Ringed with cobalt waters, teaming with colossal sports fish and vibrant reef fish, Groote Eylandt hunkered into the Northern Territories Gulf of Carpentaria, plays home to nesting turtles and succulent mud crab which flurry along its coastline. Despite the islands idyllic first impression, Groote Eylandt is one of the toughest places to live in Australia.
The island was first discovered by Dutch explorers in 1623 and has retained its Dutch name which translates to ‘Great Island’, named by Abel Tasman.
Life here pre-1960, was isolated, traditional and the Indigenous communities were truly nomadic hunter-gathers, living off the land. Now, an isle of wooded savannah tangled with tropical rainforest explodes with lush ferns and charcoaled grass trees, vines strangling mahogany and a dense canopy provides shelter to skittish frill neck lizards, quolls and wallabies from the never-ending humidity.
In 1965, mineral exploration began and the Gemco mine commenced on the island. Mining for manganese, a heavy, dense mineral element used to strengthen steel and supplement food boomed. It was not long before Groote Eylandt became the provider for 25% of the world’s manganese exporting to South Africa, the Middle East and far flung reaches of Asia. Fetching a whopping $1700 per kilogram, in 2020 alone, the mine generated 3.47 million wet metric tonnes of manganese. You do the maths!
As we all know, money talks. Native owned land soon became leased and mined. The Indigenous communities were shuffled from the wilds and propped up into basic government housing divided into small plots.
The miners who do seven-day shift work, were set up in shipping containers with nothing but a bed and a shower. The mining hierarchy built a ‘new town’ where they live in sprawling (by Groote Eylandt standards) Queenslander houses with lush lawns and tropical gardens maintained by Gemco.
The miners have access to a golf club, a bowling club, library, swimming pools and gyms. Everything is available for basic shift work living. Or institutional living if I may. The Indigenous are kept at an arms length.
Driving through the Indigenous community of Angurugu, cars with bent wheels, smashed windscreens and missing doors line the streets. The roads seem abandoned. Expletives and phallic scrawls are graffitied on almost every wall you pass. The shell of a wooden church with no floor or doors has two women inside praying.
There are two houses here where ‘white men’ live. Their houses surrounded by razor wire, their vehicles protected inside a cage of wire and barbs.
A local bush medicine clinic is set up, but I am told it is rarely open. A local cemetery for the Indigenous who have passed, has raised mounds of dirt and sand covering the bodies of the deceased, covered in blankets of faded artificial flowers. I learn that when an Elder passes here, the community grieve hard. So hard, that they torture themselves for the loss of a loved one. Smashing their heads with rocks until they bleed to compensate the pain for the loss of someone so dear.
Many on the island die from snake bites – Groote Eylandt is home to Australia’s deadliest serpents. The traditional way here to treat a snake bite is to simply dig a hole a bury yourself in it for two days – let the earth be your pressure bandage and prevent you from moving your body with only your head above the ground!
Driving 45 mins to the opposite side of the island to Umbakumba, I pass towering spinifex termite mounds, trees that have been ring barked for the locals to do their traditional painting on their natural canvas, local Indigenous kids play basketball near the school, stray dogs with itchy mange follow you around cautiously. The government housing here is nothing more than ramshackle lean-tos but boast what would be multimillion dollar water views if this was mainland Australia.
A crocodile bobs casually in the turquoise waters a few hundred metres down from where I stand as I am told that the locals still wade in these waters with their hand widdled spears hunting for dugong, turtles and sting rays. No one is here today. The fuselage of a Catalina plane from WWII has succumbed to mother nature as it lays tangled in mangroves on the shoreline. The island has an eerie, almost apocalyptic feel to it apart from the thundering CAT trucks and rattling road trains servicing the mine back towards Alyangula.
We cross a wild river and bush bash as endemic Red Winged Parrots flit in front of us as we adventure towards intricate cave paintings said to be up to 2500 years old. It’s a wobbly scramble up a rocky hill to reach them but they are there and they are perfect. Depicting images of locals hunting dugong, sawfish and turtles – the ochre etchings are vividly clear and the dreamtime stories entwined in the artwork, transport you straight into the life of an Indigenous hunter.
