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Cultural Tours 2011


Arnhem Weaving. 3rd June, 2011

Today I start my adventure, awaking early from sleep all that was in my head was the fear and excitement about the unknown ahead. I was so excited and nervous as I really didn't know what to expect. This was my first visit to the Northern Territory of Australia.

I am now on the plane to Darwin (from Sydney) and as I take off I am excited to take in a learning from people I have always wanted to meet. I never wanted the tourist visit to meet a community on their land. As I fly across the desert I am in awe of how beautiful the landscape is below, red, orange, green, cracked patterns. Like looking at a Fred Williams or John Olsen painting.

Arrived in Darwin and then off to meet the women with whom I will be travelling. It was great to have one familiar person on the trip, this was Camilla who I had met previously on a weaving workshop at Sturt in Bowral.

Off to bed early and next morning meet everyone at Jingilli. As we were loading our stuff into the troopies John who was taking us into Mapuru asked for a volunteer to help him load his troopie. We loaded two freezers(one for our group, and one for the community) and fantastic coloured chairs in red, blue, green and yellow for the school at Mapuru. We loaded masses of fuel, and picked lettuces and zucchini from the garden to take to Linda, John's wife who is headmistress of the school.

I warmed to John immediately and we drove for hours listening and learning about Yolongul people. I learnt from him to listen, watch and learn, not too many questions. Everything is about generations, what came before. As we pass cyclads he explains they are spirits of the land, we are one. Storm clouds could be mother, individuals do not exist, from one family the Yolngu go back forever. As we journey through the bush, white termite mounds like giant sculptures appear, some look distinctly like families communicating with each other. Termite mounds now terracotta in colour and have changed shape. Shadows forming on the road, sun is starting to set.

A never-ending road has started, gravel freshly raked, which John tells me is easier to travel on than usual. Sun has set now as we go over dips into blackened holes of water. One of the dips was a beautiful small lake, reflection of trees in very black water.

Finally arrive very late to meet the group who have already set up camp and have kept us some dinner on the campfire, next to the Winton River. To my delight a great greeting from Camilla and Joanna who had surprised me by setting up my tent. It was so kind and generous and very mothering.I am no longer nervous, I feel like I really belong on this land and with the people with whom I am sharing this journey. Camped under the stars, so beautiful.

Next morning off again this time in one of the group troopies. Sat in the back sketching away having a great conversation with Kate learning all about being an Environmental Lawyer. Bounced around as we talked enjoying the company.

Now at the Goyder River. Flows from the highland. Saz (our leader) and John deciding how we will cross the river as it is still quite high from the wet season, which has run later this year. Very peaceful, everyone enjoying this beautiful place. This is a magical moment - everyone doing what they want. Some writing or reading, some talking and some being.

Wow now came the river crossing...amazing. I watched Saz move up and down the river waist deep in water, feeling the tide, the depths, soft or hard, deep or shallow, and Meg watching for anything dangerous in the water, yes maybe crocodiles.

John now swam across the river with a safety rope to attach to each troopie. It was such an exciting crossing and fortunately a safe one.

John went ahead after we all had lunch, and at the next river crossing we bogged one of the troopies. Amazing what a group of women are capable of. We all gathered together and realized the shovels and ropes were with John. This did not deter us for a moment. We shoveled with our hands, pushed the trailer up the hill, and together got us out of trouble.

Then on our way all a little weary we were met by John and some of the community from Mapuru . Three more bogs on the way, so much part of the adventure. We had an extreme ride in with Jimmy driving us towards his home. On a very rough track - hours of jolting and then we arrived. I would not have changed this journey in any way. It was just the beginning of why I had come.

We were shown to a cleared part of the land of the community and we pitched our tents, while some cooked dinner for all of us. Left the waterproof off the side of my tent to watch and sleep with the most fantastic galaxy of stars.

