Hi I’m ‘Cocky’, the last time we chatted, it was after me and a couple of my mates visited the Daly River Sports Festival for a bit of footy and fishing. This time around I thought I’d tell you about a trip we did with our lovely ladies, to the Barunga Festival.
You met ‘Shed’ on the Daly trip, he’s with his girlfriend Kelly, who like many other’s, came to the Territory as a school teacher, from small country town in Victoria. Kelly & ‘Shed’ met at a ‘Sunday Sesh’ at the unique Humpty Doo Hotel on a balmy build up afternoon about five years ago, and have been enjoying each others company ever since. As you may remember, ‘Shed’ is a quiet fella generally, however around Kelly he feels very comfortable and finds himself chatting about things that he wouldn’t normally do, especially in his mate ‘Tickets’ company.
Claudia makes up the four, Claudia and I first met at a ‘come and try’ triathlon day, held at East Point Reserve in Darwin. Neither of us were over competitive, and I found myself travelling along side Claudia during the bike and run legs a few times. About a week later we were both invited to house party in Leanyer, through different mutual friends, and as happens a bit up this way, we recognised each other and got chatting. Anyway we really hit it off and have been together ever since. Both the girls teach at the St Mary’s Primary School in Smith St Darwin.
Kelly comes from Ouyen, part of the prime sheep and wheat district of the Mallee in Victoria. Once the lands of the Wergaia people, the town was built in 1906 around a railway station on the Melbourne to Mildura line. Blocks in the area were sold from around 1910 as well as provided to return servicemen as part of the ‘Soldier Settlement Scheme’.
The ‘Mallee’ is named after the slow growing, tough eucalyptus trees that grow throughout this part of Australia’s arid region. It derives from the aboriginal word ‘mali’ meaning water, as the mallee root, which is a large bulbous woody structure, captured water, which allowed the multi-stemmed eucalypts to regenerate quickly after fire or to survive longer in drought.
While Claudia is from the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, the area once belonging to the Woiworung tribe, which is now an inner-city mecca for all things cool and kooky. Fitzroy became Melbourne’s first suburb, a progressive place where dances, Debutant Balls in the Town Hall, and football at the Brunswick Street Oval on Saturdays were a part of the weekly entertainment.
Since then Fitzroy’s continually changing character, has seen it become a ‘slum territory’ during the great depression, to a place for dispossessed aboriginal people, to becoming the epitome of multicultural Australia, with more than 70 ethnic groups living within it. As a result Fitzroy is now one of the most diverse suburbs, in both character and content, of the city of Melbourne.
Neither of these girls had lived outside of their home of birth, prior to moving to the Territory, however both of them couldn’t imagine themselves living anywhere else at this point of their lives.
The Barunga Festival
When those formidable southerly’s start blowing strong, the Top End country side changes, it’s especially refreshing when the country had an early burn and that magnificent green growth has started generating. This time of the year also signals the start of the Festivals season, where many communities across the NT host Arts and Sports Festivals that attract all sorts of visitors from all parts of the country.
The Barunga Festival is one of those well known ones that has been held on the Queens birthday weekend in June for as long as I can remember. I believe it has been going since 1985 when it was originally kicked off by the leader of the Bagala clan, Bangardi Lee. The township of Barunga itself has an interesting history, it was originally called Beswick Creek, named after the creek which runs through the township and provides it’s permanent waterholes. It was later named Bamyili by the Elders, and then in 1984, the name was changed to Barunga.
Barunga was also the site where Prime Minister Bob Hawke was presented with a petition framed by bark paintings, now known as the Barunga Statement. The petition called for recognition of a wide range of Indigenous rights including a negotiated Treaty. Prime Minister Hawke signed the statement on his visit to the Festival in 1988, unfortunately though it was never brought before Parliament. In 1991 Yothu Yindi released their worldwide hit ‘Treaty’ which was about the failed promise of the Prime Minister that a treaty would be concluded with Indigenous Australians by 1990.
