First things first in East Arnhem Land

Among the Yolngu people, feeling 'connected' takes on a different meaning

Domestic travel
SHARING AND LEARNING: Weaving with the women involves sitting around, chatting about life, love, loss and our greatest joys.

SHARING AND LEARNING: Weaving with the women involves sitting around, chatting about life, love, loss and our greatest joys.

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In this remote area, there is no choice but to relax and let the land seep into your soul.

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I AM not a religious person but I sometimes get a feeling when travelling that I can only describe as spiritual.

It's a feeling of comfort and reflection. It can make me happy or sad, but always thoughtful and usually grateful.

Often the feeling hits when admiring Mother Nature's finest work ... the ruggedness of the Flinders Ranges; the isolation of Antarctica.

The most recent example, and possibly the most profound, is in East Arnhem Land.

Here in the company of one of our most ancient cultures, the Yolngu people, I feel "connected".

Don't take that literally. There is no mobile reception or internet in these far reaches of Northern Territory. And that's a bonus.

There is no choice but to relax and let the land, and its people, seep into your soul.

IN TUNE WITH NATURE: Days are spent digging for cockles, hauling out massive mudcrabs, catching rock cod and barracuda.

IN TUNE WITH NATURE: Days are spent digging for cockles, hauling out massive mudcrabs, catching rock cod and barracuda.

By invitation only

There are a few things you need before heading into Arnhem Land.

The first is a sense of discovery for this is no ordinary tour - more a learning journey. The second is a permit. You can't just rock up to the Indigenous homelands.

This adventure is in the hands of Lirrwi Tourism guides Geraldine and Dale, who have organised permits and logistics to get 12 people, plus supplies, across the country from Gove (Nhulunbuy) and into the open arms of the Yolngu people at Nyinyikay.

Our journey starts with a 20-minute Air Arnhem charter flight across dense rainforest and wide, winding rivers to Nyinyikay, one of about 40 Indigenous communities spread across Arnhem Land.

Welcome to country

Upon landing, a girl paints our faces with clay - a thick strip across the forehead and another back towards the crown. This represents the rivers running into the ocean and it's a sign to the ancestors that we are not a threat and it's OK to be on their land.

SONGLINE STORIES: Each morning there is an open-air lesson with Marcus, with the clear blue waters of Arnhem Bay as a backdrop.

SONGLINE STORIES: Each morning there is an open-air lesson with Marcus, with the clear blue waters of Arnhem Bay as a backdrop.

The official welcome is more intense. We are surrounded by dancers representing a pack of dingoes, kicking up dust and never losing eye contact. They are soul searching; looking for open minds.

Then they stop and smile. "I hope I didn't scare you," the leader of the pack laughs.

This is our introduction to Marcus Lacey, the charming and, at 41, rather young "elder" male at Nyinyikay.

What to expect

Forget your watch in the Homelands: time is irrelevant. Forget the itinerary: there is none. Forget any expectations: the experience will exceed them all.

This "tour" is all about living in an Aboriginal community; doing what they do.

If that happens to be nothing, you are blessed with free time to soak up the serenity.

Home for the next four days is a tent with views over Arnhem Bay and a cool breeze straight off the water.

For someone used to jam-packed itineraries, the idea of no plan is daunting.

Do we just sit around? Exactly. That's when calm settles in.

Bush encyclopedia

Our first activity is a walk into the wilderness - one that redefines "getting back to nature".

Barefoot and machete in hand, Marcus demonstrates a new way to look at plants, explaining which can be eaten or used for tools or medicine.

The inside of a stringybark tree, for example, is crushed to soothe toothaches or insect bites.

When the red flowers of the kurrajong appear, it's a sign that sharks are being born and it's time to go fishing.

In the mangroves, the first lesson is to wait until the tide is out. "When the tide changes, the crocs will wake up and we'll have to get out of here," Marcus says.

For now, we're gathering cockles and chatting about hunting stingrays.

"If you get stung by a ray, don't pull the barb out, push it through," he says. "Then find a cockroach, squash it and squeeze it into the sting hole - it's a natural antidote to the poison."

Women's business

In Yolngu culture there are things that women do and other tasks delegated to men. I thought this separation might irk my "modern woman" sensibilities but spending a day trying to weave baskets with Marcus' wife, Dianne, and his mother, Megan, turned out to be a highlight.

Who gets to spend hours nowadays, just sitting around, chatting about life, love, loss and our greatest joys? What a beautiful life these women weave.

Megan and Dianne forgive our lack of talent and giggle with us and, I suspect, at us. They even take us into the bush to find the pandanus, which is split and dried to make strings. And we dig for the red-rooted plants used to dye them.

My finished products - a "basket" and earrings - are untidy at best. But they will be treasured forever.

Men's business

I can tell you very little about what the men got up to. "We could tell you but we would have to kill you," they joked.

A bit of wandering through the bush, a bit of bonding, making spear throwers, is all they revealed.

Our curiosity waned when we discovered they caught a kangaroo and were shown how to butcher it. I'd rather butcher a basket.

Together business

Some things, we find, are done together. Fishing brings the whole camp together.

Imagine taking a 4WD to the mouth of the river, checking for crocs and taking advantage of low tide to explore the sand and mudflats.

Digging for cockles, hauling out huge mudcrabs, catching rock cod and barracuda then throwing it on an open fire and serving it on a bed of mangrove branches for lunch... this is just another day in Arnhem Land.

Morning lessons

Each morning, we sit with Marcus for a discussion. With the clear blue waters of Arnhem Bay as a backdrop, he invites questions.

No subject is off limits. We talk about language and cultural beliefs, marriage, religion, politics and the genesis of the Yolngu.

Marcus is passionate about his people's history, which has been handed down through generations of songlines. "Our songlines are our history books. They represent past and present and lead to the future."

While we listen to him and discuss life and death and hopes and dreams, puppies play in the shallows and his daughters explore the exposed reef. "They're eating oysters for breakfast," he says.

What a life! And what a privilege to share it.

By opening up his home, Marcus hopes he is building bridges. He wants people to see how proud the Yolngu are of their home and how passionate they are about protecting it.

I asked if he could send one message what would he say?

"You're all part of a rich culture. What you see belongs to you - it belongs to everyone. Embrace that sense of belonging. Look after it."

I would say come and see it for yourself.

The writer was a guest of Lirrwi Tourism.

If you go...

Air North (airnorth.com.au) flies to Gove from Cairns, and Air Arnhem (Phone: 0415-210-410) to Nyinyikay. Check Lirrwi Tourism for tours and dates. (08) 8987-2828, lirrwitourism.com.au

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