Living history, Jawoyn culture and a very competitive footy grand final. This is a Top End festival like no other.

There are three things Wurlumbulnga ‘Manuel’ Pamkal knows to be true:

he was born sometime in July when the kapok flowers bloom; he has the best head of hair in the Northern Territory; and sharing Weet-Bix just isn’t the same as sharing campfire yams.

“We would share everything,” Manuel says, while demonstrating how to paint a perfect Mimi spirit (a fairy-like being from Arnhem Land) with just a bendy piece of bamboo grass. “That’s how we lived, how we still live… whatever the men would bring back from hunting and whatever the women would collect—that’s what we’d share.”

Born on Jawoyn traditional land—a 55,000 square kilometre parcel stretching north-west of Katherine, across to the southern part of Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land, then down to Mataranka—Manuel’s home country is vast and ancient, full of sandstone gorges and epic waterfalls. Having grown up out bush, he speaks three languages—Dalabon, Kriol and English; can tell a Dreamtime story like no other; and is an award-winning painter. Hence the art class.

Click play to watch

Now, I’m not normally a creative who blames their tools, but trying to paint with a single piece of bamboo grass is harder than it looks. Frustrating, even. If you turn the canvas upside down, my bush bat looks more like a fat sheep.

While we paint (or at least I attempt to), Manuel tells me about making bark art with his dad, sleeping under the stars with goannas for pillows and the Dreaming serpent who created all the nearby Nitmiluk gorges. “The first time I saw a white man, I was so scared,” he laughs. “I ran back to my mum, I thought a ghost was in the creek.”

Manuel is a storyteller at his core—a gift that’s at the cultural heart of our First Nations peoples. For millennia, knowledge has been passed down through stories just like this, whether it’s a Dreamtime tale, song or dance. It’s one of the reasons I’m here in the Top End: I’m headed to Barunga Festival, a celebration of all things community, custom and culture. And I’m most excited for the stories.

Click play to watch

Barunga, where Manuel spent most of his childhood, is a small community about an hour’s drive from Katherine, where the town’s 400 person population grows by a whopping 1000% every June as different mobs gather and festival-goers stream in from around the country.

This year is particularly auspicious: the event has been handed back in its entirety to the Bagala Aboriginal Corporation; it’s been 35 years since the Barunga Statement was drawn up; and the Voice referendum is happening in a few months. Everything considered, it’s set to be a big one.

The Barunga Statement, if you’re not in the know, is an historic document created at the 1988 Barunga Festival. The artwork calls for a recognition of land rights, self-determination and a Treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and it was signed by then Prime Minister Bob Hawke. In fact, Yothu Yindi wrote the mega hit ‘Treaty’ in response to this gathering at Barunga. The history! The impact! It’s enough to give you goosebumps.

The drive into Barunga is classic Northern Territory: red dirt roads and big blue skies. The occasional eagle catches an updraft to float above our campervan. As we arrive, hundreds of tents and troopy’s are already setting up camp next to the oval or behind the main stage; there’s a group of kids playing Marks Up in the break between football games; Drake is blasting from the basketball court where two local teams are going head-to-head in a dunking (literally, they can all dunk) competition. The energy is joyous.

That energy shifts into excited anticipation as the entire festival crowd takes a seat for the opening ceremony. We’re all gathered outside, around a large sand stage, when the didgeridoo (traditional wind instrument) starts to sound. There’s nothing quite like the hypnotic drone of a didgeridoo—it’s haunting and otherworldly, echoing the cries of a dingo or kookaburra.

Then the dancers appear. Covered in traditional ochre body paint, they kick up a sandstorm in the evening light, throwing invisible spears. Every dance tells a story, some about hunting kangaroo others how to catch a river fish. It’s frenetic at times—their bodies moving to the beat of clapping sticks—and fluid at others. I feel a collective hair-raising happen around me; this is what it feels like to be truly welcomed onto country.

