I’ve been sent northward with the NITV Awaken team to spend the last 4 days covering the Garma Festival at Gulkala in North East Arnhem Land, where we have been recording our upcoming season of Awaken as well as this week’s program on juvenile justice. Nevertheless it’s been an extraordinary trip that has seen a bit of culture shock as well as the return of some childhood memories.
"In that beautiful moment I was reminded of how special it is to be back on country, back in a place where culture and exploration go hand in hand, back in a place where the simplicities of life can stand out and bring a warm smile to your face that city life just can't match."
One of the first things that hit you when you arrive up north like some of you are bound to expect, is the heat and humidity up here. I find it hard to believe that you can be in the same country and go through such temperature changes. Leaving Sydney it was a frigid 16 degrees with cold dry air, but up here its 29 and 80 percent humidity, but you can live with that. The struggle facing a city boy is the dramatic change between the constant rush of city life to the laid back, ‘it’s too hot, so lets just roll with it’ kind of pace. But it makes sense. Things need to run at a slower pace here. Although the main roads in town, to the mine and to the airport are tar, most roads out here are red dirt, some of which have enough corrugations to comfortably bounce a car off the road. So you need to be prepared. You’ve also got to make sure that you’ve got plenty of water on hand with you, especially if you’re heading inland, not to mention you’ve got to drive to the conditions.
But its not just heat or bouncy dirt roads that can get you out here, I was chatting with some of the NITV crew that drove across to the Gove peninsula from Darwin who said that its common to come across water buffalo on some of the main highways, not to mention wild pigs. It’s easy to take the beach for granted out this way too. Personally, like most Sydneysiders I love the beach and will take any opportunity to go for a body surf at any chance I can, but up here you don’t just have the threat of a possible shark attack, you’ve got a much higher chance of being taken by a salt water croc. So again safety first, I’m told that I need to stay at least 5 metres back from the waters edge, so unfortunately that water is just one very large tease. I can only imagine how much worse this temptation must get in such picturesque locations during summer.
"Mobile phones have sporadic coverage, you never really know who is around and where, so you’ve no choice but to go on foot along the many dirt tracks of the Gukala site to see who you can find... It’s during the treks around the Gulkala site that you come across some of the wonderful parts of Garma."
Yet culture shock disappears quickly, it’s easy to slide into an easier way of life, but to some extent it’s forced upon you regardless. My role while I’m up here attending the Garma Festival is to wrangle talent for the recording of NITV’s Awaken program and make sure that we can get some politicians, famous faces, professors and local legends to come and take part in our program. And what a challenge it has been. You’ve got to go back to the old school way of things on site at Garma. Mobile phones have sporadic coverage, and you never really know who is around and where, so you’ve no choice but to go on foot along the many dirt tracks of the Gukala site to see who you can find. And it’s during the treks around the Gulkala site that you come across some of the wonderful parts of Garma. While walking through the site you pass tents spread out amongst the trees as far as the eye can see. The smell of camp fires and fresh eucalyptus leaves hangs in the air and the dry red dust that gets flung up as you walk gets stuck to the sweat on your arms and legs. And in the background the sound of the Gumatj people taking part in the afternoon Bungle adds to the overloading of your senses.
Despite the sensory overload its business as usual for the production team, and I’m off in search for talent. But while on the hunt for guests for our education panel for the Awaken program I found myself walking past a string of famous Australians. Around one bend is Opposition Leader Bill Shorten walking along with Senators Malarndirri McCarthy and Pat Dodson after leaving a press conference, about 100 metres away near a small coffee stand is Australian film and television actor Jack Thompson posing for photos with local children, 20 metres further on is Professor Marcia Langton from Melbourne University sitting in deep conversation with some locals, and at the next table various business leaders are discussing potential business deals, all the while local children are playing nearby and speaking in language, such is the melting pot of personalities at Garma. It’s said that Garma is a place of great importance for numerous reasons, but it’s clear it’s a place where things really happen; a place of discussion, a place of dealings, and a place of self-discovery.
And it’s during some of the downtime during our last day of filming for Awaken that I’m transported back to my childhood. Its funny how little things can transport you back to a memory decades in the past that you wouldn’t ever think of. For me it was as I watched a group of young girls singing and dancing on the stage of our set while two others played with our cameras. As I listened to the children singing and playing I was transported back to being up country in rural Kenya where I lived as a child during the late 1990s. It was in an equally rural country region that I once watched local girls singing in Swahili and dancing with small branches of leaves as they had fun performing and yet here were these girls in North East Arnhem Land having fun in such a similar way. In that beautiful moment I was reminded of how special it is to be back on country, back in a place where culture and exploration go hand in hand, back in a place where the simplicities of life can stand out and bring a warm smile to your face that city life just cant match.
At the end of festival after many of the attendees have left Garma takes on a new feeling, a sense of peace comes over the site, the stalls have all been packed up, the forum arenas are silent and the frenetic busyness has disappeared. Yet the local cultural performances appear to have taken on a whole new dimension. You can see that despite the weariness of many of those remaining on site, the Bungul has taken on a different form of importance. This appeared in one of the simple and form of active reconciliation that took place over the weekend, in this instance it was where Anglo-Saxon tourists have been allowed to take part in the Bungul and dance in conjunction with the Gumatj peoples as they listen to their song cycles. In that symbolic gesture all felt peaceful and that there was great cultural acceptance and unity. A simple but powerful moment.
"One thing I know I won't be able to shake soon is the red dirt, its deeply embedded in my shoes and into some of my lighter coloured clothes."
So as I finally prepare to head back to big smoke its clear what I was told about the Garma experience has rung true. Garma goes with you, it changes you, it just takes time to become clear. Certainly one thing I know I wont be able to shake soon is the red dirt, its deeply embedded in my shoes and into some of my lighter coloured clothes, I’m also heavily sunburnt, but regardless I know I’ve changed. This city boy is going home with a new love for being out bush and I can at the very least thank Garma for that.