Follow the Song Lines

Gulf of Carpentaria’s Groote Eylandt a paradise rich in Aboriginal culture

The Gulf of Carpentaria is etched with song lines. They weave across the rust-red earth and skate along the deep
cerulean sea, uniting the clans dispersed along its shores. All the way from Groote Eylandt to Bickerton Island to
the East Arnhem mainland they go, tracing the route taken by creation ancestors as they sang their dreaming
across the land.

A boat on the water’s edge on Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory. Picture: AAP/Stephanie Flack
A boat on the water’s edge on Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory. Picture: AAP/Stephanie Flack

“There are so many stories down here,” says anthropologist Hugh Bland. “Maybe one day it’ll have World Heritage listing.” We’re gathered around an unfurled map close to Leske Pools on Groote Eylandt’s southwest side. Traditional owners Jonathan Nunggumajbarr and Ronald Wurrawilya run their fingers across the ridges and valleys of their homeland, picking out familiar landmarks, such as the townships of Angurugu, Alyangula and Umbakumba, where Englishman Fred Gray traded trepangs (sea cucumbers) in the 1930s, and where Qantas flying boats would stop to refuel during World War II; the islands scattered like crumbs about the archipelago; the beaches of South Point that stretch long and empty into the gulf.

Bland points to two legends stamped upon the map: a squat caterpillar dreaming and, close by, a more elongated snake dreaming. The snake could hear the caterpillar murmuring, Bland says. He knew that theirs was a poison relationship, and so he stopped dead in his tracks.

These are just some of the sacred sites being excised from the mining and exploration leases carved out of the island — manganese deposits that have been mined by GEMCO since the 1960s. So abundant is this mineral, Groote Eylandt supplies 25 per cent of the world’s requirements. But while the mining activity has brought riches to this island — traditional owners are the recipients of generous royalty payments — it has also threatened to shatter the song lines that run through it.
“It’s the dreaming tracks that unite the region,” Bland says. “The knowledge of country is encoded in them. Damage affects everyone who celebrates the dreaming,

including those on Bickerton and the mainland.” As anthropologist for Groote Eylandt’s Anindilyakwa Land Council, Bland is working with the traditional owners to identify and preserve sacred sites for future generations, and for the tourists they hope to attract to their island.

Bland rolls up the map and leads us across the parched riverbed to the pools. They’re fed by the Amagula River, which has slowed now that it’s the dry season, creating a set of discreet, and crocodile-free, waterholes. The pools are cold, and so clear we can see watergrass swaying in slow motion beneath their surface; we wallow in them for a while, cognisant of the song lines that come down from Marble Point in the north and run right through the heart of this waterway.

For visitors to Groote Eylandt the dreaming can only be imagined, but the etchings and stencils left by the earliest inhabitants of the island can be seen up close, in the cave near Angurugu. We dodge loose rocks and untamed brush on the short climb up to the cave, and enter a low-slung gallery filled with rock art thought to be at least 5500 years old. Nunggumajbarr and Wurrawilya point to the paintings left here by their ancestors, of dugongs and dolphins, crocodiles and canoes, and fish aplenty. Stencils are layered one upon the other, so that one creature can sometimes be distinguished from another only by the rich pigment — red, ochre, black — used to paint it.

More recent versions of this ancient art practice are exhibited in the gallery run by Anindilyakwa Services Aboriginal Corporation in the grounds of Groote Eylandt Lodge at Alyangula. There are dilly bags and clap sticks and the dash painting unique to Groote Eylandt. There are the contemporary productions of a younger generation of artists, too, including silk scarfs, T-shirts and sarongs imprinted with objects found on the island (leaves and seeds; metal grilles, even) and dyed the old-fashioned way, with native plant pigment; and dolls woven from the ghost nets discarded by fishermen and left to drift invisible but deadly out in the gulf.

It’s from out there in the gulf that the island is more accurately contextualised. Seen from aboard Inungura Arrarra (West Wind), one of two new fishing boats launched by Groote Eylandt Lodge (the other is Warnindilyakwa Arrara, or West Wind), it’s a squat, green-and- red landmass anchored in a milky turquoise sea. On its northwest edge sits the Anindilyakwa-owned Groote Eylandt Lodge that, although well-appointed, lacks ostentation; its thoughtful design causes it to melt back into the bush so that it’s barely discernible from the water.

