Insight – Groote Eylandt


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.

Natural beauty of Groote Eylandt

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!

Daybreak at the mine

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.

Indigenous spears left on the beach

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.

Hand painted rock art said to be up to 2500 years old. Photo credit: Lisa Pagotto

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.