Arnhem Land is a peculiar feeling. I'm at sixes and sevens. I may not know what that means, but i know how it feels. The rules no longer apply. Meanings are buried. People speak in ancient languages. I'm a stranger in my own country. Because this is not my country. This is Yolngu country.
The troopy bucks like a rodeo brumby as we bounce through the pandanus scrub, all soft sand and corrugations. In the bare metal cargo hold i cling to whatever handholds i can find as the esky and spare tyre leap about like cane toads in a campfire. Up front, the two girls chatter excitedly as our Yolngu guide, Djali, tells tall tales from this remote part of East Arnhem Land. His homeland – our destination. A beach where waves foam across the invisible line between the Arafura Sea and the Gulf of Carpentaria.
On the steel mesh cargo grille behind Djali's head, two hand-painted woomeras swing back and forth, two brightly coloured pendulums bearing strange designs from before time. Djali steers the tojo effortlessly through the scrub and sand. He is headed for Bawaka. In places, the track is completely washed away, more of a creek bed than a road. Djali nurses the Tojo in low-range over the deep red ruts. Fish in tree, he says, pointing into the terrain of low scrub and eucalypts to our left. Each tree is host to its own termite nest, those thin, jagged apartments for ants. These so-called "magnetic anthills" are unlike the bulbous red anthills further south. Their grey, wall-like constructions are built on a north-south axis, to escape the sun's heat. In the afternoon, the ants simply shift their activities to the shaded eastern wing of their mud skyscrapers.
You see? Djali says, stopping the landcruiser, its diesel powerplant rattling away in neutral. I look around. I don't see. 'Fish in tree' is just one more surreal, incomprehensible excerpt from his millenia-old culture. Like the explanation for the strange cross-hatchings and markings on those tall, hollowed and hallowed totem poles at the Buku-Larnggay art centre. Then it snaps into focus. A fire has run through this country. On the iron-hard bark of a eucalypt is a burnt black charcoal simulacrum of a fish, tailfin down, mouth gaping at the sky. Djali stares at it a good while. Fish in tree, he says again, before shaking his head and jolting the tojo into gear.
The beach, as we crest a dune and slide slowly down upon it, is breathtaking. The water is pale emerald green. Smooth white sands dotted with coconut palms curve away to a dark green smudge of mangroves in the distance. In shallow, crystal clear waters, oysters cling to granite rocks at the high-tide mark. On the far side of the bay, low hills bask silently under a molten gold sun in a clear blue sky that stretches forever upward into the vacuum. We are in space, and lots of it. Dropped here from low orbit. Djali powers the lunar rover down the beach. The finely packed sand is the smoothest ride since we left the blacktop way back past the turnoff to Yirrkala.
Part of the trip from Nhulunbuy to Bawaka is along a dirt "highway" in inverted commas: the Central Arnhem Highway. This gravel road is closed half the year for the Wet. It winds through hundreds of kilometres of pure outback goodness. About 500km down the highway is the only fuel stop, the Mainoru Outback Store. Then the road finally meets the Stuart Highway after about 700km, just 40km south of Katherine.
Here and now there is no road, no roadhouse. Only beach. As we near the mangroves, Djali slows, leans out his window, and scrutinises the shoreline. Something catches his eye. He stops. We climb out, stretching cramped limbs and battered frames. Leave the camera in the car, he says. He juts his grey-bearded chin at the dunes. Women's dreaming, over there. Drawing out a long, steel-barbed wooden spear from a bundle woven into the aluminium roof-rack, he takes a few paces back along the cruiser's tracks, and calls us over, pointing his spear at some markings in the sand. The clearly defined impressions sashay their way beneath the Tojo's tracks, through the saltbush and into the creek. I know it before he he says it. Croc. Big one, too, he says, swinging the point of the spear in a casual arc between the crocodile's footprints. Then he clambers out among the mangroves, searching.
Three mudcrabs later, we are winding along the sand crescent once more. Djali points to rocks in the distance. Only little way now to Djali's home, he says. Land on other side my father's country. See the boat there? That my nephew, fishing. I can't see anything, not a speck, but i don't doubt for a second the boat is there. The dunes on our left have some cultural significance. Two sisters. Long time ago. Create all this here. Djali tells us only part of the story.
Myths from different mobs have similarities that strike me as vaguely and naively preposterous. People and animals turning into one another. Good magic, bad magic. Human foibles and frailties. The actions of all combining with the power of myth to create this landmark, river, waterhole, rock formation or that constellation of stars. The stories convoluted and deeply felt. But they find no resonance in me. This is not my country. This is not my dreaming. I can't pretend any deep understanding of Aboriginal culture and myth. That takes a certain kind of bored urban misfit, one who ponces about the globe, dreadlocked, rubber-sandalled, and full of shallow bonhomie, adopting Indigenous cultural beliefs in the kind of ad hoc fashion that makes bower birds look like they've taken monastic orders.
The shack at Bawaka is the epitome of beach castaway chic, created as if for a getaway brochure. Decorated with fishing floats, driftwood and shells, the rough-hewn chairs and sawn log tables are right the beach, under the coconut palms. But despite its relaxing ambience, it is clear that this homeland is hard won. The native title battles have been fought, and Djali makes it clear that those who want to visit must have permission, and they must respect cultural traditions. The landscape is harsh, but bountiful – at least to those who know from those who knew before them. The Yolngu are familiar with the unfamiliar. Strangers have been coming to these shores for aeons, to take, to trade, to fight, to beg. The Macassans, who left the seeds for the tamarind trees all along the north coast, sailed here for the fish and the beche le mer, trading for women, and taking Yolngu crew with them back to the straits of malacca. The Japanese, here for the pearl shell. The missionaries, here for the heathen souls. Then the white man came in force, with government, police, handcuffs, rifles, poisons and prisons. Here to declare dominion, driving the Asians and their centuries-old trade back to their neighbouring shores. In place of the seafarers' wares they brought flour, tea, sugar, tobacco, alcohol and disease. In exchange for these hollow commodities, they took the land, the sea, and the souls of the Yolngu.
For a while, at least.
Djali starts a fire on the beach, and i see he has gathered some leaves and seeds along the way. He lays these upon the fire, where they smoulder and smoke. Picking them up, he comes at us and pats each of us on the chest, three, four times, while speaking quickly in Yolngu Matha. A cleansing. The scent of the smoke is strong yet subtle. Bringing back memories of bushfires, hot summers, the burnoffs that cleared the land for parks and homes in the suburbs.
Now, no bad spirits, Djali says, and smiles. He lays the green leaves back on the hot coals, and throws the mud crabs on top. As they cook, Djali tells us about the time Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman visited his home in Bawaka. She named my crocodile, he says with pride. He came up on the beach to eat some leftover turtle. I told Cathy how fast people run when they see him. How he makes them run faster than they ever run before. She called him 'Nike'.
Djali pulls the hot mud crabs from the fire, and throws them in front of us. The girls have brought fresh bread and salad. We crack open the shells and claws of the crab. I watch as Djali tears at the sweet white flesh of his crab with his teeth and fingers. He nods, with a chin and beard covered with juice, at a crab lying on the sawn plank before me.