The Mapuru women arrived and laid out the dyed and colorful pandanas ready to start weaving. We arrive one by one in silence, respecting the space we are in. We sit and watch, waiting to be asked to weave. I sat on the ground next to Linda, a grandmother of her community and leader. She has taught many before me and with her sister Margaret and sister in law Clara set up these workshop to support their families and integrate and teach their culture to us.

I watch Linda starting a basket, no words are spoken. I start after being handed the piece she has started. I love being here, not much talk, concentrating on weaving, very much a meditation. Children giggling around us, a close community.

From there each day started with some of us going to the school where Linda (headmistress), Danielle, and Roslyn were teaching the children Yolngu and English. We would listen to the children read English. This was such a wonderful experience. A gift to us and them. This would be followed by songs in both languages. So happy, the children love it. Their smiles are worth a million words.

The following day we went out and gathered pandanas followed by another day of root collecting and fishing led by Clara. The mangroves were amazingly picturesque and at times we were knee deep in mud.

There were so many memorable moments including swimming in a rock pool with some of the children, the young women sitting around weaving with us and the young men in another part of the land bark painting with their fathers and elders, cooking on a campfire, sitting and listening to Margaret, Linda and Clara converse wondering what they were saying. So many moments with the community that some cannot be described.

One of the mements was when I was so frustrated with myself not understanding how to weave, and Linda in English says "think"! She was so wise, I had got so caught up with getting it right I had forgotten what she had taught me not in words but by watching. An important message learnt.

And so the week came to an end, with a beautiful send off of dance and didgeridoo.

We said our goodbyes that night and some of us promised to return. I want to thank Linda, Margaret, Clara and all the women who taught us so much.

I have taken with me an experience that words cannot describe. I can only say thank you for a lifetime experience which in the future I will return to again.

Jo Meisner

Photos by Joanna Park and Jo Meisner

Arnhem Weaving trip…. a thank you from Kate Cranney

There are moments that, four months on, I remember vividly from Mäpuru in June 2011.

Mangrove mud oozing between my toes, the women’s colourful baskets swaying in the wind and Linda’s thumbs up when I’d finally understood how to weave a dilly-bag. Then there was the happy gurgle of baby Tiesha as she was passed between the Mäpuru women and girls, the sudden cackle of laughter underneath the paperbark shelter and the echo of dozens of kids singing ‘my island goaty-oaty-oaty-oaty-oat’ from the school building.

I am grateful for the generosity of the Mäpuru women in taking the time to teach our hodgepodge group of balanda (Western) women about Yolŋu culture.

Our group was made up of a wonderful array of ladies, mostly from Melbourne and Sydney. We quickly got to know each other within the first two days, travelling by troopie across Arnhem Land. While it was sometimes challenging, I would never dream of trading the drive for a flight. The country was beautiful, the trip gave me time to breathe and it was good fun digging the vehicle out of the umpteenth bog, covered in mud, singing muddy songs. Still, it was a relief to be greeted by Angeline and some of the men and boys an hour from the homeland.

Digging the troopie out of a bog. Practicing dance moves, possibly over-tired.

I think most of our group was a little nervous the first couple of days, chatting busily and asking lots of questions…the way that we are used to communicating. But over the days a quiet calm gradually wove its way under the hut. It felt comfortable to be silent, sitting next to each other. I was alone with my own thoughts and still connected with the women around me.

Over the week we wove day and night, swam in the crystal-clear waterholes, helped out in the school and ate buffalo. I was adopted by Marceil -my sister or yapa- who I hope to meet again over the coming years.

Clara leading the way to the mangroves, where we went fishing & ate latjin (mangrove worms).

The Mäpuru women and girls shared with us their culture: how to fish, be still, collect pandanus and weave with the stripped, dyed and dried leaves. I left with an appreciation of the depth of knowledge that these women hold.

