Bridging the gulf

The North­ern Ter­ri­tory’s four-day Garma Fes­ti­val is all about both-ways learn­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JOHN BORTH­WICK

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

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