East Arnhem Land – A Journey To Indigenous Cultures and Traditions

by Seng Mah


Bukudal community in East Arnhem LandMy visit to the Yolngu homelands of East Arnhem Land is the single most exhilarating and emotional travel experiences I have had. When you arrive at a Yolngu community in East Arnhem Land, you arrive to a welcome ceremony steeped in the traditions and beliefs of the people. Each community is unique, with its own totems and traditions, and each welcome seeps into your skin and connects you so intrinsically with the people who receive you with utmost sincerity and open arms. The welcome is more than just a greeting — it’s the community’s way of acknowledging your arrival and your presence and of accepting you into its circle and cycles. Within minutes of the welcome ceremony, you’re sitting with people, laughing, joking, finding out more about them as they sate their curiosity about you. Photography here becomes almost an extension of the way we experience the moments that unfold: from exploring the mangrove flats with our new friends, to following the kids from the community as they delight in showing us aspects of their life, from fishing, to tracking, to collecting oysters and, of course, dancing. The photographs emerge almost naturally as you sit with the women of the community and participate in creation of woven baskets and shell necklaces; moments are filled with laughter as the women find hilarity in a man stirring the big pot in which stripped pandanus leaves are boiling to soften them. It’s a novelty for them to have a bloke participate in women’s business. Then, you’re out in the field with the men, spear fishing, or looking for shellfish amongst the rocks in the shallows. The sea is a beautiful turquoise and wonderfully warm against your hot skin, the sand feels strong and earthy under your bare feet; you prise oysters from rocks and they go on the wood fire that Waka, one of your guides, has built on the beach. You sit with the men and realise that you’re out here in one of the most remote regions of Australia, eating freshly shucked oysters hot off the fire. There is an epicness about the experience that is further heightened by the splendid glow cast into the sky by the setting sun. For long moments, the world turns burnished gold and you have your camera out and viewfinder pressed to your eye because this has got to be the most splendid sunset you have beheld! At dusk, you gather by the fire and the people of the community, who are now your friends, your brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, grandmothers, sit, eat and laugh with you. You feel cocooned in a sense of community that is reminiscent of a time long past, a memory of childhood when the world seemed smaller, closer, friendlier. You’re moved almost to tears by the embrace of this community, by the purity and honesty of interactions that have made you feel so much a part of this world. It is a deeply felt world and you know that your photography reflects this — suddenly, your portraits are more intimate, more sincere and your landscapes show a newfound respect for the power that lies within the land, the ocean, the bush. Time spent with the Yolngu people of East Arnhem Land enriches the soul -- there is no other way to describe it. Feel free to contact us to chat about your interest in joining in our East Arnhem Land Tour.