There is also depth of meaning and interconnectedness in every thought and decision that is both beautiful and hard to grasp. It was only when I spoke to a friend (who had done the men’s group) that I realised I had made a mistake. Margaret had indicated that I should weave with yellow then green, yellow then green and so on. I didn’t understand why she seemed disappointed with me when, on a whim, I decided to include a band of white pandanus. I didn’t know that the women choose your colour carefully, thoughtfully, based on your character, your relationship with your adopted sister, mother, grandmother etc.

I recently heard Wade Davis, the ‘explorer in residence’ at National Geographic, remark that all of his travels have taught him one thing: that the wealth of community is best measured not on physical possessions, but on the cohesion and harmony of the group. I felt the sense of belonging and care at Mäpuru: from the way that Tiesha was held to how food was shared with all.

I also learnt what it means to be strong. I fancied myself as a fairly capable, resilient young country woman until I heard some of the ladies’ stories. In the 1960’s Elder community members had cleared the airstrip by hand. There were no bulldozers, wheelbarrows, graders or heavy machinery. Instead they had cleared the trees from the airstrip with axes, removing stumps with iron bars and, to fill holes, they had carried soil from the creeks on paper bark sheets. I imagine it also took considerable strength of spirit to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and establish a school that respects and strengthens Yolŋu culture.

I have many funny memories from the week at Mäpuru. Balanda women digging the troopy out, covered from toes to tonsils in mud; playing games around the campfire and Linda laughing at my re-enactment of a cane toad’s unceremonious death and then acting out her own amphibious story. When I ate a latjin (mangrove worm) without squeezing the mud from its bowels, learning quickly from my mistake (Yolŋu education is refreshing, empowering and truly heuristic). Then there was one afternoon when Danielle, the lovely balanda teacher, looked up mid-explanation and inadvertently began teaching a Mäpuru lady a Yolŋu word. There was a moment of confusion and then everyone burst into laughter. And finally, I remember noticing some of the young girls shaking their bodies and making strange noises, suddenly realising that they were mimicking my laugh! Brilliant.

The trip was supported by a number of Balanda. Sass, from CERES, was an incredibly selfless and perceptive group facilitator. Bojan and Meg drove the troopies from dawn til dusk. John Greatorex was patient and generous, both with his time (helping us travel to and from the homelands in one piece) and with this knowledge, answering our questions with diplomacy and kindness. Linda and Danielle were wonderful company and helped everyone feel at ease.

Collecting pandanus; walking towards the mangroves; and detail of Angeline’s beautiful basket.

Finally, I thought I might share a gentle lesson I learnt on letting go.

One afternoon, I was helping Roslyn to strip the pandanus that we had helped to collect. Characteristically, I was determined to do a good job, perfect even. I sat with Roslyn, the ever-kind and motherly Yolŋu teacher, as she showed me how to gently, firmly separate the fibres: “like this (bend, halve, strip), like this (bend, halve, strip), like this…” It looked easy enough. But I continuously split the fibre (too thick, then too thin), rendering the whole strip useless.
I apologised, “Argh! Roslyn, I’m sorry. I keep wrecking them!” I felt frustrated and guilty for ruining the pandanus; pandanus that had taken some time to collect and prepare.
Roslyn touched my hand and, without realising the significance of her kind response, said simply, “it’s okay, you’re just learning.”

I feel I have much to learn…about Yolŋu culture, Indigenous issues closer to home, how to comprehend what has happened in the past and to understand my part in what is happening now. The Arnhem Weaving women and girls shared their knowledge with such love and generosity. It still makes me smile thinking about Mapuru: Linda and Margaret and the girls teaching me how to weave, Roslyn enfolding me in her bosom when I was saying goodbye and the manymak balanda women who I was fortunate enough to share the Arnhem Weaving trip with.

Djutjutj, Kate.

Thank you to Lol (Loredana) and Joanna for the photos.

