Sue Hits Arnhem Land and the Barunga Festival




I am now on the Stuart Highway travelling towards Katherine to spend time with my granddaughter, Natasha.

Tash has been teaching at one of the primary schools for the past couple of years, with a class of 30 students consisting of one white Australian, one African, one Filipino and 27  indigenous Australians from remote communities.

These indigenous children only speak the language of their community; often they cannot understand each other as each community has a different variant of language, with over 40 different indigenous language groups residing in the Northern Territory. As for speaking English, they either don’t speak it at all or understand very few words. This, of course, makes teaching a difficult task, but as Tash says, it is immensely rewarding.

By pure luck, I finally arrived in Katherine on a Northern Territory long weekend. Tash had three days to spare, so I now had the best tour guide ever and we were to travel, at her suggestion, to a community in East Arnhem Land.

Barunga, previously known as Bamyili, is a small Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community of round about 400 people, located alongside the Beswick Creek,  approximately 80km southeast from Katherine. Without a permit, visitors are unable to visit, but once again I jagged it.



This weekend was to be the annual Barunga Festival, a unique opportunity for non-indigenous persons to glimpse our indigenous Australians in their own environment and country. Due to the pandemic, we were unsure if it would go ahead, but decided to give it a go.

The East Arnhem Road was sealed, but very narrow, just wide enough for a single car to travel on. On either side the gravel had been washed away so there was, in most places a good 30cm drop. My caravan is wider than a car, so I was bumping along, half on bitumen and half in the corrugations. To make matters worse, the expectation of about 3000 indigenous and non-indigenous guests meant that car after car was travelling in the same direction with the gravel being well churned up.

Soon we were to turn into the road that took us into the community, Bagala Road. Formally it had been a well-maintained gravel track, however now with all the extra traffic enough potholes and boggy areas had emerged to make driving fairly hazardous. No matter, we got there in the end, sporting a small amount of damage but not too bad, nothing  I couldn’t fix.



After paying a $60 fee, we drove through the entrance of the community and proceeded to set up camp, in an area that had been designated for visitors to stay during the three festival days, then off we went to explore.

I spoke to one old chap who had lived at Barunga all his life. He told me that different “mobs” lived there at Barunga with many diverse languages spoken within the community, and that the kids and adults all speak several languages of which English is just one.  He proudly explained that the festival was to observe the best of remote Indigenous Australia displaying cultural activities such as music, dance, the indigenous arts, and sports.

He pointed at a group sitting under the trees, “And look, missus, see that mob over there? They visit from all over. All over everywhere. Yep, all over. From Arnhem Land, Central Australia, the Kimberleys. They come for sport. Football, basketball, softball. All against different mobs. No grog. No drugs. No smokes. Just hard sport. Hard. Like war … fight to win.”



The Australian Rules football competition was fiercely contested. They played on ground hard enough to make my eyes water, but nevertheless they played courageously on. At the end of each game, the two teams crouched together, never arguing about the umpire’s decision and seriously chatting in their own language.

The first Barunga Festival was first held in 1985 and has become bigger and better every year. It has a history of showcasing the Katherine region and supporting remote indigenous communities so  they can come together and celebrate the positive aspects of community life. Visitors of all ages are encouraged to join in the festivities and to connect with this remote indigenous community.

We could see that we were going to be run off our feet for the whole weekend, there was so much to see and do, but first we needed a coffee! The coffee stall which had come all the way from Darwin for the festival had a long queue, we knew it would be a wait, but wait we did, and it was worth it, the coffee was great. Then there were the food stalls, queues for everything there too but delicious meals were served.



There were art stalls where paintings could be bought directly from the artists. There were spear throwing competitions and visitors were shown how to make their own spear. You could be shown how to make your own yidaki (didgeridoo) and how to play it.

The Women’s Council, the Banatjarl Strongbala Wumin Group, give visitors the opportunity to do different types of weaving, learn about traditional medicines and make damper. There was a fashion parade for designs from various local indigenous designers, apparently this was a first for the festival, and it was great to see the designs and the girls rather shyly and nervously modelling them. Then there was the music and lastly the dancing (Bungul), with traditional dance clapsticks and didgeridoos launching the festivities,it was fantastic!



The Barunga School children took those who wished to see more of the community on a tour. We strolled through the outskirts of town as they pointed to various plants and explained what they were used for. The children would take turns in talking about the plants, pointing out certain plants that bore fruit to eat and others that were used as bush medicine – all supervised by one of their teachers, Anita Painter, who told me that when she was younger, she was also a student at Barunga.

The opening ceremony was attended by several politicians from both sides of politics, amongst them was Michael McCormack, there in his capacity as acting Prime Minister and Ken Wyatt AM who attended as Minister for Indigenous Australians, proudly proclaiming himself a Noongar, Yamatji and Wongi man.



For me the highlight of the weekend was Saturday’s sunset performance of the Darwin Symphony Orchestra, combining its orchestrated tones with a rendition of powerful vocals, in their own language, of an indigenous youth choir, dancers, and some didgeridoo. Yolngu man Guwanbal Gurruwiwi ended his solo performance with the Darwin Symphony Orchestra with the spirituality of ancient songlines, and later during the evening the all-female Maningrida band Ripple Effect sang about a cyclone and the dreaming spirit that scared it away.

I have my granddaughter, Natasha, to thank for suggesting I attend one of the most amazing weekends of indigenous festivities imaginable. With the sharing of their breathtaking performances of traditional songs and dance the Bagala clan of the Jawoyn people did themselves proud.



2 thoughts on “Sue Hits Arnhem Land and the Barunga Festival

  1. Susie, I’m following your great travel reports on The Starfish.
    The stories and photos paint a tantalising picture of our outback.
    I’m so impressed by the talented, intrepid lady that you are!

  2. Wow, great yarn. Have long promised myself to get to the Barunga Festival. One day I will, hopefully. Itt’s been 40 years since I was in Arnhem Land, spending time in and around Ngukurr in the south and Oenpelli in the north. Magic places both.

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