Around Groote Eylandt are scattered about 40 smaller and mostly uninhabited islands and submerged reefs that trick sailors who assume smooth passage across the bay. “The seabed here is vicious,” says Nick Darby, head guide at Groote Eylandt Lodge. “It can go from a few hundred metres to nothing in an instant.” Darby and his fellow fishing guides are mapping the channels and reefs that give shape to the waters around this archipelago. Though the precise topography of the seabed isn’t known, what is certain is that waters here heave with fish: coral trout, red snapper, Spanish mackerel, red emperor, queen fish, and tuna, that most prized of catches.

You can go days out here without seeing another boat, Darby says. We pass just one other fishing boat and then we’re alone again as we cruise through the channel that separates the mainland from Chasm Island, past rock formations spattered with guano and carved by the sea, past bright orange dunes that rim the island’s northeast peninsula, and all the way to the archipelago’s most easterly outpost, North East Isles.

This is paradise. If it weren’t for the crocodiles — invisible now, but a constant presence — we would be swimming in the turquoise waters that lap warm upon the shores of this uninhabited island. It’s enough, though, to sit and admire the landscape to which explorer Abel Tasman brought European deer, still flourishing today, in the 17th century. On the way back to Groote Eylandt we see tuna breaching. They’re hunting their prey of baitfish, which are being held in place by the current. The tiny fish haven’t a chance; even the terns are swooping. “Just cast straight into the ripples, mate,” Darby instructs. We cast our rods towards the swirling current, and almost immediately a tuna bites. Though we’ve released most of today’s catch, we can’t allow this one to get away.

Back at the lodge, we toast our success as the sun sinks behind Bickerton Island and into the gulf in a spectacular display of purples and oranges and reds. Chef Ben Howell prepares a feast from our bounty — tuna sashimi with truffle aioli, mackerel ceviche, queen fish topped with crisped sage, and that tuna again, simply seared. The traditional owners could have told us what we now know: that it’s most satisfying to take just what you need, and no more, from the sea.

There are many lenses through which to view this island. We’ve looked at it from the inside, and observed it from without. Now, from within a tiny Cessna, we perceive it from above, this red-earthed, green-tree dotted island surrounded by a cast of sapphire-rimmed islets. Reefs revealing themselves like invisible ink. Coral spawn decorating the water in abstract streaks and drippings. And song lines etched deep and unbroken from here into infinity.


Paradise though it is, Groote Eylandt bears a heavy burden. There’s a high prevalence among its Aboriginal population of Machado-Joseph Disease, a hereditary neurodegenerative condition for which there is no cure. Once known as Groote Eylandt Syndrome, MJD was originally thought to have been passed from Portuguese explorers to Macassans and then on to the north Australian Aboriginal communities with whom they traded and interacted around the 18th century. But recent research proves that the faulty chromosome came from Asia, most likely via Chinese traders.

“There are about 30 Groote Eylandters living with Machado Joseph Disease and, alarmingly, about 165 who are at risk of having [inherited] the disease,” MJD Foundation chief executive Nadia Lindop says. “MJD has an extremely high prevalence across the Arnhem region — about 100 times the international average — with the highest affected areas being Groote Eylandt, Elcho Island, Ngukurr and Gove Peninsula.”

People living with MJD experience reduced muscle control, ultimately requiring the use of a wheelchair. Life expectancy for the most aggressive strain, which is present in the region, is diminished. The work of the MJD Foundation on Groote Eylandt is essential to the welfare of patients and their families; it provides support services such as therapy and wellbeing programs, procures equipment not funded by government, and improves transport options, including flights to and from the island.

Long-term, the foundation is including the Groote Eylandt community in Australian and international research projects with the aim of improving management of MJD symptoms and finding a treatment to slow the progression of the disease.

Groote Eylandt Lodge is a major sponsor of the MJD Foundation, providing free accommodation to visiting board members, staff and medical and research professionals.

“The lodge has been a critical factor in the MJDF being able to overcome some of the barriers to successfully delivering services to remote communities,” Lindop says.


Cultural tours and scenic flights can be booked through Groote Eylandt Lodge, which sits on 25ha of beachfront and features 60 waterfront guestrooms in three categories, including six spa bungalows. A three-night Anindilyakwa Discovery package starts at $1650 a person twin-share and includes a cultural tour, visit to cave paintings and flightseeing over the Groote Archipelago. Fishing safaris and corporate retreats are also available. Groote Eylandt is 90 minutes by air from Darwin airport. Packages are available that include Airnorth fares.

See the MJD website:

Call Groote Eylandt Lodge 1800 877 077;

Catherine Marshall was a guest of Groote Eylandt Lodge

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