Earth, Spirit and Heart in Arnhem Land

The heat hit my face as I stepped off the tiny six-seater plane onto the tarmac. Apart from the pilot, there was just me flying from Maningrida to my new home, Yurrwi (Milingimbi). As we flew in, the red earth drew me like a magnet. My gut jumped as I immediately felt myself crossing some energetic barrier into another world.

From the plane I had seen beautiful blue waterways, then the low-lying island, nine kilometres by eleven, covered in lush green scrub with paperbarks, saltpans, a billabong. “I’m going home” were the words in my head while on the plane from Sydney to Darwin. A series of synchronistic moments from about the age of 19 were what had brought me to this experience.

Across the tarmac, a small woman stood waiting for me. She smiled, welcomed me and off we went in the school Troopie. It appeared to be a tiny place. I commented on her cute woven basket. “Yes, the women here weave well,” she said. We saw the school, different areas where people lived, the barge ramp where we collected our food from Darwin, the store and some areas that were restricted due to sacred business. We arrived at my home, a big, red corrugated-iron-clad house surrounded by long grass, a palm tree and a clothesline somewhere in there. Inside, she saw my angst, smiled and said, “Just relax. I’ll see you at school in the morning.”

Fortunately, I had the ingredients for a cup of tea. In the cupboard I found a purple cup and a small pot; I had some teabags and long-life milk. There was no phone. The walls were blue and yellow, there were lino floors and the windows were covered in dusty wire mesh. I felt it would be a great home once I scrubbed it up, but in truth I was afraid. What the hell was I doing? It was many years since I had taught in the classroom and I’d never lived in a community for any length of time. It was noisy, I remember thinking. I reminisced on the soothing sound of the sea at my studio home near Byron Bay. I wasn’t to know then that I would grow to love that noise — children laughing and crying, subtle sounds of the sea rippling at various times, the same music playing in several houses at once. I didn’t know that it was my Yolngu family holding me, like being wrapped in the arms of a big mamma, along with the birds and nature. And I couldn’t know that when I would finally leave, I would feel so empty, missing the invisible physicality of those arms.

It was a long first night. I felt like I was being eaten alive by I don’t know what and I lay on that hard bed until there was silence, well after midnight. I woke at five and practised yoga before my first day at school.

Days passed. I scrubbed up my home, kids dropped in, we painted finger and toe nails, ate fruit and dates. “Where’s your mother?” “Where’s your father?” “Where’s your husband?” “Where are your babies?” they asked. It intrigued them that I was alone.


“I’m adopting you as our sister”

I was making a cup of tea after a long walk one day when I heard a voice calling, “Yappa (sister), yappa Mary Mary.” It was Jessie Merraguie from school, her thick black curls falling around her beautiful face. There she was in my garden digging up yams, saying she would cook them later for dinner. We sat on the ground out the front of my place and she said, “We’ll have to go looking for crabs.”

An ochre-coloured jeep pulled up. We got in. There were two older women in the car; they’d been collecting pandanus grass to weave baskets. One of them, Elizabeth Yibbi Yibbi, reached out her hand and the other acknowledged me. I immediately felt a calm, warm presence. “My mother’s name was Elizabeth,” I prattled, “and that’s my middle name.” Yappa gestured that I was her sister and that the other women were, too. I wondered how they knew that. Elizabeth had a strength about her; her face told many stories, perhaps of challenges. Yappa (my adopted sister who cannot be named because of her death), too, was powerful, beautiful and wise. “Come to see where we live,” said Jessie, “at bottom camp,” and in minutes we were at their homes, right on the beach.

They laid out the long strips of pandanus and a tarp under a big tree that cast shade. We sat for a good while, sometimes talking, sometimes comfortably silent. There was no urgency to fill the air with words. Jessie lit a fire and Yappa stripped pandanus, saying it was time to weave baskets. Some gorgeous little cherubs from my class played about us. I loved to see them outside school.

