The little, tin boat I’m in is starting to feel even smaller as I spot another giant tuna jumping through the water, chasing a school of bait fish. Hundreds of birds hover above taking turns to dive head first into the turquoise waters hoping to surface with a meal in their beak just as a dozen sea eagles swoop in and fly off with a tasty silver fish in their claws. The top of the waters bubble as the bait fish scramble to get away, but my eyes cannot see the larger fish below herding them towards the shallower waters.
Nearby, a large white crane stands stoically on a flooded sandbank, passively watching the scene around him. Dugongs, dolphins and sea turtles glide through the waters beneath, unseen today, but I know they’re there.
One more creature to spot and then I’ve finally ticked off ‘The Big Five’ out of the wildlife found in this hot and humid, sunkissed land.
Scanning the edge of the water as we potter past slowly in the little, tin boat, I’m hoping to see the fifth or at least the flick of its giant tail as the beast scatters back into the jungle-like foliage.
It’s a pretty remote place here, I’ll give you that, the majority of visitors fly here and even the local people prefer a plane over enduring the very long and very bumpy 10 hour drive down a corrugated bush track to get to the nearest town. For six months of the year, the whole community and surrounding tribal lands are cut off from civilisation by the rising banks of the rivers that flow through the area. Fresh supplies to the community have to be shipped in weekly and heaven forbid if the seas are too rough for the barge to dock in what are normally some of the brightest aqua waters you’ve ever seen!
But the little town that sits on the very tip of a large Gulf, is like a secret piece of paradise that many would prefer to keep to themselves. The town serves as a meeting spot for the local clans that are spread out across the mostly flat land, filled with a mix of trees, grasslands, tropical jungle and even areas of pre-historic flora.
Many come just for the fishing, said to be some of the best on the Continent, but there is so much more to explore here!
The closest clan community is only about 15km down the road from the small town and holds on to its strong, traditional culture of art, music, hunting and fishing.
There aren’t many tourists, although the area sees a boost in numbers in August when a large cultural festival takes place that brings together all the tribes in the area, offering a chance for visitors to experience traditional ceremonies of brightly painted dancers kicking up the warm, red sand, accompanied by wooden beats, unified voices and the body-vibrating sound of the Yidaki, a hollow wooden instrument that originated in these parts. The people of this area come from one of the oldest tribes in the world, that stretch back over 40,000 years.
Can you guess where I am yet? It’s not the coasts of Africa. I’m actually closer to Papua New Guinea than any major city, but I’m not in Asia.
I’m in Australia! East Arnhem Land to be exact. The little town is Nhulunbuy that sits on the top right corner of the Northern Territory. Ten hours away on the left corner, is Darwin.
Nhulunbuy is a mining town of about 3000 people but it is also a hub for the local indigenous communities that are spread throughout Arnhem Land. Yirrkala is the closest, about a 15 minute drive from town and is quite large compared to the others. They even have two schools, two medical centres, a garden nursery, along with the local store.
The popular Art Centre here, Buku Larrnggay Mulka, has an impressive collection of indigenous art that they sell worldwide. Bark paintings, ceremonial poles and yidaki (which you’d probably know better by its other name as a didgeridoo), are decorated in the traditional clan colours and symbols made from ochre paints hand-mined at local ore deposits that come in different shades of black, yellow, orange and red. White clay is also used, particularly for ceremonial dances.
A small piece of fine hair from a child is cut and tied to a stick to create a brush used to paint intricate layers in a crosshatch pattern called ‘rarrk‘ that is commonly used in Yolgnu clan designs. The visual effect it creates is mesmerising in what appears to become a 3D pattern when stared at long enough. Clan symbols are often used to decorate including the ‘baru‘ (crocodile) or ‘bapi’ (snake).
The few tourists that do drift in during the year can choose from a range of activities to explore, although they’ll need permission from the indigenous office in the form of a permit if they intend to explore off the main road.
The pure, white sands of beaches beckon, but watch out as crocodiles are often sighted, not to mention the sharks, stingers and even water buffalo who love to patrol the beach at dawn and dusk.
The water buffalo are considered a nuisance and are quite aggressive when disturbed. Many a car has come off second best with a big buff.
Dingo’s are also in the area and it’s not uncommon to spot one walking down the street. They, along with the buffalo, shark, snake and crocodile, round out ‘The Big Five’ in Arnhem Land. But you can also see rock wallabies, brightly coloured parrots and birds and unfortunately the dreaded cane toad that creates a great road game when it rains and they start hopping onto the road. If you run over them at just the right angle (face first) they make a hilarious popping sound!
Cane Toads are a massive pest in Australia, they are not native wildlife and were brought in to curb the spread of the cane beetle. Unfortunately they didn’t like the taste of the cane beetle, but they developed a taste for a lot of other Australian fauna and soon spread throughout all of Queensland and the north of Australia.
In short, it’s ok to kill them, preferably in great numbers.
Not everything involves the coast here. There are also a number of creeks and waterholes to swim in. Far safer than swimming at the beach. There are still croc sightings, but they’re more likely to be freshwater crocodiles which are no where near as aggressive as salties.
To get anywhere though, you’ll need a 4WD. A few places such as Goanna Lagoon and the Latram River are only about half an hour out of town. Further along is Scout Camp, Giddes River and Wonga Creek. All are excellent camping spots but you need to book in advance for Scout Camp and Wonga Creek as they only allow a certain number of vehicles.
Locals usually also respect someones quiet time and will drive on if an area is already occupied.
About two hours drive out is Memorial Park, again you need a special permit here, but it pretty much guarantees you get the whole place to yourself. Beautiful gorges and waterholes await you here.
More remote beaches are in the area and are quite popular with families on the weekends. Daliwuy, Macassans, Little Bondi, Turtle Beach and Rocky Point are all in a row and further out is Cape Arnhem.
In town you can stay at the Walkabout Lodge, which does include a caravan park for those who have braved the track. There’s also Bremer Island and the Banu Banu Wilderness Retreat, an eco-friendly, boutique resort that promotes a tailored experience which can include fishing (of course), bird and turtle watching, going hunting (or gathering) with some of the local Yolgnu members, or just chilling on the beach watching the usual technicolour sunset with a glass of wine.
Previously, the chances of you ever visiting the place were as remote as the town itself, but with the recent closure of the local aluminum refinery, the area is starting to look at other ways to prosper, which includes tourism. So if you ever get the chance, definitely take a look at this little slice of paradise. Hopefully you’ll see a croc…I’ve still yet to cross it off my list!