Explore a spectacular landscape where art and ancient songlines will better connect you to Country.
For outsiders, the 100,000 square kilometres east of Kakadu must seem like a mysterious, almost impenetrable swathe of classic Australian wilderness. Indeed, East Arnhem Land’s landscape towers with escarpments clad in monsoon rainforests, its rivers and billabongs perpetually replenished by wet-season abundance. To the east, it’s exquisitely outlined by the Arafura Sea’s aquamarine waters, rich in turtles and dugongs.
To understand and appreciate East Arnhem Land’s complexity and nuances, however, you must see it through the knowing eyes of its Traditional Owners, the clans of the Yolngu nation. Staying a while on a Yolngu Homeland – a remote community based around a family group – connects you to this country and its people inexorably.
The Yolngu proudly recount their ancient stories, passed down from generation to generation for 50,000 years, and are keen to share their paradise with inquisitive travellers. Symbiotically, a visit helps sustain traditional lifestyles of these ultra-remote dots on the map, too.
Lirrwi Tourism offers diverse experiences that venture into the hearts of equally diverse communities. Experiences that will help you understand the beauty, the challenges and continuing trajectory of these strong, ancient ‘countries’ within a country.
1. For a rich taste: Yolngu Day Tours
Limited time in East Arnhem Land certainly doesn’t mean missing out on a famed red-road adventure and ‘on-country’ experience.
There are a couple of day trips available from Nhulunbuy township, such as Gove Gululu Day tour, which begins with an explanation of how a bark is made for painting and the extensive medical uses of the tree followed by an exploration of the Dhimurru Recreation Area’s culturally significant sites. Art lovers are in for a treat with a stopover at world-renowned Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre (closed Sundays) and a fascinating guided wander through the Wurrwurrwuy Interpretive Walk at Garanhan (Macassan Beach).
Further afield, other day-trip options immerse you into the culture, featuring lessons in the both the lingo, Yolngu Matha, and the local sign language, too. Hear about the ancient kinship system – the two ‘moieties’, Yirritja and Dhuwa – complementary halves that connect the Yolngu to each other and to the land.
The sea is integral to the Yolngu life and lore so traditional spearfishing and crab hunting on an exquisite white beach could supplement your picnic lunch. The accompanying bush-tucker bounty is determined ultimately by the whims of the Yolngu’s ‘seven’ seasons.
2. For a strong feminine connection: Yolngu Woman’s Tours
Women’s and men’s ‘business’ is plainly delineated in East Arnhem Land so Lirrwi offers female visitors small-group tours that focus on the culture’s powerful feminine elements. It’s often said the land here is a nurturing, healing and guiding ‘mother’.
The five-day Gay’Wu (Dilly Bag) Tour explores how the Yolngu sisterhood connect with their environment and each other through spirituality and philosophy. Hand-woven with dyed pandanus leaves, the dilly bag itself is a commanding symbol of feminine power with practical and spiritual connotations; both a receptacle of bush medicines and bush food, but also a divine vessel that carries thousands of years’ worth of knowledge about country, ancestors and the universe.
The Yolngu sisterhood will walk you through everyday aspects of life on country – including traditional weaving, painting and cooking – and also share knowledge of some sacred elements of their philosophy and sacred practices.
3. For the adventurous art-lover: Aboriginal Art Centre Tours
East Arnhem Land’s tiny remote art centres are the international art world’s worst-kept secret, with the region home to some of Australia’s most accomplished artists. And for the adventurous aesthete, Lirrwi’s Art Centre Tours fly you into some of the most remote and remarkable places in Arnhem Land, from Elcho Island Arts at Galiwin’ku and Milingimbi to Gapuwiyak and Bula’Bula Arts in Ramingining (on the edge of Arafura Swamp, setting for Rolf de Heer’s acclaimed film Ten Canoes).
The Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in Yirrkala is one of the most significant Indigenous art hubs in Australia. The gallery is stocked with the pick of East Arnhem’s intricately adorned wares: larrakitj (memorial poles), nuwayak (stringybark paintings) and yidaki (the didjeridu). In its fascinating museum, discover why the four-metre-high Yirrkala Church Panels (1962-63) are among the most important pieces of modern Aboriginal art in existence.
Seeing two or more art centres gives great context to the diversity of the landscape (especially from the air) and the nuances of each homeland. Ask ahead to meet the master artists themselves or get hands on at the likes of the Milingimbi Artist Weaving Workshop.
4. For a deep immersion: Yolngu Crossing Country Tours
Five-day ‘Yolngu Dhukarr’ tours are deep immersions into one of four Homelands, where the traditional owners act as your own Indigenous counsellor, helping you to grasp as much as possible about their culture.
Feel part of the community by taking part in everyday activities and appreciate how the Yolngu express themselves, for example by learning how Yolngu make and play a yidaki, and bond with your hosts by learning traditional dances such as ‘the shark’ and ‘the crocodile’. With time on your side, the daily storytelling weaves together a deeper understanding of Arnhem Land’s complex ‘songlines’.
Young families can expect a compelling experience because the Yolngu children on the Homelands revel in interacting with visitors. After five days, you’ll come to appreciate that the rhythms of Yolngu life tend to go with the flow and the season, a less hurried but more connected existence than you might be used to.