An immersion into Groote Eylandt and Beswick near Katherine, August 2018.
Last week I saw some spectacular rock art on Groote Eylandt, the fourth biggest island in Australia known for its long term manganese mining. Based in the small community of Angurugu, we had a short but memorable drive to a cave set on top of some ancient rocks at a place called Wurruwarrkbadenumanja.
Inside, the cave roof dazzled us with its rich mural depicting local wildlife including turtles and their tracks, dolphins, lizards and dugongs as well as human items such as canoes and axes. Representing totemic and clan-based connection to Country the art may well have been ‘retouched’ by elders over the years – or so I read. Its age is unknown but all the ochres (red yellow and white) were sourced locally near the base of the rocks.
Although the art was very hard to photograph it was exceptionally impressive in situ. And we all felt extremely privileged to be accompanied by Judy, a local linguist, who knew the landscape well due to camping there with her family in her younger days and whose father had been a custodian of the rock art. On approach to the cave Judy gently warned the spirits we were coming.
Our reason to visit Groote was to accompany a long-term friend who had taught at the local Primary School some 50 years ago. Highlights included meeting some very inspiring and committed women including one of her former students, Naomi. Strong emotions all round! Many things had changed – some good, some bad! Naomi and others had benefited from leaving school aged 18, back in the 1970s, and recognised the huge value of education and were encouraging the children of today to follow likewise.
The local school was trying hard too with the help of “yellow shirters”; women who call on families daily to persuade their children to attend school. Anecdotally this seems to be working for some of the girls but sadly results were poor for the boys. The Anindilyaka Language Centre was also very impressive with its aim to promote, maintain and preserve the Groote Eylandt language, Anindilyakwa. Check out their website here! http://www.anindilyakwa.org.au
Beswick and Barunga
Our second community visit was to Beswick area about 100km south east of Katherine. I first visited Beswick and Barunga back in 2003 when I worked for The Fred Hollows Foundation and there was a partnership with Woolworths – the latter seconding a manager to run the local Store. Now these two local stores are part of Outback Stores, whose mission is to provide healthy and affordable food to remote Aboriginal communities and it was very extremely interesting to revisit them.
Naturally there are numerous challenges but we were impressed with both the stores and their staff. These are hard places to live in but we admired everyone’s commitment to being there and trying to make a difference. It’s so easy for us to swan in from our urban life; a very different but parallel world. Again it was a great privilege to visit and connect with some of the locals.
Tango, a local elder, took us to beautiful Beswick Falls where we walked and talked with him about local life and culture. Understandably we are not permitted to share photos of this sacred land. The following photos were taken near the falls.
Our short immersion into these two communities was inspiring and thought provoking. We know that generational changes are needed but hope that positive changes will happen in both communities with the help of the strong elders living there.