Arnhem Land Trip 2018, Day 6: Enjoying the Arafura Swamp

By the time you see this we’ll be back in “civilisation” so to speak. We’ve had a wonderful trip, experiencing

  • landscapes from woodlands to wetlands;
  • indigenous culture from bush tucker to art, both contemporary and ancient;
  • activities from fishing to bird spotting;
  • food from hot cooked breakfasts to crocodile skewers and buffalo curry with valiant attempts to cope with “the dietaries”;
  • amazing people who work darned hard to make Outback Spirit tours the enjoyable experience they are; and
  • a lot of bouncing along dirt roads with a good bunch of people prepared to have a laugh.

And we’ve learnt a lot, though how much we’ll retain remains to be seen.

But now Day 6

Today our group was divided into 2, with one group doing the Bush Tour with Lodge Manager Leith and Traditional Owner (TO) Franky in the morning, and the other boating on the Arafura Swamp, and then switching for the afternoon. We were in the bush-first-water-second group.

What Franky said

The bush tour involved our driving from spot to spot with Leith and Franky, getting out at each for Franky to tell us a story about the place in language, followed by Leith telling us what Franky said. It was great fun, with Franky becoming increasingly animated and responsive as he saw us enjoying his stories, and Leith adding his own droll touches to his translations (which I believe, from his smiles, Franky understood.) It was great hearing the stories in language. I should say that the word “story” here is not to be taken lightly, because “stories” are how indigenous people see, learn about, understand and interact with their world. A bit, perhaps, like our Bible stories except for indigenous people they are all-pervasive.

Termite mound and bush oven

First stop, Franky told us several stories about the cathedral termite mound, made by grass-eating termites (Nasutitermes triodae (?)), including how his people use broken off bits of termite mound to fire their ovens. As Leith said “what Franky has just told you was how they make BBQ beads!”


Next was a Milkwood Tree (Alstonia actinophylla), also known as the carving tree because the wood is soft. It also provides bush glue – we tried it and it is sticky. And it was the wood used to make the dug-out canoes as taught to them by the Macassans. Northern indigenous people had not made dug-out canoes until the Macassans taught them.

More tree stops

Franky told us about:

  • Lillipilly or Red Bush apple, and its value as a food source.
  • Stringy Bark or Nadan (?) (Eucalyptus tetrodonta), an important tree for the Dhuwa people (moiety). It’s used for bark paintings and canoes, for didgeridoos, for tools and ceremonial needs etc. But Franky is Yirritja so while his people use this tree, they don’t use it for their more significant and ceremonial implements. They use a different tree.
  • Screw palm (Pandanus spiralis) and its multiple uses: it indicates water, is a source of nuts, is used to make baskets, and its branches can be used to transport fire.
  • Red-flowering Kurrajong (Brachychiton): used to make rope/string (for nets, string bags, fishing lines, etc), and for its nuts.
  • Sandpaper Fig (Ficus coronata), a “Bush Bunnings! ” and is also good for fruit.
  • Ironwood (Erythrophleum chlorostachys, I think), the important ceremonial tree for Yirritja (like the Stringy Bark is for Dhuwa). It is used for their smoking ceremony, to make tools, etc. At this point Franky quietened and told Leith he felt the Old People … it gives him goose bumps. Leith says this doesn’t always happen. (We were fascinated by the fact that whenever Franky told us stories about the Old People in language, he referred to them in English.)

Ten canoes sites

Our penultimate stop was at an area comprising some of the main locations for Rolf de Heer’s film, Ten canoes.

Plants here included the Freshwater Mangrove, used for crocodile hunting and cooking, Pandanus for string making, and Paperbarks (Melaleucas). While Leith was translating, Franky wondered around the billabong calling out to his min min (the Sulphur-crested cockatoos, or message birds.)