Then Elizabeth said, “I’m adopting you as our sister.” My heart jumped. “She has a name for you,” said Jessie, as if it were all planned. “Thank you,” I beamed. “Yibbi Yibbi,” she said. “What does Yibbi Yibbi mean?” I asked. “Long-neck turtle.” I felt very grateful and comfortable and asked what I could say in appreciation. “Manymak (good),” they said. “Manymak,” I repeated. Jessie began to sing. She had a beautiful voice. Elizabeth Yibbi Yibbi looked at me, aligning her arm with mine and said, “Same skin.” In that moment I was welcomed into the Gupapuyngu tribe, my moiety Yirritja, my skin Banaditjan. It seemed that many women came from nowhere, acknowledging me, welcoming me. Then a gorgeous old man with white hair and a beard approached. His eyes were loving and he seemed strong yet gentle. “This is Joe Djembangu. Call him wawa (brother),” they said. “Hello, wawa.” He shook my hand, his eyes smiling into mine, which welled with unexpected tears. “I’ve adopted you into a yindi (big) family,” said Elizabeth. Something changed in me forever that day.


Hunting nyoka (mudcrab)

While baking muffins in the kitchen one Saturday morning, a horn beeped and someone yelled from a car outside, “Limurru ga marrtji hunting lil.” (We are going hunting.) “Yo,” I yelled excitedly, grateful the baking was just done. Everything happens in the moment and now was the hunting moment. I raced around and grabbed fruit, water, sunscreen, a large hat and some muffins and camera. I ran out and jumped in the Troopie. There were several women and, by the time we stopped at lots of homes, about 10 kids. I adored these days, cramped in the car, going out bush, laughing, sticks flying in the window, sweating in the heat, hugged endlessly by children, looking out for djanda (goanna). Through the bush and over the saltpans, we arrived at the edge of the mangroves. We ventured into cool, dark — a totally new world altogether. We hunted nyoka (mudcrab). Soon enough, my legs were steeped in mud, mosquitoes biting my face and buzzing in my ears. I grasped at mangroves, pulling my way out of the mud, the popping sounds of mudcrab drawing me deeper. Legs out finally, I scrambled over the entangled roots that seemed to go on forever. I felt waves of energy wash through me in the cool, dark, damp grove, thin lines of sunlight streaming through.

“Go!” (come!) I heard. Out of the mud the Yolngu woman rose with grace and poise — and with nyoka for dinner no less. She was perfectly at ease in her task of hunting and I was honoured to be in the presence of such strength and femininity. Me — scrambling, clothes torn, frustration, impatience and mud on my face. We came to a cool pool of water, where she took off her dress, washed it and put it back on. I remained caked in mud but was thrilled to see the end of the mangroves. The sea was expansive; how I longed to dive into it, but for the baru (crocodiles).

Fresh, crisp air filled my lungs, but I was still sinking in mud. “The women don’t seem to sink,” I thought. We dug for maypal (shellfish). We’d spy a hole and then dig deep into it. Gradually, I began to see the mudcrabs lurking in the earth. My eyes had been blind to them before. I realised I was now capable of finding food if I ever needed to. Finally, we joined the other women and children around the campfire and sat sharing the nourishment of our evening meal. I noted how content I felt. Yes, there had been a struggle but, beyond that, enormous excitement over what I had just experienced.


Losing Yappa (sister)

Yappa, my adopted sister, was one of the women who took great care of me. She was the first woman who took me hunting and taught me to weave. Her hair was white as snow and her face round, her eyes gentle. In her motherliness she gave me a lot of time. Her heart was open and loving. She could speak English but she mostly spoke to me in Yolngu Matha (language), which inspired me to try learning the language. I felt accepted and welcomed by her always.

She wanted to share her stories and when she died suddenly it was a great loss to the whole community and this planet. Yolngu people honour grief; they express it without fear. When somebody dies, people gather from far and wide to help the spirit move on, to respect that person, because everyone is connected to them in some way. I was welcome at her funeral. In fact, I was painted, too, because I was her yappa (sister).

There were many funerals. In those times, my whole being was grasped by the energy of the place. Men and women were in groups according to their clans. Some painted in white clay. Some used red. Many exquisite designs with powerful meaning were created. Old men chanted. Different dances representing various totems were performed. Sometimes they danced with spears and leaves. Children danced. Women danced. I felt transported back in time and was always grateful to be a part of it.

Clapsticks and yidaki (didgeridoo) were played day and night, sometimes right next door, and would enter my dream state. Clapsticks as I went off to sleep … dreams of hunters and their spears piercing the bush … clapsticks when I awoke.

