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indigenous

6-months on the road

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6-months on the road

For this milestone we are in Northern Territory on the Gove Peninsula, East Arnhem Land.... and we are wandering the airy corridors of the YIRRKALA ART CENTRE - an expansive display of Indigenous Arnhem Aboriginal art.

It's been 6mths now, since leaving the cooler climes of Bayside Melbourne... and every now and then something special has come our way...  like a special moment or thing, an event, a place or person. This time it's all about a priceless national treasure we have never heard of.

To get to Yirrkala it's been a drive on the reddest of roads,  billowing dust the norm, corrugations common and the occasional rut  - '24hrs from Katherine' the information brochure says, although 'only' 700km as our truck flies.

We overnight at Mainoru Roadhouse, our recommended stop in accordance with our over-the-counter, no-cost, 10-day permit from the Northern Land Council office in the Katherine main street.

On our arrival at Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula, we seek out the 'Dhimurru Corporation' office for camping permits on Aboriginal land, then our NT liquor permit to buy take-away alcohol.

The seaside town of Yirrkala is 20km to the south, the scent of frangipani on a breeze, the sun hot, the Gulf of Carpentaria a glittering turquoise blue and the sand a dazzling white.

The gallery is adjacent an Aussie Rules oval of green grass, a stadium/shed and store. Impressive murals cover outside walls... the heros of Aboriginal rights going back to the 1960s. The gallery entry is plain and unadorned, the glass door dark and dusty under a wide, shady verandah. 

Once inside is another story... a treasure-trove of handmade indigenous art typical of this isolated region. There are forests of traditional wooden Yidaki - didgeridoo - with the most intricate traditional designs, wall hangings and paintings. Shelves are stacked full of books, CDs and carvings. Simple racks are laden with woven bags and a photographer snaps special pieces in a cluttered room off to the side.

Justin is lean, has a greying mane of straight hair and has been here since the 90s. He rises from behind his computer screen, stands tall in a plain white tee-shirt and blue jeans. There is something we must see, he says.

Out back is a specially-built darkened room with timber steps down to a small sunken cellar of sorts - atmospheric with soft lighting designed to highlight 2-vertical panels. Both are intricate in their design - rustic browns and blacks - with a low bench seat directly across from, and in front of the panels. There is a lot for the visitor to take in. 

The panels are about 1m wide by 3m high and hang side by side. And they tell an Aboriginal creation story, wonderfully presented in detail by the Indigenous artists, but evidently with no Christian influence, coersion or direction.

Justin tells a story that begins "before my time", the panels created by Yolnu elders and gifted to the newly opened Methodist church in 1963, intended for permanent display as a screen behind the communion table. Justin waves one hand towards the front door. "You would have seen the church over the road."

The story continues... 10yrs after the panels are installed - around 1983 -  a new missionary arrives at the church, saying the panels are inappropriate for a church, and are most certainly "heathen" works. Both panels are stripped from inside the church against the wishes of the Parish Committee.

The panels lie neglected and forlorn for 4yrs - but are never completely forgotten - propped against an outside wall exposed to the ways of mud wasps and weather, before being rescued by a coalition of Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists, then cleaned by the staff of the Australian University.

Justin pauses for effect and to gather his thoughts while peering over the top of thin-rimmed glasses. "And that was the beginning of a movement here in Arnhem Land... you might say, the very beginning of the entire Australian Indigenous Land Rights movement."

Down in the cellar my eyes are drawn to the panel on the right, with a small figure top and centre - a diminutive, painted bird - this little bird being the ancestral link between the spirit and the temporal worlds, flanked by helpers on his immediate right and left... the cicada and the possum. Alas, an ancient story considered inappropriate to the doctrines taught in a civilized house of worship. 

