Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Only Males Can Play With Their Diggeridoo


Since departing Darwin on May 27, our ship has been following the northern coast of Australia in a generally easterly direction, curving slightly southward. As you may remember, our first stop was on Bathurst Island to visit the Aboriginal town of Wurrumiyanga, and from there we continued eastward for the remainder of the day arriving the next morning into Port Essington. Now don’t assume that is a real port in the modern sense; it was at one point in time, the port for Victoria Settlement in the mid 1800’s. That settlement was established by the British and it had consisted of 24 houses and a hospital. The goal was for this colony to evolve into a major trading port, however it was doomed to failure from the beginning for many reasons. First and foremost, the area lacked natural resources, and secondly the people who were sent to live there lacked the basic skills to survive. They were largely administrators with nothing to administer. Their homes were prefabricated and came with them so when a cyclone finally wiped out what little was remaining, the settlers did not have the skilled labor to rebuild and so the colony was abandoned.

I bring all this up because on the 29th after our early arrival, the expedition team set out with most of the passengers for an early morning 2.5 mile walk from the shore to visit what little remains of the old settlement. As you may imagine, Lisa and I took a “morning at leisure” and stayed on board. Around noon, however, the team offered about an hour zodiac ride up into a nearby tributary full of mangroves, and we did manage to join that adventure. As you can imagine, the sun was both high in the sky and hot. Back in the mangroves, the air was still, and before long I was soaked in sweat. Because of the low tide, our ship had to anchor rather far away from shore, and even the little zodiacs had a difficult time making it into the bush. Since the tide was continuing to fall, eventually we had to return or else run the risk of being stranded on a sandbar. Sadly, we did not get to see much in the way of wildlife. I got a photograph of an osprey sitting in the nest, and that was pretty much it. But remember, “it ain’t over until it’s over!” On our long run back to the ship, one of our group spotted a pair of fins breaking the surface nearby. We slowed down, and moved closer to be greeted with the sight of a pod of humpback dolphins. They stayed in our area for some time, and I did manage to get at least one good photograph – yippee!

Yesterday morning the ship continued the journey around the northeast coast of Australia. Well, actually technically this part of Australia is known as Arnhem Land, and covers 37,000 sq. mi. This land has been inhabited for 10’s of thousands of years by what we now call the Aborigines. In 1931, the Australian government created Arnhem as an Aboriginal Reserve, which is closed to outsiders unless they have a permit to enter. Our afternoon adventure was to visit Elcho Island located off the northern coast of Arnhem Land. The main settlement on the Island is Galiwin’ku, however, we had permission to make a wet landing on the opposite end of the Island to visit the small settlement of Banthula. The arrival of our ship was the first time that a cruise ship had ever visited this village. We were told that this was a big event for the local people, and that we could expect a joyous welcome, including a Bungul Welcome Ceremony and Dance. Well, as you shall hear, the reality was somewhat different experience than the hype.

Once again, because of the shallow waters our ship had to anchor rather far offshore, so our ride to the beach was around 20 minutes. For the first time, the swells were up and there was some wind which required that we carry our cameras in waterproof bags. Upon arriving at the beach, only the expedition team was there to help us with our gear, there we no large adoring crowds – actually only one local, who drove down and offered Lisa a ride into town in his old rusty truck. Meanwhile, a nice clean cut young man wearing a uniform shirt of some kind approached me, and said that if I would come up behind the sand dune, he had a car to drive me into town, and thus Lisa and I were separated.

Well, it turns out that Lisa was being driven by the tribal elder of the community. He was very pleasant and very glad to welcome her to the community. Later he had his kids jump in the truck, and everyone introduced themselves to her. So, all in all, she had a pleasant welcome. As for myself, I finally climbed the little sand dune, and there before me was a modern car with some kind of official emblem on the side. I climbed in, and my new best friend started the car, turned on the air, and introduced himself. It seems that he was part of a 13 person team from the State of The Northern Territories who was here today for this event. I did not get all the details, but apparently four different State departments were present today, each with 3 people on their team, and then one overall supervisor. I remember one department was Fish and Wildlife, and another was Tourism, and another Aboriginal Affairs. In the short time we had together, I asked out loud if these settlements were economically viable, or could they be made that way, and to my surprise he admitted that “there was no way.” He said the land was “extremely poor and lacked any resources whatsoever.” By this time, we had arrived at the presentation area, and so I reluctantly left the air conditioning to join our group.

