Groote Eylandt — Family – Friends – Sharing skills


About five years ago a family decided to take Tim into their family and by association that meant Bev and I are also part of the family.  On Groote Eylandt we have aunties, uncles, nieces, nephews and last year a sister found me.  Both our two grandsons have Aboriginal family names, which were not given out freely. There was a lot of family consultation and discussion before the names were allocated.  The locals call me neniyuwangka (it sounds like neni ong wa) meaning old man and Bev is called dediyuwanga, meaning old woman with grandchildren.

‘Aunty’ Bonay and ‘sister’ Yulki

These two girls seem to have a bit of clout in the community, as whenever there is a dispute or disagreement they are on hand to mediate.

‘Nephew’ Jamila

Jamila’s nickname is Bob Marley.  He is a pleasure to take out in the bush; he knows the country, traditions and culture and he is always willing to impart his knowledge to ‘Uncle’ Fred.   He is a magnificent artist and knows bushcraft including how to make fire, spear, woomera and didgeridoo.  On one trip we were wandering along the edge of a creek and he came out with ‘This is proper lovely’.  In 2009 we took a German backpacker to Groote and Jamila was rather taken by her. At a dance one night he asked Katya to join him in a shuffle. Bystanders and everybody we have spoken to about the event since say they had never seen a blackfella ask a white girl to dance before.  Jamila makes his own paintbrushes from human hair and was taken by Katya’s hair so she sent him some when she had a haircut. When I saw him last he had the lock of hair in his wallet, it was never made into a paintbrush.  Jamila moved back to Elcho Island following the death of his wife here on Groote.


Alex. After I fixed his bike one day he said, ‘Fred, you’re a good man’.

Alana with a mug she made and decorated.

Just a few of the happy faces.


Over the past few years when visiting Arnhem Land communities I have done practical things with both adults and children. This year I did pottery and in previous years made musical drums, toys and furniture with rubbish tip castoffs.  Working with the traditional owners and their children has been a rewarding experience as I have learned as much from them as they have from me.  One thing I do know is that I will never fully understand their thinking as in many respects it is diametrically opposed to ours.  I’m not suggesting their way is wrong, it is simply different and the quicker non-indigenous people, who are quick to lay blame, make contact with these beautiful people and learn their ways the better it will be for both parties.  It must be accepted however that most Aboriginal people are shy, reserved, humble and very unassuming.  It never ceases to amaze me how they keep accepting what the governments dish up to them. Intervention is an example. For some it may prove beneficial but not for all. There are many who pride themselves in going to work each day and doing a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.  They are not all dole bludgers as many white people expound.

Making a ceramic camp dog.

Dogs play a big part in the lives of most indigenous people and that is why I chose to have the kids make ceramic dogs this year.

Finished glazed dogs. Kids and adults love colour so I chose the brightest colours for them to use.

Smoothing the inside of a mug on the potter’s wheel.

Clay extruder in action.

It is not easy to make a mug handle so I developed a hand-operated extruder which was filled with a sausage-shaped piece of clay. The clay is then forced out through the profile and cut to length for the handles. Kids loved the extruder operation and one class broke all records for an extruded length. They achieved a section 1.8 metres long.

Finished mugs for teachers.

Smoothing a bowl on the potter’s wheel. The kids love getting their hands into wet clay.

Finished tiles, dishes and bowls.

The children enjoy doing stuff with their hands whether it be working with clay, wood or fabric.  Most have a very keen eye, in fact too keen, because if an outline or shape is not perfect they want to redraw or remake it.

A proud potter with a pinch pot.

To make a pot like this a dollop of clay is rolled into a ball and then the ball is manipulated with fingers to form the bowl shape.

Raku-fired face mask

These pieces were hand made and wood-fired in a ground pit.  The colours were achieved by placing different organic matter such as bones, coconut shell, seaweed and vegetable skins next to the piece when firing.

The girl behind the mask?

Preparing clay, foot-style.

I went to great pains to show the kids how to use a rolling pin to roll clay flat, however they had other ideas.  The flattened clay blank was to be made into a coolamon and I suggested they place the clay around a short piece of PVC pipe to get the desired shape but, again, they had other ideas and rolled the clay around their shin!

My mate Alex

Alex is a quick learner and like many indigenous kids, is a meticulous worker.  Alex has an unusually high command of English and I suggested to him this year (he is now 14) that he should study to be an interpreter.

Making a picture frame

Putting screws in with a cordless drill is a safe hand tool option for these two little blokes.  Whenever I was in the workshop outside school hours kids would come and build things and these two were regulars.

Fred’s boys

The Sport & Rec wanted an outdoor sink so we knocked this one up out of scrounged materials from the dump.


Randy was very particular about his appearance so I suggested he should make a big mirror.  My plan was to teach the boys the safe and efficient use of power tools. Now they all have jobs with building contractors.

Drum making was a school activity I instigated.  The membrane material is an old yacht sail scrounged from the Balmain Yacht Club in Sydney.  Thanks Tommy.

Marking out a membrane for a musical drum.

Membrane with tension strings attached.

The strings went down under the drum (cooking oil or large plastic drums) and the wooden blocks so positioned that when screwed down they tightened the membrane.

Old hands and young hands tensioning the membrane. In amongst the hands is a cordless drill.

Decorating the drum

These kids hail from Bickerton Island.  Bickerton Island is between the mainland and Groote Eylandt.

Finished work

Some of the finished drums

I think the kids had as much fun decorating the drums as making them.

Rhythm comes naturally to these boys. Prior to me making drums their drumming option was to play a plastic bottle with two sticks.

A serious set of drums.

These drum bodies are made from PVC pipe scrounged from the dump.  The different lengths give each drum its individual resonance.  Note the discarded yellow truck horn on the left hand end of the set being given a work out

Today, the 23rd July 2012, is Day 102 of our 2012 Odyssey Encountering the Past.  It is also the end of Leg 2 Darwin to Groote Eylandt to Darwin as tomorrow we commence Leg 3 Darwin to Perth.  We are both looking forward to revisiting places along the WA coast and discovering new places as well.   Our car and kayaks are waiting for us in Darwin and we are anxious to get moving once more.  As we travel down the WA coast Bev and I will be kayaking at some of the premier and not so frequented locations along the coast.  We have around six weeks to get to Perth.


 Tim, who we visit on Groote each year, has taken another job.  The new job is on Thursday Island in Torres Strait between the top of Queensland and PNG.  The new position involves educating the indigenous kids of the islands in matters relating to land and sea.  So it looks like this is our final year on Groote Eylandt.  Next year we will escape the southern winter by going to Thursday Island.



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.

1 Response to Groote Eylandt — Family – Friends – Sharing skills

  1. I’m sure you’ll have no problems meeting new people in the Torres Strait!

    Loving the blog! Can’t wait for the WA adventures!

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