Living and working in Kakadu, I came to hear of Arnhem Land, an area of Aboriginal land larger than almost half of the world’s countries yet somehow hidden in a remote, isolated corner of Australia’s sparse Northern Territory. One of “the last true wildernesses” on earth, Arnhem Land is home to wild, empty beaches, pristine rivers and uninhabited tropical islands, not to mention thousands of kilometres of unspoilt rainforest, savannah and “stone country”. This is one of the few places in Australia where Aboriginal traditions and lifestyle live on.
Across the Arnhem Land border is Gunbalanya (also known as “Oenpelli“, “Kunbarllanjnja” in Kunwinjku, and “Unbalanj” by the original Mengerrdji-speakers) and in Gunbalanya – officially a “dry” community – there is one bar: the Gunbalanya Sports & Social Club.
There are many local rumours surrounding this bar; rumours concerning the vast quantity of alcohol consumed and the crazy, dodgy situations that necessarily result. One story goes that a satellite picked up an enormous tin deposit in this spot, but when the mining company showed up, they found only a sea of discarded cans, built up over years, out the back of the pub. The cans have since been removed.
The day I heard about this place, open only four days a week, for limited hours, and selling only light to mid-strength beers by the can or stubby, it became my life’s goal to get there.
My only informant on the matter was Seb, who often drinks with Aboriginal friends and knows Arnhem Land from countless fishing trips, but he couldn’t understand why I wanted to go. Everyday in the kitchen we’d have the same discussion.
“It’s a shithole. There’s nothing there. Just drunks and petrol sniffers.” (Two teenagers died and a third got permanent brain damage back in 2006, despite unleaded fuel being banned in Arnhem Land.)
But being warned against going somewhere is nothing new to me. I had the same thing when I insisted on crossing into Mexico at a time when the US media were going nuts with the Mexican drug war.
“I like shitholes. You’ll just have to take my word for it…If you see my blog, you’ll understand why I have to go.”
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” (I like to think this phrase is also true of tourist destinations.)
“I don’t even think you’ll be able to get a drink there. You’re not a member of the community and they’re pretty strict now on who they serve.”
The drink situation around here is very serious.
- At the JS (Jabiru Sports & Social Club) you have to register as an “International Visitor” before you can be served at the bar.
- The Kakadu Lodge (also in Jabiru) issue an “Alcohol Card” to their guests wishing to use their bar.
- One of the first things I noticed about the supermarket in Jabiru was that there’s no bottle shop.
- The traditional owners of sites such as Ubirr request that no alcohol be consumed.
- Even the festivals are “dry”, as I found out when we went to Mahbilil Festival.
More on the “Aboriginal drink problem” later.
Seb gradually warmed to the idea, even if he did think I was an idiot. One drunken night he even almost signed himself up to take me there…but of course later came to his senses. Anyway, without his advice – such as to drop plenty of psi out of our tyres – I might never have made it.
I had many obstacles to face:
- The only road into West Arnhem Land is heavily corrugated, unsealed and 4WD-only recommended. Our bakery van is definitely not 4WD, and Seb had already warned us, “in the Territory, if it doesn’t say it’s sealed, don’t risk it.”
- This includes driving through the East Alligator, a major tidal river (twice) only possible for a brief window every twelve hours.
- As I’ve said, the bar is only open four days a week, for limited hours. (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday evenings from 6pm, I believe.)
- Entry into Arnhem Land is restricted and a permit is required from the Northern Land Council (NLC), who will pretty much only issue one for visits to the Injalak Arts Centre. Somehow I didn’t think they would take kindly to my true intentions. I was torn: go without a permit or lie to get one.
- And, perhaps most importantly, I would have to get a day off work – no easy feat in itself.
To complicate matters even further, the van got a flat just heading into Jabiru, at which point we discovered that some idiot had put sports wheels on it. The one tyre shop in Jabiru refused to tyre it up (Tim and Sarah had had an over-optimistic crack at the Gibb River Road – famous for its wild Outback terrain – and so the rims would most likely never hold air again) so we had to somehow procure a set of original steel rims from Darwin and the van was sat up on bricks for a few weeks.