I chat with my guide about the natural beauty of the island, the incredible marine life, the Indigenous culture and question why tourism is so obsolete here. Apart from sports fishing tourism, the island sees less than 30 tourists a year despite its easy access from Darwin. It is the mine. The money the mine makes, tourism could not even compete with. The native land titles, no-one wants to provide access for tours if they can give their land to the mine for much higher dividends and the mine is extremely respectful of not touching pristine beaches and parcels of land deemed incredibly sacred to the locals.
With constant secret chatter behind closed doors of how long the mine will continue to be active for, a sense of nervousness is starting to creep in. Another 15-year lease has just been signed, but rumours state this could be the last lease before the mine shuts down and regeneration takes place. Then what?
An island with so much history, such natural beauty and home to one of the more uninfluenced Indigenous populations, opportunity appears endless for tourism to plays its part in protecting a fragile culture but the hunger and lust for fortune from manganese has destroyed what was a truly traditional life of these Indigenous communities. Barriers of financial greed, lack of education and absence of interest to explore beyond the now, keep a choke hold on this island.
This category of tours involves light trekking, walking, cycling, rafting or kayaking for a few hours each day with a small amount of inclines and declines. You will require a reasonable level of fitness and good health to participate. It is important to note that due to the nature of some of our trips, they may take place in remote areas (with basic facilities) and can involve long travelling days on various modes of transport.
Suggested preparation : At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake aerobic exercise (this may include jogging, cycling or fast walking) for 30 minutes, three times a week. It is also advised to walk on variable terrain and in variable weather conditions. For a cycling adventure, road cycling twice a week is recommended and for adventures which involve paddling and kayaking, it is important to gain confidence and rhythm rather than speed prior to departure.
This category of tours involve trekking, kayaking and cycling for period of 6 to 8 hours a day at a fairly consistent pace. Ideal for people looking to slightly increase the heart rate. For our moderately rated tours, you must have a good level of fitness and also be in good health. It is also important to be prepared for variable weather conditions. Altitude may also come into play. This category of tours may involve visiting remote areas where facilities can be quite basic. Accommodation may also involve camping, homestays or basic accommodation where facilities may not be considered of western standards. To enjoy this style of travel, it is suggested for travellers to have a reasonable level of fitness and health, a positive attitude, as well as a fairly active lifestyle. An open mind is also required.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake 45mins – 1 hour of aerobic exercise, three to four times a week. Some potential exercises that could be beneficial include hill walking with a backpack on over variable terrain and weather conditions, as well as running and cycling dependent on the activity you plan on undertaking.
This category of tours involves trekking, kayaking, cycling or other adventure activities in remote areas for up to 8 to 10 hours a day. It is important to note that with the remoteness of some regions comes a variety of other challenges such as variable weather conditions, accommodation as well as facilities. You must have an excellent level of fitness and good health to be able to partake in this category of tour. You must have confidence in your own ability and be in good physical condition. Includes extended periods of endurance.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 to 4 months of strenuous exercise, four times a week. When preparing for treks it would be beneficial to participate in hill walks with a weighted day pack (approximately 5-8 kg) once a week for aerobic fitness and strengthening of leg muscles. It is also important to do this on variable terrain to prepare for challenging adventures. When preparing for cycling adventures, regular bike riding (at least 4 to 5 times a week for 1-4 hours is essential). It is also important to cycle on uneven surfaces or even participate in other aerobic exercises such as running or swimming to build up strength and stamina. Altitude may also be a factor in these tours.
This category of tour often involves extreme trekking, cycling or other extreme adventure activities. It is important to expect remote and poorly defined tracks and to be prepared for variable weather conditions for 10 to 12 hours per day (may sometimes be more depending on weather and altitude). These adventures are suitable for travellers who have prior experience in strenuous travel and activities, are extremely fit and have excellent health. It is also important to note that some of the terrain on these adventures will involve trekking in snow, at high attitude levels and may require technical equipment.
Suggested preparation: It is important to note that physical fitness should be an ongoing activity, commencing around 5-6 months prior to departure, or even before if you have no prior fitness. Exercise should focus on building maximum endurance and stamina. Four to five hard sessions of 40-60 mins per week should be completed and can include exercises such as going to the gym, running, swimming or cycling to focus on building aerobic stamina. It could also be beneficial to prepare by hiking on rough terrain, in extreme weather conditions or partake in altitude training.