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macassan

A walk on a Macassan beach

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A walk on a Macassan beach

We are in East Arnhem Land, the beach windswept, with white sand and red rock shelves, the sun burning, the smell of baked earth and newly-burned grass, the early September temperature around 37degC.

The walk is a loop, the site recently subject to a regular indigenous 'cool burn to keep down the understorey and to better see these pictures that lay on the ground - outlines built of small red rocks in the 1890s by Aboriginal Yolngu elders

And this is their story that could have been lost to future generations, the story of a way of life that existed for hundreds of years and a local connection with the outside world... the Indonesian collection and trading of sea cucumber - or 'trepang' - along with the turtle and pearl shell, all in turn to be traded to the far-off Chinese.

We walk in a clockwise direction, observing the Yolgnu artist's work, an important historical record of visitors to this shore called 'Macassans' - from the Indonesian island of Makassar - pictures of their boats and stone houses, of their fireplaces for boiling the trepang.

The Macassan sailors came each December with the monsoon winds - sailing their tri-mast vessels - the 1600km journey taking 2wks. They would set up camp at their stone houses by tamarind trees planted on previous visits as location markers, returning home with the corresponding southeast trade winds.

They did business with local clans and in exchange for Yolngu labour - and the use of their land - the Macassans traded canoes, metal knives, axes, spears and fish hooks, along with glass and tobacco. Several Yolngu visited Indonesia, returning to East Arnhem the following year.

We follow the marked walking track from the stone outline of a Macassan sailing vessel to that of a Macassan stone house, and wonder at the march of progress... the last Macassan visit in 1907, 'the last' due to an Australian edict to introduce licenses and taxes payable in Darwin before any trade - the direction of the winds making sailing to Darwin impossible.

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