Visiting private Indigenous-owned areas of Australia is actually helpful to their communities, as long as you behave in the right way, writes Sarah Tayler.
When my husband and I began travelling Australia in our caravan, the thought never occurred to us to visit Arnhem Land. I assumed because it’s private Indigenous land and you need a permit to visit, the Traditional Owners don’t want people there. But I could not have been more wrong.
Tourism Sustains The Local Economy
Money from recreation permits and camping fees not only provides an income for the Yolngu Traditional Owners of East Arnhem Land, but also provides money to take care of the land in a way that fits with their culture and beliefs.
‘Our land is open for whoever wants to come,’ says Mandaka Marika, a Yolngu elder from the Rirratjingu clan, and Managing Director of Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation who take care of East Arnhem Land for the Traditional Owners.
Explore the Top End! Road Trip to East Arnhem Land
Caretaking For The Traditional Owners
Mandaka was given the 2019 Northern Territory Natural Resource Management Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2020 Nhulunbuy Australia Day Citizen of the Year Award for his contribution over more than 25 years working at Dhimurru.
‘I was hand-picked to be a Dhimurru ranger in 1993,’ Mandaka tells me. ‘In the past, we used to sit around in our old office and talk about what we would have in the future. We’d talk about having women rangers, having a fleet of cars and boats.’
‘After the land rights were handed back, the Traditional Owners used their money from royalties to set up Dhimurru, in collaboration with external agencies. There have been big changes happen right before my eyes over the years. We started a humble journey, and now we have our own office, a big building, with workshops and somewhere to keep our vehicles.’
‘It’s a big country out here. We look after it for the Traditional Owners, and we ask the Traditional Owners to open [their land] so that the visitors can enjoy it. Local people like to have tourists here, because one day, the economy will change. One day, Rio Tinto will go and we need the tourists to come to our land.’
Visiting Traditional Homelands
Many Yolngu people in East Arnhem Land choose to live away from the communities, where they can lead more traditional lives.
The movement of people back out to these remote areas was called the Homelands Movement, and visiting the Yolngu Homelands is a great opportunity to learn more about Indigenous culture. Tours to the Yolngu Homelands in East Arnhem Land can be booked via Lirriwi Tourism.
‘Don’t be afraid to get involved and learn more about the culture and life here,’ says Arian Pearson, a ranger with Dhimurru for eight years and now Chair of the Board for Lirriwi Tourism.
‘The Bawaka homelands are about 1.5 hours from Nhulunbuy and most of the tours are two nights. They start with a Welcome To Country and from there you learn about the connection between the people, land, and sea. As well as getting involved with everyday activities such as catching fish for dinner.’
‘The Yolngu people welcome tourists to come and visit as long as they behave in the right way,’ says Arian. ‘When visiting the homelands make sure to wear culturally appropriate clothes.’
The Yolngu dress modestly – loose clothing such as knee-length skirts or shorts and T-shirts are perfect for the heat and to not offend your hosts. Revealing clothing such as bikinis are not appropriate, so bring a shirt to swim in.
Respect The Environment
From everyone I’ve talked to in Arnhem Land, the message is clear: Yolngu landowners want you to come and enjoy your time here, but make sure you’re respectful and do the right thing. Be mindful as you enjoy these beautiful areas.
‘We have a Yolngu saying,’ Mandaka tells me, ‘If you look after the land, the land will look after you.’
Take your rubbish with you, only drive on marked roads, don’t go to places that aren’t dedicated recreation areas, and always make sure you have the right permits. After all, you’re essentially travelling through someone’s backyard.
‘We have problems sometimes when people come and they do their own thing. They break our gates and change padlocks. We don’t like that, it’s disrespect. Because, we’re trying to look after the country, the Traditional Owners’ country, and we do it for them, not for ourselves. We have these reminders for how to look after yourself and the land when you’re here.’
A Changing Landscape
The Yolngu people that live in East Arnhem Land and the land itself are heavily intertwined.
In Yolngu culture, you don’t just live on the land but are related to it – it’s part of your family. Because of this Yothu-Yindi (mother-child) relationship with the land, Yolngu people are in tune with the weather and seasons, and these yearly cycles dictate their hunting, fishing and harvesting of food. Recent changes in climate and weather patterns not only affect the landscape, but the Yolngu calendar itself.
‘Burning begins just before it’s dry. This is also when the harvest season begins,’ Mandaka tells me.
‘You see these types of trees, they are flowering… that tells us the honey is ready. When the honey season begins, we go out looking for honey. Sweet honey, nice taste too.’
Much of Arnhem Land is so untouched, you begin to think this is the way it must’ve always looked. But as I walk along the beach with Mandaka, he tells me he can see changes in the landscape.
‘There’s quite a lot of erosion and things like that. In the past, there would be long cliffs. When I was little growing up there was a big, big cliff there. There are a lot of changes, big-time changes [with the weather]. Climate change, it’s happening. We are seeing it every year and every month.’
Cleaning Up The Coastline
Abandoned fishing nets and marine debris washing up on beaches is also a major issue on the Arnhem Land coastline. Several projects are working to keep the beach litter under control.
‘Arnhem Land is the last frontier, full of untouched natural beauty,’ Arian tells me. ‘To help take care of the land when visiting, people can pile up rubbish on the beach ready for rangers to collect or take it home with them.’
‘The current brings a lot of rubbish from fishermen and other nations towards our beaches,’ says Mandaka. ‘We have volunteers who come and help us clean the area, I like working with them.’
If you want to get involved with beach cleans in East Arnhem Land there are several volunteer opportunities such as the annual Sea Shepherd beach clean and monthly clean ups with Arnhem Coast Clean Up.
Why Visit Arnhem Land?
Australia’s history is long and complicated and the colonisation of this land has resulted in a huge disparity between different groups of Australians. If you’ve ever wondered what you can do to support Indigenous communities and start to close the gap, visiting East Arnhem Land is one of them.
Visiting and spending your tourist dollars means a great deal to the communities who sit on the edge between a remote, ancient, simple way of life and a modern, technology-flooded globalised economy. With one foot in each world, these communities are still finding where they fit among the changing socio-economic landscape.
Being cut off, both in terms of physical distance and also access to services and provisions makes East Arnhem Land a very interesting place to visit. Both the people and the landscape are resourceful and resilient – surviving all that the Northern Territory weather has to throw at them.
The unsealed roads, untouched forests, and undeveloped beaches are a refreshing change from the towns and cities that now occupy much of Australia. If you want to get outdoors, really outdoors, East Arnhem Land has to be top of your list for your next getaway.
‘Freedom is here in Arnhem Land,’ Mandaka tells me.
‘You can’t find it out there in the big cities. You need to get away from there and enjoy Yolngu’s land. Being free. Just you and your family. And I respect that.’
‘As a Traditional Owner, I respect people who are camping here. Sitting here, talking. I leave them alone. I only come and introduce myself and ask if they have a permit. Then I will leave them alone. I won’t stick around and say, hey you must do this and that. No, I don’t do that. If you’re sitting there, that’s your life, that’s your freedom. That’s it.’
Photos thanks to Lirriwi Tourism and Sarah Tayler