Two hours south of Katherine, just off the 2,500km Central Arnhem Highway to Cairns, there is an unsealed, red sand road disappearing into the bush. This dusty track winds 35km through shady gum forests and lush savanna. Kangaroos stare, wild donkeys scatter, and your 4WD enters Country belonging to the Jawoyn, the people of the Frog Ancestors. “This is my mothers country” whispers our guide Long John, “I wasn’t born ‘ere, but this is where I learnt to ride.”
Many Australians spend their whole lives never having visited Aboriginal communities, mistakenly believing them ‘closed’ and completely inaccessible. For some places, nothing could be further from the truth. It can simply be a matter of applying for a permit (nowadays an easy process) or entering Aboriginal lands with a community-owned tour company.
Manyallaluk, for many years the Eva Valley Cattle Station, was handed back to traditional owners back in the ‘70s. Many older buildings, stables and bunkhouses of station workers and local miners fell into disrepair as the community built new homes and a school a couple of paddocks away. No longer a working cattle station, people needed a new source of employment, and a way of maintaining traditional skills and Jawoyn culture.
Manyallaluk opened its doors to the world in 1991, and their one-day trips, multi-day walkabouts, bush skills education and art centre and have since won a long list of awards. For Manyallaluk, tourism is now a primary source of employment.
“My daughter could swear in black fella before she could speak English,” says Helen Peut,” ‘course you’re not allowed to say things like that now” and all four women laugh. Helen is the widow of the last Station Manager, left here 35 years ago. She has returned with her daughter, visiting Barbara and other old Aboriginal friends and workers. Any past ownership issues are forgotten and forgiven, and today four women can reminisce happily about their lives together in Manyallaluk.
Every May the community invites local residents from Katherine to an informal catch up and a bit of a bush bash, with the BBQ cooking by the billabong, groups of families and friends sitting around having a yarn, listening to didjeridus and country music. The atmosphere is good; a strictly grog free zone with lively children running about, playing barefoot footy and throwing each other screaming into the waterhole.
Tourists to N.T. can visit Manyallaluk anytime, driving independently (with permission) or on an organised trip from Katherine. The only request is that you book a tour, so a local guide can show and interpret the land. Today, we have old Long John, whose name belies his gentle and soft spoken nature.
Long John takes us on a stroll through a stretch of forest, recently burnt off in the traditional manner to reinvigorate the bush and control fire risk. “This we stick in a kangaroos stomach,” he says, crushing leaves for us all to smell, “then cook the kangaroo, make it taste good.”
Visitors are encouraged to participate in everything from tasting wild bushtucker to learning how to throw a spear with a woomera. Today, activities are also divided by gender. Didjeridu is Mans Business - women are forbidden to play the instrument, so Long John takes us men to the waterhole. Alongside a display of his didjeridus, he explains methods of crafting from logs hollowed by witchetty grubs. He has painted them with local ochres he himself collected, and finishes his talk with an impromptu didjeridu lesson for us novices – we sound like a herd of elephants with wind, and everyone is laughing!
The women in our group are sitting in a shady spot under the gumtrees, where three female elders teach the basics of Jawoyn basket weaving: collecting the coorayong roots and vines, techniques of colouring with natural ochres or bush fruits, and the meaning behind particular designs. Basket weaving is Womans Business, and the ladies get a chance to make their own small bowl or dilly bag.
Proud of their culture, and maintaining traditional ways, Manyallauk is sometimes closed for Ceremony or Sorry Business. Visitors are encouraged to learn more about Jawoyn beliefs through the small arts centre here. Traditional bark paintings, works on canvas and artefacts including carvings and beads; visitors here can buy an authentic piece of Aboriginal art, meet the artists or even try their own hand at ochre cross hatching with a painting lesson.
And buyers can be confident that a souvenir artwork bought here not only has real meaning, but the full price goes directly towards helping the community.
Even a daytrip here is an eye opener, and there is the option to overnight in a cabin or at the campsite. Every tourist dollar spent here helps get another child through school, gives another young person a job. Manyallaluk offers a rare chance to experience an indigenous Australia seldom shown, a community working hard to give their children a brighter future. And, with just a little of your time and help, they are succeeding.
Photos by Ian Crawshaw.
Travel North work with Manyallaluk, bringing visitors on organised trips from Katherine.
(08) 8971 9999
For information on permits to enter Aboriginal Land in N.T when travelling independently, contact The Northern Land Council
(08) 8920 5100, (08) 8920 5178
Contact Guides publish Australia’s only guidebook dedicated to Aboriginal owned/managed tourism, with advice on visiting communities throughout Australia. Website has free downloadable updates on new Aboriginal tourism experiences.
(02) 9368 0388
This article is about community tourism, sustainable tourism, responsible travel, culture preservation, heritage conservation, aboriginal art, aboriginal music, indigenous Australia, Northern Territory ecotourism.