Franky demonstrated stripping Pandanus leaves to make the grass for weaving. He also demonstrated various uses of the Paperbark – too numerous to list here. But, for example, they make a dish from which they can drink, or use the dish to carry honey on their heads. As Franky demo’d this, Leith said “Franky is demonstrating what he learnt at finishing school.” Franky’s smile here was infectious.

Last stop

Frankly demonstrated ochre painting on his arms, using an ochre rock, some water, and a quickly home-made brush – so quick, so easy (if you know what you are doing.) He also told us about Dogs Balls (Grewia latifolia) plant and its bush medicine uses. Another popular name for it – Dysentery Bush – gives you an idea of some of its uses!

Franky was a real character. At the end of each stop he would instruct us to get into our respective vehicles and “lemonay” (phonetic spelling), essentially telling us to “hurry up and let’s go.” He has had his health and social problems but he clearly loved sharing his knowledge and country with a responsive audience. The knowledge we’ve gleaned during the trip is great, but even better has been meeting and talking with indigenous people on their terms. We balanda (white people, coming from “hollander”) felt a little uncertain in our communications:

  • for fear of offending – as we know we (the, the balanda) have offended so much;
  • because we’d been warned about addressing certain subjects, with certain people or in certain areas, due to particular sensitivities; or
  • because we didn’t want to behave as though they were there to perform for us

but it has been great to be able to ask indigenous people specific questions about what we’d seen, such as “how do you do x?” or “who taught you y?” Or even “are the young people interested in z?”


Then it was back to the restaurant for lunch , which was Buffalo Red Curry or a Chicken Salad. Delicious. Most lunches were wraps (particularly while out and about or on the road.)

Afternoon boat ride

In the afternoon our group cruised the swamp ie wetlands, with Phil and indigenous TO Johnny Pascoe. We saw more birds than I can remember: Darter, Jacana, Cormorant, Green pygmy geese, Paperbark flycatcher, Magpie geese, Little pied heron, Radjah shelduck, Whistling ducks, Forest kingfisher, Crested tern, Bittern and White-breasted (or is it now “bellied”) sea eagles .

We caught one croc sunning itself on the banks and we saw four or five (the number varied for different members of the party depending on the timing of their spotting!) slithering into the water as they heard us coming. We also saw a buffalo hiding in the vegetation by the bank.

Murwangi Dinner MenuThe beautiful Corypha elata (or Corypha utan) Palm  – or Cabbage Palm, which is endemic to this region, was pointed out to us. Its shape is a little reminiscent of young baobab trees.

On this tour, Johnny let Phil do most of the talking, but answered specific questions, such as how he kills crocodiles. His system – harpooning – was a little different to Franky’s (trapping with meat attached to rope).


Again the entree and two main course dishes (Jewfish or Lamb rack) were both gluten and dairy free. How sensible of them. I don’t think the non-dietaries suffered for the absence of those nutritional staples. My rack of lamb was delicious.

Dessert was chocolate puff pastry and home-made ice-cream, but I had a very lovely fresh fruit salad.

Today’s photos

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and movies …

In the bush with Franky (TO) and Leith


On the swamp with Phil and Johnny (TO)




6 thoughts on “Arnhem Land Trip 2018, Day 6: Enjoying the Arafura Swamp”

    • Yes, I think it is unique, Lisa, in being the first. or maybe still only?, feature film to date that’s been made completely in indigenous language. It was really interesting to be in the country where it was filmed.

    • Haha Carolyn, we actually saw far more than we ate! This was the only place where we ate some, in fact,

  1. Is screw palm the same as screw pine, aka pandan used in desserts? Would be so cool if we had native Aussie pandan!

    • Sorry Hannah, I missed this comment. Yes, I believe it is. It’s a bit confusing though because it seems that Screw pine can be a generic name for Pandanus, but also the name of the specific Pandanus spiralis. The leaves of this are edible, but I’m not sure whether they work as pandan. They seem tougher than the pandan I’ve used but … perhaps any pandanus leaf can be used?? Google hasn’t helped a lot.

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