Arn­hem Land dream­time

New tours of­fer au­then­tic in­sights into in­dige­nous cul­tures

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - FRONT PAGE - CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL

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

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