Lirrwi Tourism is an Aboriginal corporation set up in 2010 with the ambition to create up to 50 businesses in East Arnhem Land. Its first tours were launched in 2012 but in January, 2016, despite about $1.5 million in government funding, it was placed in administration. The good news is that it has turned the corner, has traded out of its troubles and is out of special administration. Lirrwi offers a range of tours as well as the Bawaka cultural immersion itinerary with an average cost of about $800 a day. Tours range in size; corporates and schools have run trips of 20-30 people while individual guests should expect to be in groups of 12-15. The season is from May to the end of October to coincide with the dry season in the tropics and temperatures are bearable at about 31C maximum to an overnight low of 5C. More: lirrwitourism.com.au. sides, where we have our cultural awareness talks and can lie in the cool after lunch.
There’s also a resident crocodile called Nike who is used to being fed fish speared by Randy or his relatives. As Nike slides from the water to the sand we are warned to keep our distance, and even a walk along the beach comes with multiple reminders from our guides to not go too close to the ocean. Swimming is off limits, which is why we are bussed to the much safer Lonely Beach for a dip. Here there are dramatic limestone cliffs and the deep silence of a truly remote area.
We learn much in these days about the central beliefs of the Yolngu people, including the moiety system that determines very clear relationships between individuals and families, and the sense that time is different here.
The big lessons are not those delivered with the help of a whiteboard by our guides but the ones we learn from being with the family, such as the important role the maintenance of their own language has to the retention of culture. There is also the realisation that in this far region, white contact came late and has been more limited than in other areas. We are reminded too of the early contact with the Macassan trepang fishers who visited north Australia from at least the 18th century. As well as trading goods, the Yolngu adopted many Bahasa Indonesian words and some aspects of Macassan culture.
Yirrkala of course is the home of Yothu Yindi and singers such as Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. One of our guides, Rrawun, was a foundation member of Yothu Yindi and now is the lead singer of the band East Journey. He is just back from a gig down south, so there’s a magic moment at Bawaka when he picks up a guitar and sings for us around the campfire. He’s not the only one. Our resident cook, Phil, turns out to be a singer in his other life and entertains us with his own songs.
This area is seen as the home of the didgeridoo, or yidaki, and that night we see how embedded it is in the culture when 10-year-old Tyrell shyly joins the group with his didgeridoo and after much gentle coaxing from his older male relatives joins the impromptu concert. It’s all very low key and pardon the pun, unorchestrated, and adds to the great charm of a long-weekend that takes us out of our comfort zone yet is immensely reassuring.