Few Australians, when you mention Groote Eylandt, know where it is. Guesses range from off Tasmania or the Western Australia coast, only a few say the Northern Territory. It’s understandable that people don’t know because it’s not all that big; it’s only 50 km from east to west and 60 km north to south. It has no high mountain ranges; the highest point, Central Hill, is only 219m above sea level. It has diverse geology, glorious scenery, abundant sea life, fascinating Aboriginal culture and friendly locals. Bev and I consider it a privilege to be able to visit Groote once again as part of our 2012/13 Odyssey.
WARNING: Parents reading this blog to their children are advised to read it beforehand as some references may upset some children, eg. the treatment of turtles by poachers.
It is approximately 650 kilometres by air from Darwin to Groote Eylandt. Some flights are direct and others go via Gove (Nhulunbuy).
On the Groote Eylandt Archipelago map the areas marked in red are the only areas where workers and visitors such as us are permitted to visit without a traditional owner. Sometimes an area can be closed when there has been a death in the family whose land it is. The area is opened again once the spirits of the deceased have been appeased.
An interesting point to note: In the middle of the map marked with a green arrow are the WURRUWARRKBADENUMANJI CAVE PAINTINGS. This name contains 34 letters that far exceed the number of letters in LAKE CADIBARRAWIRRACANNA in South Australia which is always quoted as being the longest place name in Australia at trivia quiz competitions.
The cave paintings are in pristine condition and no vandalism has occurred in the thousands of years since they were painted. Sitting in the caves in quiet consultation is more powerful than being in any majestic man-made cathedral or temple.
Before the arrival of the Macassan traders from Sulawesi in the 18th century canoes were made from bark. This painting depicts such a craft.
Towns, Communities and Outstations
There are three main settlements on Groote—Alyangula town (1600 pop., mostly mine employees, government workers and contractors) and two communities, Angurugu (1500 pop.) and Umbakumba (380 pop). Milyakburra on Bickerton Island is the fourth community in the group. The Rowell Highway, which is probably the shortest highway in Australia, links Alyangula and Angurugu and it’s about twenty kilometres long. All roads other than the one linking Angurugu and Umbakumba are rough bush tracks which are impassable during the wet season.
Umbakumba is on the southern edge of Little Lagoon. In the lower centre of the photo is the barge ramp extending into the lagoon. The closest mainland community to Groote Eylandt is Numbulwar. Barges ply between Umbakumba and Numbulwar on a regular basis.
Opposite Umbakumba at Spit End there was a QANTAS flying boat base in the late 1930s where Imperial flying boats en route from London to Sydney overnighted and refuelled. Imagine how exciting such a journey must have been. During WW2 the RAAF used the base as a staging post for north Australia reconnaissance. Military presence on Groote during WW2 was extensive; on high features there were lookouts watching for Japanese military movements and semaphore stations operated by Australian army personnel. The Japanese did land on Gulf Country shores. If the reader wants to know more, search the web for Curtin’s Cowboys or Nackeroos.
In the 1960s I had the privilege of travelling in a QANTAS flying boat from Sydney to Lord Howe Island and return, a flight I now consider an historical event and one I have never forgotten.
Outstations are isolated homelands where members of some clans prefer to live rather than in a centralised multi clan community. They say there is too much humbug in town. Various research reports indicate that people living on traditional homelands at outstations are much healthier than those living in towns where inactivity, malnutrition and social dysfunction are the norm.