The drive down from Darwin on a long weekend is pretty easy from a Southerners view point, but for a local, the number of cars on the road, loaded up with camping gear, turns a relaxing drive into a excruciating battle. At least there’s a few more overtaking lanes that have been added, which does helps matters considerably. Although the number of times a small car tries to overtake a road train and doesn’t judge the on coming traffic is always a cause for concern.
Katherine town does well out of the Barunga Festival. There is an increase in numbers to the region, who tend to use the services provided in Katherine, which is a great boost for local businesses. Generally when we travel bush we camp, however camping for us, is a peaceful spot ,with very few people around you. At Barunga, during the Festival, it’s a bit like a showroom at one of those camping and outdoor stores, and it’s always an encounter for a ‘shitnashower’, so we stay in Katherine and drive the 80k’s into Barunga for the activities, and back to Katherine for a sleep.
50k’s south of Katherine is the turnoff for the Central Arnhem Hwy, so that’s only a further 30k’s along a single lane bitumen stretch to the township of Barunga. The country through these parts are the traditional lands of the Jawoyn people, the same people who own Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) to the east of Katherine. Jawoyn lands stretch from Pine Creek in the north, covers the southern areas of Kakadu, east as far as Bulman, and south to Mataranka.
Driving along the Central Arnhem Hwy, you pass the Manyallaluk turn off. A small community where locals run tours, which allow visitors to spend a day with the people, sharing their culture and learning their ways. At Maranboy, where the Police Station is, you pass the old tin mine, which was established in 1913 and closed some 30 years later. It became recognised as one of the greatest tin mines in Australia, but not for the mine workers, they had to endure food shortages and fever on a regular basis during its time of operation.
There are remnants of the mine still there, including the battery and ore crusher, it would be great if one day it could be preserved and run as a tourist business by one of the local organisations.
The Barunga Festival attracts around 4000 visitors each year, who come to either participate or engage in a program of music, sport, culture, art, dance and good food. These Festivals take a lot of organising and Skinny Fish are the one’s currently in charge of getting it all together. For around 3 days the small township is a sea of tents as visitors to region set themselves up all over the place and indulge in the good times it extends.
The Barunga festival, like many other Territory events you travel to, means you’re always catching up with people you know. There are plenty of good food stalls, that are reasonably priced and well stocked. You can even get your Greek cuisine fix, which is great, especially as Glenti is on in Darwin at the same time, and for the coffee aficionado’s, there’s cafe’s for those requiring an espresso.
Some of the information stalls that are set up have interactive displays to create a bit of interest as well as deliver an educational message. There are stalls that hand out bags and even T-Shirts with their message plastered over it. The bags help you carry all the gear you collect as you move through the stalls, and the free T-Shirts provide with an additional change of clothes for the weekend.
There are also some stalls that have you actively involved in some form of physical activity, which always attracts a crowd, especially with the younger audience.
Of course there are the Aboriginal Art stores and other apparel type businesses selling their wares to all and sundry, some local and some travelling down from Darwin to test the waters.
Although its the entertainment component that does it for us, the music line up is always impressive, the cultural dancing is absorbing and the footy, well that goes without saying.
The first thing that ‘Shed’ and I did when we arrived in Barunga was go to the footy field and see what teams were playing over the weekend. Even though footy isn’t on the ‘Barunga agenda’ for ‘Shed’ and I, we still like to know what’s going on and who’s playing. On the schedule that the Katherine Umpires Association had displayed, were a few teams that we’d only just seen a couple of weeks back at the Daly Festival. The Green River Saints, Palumpa Power and Numbulwar Suns we noticed, were backing up for another crack at the title.
While we were checking out the footy schedule Claudia and Kelly had ventured over to the Arts stalls to check things out there. We found them at the Djilpin Arts stall looking at some of the impressive pandanus weaving. The matts, baskets and fish designs they had on display must have taken weeks to create, they were so elaborate and detailed, you couldn’t help but admire the artists for their efforts.
