It's humid and windy, and the red dust is blowing across the runway of the regional airstrip in Nhulunbuy, Northern Territory, Australia.

We’re waiting for our flight to Nyinyikay, a remote Indigenous coastal homeland in East Arnhem Land. We're about to escape the pressures and stresses of modern society and to reconnect to a way of life that is closer to nature. Our phones have already lost signal, so we are rediscovering the art of conversation in the absence of our digital crutches. Our group is on a pilot trip to experience Intrepid Travel’s new community-based itinerary as guests of the Yolngu people, the Traditional Owners of this region of Australia and members of one of the oldest continuing cultures on earth.

The small local airport is buzzing with activity; due to the threat of an impending cyclone, the weather is too bad to go fishing, so there’s an unusual number of people here picking up supplies from the supermarket. We’re also told there is Sorry Business in town, and many people from the surrounding communities have travelled to gather for the funeral of an Indigenous elder.

A young pilot in a sharp uniform with a reassuring smile appears in our tin-roofed terminal, and commences his safety briefing. We stand on a giant scale and weigh both our luggage and ourselves, and I instantly regret eating such a huge breakfast. The pilot, Israel, asks our group if this is anyone’s first time in a small aircraft. I raise my hand. “But you’re not afraid of flying, are you?” I lie, of course, smiling confidently.

Despite my irrational fear of small aircrafts, our Laynha Air flight is a pleasure, and a rare treat. The exhilarating 20-minute journey – which takes us above stunning tropical landscapes – feels like the kind of scenic flight that you would pay thousands of dollars for anywhere else in the world. But out here in remote Northern Territory, it’s simply transport.

Israel explains that he works for the Mission Aviation Fellowship, an organisation which supports local indigenous communities around the world by providing air support to remote regions. Prior to being posted out here, Israel worked in Papua New Guinea and remote parts of Africa. But he and his family love the Northern Territory – he says it’s the perfect environment for his six-year-old son, Miles, to grow up in: “he can really run amuck out here, and is starting to live up to his name!”

As we approach the unsealed airstrip that runs parallel to Nyinyikay’s shoreline cliffs, Israel tells us to keep an eye out for crocodiles. “They’re pretty easy to spot from up here”. But there’s little time to process his comment; the plane touches down on the dusty runway. We’ve arrived on country, and it is time to meet our hosts.

traditional welcome

"Yolngu system is not a self-destructive system – yet it will allow you to see yourself, that you are just one little part of something that’s big."

Nyinyikay is one of thirty homelands in north-east Arnhem Land, one of the only parts of Australia that was never settled by Europeans. Visiting this region feels like visiting a totally separate country; there is a sense of pride in the prevailing Indigenous culture that has been diminished elsewhere by western influence – a revelation to those of us who have become conditioned to the stereotypes that prevail in the Australian media.

We’ve been told there’s a traditional welcome ceremony that takes place on arrival. But before that can happen, our faces must be painted with white clay – across the forehead from left to right, and then up towards the crown. It represents the freshwater meeting the saltwater, an echo of the geography in this region. We’re told that this mark is recognisable to all Aboriginal communities across Australia: they’re in Yolngu country now.

Happily marked in clay, we walk in silence along a track, expecting to meet our Indigenous guide. As our anticipation builds, we encounter the traditional Dingo dance – our official Welcome to Country. Despite its friendly sounding name, it’s intimidating, intense. An anonymous shepherd greets us, and stares deeply into our eyes, measuring us up, one by one; I later discover that this is to establish if we are ready to learn – if we are open to what the Yolngu are prepared teach us. But right now, as he maintains uninterrupted eye contact, I revel in an unusual but reassuring sense of vulnerability. My entire soul is on display, I’m quite sure of it.

Suddenly, an outburst of mischievous laughter breaks the tension. “I hope I didn’t frighten you?” he chuckles. “I’m Marcus”. For the second time today I smile, trying to act braver than I feel.

Marcus Lacey lives here in Nyinyikay in his family’s homeland. With his infectious laugh and disarming charisma, it is easy to see why he is a widely respected young leader in the Yolngu community (he is also the youngest elected member of the Galiwinku Community Council and has been the runner-up in the Northern Territory Young Achiever Awards twice). But for the next two days, he will be our Indigenous guide on country – and our teacher.

forget about time

“Are you ready? Are you ready to come? Are you ready to sit? Are you ready to talk? Are you ready to ask questions?
We are looking inside you – not the physical you, but the inside-you. You’ve come here to learn? You’ve got to open up. Because we are ready to learn from you, as well.”

