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Published: October 15th 2011
on the way to Nyinyikay
It always made me cringe that most Australians seemed to have an opinion on aboriginal issues, even though they more than likely had never met an aboriginal person. I have to admit I was totally ignorant about the indigenous culture, being typically schooled on AC (after Cook) Australian history. But since travelling in the Northern Territory, I have tried to listen and expand my limited knowledge.
So when an opportunity to sign up for the World Expeditions Arnhem Land marine rescue project came up, I grabbed it with both hands. What really appealed to me was the combination of learning about the Yolngu culture by staying with a family at Nyinyikay - an outstation located in North-East Arnhem Land; and also to undertake a conservation project in my own country rather than some far-flung destination.
With the ocean currents between north-east Australia and Indonesia/PNG, a lot of the trash thrown from Asian fishing trawlers and cruise ships ends up in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The project was essentially to assist the local Dhimurru aboriginal rangers in its ghost nets programme at Wanuwuy (Cape Arnhem). This involved picking up discarded rubbish and fishing nets washed up on the shore, which
are a danger to marine life, in particular turtles that lay their eggs on these beaches. In past years, there have even been turtles discovered in the nets.
When told about the project, one of my mates scoffed and said - "you're paying to pick up garbage for abo's?", which left me speechless. Nonetheless it was hard to come back with a suitable retort as I wasn't sure what to expect myself over the week.
To say it was one of the most extraordinary and unforgettable experiences I have ever had was an understatement. The graciousness, generosity and friendship received from the Nyinyikay family was so special and really touched me. We spent 2 amazing days with the women and children learning about women's business; their stories and histories; the plants used for bush medicine and food; and their pandanus weaving, painting and other handicrafts. The boys went off to do their own "men's business". They made us feel so welcome and taught us a lot.
After witnessing the Yolngu people's deep connection with the land and waters; their ability to still source food for their families from the land and waters; the spiritual significance of all
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living things; and the pristine coastline and sacred sites of Cape Arnhem - the importance of clearing the marine debris made total sense to me. We ended up collecting 1.5 tonnes of rubbish over 3 days - a cracking effort. However it wasn't all hard yakka - we got to hang out, have fun and share a lot of laughs with the fabulous Dhimurru rangers - a really dedicated bunch of guys and girls, who also happened to be extremely talented musicians - jealous!
I was also totally gobsmacked by the complexity of the Yolngu culture - things that never occurred to me like kinship cycles, moieties, skin names, clan groups, spirit beings, totems, different ethnicities, etc. It made me realise that you can't make an informed comment on aboriginal issues unless you are prepared to listen and learn, and understand their unique and diverse cultures. Only then you may be able to ask intelligent questions.
I would recommend this type of experience to anyone. If you open your heart and mind; the rewards are immeasurable. It certainly fuelled my curiosity and opened my eyes; although admittedly it was only a drop in the bucket. Missing the north
showing us the different bush foods
- can't wait to make a return visit some day.
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