Dhäwu Ŋathapuy

Through the open scrub a barefoot Märi (grandmother) gracefully, methodically strides through the crisp understory, her gaze steadily fixed on the ground. Drawing a deep knowledge from the landscape she touches a fine leaf and tweaking it follows the fragile vine in its illusive weave until she reaches its source. With little effort she is cross-legged on the ground and after a strenuous dig, unearthed is one of the many varieties of ŋatha (carbohydrate food) or yams. Like the leaves and vine that lead to the ŋatha itself, thousand of years of story telling and singing guide the modern day Yolŋu women who continue this tradition of sustaining their families by collecting bush tucker.

Linda Marathuwarr with “djalpiŋu”- a variety of ŋatha.

The multi generational gathering of bush tucker is usual practice for the women of Mäpuru. Grandmothers, mothers, daughters and great granddaughters are always together collecting, preparing and eating the local foods. Like the ŋatha buried deep underground there is so much more involved in this process than the leaf on the surface. Each food has connection to these families through kinship and deep cultural significance. Every time the food is collected the younger generation hear the stories and songs of their ancestors and learn about their relationship to people and place. They learn more of who they are in this complex Yolŋu world. We are fortunate to be here with the women of Mäpuru, to hear their songs and stories and to work in collaboration with the younger women, as they record and document the gathering of bush tucker. The first day begins with a lengthy discussion amongst the women, the younger women who already know and harvest twenty or so varieties of ŋatha would like to find and eat some of the ŋatha species that they know of but are yet to experience. The older women are happy to collect the nourishing ŋatha and share their vast knowledge with the younger generations.

Rebecca Gayurrwi  and Linda Marathuwarr

Rebecca Gayurrwi and Juliette Gitjpulu, take to using the video cameras very quickly and within no time both are confidently recording their grandmothers, Linda Marathuwarr and Margaret Bambalarra, as they collect ŋatha and tell stories. A spine tingling moment occurs when one of the elders, Marathuwarr sings an old song about the bush food. I am transported to the heart of this ancient place by the haunting melody which conveys the richness of its meaning, even though I am lost by the words.
Gayurrwi is easy with her grandmother and her ability to ask questions and draw out information from her elder, gives the strong sense of the depth of their relationship and the respect that is present between them. The elders are unstoppable in their drive to collect ŋatha, their instinct is to sustain their community with this food and their stamina is inspiring. Whilst observing Gayurrwi filming her grandmother Linda Marathuwarr, I suddenly see her whole face light up. Marathuwarr has unearthed a variety of ŋatha, “djalpiŋu” that Gayurrwi has not seen before. Her delight is obvious and she excitedly asks more information about the treasure, much communication ensues amongst the elders of the group as they tell the stories of this  particular food.

We return to Mäpuru and shortly we feast on all the ŋatha that was collected. Firstly a large fire is built and rocks are heated up to form coals, the ŋatha is washed in preparation. The coals are then place in a pit with wet grass or leaves on top- the ŋatha is next and then a layer of wet paper bark. Finally a layer of soil to seal the heat and the food is left to steam for half an hour. People begin to gather around the fire in anticipation of some delicacies. Amongst them is Jackie, uncle of Gayurrwi and Gitjpulu. As he enjoys one of the uncommon ŋatha he exclaims, “it reminds me of being a child”. A sentiment to which we all relate, the textured memory of sharing a favourite food that has been lovingly prepared with family and friends.

Margaret Bambalarra washes theŋatha in preparation for cooking

That evening we upload the day’s footage and Gayurrwi and Gitjpulu are really pleased with their efforts and the quality of information they have collected. Very quickly Gayurrwi picks up the program i-Movie and begins to produce short films following the chronology of events, collecting preparing and enjoying the food together. As she is training to teach at the Mäpuru Christian School she has first hand knowledge of several obscure yams, and as a bonus, video skills and a great resource to share with the future generations. We leave Mäpuru nourished and humbled by these remarkable women, satisfied, like after a good feed of ŋatha.

Ellen Doyle
June 2011

I was fortunate to visit  Mäpuru in 2010 for a weaving trip with the Arnhem Weavers. This project is a result of that first trip and also involved Nia, Sas, John, and the generous residents of Mäpuru.




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