On Saturday morning we (the missus, Madlen 13, Padraig 12 and Cellan 8) departed Nhulunbuy early in convoy with a group of local Rotarians. Our destination Garrthalala, a remote East Arnhem Land community in the Northern Territory.
Our mission was to spend the next 24 hrs + in the bush with the Garrthalala Aboriginal community, where we would meet up with an advance party of Rotarians from Geelong no less, to do a spot of painting and general maintenance in and around their tiny school. The school buildings were donated by the Geelong group with the aim of establishing a boarding school but I will not elaborate further as it would involve painting a rather unsavoury picture of Australian politics.
The route presented us with some glorious scenery on iconic Aussie dusty red unsurfaced roads and secluded bush tracks for a couple of hours to reach the coastal Garrthalala.The tiny community is perched above white sandy beaches bespeckled with dark rocks and clear turquoise waters spotted with islands.
The half dozen semi-permanent blocks which make up the school comprise classrooms, dormitories, staff accommodation, kitchens, toilets and shower facilities. Another half dozen or so properties, a small playground, basketball court and solar-powered public telephone make up the rest of the buildings in Garrthalala.
The community also boasts an airstrip running alongside and far exceeding it’s length.
That afternoon, with tasks complete, we were invited by local hunter, Sean, to take a drive to a remote beach for a swim. Forty five minutes of winding bush tracks and challenging dunes later we were treated to some truly spectacular ocean scenery. The kids, ours and the Garrthalala locals alike, enjoyed a refreshing dip in the surf while a couple of us parents remained on croc-watch while our guide disappeared to perform a burning ceremony. With ceremony complete and kids suitably refreshed, we returned the way we came.
Just before darkness fell, Padraig and I built an open fire and following a delicious and very welcome barbie of snags, steak and coleslaw, we relaxed near the fire and enjoyed the local children treating us to a couple of traditional songs and dances. This was not your ‘just for the tourists’ stuff but unscripted, candid hospitality and all-round fun. The children had played hard all day but this still didn’t prevent them setting up a temporary disco, complete with professional lights and music, and entertaining themselves further for a little longer into the night. A surreal image when you consider our location and even the context of our presence.
On Sunday morning, our guide Sean took several of us fishing a few kilometers up the coast. After a few hours, I received the traditional markings of a European tourist, having forgotten to apply sunscreen to sensitive parts of the body and then to add insult to burning injury, Sean put us and our $$$$ worth of fishing gear to utter shame with his spear by bagging some impressive dinner.
On the subject of foreign tourists, it is quite likely that I was the first ever Welshman to set foot in Garrthalala! I feel quite honoured.
Dubious historical achievements aside, the kids made new friends and we have all fallen in love with the place, while the local community were very happy to welcome us and appreciative of our help.
The 4WD hire guy was a little less appreciative when we returned with a destroyed front headlamp ($450 for a 2nd hand replacement!!!), the innocent victim of an errant broken branch, dislodged by the vehicle in front, which actually stopped the ute in it’s tracks while attempting to navigate the bleached sandy dunes. Apart from the door mirrors rattling themselves almost loose and the emergency lights on the roof unable to hold on, the Toyota handled itself admirably, particularly considering it was this driver’s first foray off-road!