Being not a sexy, single young woman, getting anyone to take me in their 4WD proved impossible. (Not that I’m bitter or anything.)
I called the NLC to ask about a permit.
“Do you have a car?
“Er…yeah, but I’ll probably just hitch.”
“Sorry, I won’t give you a permit for that.”
“Oh, okay – ”
“You can’t do that in the communities.”
“Oh, okay.” (I said I’d call back when my car was fixed.)
A select few tour operators, either indigenous-run or who’ve gained the trust of the traditional owners, are allowed to bring in visitors, but firstly these tours start at about $250 and secondly Ruth, who worked on reception and had managed to get a free tour, reported back to me that there would definitely be no opportunity to “slip away for a bit” and that any attempt to convince the driver to make a detour via the bar would no doubt be met with a “no”.
There are also certain special events, such as an “open day” once a year (in July, I think) when you don’t need a permit, but it seems I’d missed all these.
Oh and if that wasn’t enough, the Wet season started, so, after three months without a single drop of rain (honestly!) the roads were now partially flooded.
(I have to confess, I did get one opening, when the tides, my day off, the bar opening times, NLC opening times, everything came together, Seb came to me and said, “we just got back from Arnhem Land and the road’s been graded…It’s in the best state I’ve seen it in two years. I think you’ll even be able to do it in your van.” And then I went and got drunk in the bar and slept through what looked like my only chance to go to the Gunbalanya Sports & Social Club.
“Such is life.” – Ned Kelly
But if you’re determined enough to do something, you’ll do it (unless that something is to eat a gold brick). Another opportunity presented itself and this time, rain or no rain, I wasn’t going to waste it.
It was Friday, 7th November. The NLC was open until 4.15 pm, Injalak until 5 pm and the Gunbalanya Sports & Social Club that night. According to Willy Weather there would be a record low tide of 0.6 metres at precisely 5:37 pm, which would give me a two hour window either side of that to get in, do my thing and get out again.
Incidentally it was also a full moon, 35 degrees (25 at night) and with a 60% chance of rain, which would almost certainly see me stranded on the other side of “the East” until morning. I’ll take those odds! The sun would set at 6:40 pm.
In a strange coincidence, the NLC happened to be holding a conference at our resort at the time, so I’d managed to procure a copy of the conference paperwork and an NLC keyring, which I planned to flash around later if any trouble were to arise. (You never know.) Just as I was about to leave, as an afterthought, I realised that if all the NLC staff were here, there might be nobody in their office. I called them.
They were there, but about to close.
Ruth managed to get the arvo off too, so we jumped in the van (with its fresh new set of wheels and heavy-duty, eight-ply tyres) and raced off to get our permits.
I would give you directions to the NLC, but everything in Jabiru is in the same place. It’s attached to the library, if that’s any help.
All the buildings in these blocks are smeared once around with hand prints, an act that anywhere else in the world would be considered vandalism, but here, I assume, means “open for business”. When somebody dies, black hand prints are used and the area is off limits. Seb had told me about the lonesome, abandoned houses along the tracks of Arnhem Land, smeared with black; places you cannot go.
Some things you should know about Aboriginal etiquette in these parts:
- Don’t reference, or display images of the dead.
- They’re not big fans of intense eye contact.
- They don’t use greetings when they meet like we Westerners do.
- They don’t use names in the same way either. Rather “kinship terms” such as “brother”.
- Don’t take photos without permission.
- Boh boh (pronounced “bor bor”) is “goodbye”.
The permit is $16 and you need your vehicle rego (registration; number plate; license plate) number (I had to go back out to the car park to get mine) and they give you a copy of the tide times and a sheet of information that says in big, bold capitals:
THIS PERMIT ALLOWS THE HOLDER TO TRAVEL DIRECTLY TO INJALAK ART CENTRE FROM CAHILLS CROSSING.