~ Marcus Lacey, Yolngu leader

Our small group takes a seat on a woven mat with three women from Marcus’ family – including his mother Megan and his grandmother Nancy, who Marcus warmly refers to as ‘Old Lady’.

“Rain and sand, forget about time and let the world take you wherever and whenever it wants to teach you.”

We sit and talk, but mainly we listen. Old Lady was born on this country, and didn’t see a white man until she was 15 (we find out later that man was Donald Thomson – an anthropologist who immersed himself in Aboriginal society in 1930’s Arnhem Land, determined to better understand the culture of Indigenous Australians, and who ultimately became an advocate for the Yolngu people). She also talks about being five or six years old when Darwin came under attack in the Second World War, of hiding in trenches to shelter from the bombing.

The stories go this way and that, with Old Lady weaving modern history into ancient, and Marcus talking about The Old Way then jumping to lists of his favourite Bruce Lee movies. The concept of time is more fluid here – the past is very much a part of the present, and the future is something to be trusted instead of feared. “It is Friday, isn’t it?” one of our group asks as an aside, and we realise that we have lost track of time already.

Losing track of time is one of the most attractive things about this experience; the opportunity to simply drift through the day without any place to be, except right here. It’s a rare and often fleeting feeling in our relentlessly paced digital age. Right now, there isn’t a screen in sight, and it’s amazing how rapidly our eyes adjust to the horizon – almost as if we were designed to live here amongst nature, instead of hunched over and staring into a tiny glass box every waking hour.

So we sit, we talk, we learn to weave with the ladies. We lose ourselves in conversations about history and the Yolngu culture. But then it is time to head out into the bush to collect food for our rumbling bellies.

WELcome to the
bush university

“Time will tell you when to go hunting.
Wind will tell you when to go fishing. Environment will tell us what is ready to collect. Welcome to the Bush University.”

~ Marcus Lacey, Yolngu leader

The sun is glaring, and the sky is that vivid shade of blue that seems so much brighter against the bleached white Eucalypt bark. Marcus leads us barefoot through the Nyinyikay surrounds, searching for bush tucker (food foraged from the land) and raw materials for tools.

Every plant is an opportunity for a lesson, or a story. He rips some paperbark from a tree and explains that this is what you are wrapped in when you’re born, so that you get the taste of nature as soon as you enter the world. He grabs a nearby blade of grass and says that not only is it good for making small spear heads, but it also contains moisture – “if you get a mouth full’a that, it’ll get you to the next waterhole”. He is passing on important knowledge to us, trying to cram a lifetime of lessons in the bush into a single day.

As we walk through the trees and out into the beach mangroves, Marcus tells us about the songline that extends from here in East Arnhem Land up to the Torres Strait (Songlines could be described as music to guide you to your destination, and the musical phrase is a way of tapping into your memory.) He draws diagrams in the sand with his cutting stick, explaining that the history of Aboriginal Australians in this area is intertwined with the Macassan and Indonesian cultures who travelled here for hundreds of years. Marcus has a gift for bringing these ancient stories to life, and our group asks question after question as we continue our walk along the beach, not pressured by time or schedules – simply there to absorb the knowledge and lose ourselves in the Yolngu stories.

We’re snapped back into the present as Marcus spots a fresh crocodile track. He points out the sweep of the tail along the sand, and places his hand next to the front footprint for scale, explaining it was just a baby. “It must have been scared off by us and run into the bush,” he says, an intimidating thought given that the tree line is less than five metres from where we are standing. “They say the pressure of the jaw is like a semi-trailer hitting you,” Marcus chuckles, as he teases us with the details.

We scan the nearby scrubs and hope that today is not the day we come face-to-face with a crocodile, and must learn first-hand what happens when you encounter such a predator on the beach.

the call of the land

“We call it the River of Stars. It’s a highway for our spirits to travel through when we die.”

