Groote Eylandt Lodge - Exploring Arnhem Land
Last October we had the opportunity to visit a place in Australia that is very special to Bobby. He was born in Darwin and spent the first 4 years of his life on Groote Eylandt, which few people have heard of. We stayed at the Groote Eylandt Lodge, which was absolutely stunning.
Groote Eylandt - Dutch for "Big Island"
Groote Eylandt is the fourth-largest island in Australia, named by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1644. Part of the Northern Territory, Groote Eylandt lies 630 kilometres (390 miles) from Darwin, which is a 1.5 hour flight or a 10+ hour drive and a ferry ride. We flew from Darwin to Groote Eylandt for 3 days, which was just long enough to see the surface of what this island has to offer its visitors. The island is known for its pristine waters and world-class fishing, as well as Aboriginal art and culture.
Bobby's mom sent some photos for us to compare the 1990's to present day. Bobby is the cute blonde baby on the top right. He's grown a little bit since then!
When we told people in Darwin we were visiting Groote, most of them had heard of it but didn't really know where it was, or asked why the heck we wanted to go all the way out there! It's quite a trek, as the island is located in remote Arnhem Land, renowned for its untouched wilderness.
The Traditional Owners
The traditional owners of the Groote Eylandt archipelago are the Warnindilyakwa Aboriginal people, referred to by their language name, Anindilyakwa. It's estimated that they have inhabited Groote Eylandt for about 8,000 years. It's extremely uncommon for 14 tribes to speak the same language, and the Anindilyakwa language is reportedly one of the oldest in Australia.
The first outsiders to reach Groote are thought to be Macassan (Indonesian) sailors in the 1600's. Read more about the early history of Groote.
The Groote Eylandt archipelago was declared an Indigenous Protected Area in 2006. This means the traditional owners granted a lease on the land to the government, mainly for the purpose of manganese mining.
Aboriginal motifs and artwork are featured throughout the Groote Eylandt Lodge.
Next door is the Anindilyakwa Arts Gallery, which supports Anindilyakwa artists wishing to live on traditional homelands. The gallery assists with artistic development and cultural preservation, and provides a source of income.
You can find many forms of Indigenous art here, including didgeridoos, jewelry, basket weaving, and hand-dyed clothing. I was particularly interested by Bush Medijina, a natural beauty product company on the island. I really wanted to visit them in nearby Angurugu, but we didn't have quite enough time to arrange it.
Groote Eylandt Lodge
There's only one place for visitors to stay on Groote, and that's the Groote Eylandt Lodge. Built in 2008, the lodge has waterfront cabins, a swimming pool, full-service bar and restaurant, conference centre, and more.
Most people come for the world-class fishing tours, but if you're not into lots of time on the water, the lodge also offers cultural visits and 4WDing tours. We hopped into the lodge's Troopy and hit the (sandy) road!
The cave art on the island is truly stunning. It puts Kakadu to shame.
We were shown around by Jon, who is also the main fishing guide. What a legend!
Groote Eylandt Fishing
The main attraction on Groote is the world-class fishing. Jon was telling us he's hosted clients from all over, most recently Japan and England.
Every tropical species is here, including Sailfish, Marlin, Spanish Mackerel, Giant Trevallys, Red Emperor, Golden Snapper, and the mighty Barramundi.
The fishing charters leave from the lodge, taking passengers in 2 fiberglass boats imported from Florida. They have the capacity to take out 4 people in each boat, plus a fishing guide.
The day started out a bit cloudy, and the fish weren't biting yet.
We tried a new spot, and... success! The sun peeked out and we kept searching for bites.
Something I hadn't thought about before our tour started... As I found out a few hours into the trip, the ladies on board have to pee in a bucket. Anywhere else in the world you'd just jump in the water, but here if you skip a rock you'll hit at least one shark!
