Out of the comfort zone
Cultural insights in remote East Arnhem Land
You don’t hear the phrase “off the beaten track” so often these days but it’s the perfect description for Lonely Beach in East Arnhem Land. We get there by four-wheel drive from an equally remote beach called Bawaka, in the Port Bradshaw area, having reached that spot after a couple of hours over soft sand, also by four-wheel drive, from Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula. We got there by air from Darwin, and to Darwin by … Well, you get the picture. This is a long way from down south and, for our little group of Sydneysiders, it’s almost like another country.
Spectacular Lonely Beach should be as iconic as Uluru or Victoria’s Twelve Apostles, but its remote location means that, for now, few Australians know it exists.
We’ve been brought here by members of the Burarrwanga and Maymuru families who run trips to their homeland through Lirrwi Yolngu Tourism Aboriginal Corporation, an indigenous company based in Nhulun- buy. Over our three days we don’t do an awful lot, other than drop out of email and phone contact, wander the beach, learn about the clanship system of the Yolngu nation, and talk endlessly about Australia, its past, its future and the extraordinary art and culture of its first peoples.
It’s the kind of holiday that forces you to slow down and put yourself in the hands of others, in our case Randy Yibarbuk, our young tour leader and expert driver, his older relative Djawundil (Diane) Maymuru, her brother Rrawun Maymuru, and at times another half-dozen partners and family members.
Bawaka is their traditional home but these days they mostly stay with their community at Yirrkala, near Nhulunbuy. Clan elder Timmy Burarrwanga helped set up Lirrwi Tourism six years ago to develop cultural awareness and run other tours in the region. Tours are from May to October for groups of 12 to 30 people. Corporate and school groups have made the trip part of their programs, but our visit is for just seven. It’s not cheap at about $800 a day, but up here, thanks to distance and heat, this fly-in-fly-out tourism is inevitably expensive.
Our tour begins at the Yirrkala art gallery, officially
Lonely Beach, above; Bawaka community, above right; tour leader Randy Yibarbuk spearfishing, far right