Groote Eylandt – Geological features – Hunter-gatherers


Many travellers say they are not really interested in geology but unconsciously they are because why else would they flock to the Three Sisters, the Bungle Bungles, Uluru, the Great Ocean Road, the Himalayas and the Grand Canyon. It’s to look at geology first hand.  However few get down on their hands and knees and see the delicate and intricate visuals of geology in miniature.  As I mentioned in Leg 1 of this Odyssey Bev sees the little things and the following is a selection of  geological  phenomena she has captured.

Ripplestone. Sandy ripples from an ancient beach

Ripplestone roof. This was the ceiling in a low cave.

Weathered sandstone

Most sandstone is composed of quartz and feldspar (the most common minerals on the earth’s crust). Sandstone is porous and therefore the percolation of water through the rock results in hard and soft spots. Maybe the holes and rills are where soft spots were.

A unique example of eroded sandstone. I see the little protrusions here as miniature mesas.

Sediments of a long ago era.

Layered sandstone

The colours in sandstone are usually a result of staining, ie red/pinks from iron and grey/black from manganese in the case of sandstone on Groote Eylandt.

Sandstone cliffs on Bickerton Island

Pedestals created by waves. I would love a group like this in our native garden at home.

Castle Rock

This rock is very special to the Aboriginal people of Groote and we were fortunate to be taken there.  Of particular interest to me was that during WW2 there was a semaphore station on top of the rock and only recently was a steel access ladder removed.  All across the top end there were signalling stations on high features.  Imagine seeing the war out camped next to this rock.

A web page posted by Geoscience Australia has a geological explanation relating to the geology of Groote Eylandt, but it is extremely complicated and I reckon you need a degree in geology to even understand the introduction!


 For thousands of years Groote Eylandt has been the domain of the Anindilyakwa people who made their way across from the mainland and sparsely settled the island, living a simple hunter-gatherer existence.  Aboriginal people living on Groote today are descendants of the original group and they carry on the traditional hunting and gathering methods. If you ask them what they’ve been doing the answer invariably includes fishing, gathering oysters, mussels, long bums, turtle eggs, bush medicine, bush tucker, materials for basket making and dyeing or hunting turtle or dugong.   The day we left Groote the weather was beautiful (around 25 degrees) and I said to a local worker at the airport that it was a good day for work, that it was not so hot. He replied that it was ‘no good for work, better for fishing’. Gathering food is uppermost on their mind.

Long bums. These are a shellfish found on the mud flats and, like mussels, are much sought after.

Long bum innards exposed

These days it is easy to be a hunter and gatherer compared to the past, no more canoes and walking for days on end. Now it’s aluminium runabouts with outboard motors, Toyotas, modern fishing gear, angle grinders and access to rubbish tips.  It might appear out of place to add angle grinders and the rubbish tip to this list but access to the tip means scrap metal (the rod in the shelves from old electric ovens or refrigerators make great spear prongs) and having an angle grinder means it is easy to fashion the scrounged steel into spear heads and other cutting implements.  It is interesting to note that few indigenous folk use a fishing rod, they prefer to use handlines even when casting with a lure.  When we go fishing with our blackfella friends the standing joke relates to how much gear we take compared to them.

T Bear and Black Bear with a haul of turtle eggs. Black Bear lives on Groote Eylandt.

When the pandanus seeds fall the locals know it’s time to go turtle egg collecting.  It’s not all that hard, all they do is drive the beach and when they spot tracks coming from the water they trace the tracks up onto high ground and dig.  I have to admit I feel uneasy about turtle egg collecting and the hunting of turtle and dugong but then I do not have the cultural connection that the northern Australian indigenous people have so I can’t comment on the rights or wrongs of the practices. When invited on a hunt for turtle or dugong I decline in a diplomatic manner.

These days the resources of Arnhem Land are being exploited by unscrupulous poachers who are collecting turtle eggs and harvesting turtle for sale on the Asian black-market.  Turtle eggs and meat are sought after because of the claims of aphrodisiac qualities. One of the most revolting cases reported to me by a local white fisherman was the finding of mother turtles being split open with an axe to retrieve eggs before they were laid.  Poaching has driven many of the world’s animals to near extinction because of unscrupulous operators who are pandering to the whims of individuals with sexually-driven egos.

Turtle eggs are a rich source of protein and trace elements but they are very high in cholesterol so from that point it might be best not to overindulge.  I have, on the insistence and for fear of not wanting to offend, tasted turtle egg yoke and found it sickly. Maybe it was a case of mind over matter that made my senses reject it.  Turtle eggs when boiled do not go hard, they remain soft and this makes them more difficult to swallow.

Fortunately there is a lot of research being carried out into turtle sustainability and the locals on Groote have accepted the principal of collecting eggs from one nest only, leaving others intact.

Baby turtle making a dash

The baby turtle shown here was saved. One of the local kids turned up with it at school so the teacher encouraged the student to give it up and the whole class launched it into the life it deserved.  Ironically the teacher’s nickname is Turtle.  Bev took this photo of the happy event.

Ripe pandanus seeds

Pandanus is a plant which grows in the warmer regions of Australia (there over 600 species in the world) and Aboriginal people in Australia have long used it as food and medicinal sources and the leaves for making baskets.

My sister Yulki choosing suitable pandanus leaves for basket making. 

The leaves are stripped and then dyed with various plant materials and used for the basket making.

Bonay stripping the pandanus leaves

Roots used for dyeing. The roots are smashed almost to a pulp then boiled along with the pandanus leaves.

Aunty Bonay and sister Yulki with a finished basket. Their work is in high demand and is sold in selected outlets in Darwin.

A new basket-making material has arrived on Groote Eylandt shores and it’s the ghost net.  Ghost net is the term used to describe fishing nets that are either washed or thrown overboard from Asian fishing vessels.  It is easy to imagine how detrimental these nets, sometimes hundreds of metres long, are to boat propellers and marine life such as dolphin, shark, turtle and dugong.  Fortunately the sea rangers on Groote collect these nets and compare the design, weave and mesh size to images shown in a government issued ghost net country of origin book.  Once the country of origin is determined the Australian Government then put pressure on the government from which the net originated to clean up their act.

Ghost nets

Baskets made from ghost nets

The next posting will be ‘out and about’ on Groote Eylandt.


About tbeartravels

It's been said that I know a little bit about a lot of things and a lot about little things. I hope I can share some of this knowledge with you as we travel.
This entry was posted in Odyssey #1 2012: Australia Europe. Bookmark the permalink.

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