A Taste of Arnhem Land
One Week in Remote Milingimbi Island
Arnhem Land is a spiritual place not many are lucky enough to see. All the maps are marked in red ‘permit required’, and we are typically the ‘make it up as you go’ travellers. Not usually the organised permit obtainers.
WE ARE HERE
It’s not uncommon for it to be late afternoon and we’re just deciding where to camp for the night. But for this we’d have to be a bit more organised and apply for a permit. The Cobourg Peninsula Garig Gunak Barlu National Park and Nhulunbuy areas are the most commonly visited regions where permits are granted to travellers. But we were given the chance to access an area not open to regular travellers. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. A little island of the coast called Milingimbi.
With the permits in our hot little hands we locked up the Tvan for safe storage in Katherine (the first time we’ve left our trusty little pal behind!). Our backpacks were in the Jeep and we were ready for the 500+km journey.
A 7am start saw us travel up Central Arnhem Rd to reach Ramingining mid arvo, where we then stored the Jeep in the front yard of a generous friend of a friend. Next it was into the car of another new friend to drive 20 minutes to the barge landing to finally catch a boat across to Milingimbi.
If you’ve followed us on social media you might already know how, or who, made it possible for us to visit this remote island. Cassie’s Dad has been working on the island for many years, and is now part of the Manapan furniture project (but more on that later).
When the boat arrived to pick us up, there were a few others waiting to get over to the island too. By the time we rushed to get our backpacks and turned to the boat, Cassie’s Dad was yelling out to us from the edge of an overloaded boat! We somehow squeezed into the small fishing boat with about 20 others, and even a kangaroo joey, and slowly putted along with less than a foot freeboard.
For a small island there was always something to do, see or experience. Learning the hard way what is respectful conduct in the Yolngu culture one night saw us stranded at the town beach on dark. With a crowd of others we patiently waited while a ceremony was taking place between us and our lodge, unsure when we would be allowed past. We embraced the learning and experience.
There’s salt flats, thick mangrove edged rivers with midges galore and plenty of bush to explore. Near the islands small airport are the wrecks of WWII aircrafts, remnants of an old mud brick carpenters workshop, and driving through the bush tracks you’re able to see the earth bunkers used during the wartime. So much history to be learnt, and the best of it comes from speaking to the locals, like one bloke who found some old metal ‘junk’, popped it in his ute tray and drove with it bouncing around in the back until one day someone saw and said “Jeez mate, that’s an old bomb!”
In the small town centre, along with the General Store and the community development hub is the Milingimbi Art and Culture Centre. The historical mud brick building originally built in the 1930’s, has been turned into an art gallery and studio space for local indigenous artists to come and create incredible pieces of work.
As welcome as the artists are in the space, visitors are too. Hoping to catch a glimpse of the women weaving, we regularly popped our heads in to see if anyone was creating. One day we got lucky. In one of the small side rooms, artist Raymond Bulambula was quietly working on a bark painting. Ochers, hand made brushes, a broken besser block for grinding pigments, water and PVA glue scattered across the floor where Raymond patiently and purposefully created. Pieces of thick bark, rocks and branches stocked the shelves on the walls. The art centres unofficial mascot Sparkle, an adopted stray dog, sat enjoying a pat in the quiet. Intermittently Raymond explained where the ochres were found, how the colours are made and showed what the tools were made from. It was hypnotising.
Across the road from the Art Centre is the Manapan Furniture workshop. This place has evolved over the years to provide a growing business for the community that hopes to one day be entirely run by locals. The Manapan Academy is right next door, where carpentry and furniture making skills are taught while building goods for the community. Graduates of Manapan Academy are also becoming part of the next generation of the growing Manapan business. The furniture these guys at Manapan are making is absolute top end schmicko stuff (it’s even been featured in the TV series ‘The Block‘ to high praise from the judges). These incredible indigenous talents are being showcased around the country and world in some very lucky peoples homes. Check out more of the Manapan story (and do some online window shopping!) here.
The people of Millingimbi showed incredible kindness and openness with us. We were allowed to attend a funeral ceremony where we were warmly welcomed and told about each of the dances being performed. They shared with us their culture and there seemed to be a community responsibility that presented itself in the guardianship of us. To teach us, make sure we were safe and let us know when and where we can be present to experience ceremonial traditions.
There’s something incredibly connected between the people, the culture and the land. Their knowing is indescribable and mesmerising. We are so blessed to have been given this moment to learn just a small piece of the magic here. Opening our hearts to this place, but also knowing we are welcomed as visitors and it is not our place to own.
Thanks Dad and Manymak Milingimbi.
For more insight and understanding of the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land, and the wider Indigenous community, ‘Why Warriors Lay Down and Die’ by Richard Trudgen is an incredible source of information and understanding. His book and more resources can be found here.
Information about permits in the Northern Territory can be found here.
Our next blog will be from: the Savannah Way
Until our next update - see you on / off the road 😉
Cassie and Micky