scale breakfast of bacon, industrial eggs and snags is . . . well, let’s say it’s not a la Bilson. I don’t see Tony wolfing down the scrambled whatever, but at the next table actor Jack Thompson is enjoying his plateful. He tells me this is his 11th Garma.
Later, Bilson enthuses about the subtlety in indigenous cooking and how, for instance, seasoned stingray is done slowly over a lowheat fire of mangrove roots. ‘‘What we do scientifically, they do intuitively,’’ he comments. He dismisses the term bush tucker: in his opinion it suggests little more than a barbecue.
The joke used to be that people who attended Garma were united by a love of Yolngu culture and a loathing of John Howard.
That sense of polarisation and politicisation is not evident today, even though politicos are here in numbers, mainly to address key forums on indigenous education and economic development.
Among them I spot Jose Ramos-horta, Jenny Macklin, Warren Snowdon and Martin Ferguson, plus other heavyweights such as Andrew Forrest, Pat Dodson, Marcia Langton and the Yothu Yindi main men Galarrwuy and Mandawuy Yunupingu.
They’re all here to talk but also to enjoy the spectacular evening dance sessions known as bunggul.
About 80 dancers from differ-
A young dancer at the Garma Festival; the bunggul
dance sessions are enjoyed by both performers and spectators
The festival includes workshops on crafts such as spear-making
Nike the crocodile was named by Cathy Freeman