~ Marcus Lacey, Yolngu leader

There’s the leanest slither of a moon as we sit around the campfire, reflecting on our day out in the bush and listening to stories about East Arnhem Land. Marcus is plucking a guitar, underscoring our conversations with gentle melodies – sometimes a Ben Harper or Jimi Hendrix riff, sometimes a traditional song of his land. As the musical accompaniment weaves together the past and the present, and the flames burn down everything into embers and ashes, Marcus explains that this also represents the entwining of different elements of history into one shared history. It’s a recurring motif of our time here; every element of Yolngu life is connected intrinsically to the past, the present and the future, as if they are all one and the same thing.

As we ponder the small moment in time that we occupy, the group revels in the Milky Way overhead, more vivid than usual beside the dark moon. “We call it the River of Stars. It’s a highway for our spirits to travel through when we die.” Marcus says that in Yolngu culture, when somebody dies, you must never say that person’s name out loud. If you do, it will be calling them back to earth, and preventing them from making it through the River of Stars to their spiritual resting place.

The conversation takes us deep into stories of family and community, and the effect that the outside world has on his culture. Marcus explains that once Indigenous communities become displaced, families fall apart – depression takes hold, and there is sadness on people’s faces. But here, back on country, there is a sense of pride and contentment, and old people are sitting with their heads held high.

"Being in the town community is killing us slowly"

Here is where the community and family come together, with “old people behind you, young kids in front of you, and you in the middle.” Marcus describes the connection between family, nature, the past, the present, and the future. “If you don’t have these connections, you’ve got no identity, you’re nothing, never remembered. You’re just a leaf burning on the fire.”

I tell Marcus that I feel just like a leaf burning on the fire.

“To me, that sounds so weird,” he says. “Here, we have kinship, we have a code – someone from 1000 kilometres away can know a lifetime of each other’s history. I’ve got family from sunrise to sunset.”

We ask how it’s possible to know so much about family and history, and about each other – this is a culture that is not written down, after all. How is it possible to pass on so many lifetimes of knowledge?

Songlines are the answer, Marcus explains. “They are like a scaffolding that you use as a structure, from childhood. The lullabies come together to form the structure, and as you build more and more, you start to get the concept. And once you get the concept, boom! You’re on your way!”

Learning about this ‘scaffolding’ is enchanting. The more we are told, the more we want to hear. Every story is an enlightenment.

“The Yolngu come from a society where it’s perfectly balanced, and we’ve lived with nature for as long as we can remember. So we need to find a way to live in peace and harmony – in order to do that we need to share each other’s knowledge."

~ Marcus Lacey, Yolngu leader

It’s impossible to resist the captivating energy of Marcus and the homeland here at Nyinyikay. At the start of our visit, when we were welcomed with the Dingo dance ceremony, we were told that it was to awaken our souls, to bring us to life on the land. “By doing that performance, we go through the eyes of that person, through the ears of that person, and their soul is awakened. So whatever activity they’re part of here on our country, it’s sinking in. But when they go back, that’s when the true transformation happens.”

It’s only been a couple of days, but our group agrees that it feels like longer – we’ve each learnt so much and we want to stay for more, we are desperate to learn more. In the final hours of our visit, we ask questions continuously, hopelessly attempting to cram thousands of years of ancient knowledge into our remaining time at Nyinyikay.

As we wait on the runway for our aircraft, it is clear from our reflective silence that none of us wants to leave. We came here with open minds, ready to learn, full of expectation. And now we are leaving with our hearts and spirits brimming – brimming with a connection to our planet, to each other, and to our universe. We are leaving with a clearer perspective.

After I return home, Marcus’ words stay with me: “Look, this is not a holiday. This is a learning journey for both of us. This is it, this is the real thing. Yolngu Law. And the rule of the law is: the land will claim us. Because in the end, we go back to it one way or the other.”

The writer travelled on Intrepid's Journey Into East Arnhem Land , a 7-day expedition trip that spends time with the Yolngu people in Nyinyikay, as well as visiting a wilderness retreat in Bremer Island. Intrepid Travel have been leaders in small group travel since 1989, and now run adventures in over 100 countries around the world. For more information on Indigenous tourism projects with Intrepid,visit our website.

so, Are you ready?

Journey into east arnhem land
with intrepid travel
to learn and share with the Yolngu people