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Postcard from Seven Emu

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Postcard from Seven Emu

From Hells Gate we drive 4hrs west across the Northern Territory border via the Savannah Way, part of Australia's National Highway One, although here mostly a red dirt and dust road of sand holes, bulldust and corrugations. The turnoff is a 25km track to 'SEVEN EMU',  a sprawling Gulf station of 1665 square miles right on the Robinson River... and a unique partnership with the AUSTRALIAN WILDLIFE CONSERVANCY.

OUR CAMP is perched on 30m red cliffs high above the Robinson, a favoured haunt of saltwater crocodiles, two 4m beauties making an appearance in the first hour. Later we gaze down on metre long queenfish that cruise towards the river mouth bounded by distant dunes on a wild Gulf coast.

For most of the day the wind moans through white cyprus pines and the afternoon sun throws a shimmering silver sheen over tussled river ripples. At night we listen to the ratchet drone of crickets, the splash of feeding fish, the cries of night birds and the crackle of the campfire - not a skerrick of wind now, and a never-ending magic carpet of stars. The air is cool after another 35degC winter day, the fire's smokey smell loaded with the perfume of dust and dry wood.

The old stockmen facilities are rustic... a flat iron roof on round wooden posts, a long drop toilet with sunset river views, and a 44gal rusted drum 'donkey' fire-fed heater for luxurious hot showers.

The owner of Seven Emu is Frank, a Gulf country Garawa man in his early 60s, with a knowing black face,  the wispy line of a mustache and white hair under a tussled black hat with wide Gulf brim. The blue shirt is of a Wrangler Western check, the worn jeans of faded denim, the slip-on shoes tarnished and dusty.

And Frank's a man who doesn't seem to miss anything, has a mischievous streak, his sharp eyes brown, narrowing now and then as if sizing up his audience. I ask about his dad, who bought this place, and Frank screws up his eyes, thoughtful as he remembers his father. "You know, the best advice he gave me was to always talk to the boss when doin' business... keep low and stay out of trouble."

I'm also interested in Ludwig Leichhardt, the famed German botanist/explorer who came this way in the 1840s, naming 'Seven Emu' after a successful hunt, before disappearing without a trace on the return journey. Frank nods. "Yeah... lot's come here interested in that bloke. Good man I reckon. Never shot a blackfella, and asked them about the animals, plants, and the lay of the land."

We take a rough, winding track in Frank's battle-worn Landcruiser ute, out to the old place... across sandy ruts, bumps and dried-out crossings - the homestead paddock deserted now due to a lack of reliable water.

Frank parks his truck and we make our escape from the searing midday sun... to a grand stand of mangoes reminiscent of a giant cathedral, tall thick columns of trunks, their canopies melding as one. Their shady shroud hangs cool and restful over what's left here - some tumbled-down shed walls, some crooked asbestos sheeting and the overgrown remains of his mum's vegetable garden.

Frank talks fondly of his mother, caring for the family and that vegie garden, but dying at only 61yo... and he points to one particular tree. "See that tree? I was born under that one." He tells a story of his dad leaving home, riding over 500km east to the Queensland frontier Gulf town of Normanton, with a young Frank in tow and his mum left home with a brand new baby. "Yeah, long way that trip, me just a baby." He smiled. "To give me mum a rest dad said. And with me just startin' to walk, reckon he should have got father of the year!"

Our host points to a depleted pond surrounded by scrub just below the paddock and we amble down to the water's edge. It's been a good wet season he says. Frank stoops down to pick up a handful of wet sand, holding it up and gazing intently at the palm of his hand. "In the old days, there were bugs and bait in this sand." Frank frowns. "But nothin' happenin' now." He falls quiet for a moment as a gust of wind rustles the mango leaves. He tugs at the brim of his hat with one hand, tossing the sand over the water with the other. "And, when the sand hit the surface the fish would always be comin' to the top back then... to see what was happenin'. These days, nothin' much goin' on there either."

