North East Arnhem Land, Yolŋu Land
Arnhem Land is one of the last great undiscovered places in Australia and possibly the world. It lies to the east of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, covers approximately 97,000 square kilometres, and has a population of just over 16,000, the vast majority of whom are Aboriginal.
In 1623, when the world was still searching for the great ‘Southern land’, Captain William van Colster of the Dutch East India Company in his boat the Arnhem, was blown off course into a gulf past what he thought were uninhabitable lands. Little did he know Arnhem Land, on the north east tip of Australia’s Northern Territory as it is known today, had been home to the Yolŋu people for more than 50,000 years.
Whilst the world has become much smaller since then, Arnhem Land still represents one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Roughly one hundred thousand square kilometres in size, with the natural borders of Kakadu National Park, the Arafura Sea and the Gulf of Carpentaria, Arnhem Land is blessed with wild coastlines, hidden bays and islands , soaring escarpments, magnificent billabongs, vast river systems, monsoon rainforests from which the first Yidaki (didjeridus) were cut, rare flora and fauna, and sea country home to turtles and dugong.
The Yolŋu people of North East Arnhem Land recognise 6 seasons, each one heralded by distinct changes in plant and animal life and climatic conditions; all interwoven into a view of the natural environment as a total integrated system of which the Yolŋu people are merely a part. For would-be travellers this can be reduced to two – the ‘Wet’ spanning from November to April characterised by high humidity and monsoonal rain and storms, and the ‘Dry’ from May until October characterised by warm, dry sunny days and cool nights.
This combination of location and climate make travel to and within Arnhem Land an interesting exercise! The township of Nhulunbuy on the Gove peninsula, is the administrative and service centre for the Arnhem Land region, and as a traveller most likely to be your entry point via the daily flights (except Saturdays) from Cairns and Darwin with Airnorth. Whilst essentially a town built to support a bauxite mine, Nhulunbuy is an important destination for visitors, to secure their transit and access permits, and a gateway to venture out into the Homelands. Yirrkala Aboriginal Community is approximately 15km from Nhulunbuy and is home to arguably the best Aboriginal Art Centre in the country, Buku Larrnggay Mulka.
Yolŋu Homelands represent the ancestral land and sea country of the various Yolŋu clans. Homeland communities are based around a family group, they are sacred places, bountiful sources of food, and of diverse and great beauty. Accessing them will almost always require a 4WD or a light plane. Despite the limited facilities of these homelands, and the drawcard of the bigger cities, Lirrwi Tourism is playing an important role in allowing Yolŋu to remain on their homelands, and keep their traditional culture strong.