It’s very easy to spend a few hours roaming around the festival, without really do much other than bumping into people and catching up on what they’re up to. Some stories hardly change, while others take an unexpected turn, which could’ve been a change of career, or an illness that you may have heard about on the grapevine. The Territory might be a large expansive area, yet it is pretty small when comes to personal connections, and because Territorians multi task at many different things in life, there tends to be many shared interests that unite us.
We hit the food court in Culture Park and enjoyed the tasty morsels that were on offer. Choosing to eat at the Greek Affair stall, I enjoyed my ‘Lamb Yiros’, served with fresh salad & Tzatziki sauce, while Claudia had the ‘Antipasto Platter’, made up of snap-fresh vege fingers, succulent marinated meat bites, haloumi squares, dolmades, olives and a bit of toasted pita bread. Kelly and ‘Shed’ chose to eat at the Roma Bar stall and had the ‘Avo & Fetta Smash’ on sour dough with leg ham off the bone, and the ‘Fish Burger’, which included fish goujons, crunchy green salad & tartar sauce.
Damper cooking was also happening in Culture Park and even though there wasn’t a lot of room left after lunch, we managed to fit a couple of honey covered mouthfuls in each. There was also the Yidaki (didgeridoo) making and demonstration happening which was entertaining and the basket weaving workshops, demonstrated how preserving those weavers are at their craft.
Late on that Saturday afternoon was the official opening, where the traditional owners, guest speakers and local dancers, welcomed the visitors and recognised the importance of the occasion.
After all the food and entertainment we wanted to go ‘belly up’, so we grabbed our chairs from the car and spent the late afternoon sitting by the oval watching the last of the footy matches for the day. Just relaxing under the remarkably cool, brilliant blue sky and copping the occasional blast of those southerly winds.
The music in the evening started with a few local artists hitting out their rock ‘n’ roll tunes, which was pretty good to sit back and enjoy. We hung around for a couple of sets and even though the festival organisers had landed Missy Higgins as the main act for the evening, we decided to hit the road back to Katherine and check into our accommodation for the evening.
We finished off the day with a couple of quiet one’s at the Katherine Country Club with some friends from Katherine. Mick and Elena have lived in Katherine for the past 15 years. For them, the attraction is the beauty of the Katherine River, with its monsoon forests and tall paperpark trees and ghost gums. They also enjoy the fact that Katherine is a prodigious hub for the Big Rivers Region, which stretches from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the Kimberley’s of Western Australia.
The Big Rivers is aptly named, the systems that flow during the wet season rains move extremely large volumes of water throughout the region. The Katherine River flows into the upper Daly River system, there’s the Victoria River that flows into the Bonaparte Gulf and the Roper River that flows into Gulf of Carpentaria. All of which are feed by a diverse ecosystem of plains and gentle slopes, through to the rugged sandstone escarpments and outcrops.
There was no rush to leave in the morning, apart from some activities that we didn’t indulge with on the Saturday, the main entertainment for us today was going to be the sports finals and B2M playing in the evening. Having spent some time working on the Tiwi Islands and forming friendships with some of the members of the seven-piece band, catching up with them for a chat was high on the agenda.
B2M formed around 2004, they write, sing and perform music about the issues faced in Indigenous communities. They’ve travelled throughout outback Australia and overseas over the past dozen years, and have created some notoriety for themselves as a result. They only put out their first album in 2015, which is pretty amazing since they were already widely known around Northern Australia for a few years prior to that.
We arrived back in Barunga around midday and wandered around just taking in the atmosphere. Sunday is far more low level than the Saturday in terms of active visitors, the previous days entertainment and the camping out factor probably takes its toll. ‘Shed’ and I went over to the footy field to see what the todays action was going to produce, and talking with the co-ordinator from the Katherine Umpires Association, we caught up with the results and the local politics that had taken place overnight.
The Wugularr team that represents the Beswick/Barunga region, submitted their team late on Saturday afternoon and were only available to play on the Sunday. The negotiations took place, the schedule altered and the games were played, in the end everyone plays. However sometimes the results that unfold, don’t necessarily meet the laws of equality or fairness.
