Arnhem Land dreamtime
New tours offer authentic insights into indigenous cultures
The day begins with tears, and ends with laughter. The tears are so warm, so abundant, that Ritjilili Ganambarr must stem their long and mournful flow with the hem of her cotton skirt. The laughter comes in such great waves that Ritjilili can do nothing else but halt her singing and lay down her clapsticks and wait until the spasms of mirth have passed.
All the while, from dawn to dusk, a saltwater crocodile floats offshore, his eyes fixed on this beach named Lonely. It is a white crescent rimmed with cyclone-buckled palm trees and a scattering of dwellings and, beyond them, a squat coastal forest of wattles and paperbarks and salt-weathered ghost gums.
The air is warm but not sticky, for the wet season is only just beginning to brew. There is a gathering of grey clouds across the bay and, above, a wisp of snow-white cirrus, which Ritjilili says is a visitation from the spirits. This is Bawaka homeland in North East Arnhem Land, and we’re busy with women’s business.
Before the tears can flow, we must be cleansed. Ritjilili and her niece, Djawundil Maymuru, throw leaves onto a fire that burns close to the water. They fan the flames until the sky billows thick with smoke. One by one we are bathed in this smoky effluent, brushed over with the smarting leaves. This is an ancient indigenous smoking ceremony to which all outsiders must submit so bad energy can be dispatched and good allowed to flourish.
We must learn our skin names, too, which is a rare privilege accorded strangers to this land. We must know precisely where we fit in the Dhuwa and the Yirritja moieties, the yin and the yang of Yolngu culture, for everything — every grain of sand and droplet of water, every plant and creature — is either one or the other. Earlier, on my way to Bawaka, I had picked up a fragment of tissuethin paperbark on a beach. It was a talisman that now determines my identity. I am Barrakula, the Yolngu name for paperbark, and I belong to Dhuwa.
Surrounding me are my fellow travellers, women gratefully submitting themselves to Yolngu lore. Sandy stands up, pinching a flower between her fingers. The bud determines her skin name, Bopulpul. Isobel holds a cuttlefish; she is Galpari. Carolyn has chosen a casuarina branch; she is Djamula. Marta cradles an exquisite, sculptural grass plant; she is Djadula. Each of us has become part of an ancient, interlocking system of kinship that is embedded deep within the landscape. We have taken our place alongside Ritjilili and Djawundil in the endless and embracing cycle of Yolngu sisterhood, amid the labyrinthine family connections and the deep songlines written into this land. “There’s lots to learn about Yolngu culture,” Djawundil says, noting my confusion. “It goes deeper, and deeper, and deeper.”
We wake before dawn next morning. Ritjilili is already on the beach, her body struck golden by the fire she’s lit. We gather around her. As the sun rises she starts to chant, a slow, mournful hymn that grows stronger with the telling. It pours out from her small body in great undulations, rising up into the morning sky, now watery with light, spreading out across the bay, smooth as a sheet of glass except for the knobbly protrusion of the crocodile’s snout.
The tears spill from Ritjilili’s eyes and are quenched by her skirt. She is thinking of the sea, Djawundil tells us, of the rock that stands in its shallows, resolute against the tide. She is crying for the people who have died, for the rays of sun that emerge each morning and touch everything across this land.
Ritjilili is silent now. She reaches out to Sandy, who is weeping, too. We sit in silence as light replaces darkness. It bleaches the water, the beach and the sky, empty except for a flock of pelicans etched in coal-black outlines.
When the crying ceremony is over, Djawundil tells us the story of Bayni, the woman who was brought here by Macassans and kept captive on a prau (boat) anchored close to shore near a tamarind tree. The Macassans had come from Sulawesi to trade with the Yolngu. One day Bayni’s masters threw her overboard; she drowned, but her spirit held firm.
Says Djawundilo, “Yesterday, when I was putting the leaves on you, I was saying, Bayni, protect this lady, wherever she’s going, whatever she’s doing.
“Bayni lives here at Bawaka. People speak to her before they go out hunting, and they come home with lots [of food]. Some tourists come here to Bawaka and feel that someone is protecting them. It’s Bayni.”
Bayni is surely with us as we set off early in search of young pandanus leaves and red bulbs and yellow tubers with which to make dye. We return with a veritable bounty, and set about stripping the leaves, scraping the roots to release their pigments and boiling the lot in enormous pots. With the patience of a grandmother, Ritjilili teaches us to weave the dyed pandanus threads. Indeed, she my grandmother, for according to our respective skin names and Yolngu’s rich and interwoven family structure, she and I are thus related.
It takes time to master this timeless craft, to settle into the gentle rhythm that seems to come so naturally to the women of Bawaka. I manage to produce a tiny dilly bag, just big enough to carry a handful of mussels. Ritjilili weaves a handle for my bag and places it in my hand. She has secreted within it a perfect shell, a gift to carry home.
That night we try to dance. Ritjilili sits on the beach, chanting and smacking together a pair of clapsticks. Djawundil moves rhythmically, imitating with her agile body the animals that live here. She beckons us to imitate her, in turn. We flap and lurch and jerk, kicking up sand, elbowing one another, trying as best we can to infuse our awkward bodies with the rhythm of Yolngu land. But it’s too much for Ritjilili. Our movements are so stiff, our expressions so rigid that she can hide her merriment no more. She collapses on to the mat, her body wracked with laughter, her clapsticks tossed dormant beside her. Not for the first time today, tears spring from her eyes. She stems them with the hem of her skirt, but her laughter flows warm and plentiful into the dark night.
The bay in Bawaka homeland, top; Yolngu woman Ritjilili Ganambar, top right; taking part in a smoking ceremony, far right; making use of local resources, above left and right