Before me was setup a large portable awning under which were brand new blue nylon lawn chairs all set up in rows. The chairs were so new that they still had tags attached, and lying on the ground nearby were the nylon bags in which they came; obviously someone had gone to a great deal of effort. All of us had arrived by this time, but there were only a few locals visible. Soon the wife of the tribal elder started yelling to the surrounding houses, obviously calling for people to come out. When nothing happened, more yelling occurred, and slowly a few old women sauntered over and sat on blankets to our side. Then more yelling, this time by the Elder himself, and soon heads were looking around doorways or out of windows, and slowly, ever so slowly, people started to meander our way. They would walk a ways, stop and look around, and after more shouting, begin again to come in our direction. At one point, the Elder began to really shout at one elderly lady who was sitting near us, and while I could not understand the language, it was obvious that he was telling her to be more cooperative and to welcome us. After everyone who was going to come had now arrived, the Elder had a small PA system which he used to say a few words of welcome. There was just one little problem: the nice awning and all of the chairs in their neat little rows had the audience facing outward to an empty field, while the Elder was speaking from our right and behind us. So everyone had to crane their necks around, while our Captain was called forward to accept a small plaque in commemoration of this visit. While we all turned in our seats to listen, the Captain said a few words in response, and then everyone kind of looked around as to what was next.

Silence ensued. About 50ft away there was a gathering of teens, many sitting on a car, others leaning against trees and some sitting on the ground with their backs turned to us. The shouting starts up again. This time the clearly agitated Elder is shouting to this group, who for the most part ignore him. Then reluctantly they begin to move towards the open area in front of us, all the while shouting among themselves. Finally we have a group in front of us, one of whom is holding a didgeridoo; it is a hollowed-out tree limb to create a musical instrument which is a long horn that reaches from the lips to the ground usually only allowed to be played by the males in the community. We sit, they stand, and nothing happens. The Elder shouts some more, and almost as reluctant children who really don’t want to do this, they launch into a short dance accompanied by the didgeridoo, and in the blink of an eye, and they are done, and headed back towards the car. That’s it? The Elder this time comes out on the field and a heated exchange occurs, which results in the group slowly and reluctantly returning to play and sing. This time they did give a few performances, and when done, they simply turned and slowly walked away.

At this point, we were offered the opportunity to walk around the village. They had set up places where a were a few items of artwork were for sale, and also places where women were showing our guests how do weave baskets, to paint, and an area where spears were being made and the didgeridoo could be played, but again by men only – women were not allowed to play the didgeridoo! I was surprised to see a rather large solar farm for providing electrical power, and I saw my very first solar powered pay phone which was located in the middle of the village. Nearby stood two large water towers which were filled by pumping water from underground basins, thus providing the island running water. Judging from the number of outhouses, they did not have a sewer system. This part of the visit was the most enjoyable, but Lisa and I were tiring from the heat, and so one of the visiting mainlanders offered us a ride back to the beach.

It turns out that our driver was the person in charge of today’s event, and she and some members of her team had flown over from Darwin just that morning. They first flew commercially to an airport on the mainland, and from there took a small twin Cessna over to this island where they landed on what she described as a “very short dirt strip.” As I started to put the pieces together, it would appear that the State of the Northern Territories, not the Federal government, provides considerable support to this settlement. It is obvious that the locals could not afford the infrastructure we saw, so essentially they are being supported by the government. I gather that today’s visit was an attempt to see if the locals could be engaged into welcoming tourists, and hence the effort gone to by the government to setup the arrangements.

Today is a day at sea. Actually it is funny kind of sea day. Our next stop is to the north in Indonesia, however, for the first half of the day we continued our cruise around the northeast corner of Australia, and at one point were actually headed south, the opposite of where we want to go. The reason for this is technical – we had on board an Australian pilot. He needed to be let off at the port of Nhulunbuy, which is where the ship formally clears Australian waters. That having been accomplished, we are now headed north to Indonesia, in what has been described as one of the highlight of this cruise, a visit to the Asmat Region.

Hope everyone is well. Sadly Lisa has come down with bronchitis and the doctor put her on antibiotics. At the same time he noted a series of large bruises which had showed up on Lisa’s good leg shortly after we arrived in Perth, and he diagnosed those as having been the result of a deep vein thrombosis. Fortunately nothing seriously happened, but it is a bit scary. This was in spite of the fact that she takes a low dose of aspirin and was wearing compression socks on the long flights. I guess you never know.


No comments: