Darwin through indigenous eyes

Scratch beneath the urban surface of the Territory's capital and you'll discover a rich Aboriginal legacy. Polly Evans learns about boomerangs, beats and bush medicine

8 mins

“In English, they call this tree the ironwood,” said Robbie Mills. “This is what we make weapons with – boomerangs, clubs, digging sticks, shields – because it’s the hardest wood around.”

We stopped to admire the majestic plant, its high boughs spotted with thousands of tiny leaves. Robbie’s roots are as old as the tree’s: he’s a Larrakia man – his father is a senior elder of this indigenous tribe, and Robbie’s been living in Darwin all his life. He now runs Batji Tours, guiding visitors on a two-hour walk through his people’s traditions and history.

“Though of course we don’t make boomerangs,” he continued. “The tree makes the boomerang with its natural shape.”

As Robbie explained, there’s more to this wooden weapon than the clichés would have you believe.“All that stuff about boomerangs returning – that’s a myth,a white man invention. My people have never made returning boomerangs. My people create a shape like a rainbow; it’s designed to take the legs out from animals like kangaroos, emus and bush turkeys,” he explained.

“The curved shape means that if you miss, the boomerang just hovers down towards the ground and you can easily go and get it – not like a bow and arrow where, if you miss, the arrow goes on for kilometres.”

We were walking along Darwin’s waterfront Esplanade, where the tropical riot of vegetation has been tamed over a century and a half by colonialists who like their jungles tidy. Against the blue of the harbour beyond, the Esplanade’s lawns gleamed green. Birds squawked; one made a repetitive hollow sound like a quickly dripping tap.

Unlike indigenous traditions, the legacy of post-colonial history is visible – a cenotaph commemorates Australia’s war dead, while memorial walks recognise the role the city played in WWII: Japanese air raids devastated Darwin in February 1942(the events were re-enacted by Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in the closing scenes of the blockbuster film Australia) and these were followed by around 60 further attacks over the next couple of years.

Strangely, given his connection with this land, Robbie seemed somehow out of place. He’s a softly spoken, mild-mannered man, rich with knowledge and understanding, who seemed at odds with the city’s inyour- face modernity – for while the Larrakia people have been custodians of this land for many generations, Darwin itself is a young city.

The small settlement of Port Darwin was first established in 1869; the Overland Telegraph line came here a year later, connecting Australia with the rest of the world. But, following the Japanese air raids of the 1940s and the devastation of Cyclone Tracy in 1974, few old buildings remain, and the Larrakia people have long been outnumbered by paler-skinnedimmigrants for whom commerce and money outweigh trees and native traditions in importance.

"That tree comes from India," Robbie indicated as we walked a little further. "It's an Indian rosewood,brought by the early settlers.Back at the turn of the century people made their own furniture,and this is one of the trees they bought,along with the African mahogany tree. You'll see these scattered round the Top End,but they're not native."

We left the Esplande and took a steep,weaving path through a patch of tangled rainforest to Lameroo Beach, a windswept stretch of white sand,littered with many coloured pebbles. The wind scratched and whistled through the trees' leaves, while the waters of the Timor Sea rhythmically stroked the sands. "Musicians and artists in our culture, they love this place with its colours,andthey draw inspiration from it," Robbie explained. The Larrakia musical heritage runs deep  in the Mills family – Robbie himself sings,while his four sisters are famous locally both for their recordings and for having supported Charlie Pride and Tina Turner.

On the beach, too,grow indigenous trees, "This one's a bush medicine. Its fruit grows to about the size of a potato and it's good for respiratory problems, asthma and the common cold." I observed that it was rather ugly. "Yes,it is ugly – and i must tell you, it tastes and smells disgusting," Robbie concured. "But the old people swear by it. I've seen some women eat six fruit at a time. In English,they call this 'stink cheese fruit' and that's what it smells like – off blue cheese."

We strolled back up the path –“My hands really stink,” Robbie said. “I wish I’d never touched that thing” – and headed towards the town centre. I liked this man. There was nothing pushy about him; no brashness, and no overt bitterness. I commented that Aboriginal life in Darwin seemed healthier than that which I’d seen in, for example, Alice Springs, where social problems were more visible.

Darwin was the final stop on my journey across Australia from its south coast to its north. I’d driven a couple of thousand kilometres from Adelaide to Alice Springs, then taken the Ghan train to Darwin. I’d felt keenly the lack of genuine interaction between visitors and the traditional owners of this rich, red land, so I was delighted that on this, my last day in Australia, I had finally managed to encounter an Aboriginal culture that seemed authentic.

“To make a boomerang is not easy,” Robbie had explained. “It’s a great skill. I’ve been watching my old fellas making boomerangs for years and I’ve  been helping them since I was a kid, but I still don’t have the confidence to make one myself. It takes many years
of practice.”

Robbie’s innate patience and wisdom filled me with hope. Here was a man who lived amid the bustle of city life, who saw everyday the problems faced by Aboriginal culture today, but through it all managed to stay true to his roots.

“Do people still use boomerangs for hunting?” I asked him.

“Yes, but mainly inland,” he replied.

“It’s very hard to do anything Aboriginal in the city centre.”

Perhaps. But for visitors, his insights into Aboriginal culture are priceless.

Aboriginal encounters

You can find out more about Robbie Mills’s Batji Tours at www.batjitours.com.au There are many other opportunities to learn more about the traditions and lifestyles of various Aboriginal groups throughout NT.

Nitmiluk Tours in Katherine offers tours run with the 17 clans of the Jawoyn community. On the Dreaming Place day tour visitors engage in activities such as basket weaving, spear throwing, painting, didgeridoo playing and bush walks. A lunch of kangaroo tail is included. www.nitmiluktours.com.au

Seit Outback Australia works with Aboriginal communities in the Red Centre to offer tours taking in Mt Conner, the rock art of Cave Hill and the popular Kata Tjuta (Olgas), West MacDonnell Ranges, and Watarrka (Kings Canyon). www.seitoutbackaustralia.com.au

Arnhem land eco-Cultural Tours is an Aboriginal-owned company that introduces guests to rock art and birdwatching, and invites them to participate in traditional hunting and gathering with the Arnhem Land communities in the far north. www.maningrida.com/tourism

The Barunga Festival held in the remote community of Barunga each June, showcases indigenous musicians and sports. www.barungafestival.com.au

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