I look at the pond, Sue and I both thinking the same thing - there are tadpoles in the water after all, so is that not a good thing? But Frank has been down this road with tourists before. "Cane toads," he says with a hint of contempt, then moves on to another story - when his brother and him encountered a giant crocodile. "He was a big one that saltie, maybe 6m or so... an old one for sure." His eyes follow along the sand bank where we stand. "We was camped on a bank, my brother and me, and this big fella rushed up with his mouth open. Lots of teeth." There's a smile from Frank, then a nervous cough. "Scared the hell out of us. Right between us he went, then just keeled over, dead. We found 20-toads in his belly."

We look at each other, then at Frank, more than a little depressed.

Frank is sad at what has happened to this country, the introduction of pests that degrade the land - from assorted weeds to South American cane toads, feral cats and camels - after 65,000 years the sudden neglect to properly care for the land.

But Frank is grateful for his good luck too, the Seven Emu pastoral lease purchased in 1953 by his visionary father, an Aboriginal, self-made, self-educated man with no entitlement to vote back then, and Indigenous Australians not granted full citizenship rights until 1968.

By all accounts FRANK'S FATHER was an exceptionally hard worker, a horse trader and cattle drover with a plan... striking it lucky by winning some money "on the horses", raising 11-kids and insisting they be formally educated... Seven Emu being the only pastoral land lease ever purchased by an Australian Aboriginal.

Frank smiles from the corner of his mouth, and his brown eyes sparkle. "You know what?" He leaves me no time to answer. "My old dad lived till his 90s, and always said that I needed to take care of country... that city fellas like you would arrive one day and pay me money to tell stories and show them around."

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Grim by name but not by nature - `Cape Grim', North West Tasmania

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Grim by name but not by nature - `Cape Grim', North West Tasmania

Time for another trip in the new truck, and our first ferry - overnight from Melbourne to Davenport - the treacherous Bass Strait an ominous black chop.

With an early dinner and a cosy twin cabin our morning port of Davenport lay sleepy and cold.

By midday we're 180kms to the west, the most northwest point of Tasmania, with an annual rainfall of almost 1m and according to one of only 3 'Baseline Air Pollution Stations' on the planet `THE CLEANEST AIR IN THE WORLD'.

We've passed rolling green fields of wind turbines, over 50 of the gangly beasts producing 12% of the state's power; each 60m tall, with rotors the span of a Boeing747 and generator housings as big as a bus.

Next it's the old Van Dieman's Land Company homestead - once a great wool empire. There's a deserted shearing shed and echoed footsteps from a dust-laden floor. There's a rambling shearers' quarters and a gap in a dark row of cyprus wrent by a recent tornado, miraculously leaving the old kitchen intact, the photos of black folk with missionary garb and blank bewildered stares.

And finally we're up here on the coast, the goal of our journey; buffeted by fresh salty air and the crash of grandiose southern oceans.

To the south lay the Antarctic. To the west, the famed 'Roaring 40s' winds, blown all the way from Argentina past the southern tip of Africa to get here; those same gales lashing our faces. We've wool and possum fur beanies pulled down tight, flapping Goretex jackets all buttoned up. I wonder at the wrecks that must surely be buried in paddocks of kelp that sway on sub-sea tides.

We gaze northward, to a tall natural rampart topped by rich green grass, grey and white waves crashing at its base - this is 'Suicide Bay', where a band of the indigenous Pendowtee people were shot in 1828, their bodies thrown over the edge of the 60m precipice; the culmination of a series of events beginning with the harassment, abduction and rape of Pendowtee womenfolk.

So we really are at `Cape Grim', evocatively named by the intrepid English navigator and cartographer Matthew Flinders, from his 8m open whaling boat... for the wild weather and bitter winds, the huge swells, hissing foam and boiling cauldron seas, or maybe the treacherous rocky reefs... or could it really have been named in honour of a Mr 'Grim'?

There are flashes of sun on shining seas, the salt and spray a timeless presence. Broken clouds race on eastward, shedding shadows dark, on grassy tussocks and rolling pastures painted in hues of emerald green.

`GRIM' BY NAME, BUT NOT BY NATURE.

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