A journey to East Arnhem Land gives school students and teachers a deeper connection to Aboriginal culture, language and spirituality, writes ROZ THOMAS.

From the moment you walk off the plane at Nhulunbuy Regional Airport you have a sense of the enormity of what awaits you in the week ahead.

From the contrast of the lush green bushlands and the rich red dirt, the country gives us a warm welcome as we are greeted by the Culture College staff who will be our guides and mentors for our time in East Arnhem Land.

From the airport, we travel a short distance to our accommodation for a couple of days while staying in Nhulunbuy. Our accommodation is on a shared site with the local mining community, along with other groups that require accommodation while in town. Once settled, our first trip is to Yirrkala.

The Yirrkala community is known for sharing its stories through art – from traditional bark through to a contemporary form of digital recordings. The Yirrkala Arts Centre is a hub of local artists and community talking, meeting and working on their current pieces. At one stage we all just stop and watch as an Elder sits on the floor adding one tiny brushstroke after the other using a traditional human hairbrush. We can’t take a photo, as photos are prohibited inside the gallery, so we just stand in silence painting the image into our memory.


We all just stop and watch as an Elder sits on the floor adding one tiny brushstroke after the other using a traditional human hairbrush.


We quickly come to an understanding that all we experience and how we interact will be very different from the norm. As we leave the arts centre to sit by the water for morning tea, we begin to discuss and reflect on the Yolngu’s traditional expression of culture through arts and the story that is held in the landscape around us. Charmaine is a young and knowledgeable leader from the Nhulunbuy community who appears shy and withdrawn and quiet to speak of her cultural knowledge. But actually, she is listening to us – how we speak, how we interact and what knowledge we may have, searching for common ground and understanding of these people from the city. As we learn to connect with each other over these first few days, Charmaine begins to open up about the histories, cultural stories, the different communities around East Arnhem Land and teaches our group some of the ways of being and doing within her home country.

Our group is very lucky to have four Year 9 students from Sydney with us. It gives the adults in the group another lens to view our time in East Arnhem Land and of the program. On our second evening in Nhulunbuy, we are invited to a traditional healing ceremony. Gurruwiwi Sisters tell us stories of healing through ceremony and the use of a healing plant. As the leaves of the plant are placed in boiling water, a sticky gel-like substance is created. The Elders use the leaves to massage the gel into our aches and pains. The students are fascinated by the gel and stories, and slowly they begin to want to know more and do more. All of a sudden, the girls have their heads fully submerged into the water with the leaves, soaking their hair in the gel. Laughing and giggling along with the Elders, they break the ice and many of the adults follow suit. As the sun sets over the water, the adults began to relax, listen and learn, while the students play with the local children on the sand teaching each other games from both worlds.


The Yolngu seasonal calendar is not the simple autumn, winter, spring and summer, but a complex series of incremental changes to the land. Through observation of the plants and wildlife, the people of Nyinyikay can live from what the land and waterways provide.


The next morning sees our group loaded into bush taxis (aka Troopies) for a four-hour open road drive to the Nyinyikay homeland community. This is where, over the next three days, each member of our group will have a life-changing experience.

Nyinyikay homeland community is one of the most remote communities not only in East Arnhem Land, but in Australia. Surrounded by pristine beaches and rainforest, this beautiful community has had custodianship of the land, waterways and sky for thousands of years. As we sit in the bush classroom overlooking the ocean listening to the local cultural teacher, Marcus Lacey, we start to discover the vast knowledges that existed around us. The depth of knowledges throughout the landscape provides us with another way of understanding connection to land. Marcus describes the multiple uses of each plant and tree that thrives on their homelands. The Yolngu seasonal calendar is not the simple autumn, winter, spring and summer, but a complex series of incremental changes to the land. Through observation of the plants and wildlife, the people of Nyinyikay can live from what the land and waterways provide.


As we sit in the bush classroom overlooking the ocean listening to the local cultural teacher, Marcus Lacey, we start to discover the vast knowledges that existed around us.


Camping in tents, we experience the environment to its fullest. Spending the nights by the campfire listening to stories, dancing and singing traditional and contemporary songs, we form deep connections with all the members of the community. The students would spend the night choreographing dances with the youth of the community – sharing in the common language of music and movement to form their friendships.

Throughout the days we continued learning through the cultural lens of Men’s and Women’s Business. While the men and boys spend time learning about the waterways, building spears, fishing and understanding the how to find and track the local wildlife, the women and girls learn the ways and stories of the pandanus leaves – harvesting, drying, dying and weaving – while also being immersed in the language, history, knowledge of the land and becoming a part of the community.

To reflect on the impact such a week immersed in learning, listening and understanding another’s culture is truly impossible. Later, one student said:

“I have never been to such an amazing place, met such amazing people or have enjoyed learning so much. Nyinyikay will forever hold a special place in my heart, I enjoyed it all so much, the fishing, the weaving, the dancing but mostly just being here sitting, watching the land and listening to the waves. I hope to come back someday soon,” Olivia, Kambala – Year 9.


To live within another community’s culture gave each teacher and student an opportunity to challenge the stereotypes and build an understanding that is deep in respect


Similarly, a teacher reflected on the impact the week will have on teaching and understanding the depth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures, and languages:

What a privilege it has been to stay here and share so many wonderful memories with you all. Not only is the landscape here so beautiful but all the people here who have shared their stories, knowledge, deadly dance moves and weaving and hunting skills. I will take this experience with me and hope many more will be able to have this same experience.” Shona, Kambala – Teacher 

The Yolngu people hold the key to reconciling our nation through their care for country and their dedication to sharing and teaching their culture to the wider community. To spend a week forming relationships through a cultural lens and to live within another community’s culture gave each teacher and student an opportunity to challenge the stereotypes and build an understanding that is deep in respect – respect for culture, protocols and traditional knowledges.


2020 Cultural Immersion Program Opportunity

AISNSW is offering NSW independent schools the opportunity to join the 2020 Cultural Immersion Program to East Arnhem Land. The date of the program is from 9 to 15 August and is in conjunction with AISSA and Independent Schools Queensland.

The Cultural Immersion Program is designed to provide educators with a unique experience of living on country with the Yolgnu people. 

This program is designed to provide school leaders, boarding house supervisors, curriculum coordinators and educators in ELC and school settings with deeper intercultural understanding that they can share with their students and school communities. In addition, the program contributes to providing the Yolgnu people with an economically sustainable way of maintaining their culture.

This opportunity is open to all educators in NSW independent schools. Schools are welcome to extend this invitation to secondary students.

The cost per person is $5,150. This amount is inclusive of flights, accommodation, food, transport in East Arnhem Land, Yolgnu guides and cultural experiences. A deposit of $750 per person is required by 21 February 2020, with full payment due 23 May 2020.

Register for the Cultural Immersion Program now.

For further information, please contact Roz Thomas or phone 02 9299 2845.