The spiritual power was always incredible, the ground sang; sound rose through the Yolngu into the atmosphere, thick with energy. A funeral could last three days, or weeks. Women wailed and threw themselves on the ground, expressing their deepest grief over the loss. I attended bungul (ceremony) of people I did not know and tears would roll down my face. My heart felt everyone’s emotions, my ears received the sorrow of their wailsong and my eyes will never forget the stricken faces of the Yolngu families.


“You are bats and at night you fly together”

The healing and magic were a big part of why I was drawn to Arnhem Land. I learned about bush medicine. The women I spent nearly every weekend with were considered by some to be healers. They told me many stories of seeing spirits, and premonitions and healings that occurred. Someone said to me, “We learn by doing.” Children learned traditional dances by performing them; I learned about weaving by participating in the whole process of it. With healing, I was learning a totally new technique by doing. The more I was invited to practise, the more I learned and felt grateful to be in the community and involved so closely in people’s lives.

It was incredibly timely and auspicious, then, when the Yolngu marrnggitj (traditional healer) knocked on my door while I was practising yoga. A long time before I had even heard of him, I knew that one day I would meet him. “I’m the marrnggitj,” he said, standing at the bottom of my stairs, creating a strong presence and a respectful hesitation as he saw my surprise at his arrival. Between our languages we spoke of spirit as much as we could. “I came to you because I know you are a marrnggitj. I see it in you.”

He spoke of being taken into the bush and taught by spirit, sleeping under the marrnggitj tree and receiving the power of healing. He works with the sick and can shape himself into snake, cat, bat. He possesses special healing stones. A strong traditional dancer, he hunts for his family. I learned a great deal from him about life, spirit, Yolngu culture and healing — more than is possible to share in this world. His mother welcomed me. “My son came to you because he went to find the other marrnggitj. You are bats and at night you fly together.”


Depth of spirit

All my life I have experienced spiritual realms but never have I felt so accepted for it. In spirit there is no time; we can be anywhere at any time. Experiencing such an incredible depth of spirit is having a profound affect on my life. When I went to Yurrwi, my identity was torn from me. I recall moments of pure joy and a sense of absolute fulfilment and a wanting for nothing. The essence of the land and ancient culture activated my own essence and allowed it to be brought forth.

With a sense of expansion and freedom embedded in my cells, I left expecting to remain in that power and presence, but arriving back threw me into turmoil. Music, fluorescent lights, the English language were shocking, my sense of awareness acute. I was raw and lost in separation anxiety, unable to find enjoyment in superficial things, yet my connection to all is more apparent than ever and my inner core stronger.

I was the one who received healing from the Yolngu; healing of my ignorance and lack of understanding. Yolngu people have given me a deeper understanding of the environment and its importance. In Lennox Head where I live, the pandanus growing along the coast has taken on a whole new meaning for me. I went to Arnhem Land because I wanted to meet the people, spend time with them, get to know them for who they really are. Yolngu people accepted me into their life and culture; they shared their language with me and taught me through their way of being in the world. I have enormous gratitude for that and I share this story simply to honour the Yolngu spirit, their rich culture and the profound value it has to our planet and its future existence.

Sad problems exist in these communities today. There is a great need for understanding. So I pass on Joe Djembangu’s message, one that calls us to want to know, understand and honour their ways. This is an opportunity to bring cultures together, encouraging spiritual growth, acceptance and healing of our relationship and our future environment.

The Yolngu way

These are some of the words Joe Djembangu gave me when I asked him what he would say to the world: “We live our culture by singing and dancing, sitting in shade, not inside. Hunting weti (kangaroo), djanda (goanna), guya (fish), miapurna (turtle), nyoka (crab), maypal (shellfish). We pass our tradition on to the djamarrkuli (children). Family sharing is important. Gurul (visiting) never ends, sharing rrupiya (money), natha (food). That’s the Yolngu way.”

Mary McCarthy is an ESL teacher, kinesiologist, spiritual healer and yoga teacher. She works in Sydney and Byron Bay and lives in Lennox Head. The Yolngu elders have given Mary permission to share photos and stories about the living culture that exists in their community today. M: 0417 759 703, W:

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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