Groote Eylandt Diary – Part 1

AFL Queensland Development Coordinator Jeff Neumann is currently on secondment as the Regional Development Manager in the Northern Territory, on the remote island of Groote Eylandt.

Part 1 – Welcome to the island

“My first thought when asked to fill in for the month of August, where in the world is Groote Eylandt? After an intensive search of google I found out the following about the island;

–          Groote Eylandt is located off the eastern coast of the Northern Territory, 600km south-east of Darwin in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

–          The land is an indigenous protected area of the Warnindilyakwa people and the permission of the Warnindilyakwa or the Anindilyakwa Land Council (ALC), BHP or GEMCo are responsible for land visitations by non-indigenous people. All visitors must obtain a permit to visit certain areas of the island, including work permits and recreational permits.

–          Groote Eylandt was founded in 1623 by Dutchman William Van Coolstrurdt and named the natural untamed wilderness that is the island Groote Eylandt (meaning ‘great’ or ‘large’ island).

In just my first week I have seen the reason behind the “greatness” that is Groote Eylandt and why the Dutch labelled this place what they did. The trip so far has been both refreshing yet eye-opening, giving you a paradox.

My secondment here on the island is until the new RDM starts in September. I am responsible for running different programs throughout the three indigenous communities; Umbakumba, Angurugu and Milyakburra. Milyakburra (or Bickerton Island) is currently closed for all visitors. Both Umbakumba and Angurugu are majority indigenous communities with one or maybe two non-indigenous people in each community.

The main township of Alyangula is located 20km north of Angurugu and 60km east of Umbakumba, for my first week I am staying in the AFL house in Angurugu which has led to an interesting experience thus far.

I arrived late afternoon mid-week and was greeted with one of the most beautiful sunsets, something you couldn’t get in the South East corner as you can see it was mesmerising to say the least. I faced two challenges on night one; finding my place in Angurugu where I was staying and driving a manual vehicle for the first time since I received my licence.

Let’s just say the driving went without a glitch, okay maybe I stalled once or twice at a few tricky spots but now I’m a pro, though again maybe not. Finding the place was difficult in the dark and after a few U-turns I found the AFL house.

My next few days were well organised and planned out so I could meet key stake holders in the communities, “go to people”, key spots and get to know the place. A few things over these few days made me realise how lucky we are to live in the SE corner in Queensland.

–          The first eye-opening experience was when we were driving around the communities and seeing the condition of living for the indigenous families. There is no-way to describe it really, 3 bedroom houses sleeping up to 25 plus, rubbish everywhere and kids everywhere not at school, at home sitting, just roaming around laughing, riding motor-bikes or throwing things at each other.

–          Few days in we visited Umbakumba and on our way back we were on our way to visit another small community but had to travel along a remote road, when I say remote it was remote. The road was sand based; very fine sand with tyre tracks about 2-3feet deep and the key was momentum if you stopped you weren’t going any further. Just so happened that we lost momentum and were stuck, after quick inspection we tried clearing the sand in front of the tyres, letting air out but this didn’t work as we dug or spun our way even deeper until the Hilux was pretty much on its belly. Which led to another experience to find help!

We had to walk over an hour along the fine sand dune tracks back towards the community of Umbakumba, unlike SEQ mobile phones do not work at all in this part of the island. That is how remote it is! After walking the hour in very hot conditions (especially for this Toowoombaite) we finally got back to Umbakumba and searched everywhere for a willing helper. We found one of the male-teachers from Umbakumba who was willing to help and tow us out. On our rescue mission, which took over 2hours and during this mission we had actually for a bit got the rescue vehicle bogged as well.

Finally we had cleared both vehicles and the teacher took us along to the community we were after Picnic Beach which was amazing. (Photo – of myself at Picnic Beach and the stunning view at the hidden paradise.)

My introduction also included the biggest day of the year on the calendar and that was “Picnic Day” where everyone comes in to celebrate the community. Picnic Day included performances from Dora the Explorer, Wes Carr and Busby Marou but what was even more impressive is that the entire event was free for everyone. All food, rides, drinks you name it was at no cost. Another surprise was the challenges for kids to adults, first, second and third prize from the egg and spoon race, to tug-of-war and even the Groote Eylandt gift prize money up to $100. The day was run by GEMCo (BHP) and completely funded by the mining giant, a fantastic community event like none-other, that was capped off by an amazing fire-works display

So, just one week in I have seen things I would never of seen in the South East corner, dug a car out of the sand dunes, witnessed natural untamed wilderness, experienced community spirit second to none and also enjoyed the music of Busby Marou and Wes Carr on beautiful winters day in the far north (okay, maybe I enjoyed the upbeat tune of Dora the Explorer), one thing is for sure that this is going to be an experience like no other.

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