"You’re on Bagala land now,” says Lisa Mumbin, Jawoyn Associate Chair and remote East Arnhem land woman, to the crowd. “We welcome you, we don’t turn you away… but before we can go forward, I want to make sure that my message gets through to everyone today: Jawoyn supports the Voice to parliament.”

I’d been wondering what the approach to the coming referendum—where Australians will be asked to vote on the creation of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice that will represent Indigenous Australians to the parliament and federal government—would be. It turns out the four Northern Territory land councils have spent the last week in discussion. The result? A unified ‘yes’ in support of constitutional recognition. Once again, Barunga stands as a place to do historic, significant business.

“You’re going to be enriched in the next few days, remember to listen and to listen carefully,” says Lisa.

Her words become my mantra as I explore the festival. I sit with women from Wudiculpyderr and Merrepen, Peppimenarti and Nemarluk as they weave dilly-bags and fish traps; Chiyo Andrews shows me how to grind lemongrass and eucalyptus to make bush medicine balms and oils; I watch women make damper over open fire and men sand back didgeridoos; and I take a tour of the town with the Barunga Guides, a group of shy school kids, one of whom is a traditional owner and she’s only six.

One afternoon, I’m peed on by about a hundred terrified bats; another morning, I take a dip in the river, keeping an eye peeled for crocodiles. This is the Northern Territory after all, and life here is pretty wild.

At night, the music starts. The crowd lets loose as Coloured Stone play their 1984 hit ‘Black Boy’; they go wild for Yilila band’s mix of traditional Red Flag songs and high energy reggae and rock; songman and ceremony leader, Ngulmiya Nundhirribala, sends the audience into a trance with his god-like voice. Ngulmiya sings versions of formerly private ceremony songs—they’re all in native language and it’s impossible not to be moved.

Then there’s Terry Guyula, the frontman and songwriter from Drifting Clouds, whose main inspiration is Yothu Yindi. Barunga Festival is Terry’s first big gig and he has all his family here to support him. They erupt when he steps up to the mic.

On the last night, Ngulmiya invites his grandson—who can’t be older than six—up on stage. “These songs we’re singing tonight are hundreds of years old,” he says. “Whenever we perform overseas, we think of this land… being here in the Northern Territory is where we’re most comfortable, because we’re sharing our songs with our family.”

Click play to watch

And sharing, I realise, is what is at the heart of Barunga Festival. From Manuel sharing his stories and Chiyo sharing her medicine knowledge to Ngulmiya sharing his cultural songs and Lisa, quite literally, sharing her land with us.

At the footy grand final on the last day, the supporters are going absolutely wild for their teams. Young kids are clapping and old women are screaming as the players throw themselves at the ball. It's do or die; footy is everything up here. There's a woman standing next to me, she's tiny but she's got a set of Pavarotti lungs, when I hear her shout: "take it easy you lot, we've all got mob on both sides... this is for everyone."

And apparently even footy glory has got to be shared at Barunga.

Get there

Getting to Barunga is easy. Jump on any flight to Darwin (there are so many airlines that fly to Darwin, it’s piece of pie). Then grab your vehicle of choice (we recommend booking a camper ahead of time) and truck it down the Stuart Highway. Darwin to Barunga takes about four hours and it’s primarily on sealed roads. No 4WDs necessary.

Stay there

It’s BYO bedding while at Barunga Festival itself, so think campervans or tents. In Darwin, we get around the H on Smith Hotel super conveniently located. At National Parks, like Nitmiluk. highly recommend nabbing an on-site cabin.

Get Informed

Don’t miss Hot Tamale in Darwin for a pre and post Barunga feed. These guys are serving up delicious Mexican treats, from ceviche and guac to the tastiest tacos in town. They’ve also got over 300 agave spirits, so defs get a cocktail or three!

Tour There

Outside of Barunga there’s a heap of rad places to explore. We highly recommend exploring Nitmiluk National Park, swimming at Elsey National Park or walking around Litchfield National Park. For more info on Katherine and surrounds, GO HERE.

Words Tayla Gentle

Photos Liam Neal

Tags: australia, Barunga, NT

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