TRESPASSING ON ABORIGINAL LAND WITHOUT A PERMIT IS ILLEGAL
- DO NOT STOP THE CAR AT ANY POINT DURING YOUR ROAD TRANSIT TO INJALAK
- DO NOT TRAVEL DOWN ANY OTHER ROAD APART FROM THE TRANSIT ROAD TO INJALAK
- DO NOT STOP IN THE GUNBALANYA/OENPELLI COMMUNITY, GO DIRECTLY TO INJALAK
The permit itself starts like this:
PERMIT TO ENTER & REMAIN ON ABORIGINAL LAND OR SEAS ADJOINING ABORIGINAL LAND
“The person named below is authorised to enter Aboriginal land only to visit Injalak Arts and Craft Centre and partake in tourism activities…”
…and among a long list of “TERMS AND CONDITIONS” are:
“1. This permit does not authorise entry into any buildings, dwellings, living areas or camps.
2. Permit holders must travel directly to their destination and not divert. No new tracks are to be created.
4. This permit is valid only for the purposes stated herein.
5. The carrying and consumption of alcohol is prohibited under part VII of the Liquor Act.
14. Motor vehicles and boats must be in a satisfactory condition and reasonable spare parts, food, fuel and water must be carried.
16. The permit holder enters Aboriginal land at his or her own risk…in respect of death…”
To anyone who thinks it was wrong of me to break the conditions of an official document, which I signed, I have this question for you to ponder: did any problems ever get solved by hiding them under a blanket?
Sometimes (actually, quite often, in my experience) an official body or authority can be wrong while an individual is right.
From Jabiru, you head back a couple of kms on the Arnhem Highway, then turn right on the Oenpelli Highway for 40 kms (this part described in my post on Ubirr). At Cahill’s Crossing - end of the road for my Ubirr story, but just the beginning for this one – you have to drive through the East Alligator River. “Whatever you do,” said Seb, “don’t stop. Just keep driving until you hit the other side.”
I ploughed through, throwing up waves like I’ve never seen, too focused to look out for the crocodiles that we knew were in the water.
Once on the Arnhem Land side, it’s a 15 km stretch of unsealed road that roughly follows the dramatic Arnhem Land escarpment through flood plains and tropical monsoon forest.
“This is the beautiful part.” She told me in the NLC office, “but don’t stop. Our rangers drive up and down that road every day and they will dob you in.” The greens and blues of the floodplains and billabongs, lush with the recent rain, made quite a sight blended with the deep red earth…
…and the occasional burnt-out car. Apparently the local Aborigines get free cars from the government – a bone of contention with everyone else, as you can imagine. Arnhem Land’s remoteness makes a vehicle almost a basic necessity of life out here, but the abandoned cars at the roadside prove that people aren’t likely to value something they got for nothing.
By the way, on a complete side note, Arnhem Land is the birthplace of the didgeridoo, where it is known by many names (none of them even close to “didgeridoo”) including mako in Kunwinjku and yidaki in Yolngu…at least up until 2011, when some guy with a name sounding something like Yidaki died and they switched to mandapul.
We crawled along at 20 kmph, following the tracks of other (probably better suited) vehicles, shuddering over constant deep corrugations in the dirt, over pot-holes, through “puddles” almost as deep as the river, some spanning the entire road.
When, after 15 kms, you see the sign for the Oenpelli community and the road briefly becomes sealed again, take a left and follow the road round for 3 kms, past the only four places in town you’re allowed to go: police station, park, servo and shop. At the T-junction, swing a right and park up outside Injalak Arts.
Injalak Arts is a non-profit and one of only three Aboriginal-owned commercial enterprises in the community. (The others being an abattoir and of course the Gunbalanya Social, which I still had no idea how to get to.)
We went inside and were greeted by Sita, a Melbourne art student on an internship here. She showed us around and introduced us to some of the artists. “We have over 300 members of the community who actively contribute art. Some work here on site. Others bring it in from their outstations.” (After all, if you don’t work in the abattoir or the club, how else are you supposed to make money here?) Some men were painting, some women screen-printing and an old lady outside weaving baskets from jim jim (pandanus) leaves. We were given a little piece of it.
“This one’s a freebie, is it?”
From the back of the Injalak centre is an unimpeded view of the Adjumarrllal Billabong and, behind it, Injalak Hill, after which the centre is named. They also run tours up to Injalak Hill, which is home to some of the most impressive rock art galleries in the world.