We watched a couple of the early finals and looked as though the Wugularr team were a chance of heading towards a play off in the main game. However Palumpa, Ngukurr and the team from the Central Desert, Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa), made their presence felt and put a holt to their run of fortune.
There was a break in the footy so we headed off to see what else was happening and came across a softball game between Palumpa and Barunga. How good was this!!
Softball is a big deal in Indigenous communities and there is always some serious and outstanding talent on show, especially when it comes to the Festivals. Softball NT don’t have the same resources as the big sports organisations such as the AFL, although what they lack in numbers, they make up for in determination. I’m not sure if they still run them, but Softball NT used to have a Territory’s Shire Softball competition, with the winning teams from each region competing at the Northern Territory Championships.
We wandered around a bit more, just getting into the laid back lifestyle, that the Barunga Festival is, when we came across the spear throwing competitions. There’s open entry into one competition, and of course there’s the traditional competition also. Kelly was a bit of Javelin star back in Ouyen, so she thought she’d have a crack at it, she didn’t have a lot of competition, but she certainly turned some heads with her accurate throwing.
However it was little bloke from Milingimbi who stole the show, winning the junior competition. Great skills Karry, winning the junior spear throwing competition!
We made our way back to the footy and prepared for the final. The Ngukurr Bulldogs and Santa Teresa had won their way through to the final, which as a magnificent result, after a couple of days of solid footy.
Ngukurr is about 300k’s from Barunga, it’s a township that is built on hilly ground along side the Roper River. Santa Teresa, established as a Catholic Mission in the 1950s, is around 80k’s east of Alice Springs, which means that these guys travelled over 1200k’s for a weekend of footy, that’s a great effort.
Ngukurr proved to be to strong on this occasion and came away with a 22 point win, which was a great result for them. Take nothing away from the sterling efforts of the Santa Teresa team, who put in all the way to the end.
It was time to settle into the evenings music offerings and we headed off to prepare for B2M. We caught up with two of the bands members Jamie and Greg and chatted about how things were gong in their lives. Even though these two have achieved great things for their communities, there are still many Indigenous people who are disadvantaged within our country.
We sat back and listened into the evening to a bit of Tiwi Islands R‘n’B. The unique and infectious, beats, chants and harmonies, which is unashamedly sentimental and often inspirational.
It was about 9pm by the time we left Barunga and returned to our digs in Katherine. The plan was hit the sack and head off in the morning after breakfast. The trip back to Darwin was planned with a bit of a diversion, one of the reasons being to get off the Stuart Hwy, however the real reason was to get the most out of the Queens Birthday long weekend.
The road between Katherine and Pine Creek has a bit to offer for those with an interest. Charles Darwin University has a campus 16k’s out of Katherine that offers courses in agriculture, rural operations, and conservation and land management to name a few. The turnoff to Leliyn (Edith Falls), always triggers vibrant memories of swimming in the pools of the western side of Nitmiluk National Park and completing the arduous Jatbula Trail.
When we got to Pine Creek, we took the Kakadu Hwy turnoff and then turned left onto the Mt Wells road and headed for Stan Healer’s Historic Grove Hill Hotel.
Grove Hill has quite a history, it began after the discovery of gold by prospector Harry Roberts, in 1872 during construction of the Overland Telegraph. In 1904, Grove Hill became a siding for the North Australian Railway, and in 1934, the hotel was built from materials scavenged from abandoned mining sites in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
Stan had to close the pub in October 2016, but reopened it again in January 2017, “due to popular demand”. It is a pleasant place to enjoy a couple of afternoon cold ales and Stan guarantees they’re the coldest you’ll get anywhere.
After Grove Hill we made our back home. Tt had been an enjoyable Queen’s Birthday weekend. Fun times, relaxing, scintillating scenery, chatting with characters and catching up with old friends. This supports the notion that the NT is the real outback, filled with iconic natural wonders, quirky characters, rich culture and diverse landscapes.