We talked to Jon a bit more about past trips. He usually takes people out for multiple days so they can catch The Big One. These tours are more popular with men, but Jon claims the women are more patient and often catch bigger fish than the guys!
An hour or so later, Jon took us to one of his favourite spots.
Jon caught a few little ones, but the big ones kept getting sharked, which means we'd hook 'em and then the sharks would take them off the line. It was pretty crazy... We stuck the GoPro down into the water at one point and there were 5 sharks circling the boat. They're a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Jon said they'll often tail fishing boats all day, hoping for an easy feast.
The pristine water and untouched islands out here looked like something out of a movie. You wouldn't want to get shipwrecked out here, though! There's no safe swimming to shore. Like most places in the Northern Territory, the views are incredible but the ocean can be deadly.
If you come back with a big catch, the chef will cook it up for dinner. Sadly the sharks got most of ours, but there's always next time! Thanks for the tour, Jon.
We had a great time on Groote, and wish we'd had just a little more time on the island. See some of what's on offer in the video below!
I was very disappointed that we didn't get to do a cultural tour. We really didn't have that much time on the island, and an elder had passed away, meaning (to my best understanding) that most of the Anindilyakwa people were on another part of the island that we could not visit.
Apparently it's difficult for the staff at Groote Eylandt Lodge to schedule cultural tours, because the Indigenous people don't value "time is money" the same way that us Westerners do. They would often rather spend time with their children and community members than show people around the island, and the frequency and unpredictability of events such as the elder's death means it's hard to plan tours in advance. It was really interesting to learn about a culture where earning money is not the biggest motivator.
During our time on Groote we learned as much as we could from the staff at the lodge and the others we met on the island. While they seem to respect the Indigenous, there is a divide in the community. Most people we spoke to had little interest in learning about the local culture, which I found rather sad. The miners and their families are content fishing and spending time within their community.
In 1962, large manganese ore deposits were discovered on Groote. The Groote Eylandt Mining Company (GEMCO) was formed in 1964, and the land has been mined ever since. The mining operations are on the Western side of the island, and the manganese is shipped by barge to Tasmania. The 1,500 Aboriginals on the island receive yearly compensation, much like Alaskans getting an annual payout from the government for harvesting resources.
We were driven past the mining operations and company housing many times during our stay here. Although these were factors that brought Bobby's family to the island in the first place, one has to wonder how the locals feel about generations of white people tearing up their land. However, on our 4WD tour we saw how untouched much of the island is, even after decades of mining operations.
Some of the miners here are 2nd generation. There is a school on the island for the children, although most of them go to boarding school after a certain age.
Before visiting the island, I wasn't aware that there was a lot of charity work taking place. There is a hereditary neuro-degenerative condition called Machado-Joseph Disease (MJD) among the Indigenous people, thought to have come from the Macassan people of Indonesia.
"Previously known as “Groote Eylandt Syndrome”, the effects of MJD have been known to the Aboriginal people of this region for at least four generations.
MJD is an inherited, autosomal dominant disorder, meaning that each child of a person who carries the defective gene has a 50% chance of developing the disease. In addition, the mutation is typically expanded when it is passed to the next generation (known as an anticipation effect) which means that symptoms of the disease appear around 8-10 years earlier and are more severe. There is no known cure for MJD. Progression to dependence occurs over 5 to 10 years and most people are wheelchair-bound and fully dependent for activities of daily living within 10-15 years of the first symptoms emerging.
Although it is impossible to predict the number of people who will develop MJD, there are currently around 650 people alive today thought to be at risk of developing the disease across the Top End."
People with this disease are offered home care in the villages, and flights for medical treatment back in Darwin. I just found this to be so very sad, and to my limited Australian knowledge, not well-known.
Hope you learned something, and that someday you'll get to experience the wonders of an island in the N.T.! If you're curious about other islands in Northern Australia, check out our posts on 4WD Camping on Fraser Island or Day Trips in the Whitsundays.