Back in the shop, I threw a coin in the “camp dogs fund” – set up to feed the stray dogs of the community – for once a cause I can get on board with - found out from a leaflet that if I wanted to I could learn Kunwinjku or Gundjeihmi for free, online at bininjgunwok.org.au (and also here) and we poked around at Cambodian-made clothes and art that, like original art the world over, only those few with money to throw away can afford. Luckily for Gunbalanya, those few with money to throw away are also partial to indigenous tours.
A sign on the wall said “CDEP Work Rules…11. No grog, no gunja.”
Sita showed us the Injalak Arts Facebook page and some photos she’d taken for the centre’s 25th birthday party, which we’d missed by just a few days.
I decided to broach the subject of the bar. She’d never been, but it turned out she was planning to go that evening, to celebrate one of her last nights in Arnhem Land with all the friends she’d made. She gave us directions: back though town, right after the police station, walk a bit, second left and follow it ’til it ends at the Club.
“Cool. Maybe we’ll see you there…”
We had some time to kill, so we ambled along the banks of the billabong, though not too close (crocs) and played on the swings in the park amidst the iced-coffee cartons…
…and the graffiti that blends ten thousand years of artistic tradition with…well, cocks.
I almost forgot – one of the conditions on the permit:
“11. All rubbish must be disposed of properly or removed from Aboriginal land.”
We did our bit.
Someone once told me that Aboriginal attitudes to litter tend to be something along the lines of: “White fellas brought litter to Australia. White fellas can pick it up.”
I think that might just be the dumbest opinion represented in this post, which considering most of the others are mine, is really saying something.
As it neared 6 o’clock we got on our feet again, passed the school and a truck that seems to double as a police station, and now we were officially out of the bounds of our permit. The occasional camp dog eyed us from the dust. It was hard to believe you were in Australia, a “developed” country. I was reminded of the time I was invited onto the Montreal Lake First Nations (Native American) reservation in Saskatchewan, Canada.
We soon became aware that we were part of a mass march or procession, the numbers growing exponentially with every street that converged onto ours. People were crossing fields and empty lots, appearing from the spaces between houses, all headed in the same direction. It was clear we weren’t going to need those directions from here. Everyone was going to the Social Club.
According to this article in the Sydney Morning Herald (the only other account I could find of someone having been to the Gunbalanya Social Club) this migration across town is made by 300 to 600 people a night. Remember the population of Gunbalanya? That’s between a quarter and half of it!
The outside of the Club wasn’t much to look at, but once signed in (which went down as smoothly as could be hoped for), it stood in stark contrast to the rest of the community. Shady palms lined green, well-mowed lawns. The new community swimming pool next door made sure everyone knew who paid for it; the Gunbalanya Sports & Social Club, of course.
People came to watch the national news on big plasma screen TVs as it did its bit to spread racism and hatred throughout the country. ISIS or whatever they’re called were killing some hostages or something somewhere in the world, if I rightly recall.
There was one other table of whiteys and everyone else was Aborigine, as you might expect.
We ordered a couple of cans of VB Gold without difficulty, drank those hard-earned, ice-cold bad-boys down, perhaps a little too quickly, and got in another, which we sipped and savoured out in the beer garden massaged by the long rays of the setting sun.
We explored a little, took some photos and soon people were chatting to us, taking photos with us…
Anyway, the sun set and the storm clouds gathered and it was time to say, “boh boh.”
We raced the storm, driving through the river in complete darkness and running into a torrential downpour not ten minutes later.
It may seem like a long way to go and a lot to go through for a couple of beers, but you know what they say, it’s about the journey, really.
When we got back, Seb, Maike, Pottsy, Azza, Rachael, Rod and the whole gang were sheltering in the barbecue area, already well on their way. Fast-forward to 4 am. I’m drinking with Dean. Seb’s just gone to the ranger station to drop off an Aboriginal friend, whose name I forget, but who Azza insisted “looks like a Jimmy”.
We’re in the middle of some deep, philosophical discussion when Dean says, “yep, that’s definitely a snake by your leg, bro,” and then, as I’m slowly drawing my legs up onto the bench, “don’t worry, it’s just a python”.
Time to call it a day.
only light to mid-strength beers by the can or “stubby”