While tens of thousands of people headed to Cairns to chase the total solar eclipse on November 14, the Yolngu communities around Gurruwiling, East Arnhem Land, hosted a smaller but magnificent event.
Gurruwiling, better known as the Arafura Swamp, is where the 2006 movie Ten Canoes was filmed. This intimate festival was organised in conjunction with local communities and sought to celebrate not just the eclipse but a symbolic coming together of Yolngu and Balanda (non-Aboriginal Australians).
And the main event went off without a hitch – a perfect view across the Arafura swamp to the eclipsing sun. Due to mist and smoke over the swamp the eclipse was visible without the use of eclipse glasses and the sun rose as a salmon-coloured crescent before settling into complete totality just above the horizon.
On the morning of the eclipse festivalgoers lined the ridge before dawn and listened to stories of the dreaming. At dawn there was a re-enactment of the creation story of the Djan’kawu sisters who first traversed and formed Arnhem Land, carving the rivers and ridges, their walking sticks creating deep fresh water wells across the land. Elders walked rhythmically up the hill from the swamp as the partially eclipsed sun rose over the horizon.
Narration was provided by traditional owner Peter Gambung, who at the moment of totality called for all to reflect on the “common blood in our veins”. For the Yolngu people, the sun is Yirritja and the moon, Dhuwa, the eclipse a unification of the two. So while there are no traditional eclipse stories in Yolngu dreaming, the eclipse has more recently been framed as a union of not just sun and moon but of Dhuwa and Yirritja, Yolngu and Balanda.
As the moon continued on its path, the searing heat of the sun returned and everyone set up camps in the shade, sharing water and mangoes and, between long heat-induced silences, discussed the land and the complex Yolngu kinship systems.
Later that day everyone came together for dancing, dividing into groups of men and women and learning traditional moves, some painted and dressed in the traditional red cloth. In a bizarre combination of cultures the music then morphed into some electronic psytrance to which the visitors danced and the Yolngu observed from the sidelines. It was eventually some MTV-style pop that brought both groups to the dance floor with equal enthusiasm.
The Gurruwiling eclipse festival was a pioneering move in terms of a co-operatively organised, multi-day event on Aboriginal land that sought to go beyond the pattern of “drop-in, observe and leave” common to other community open days and festivals. Entry to Arnhem Land is by Northern Land Council Permit only and to spend extended time camping there is a rare opportunity.
Organisers first put the idea to the local people six years ago. An ambitious project in many ways, the logistics were a challenge right until the very last minute with crew and supplies being delayed on the 600-kilometre unpaved road from Katherine.
But despite early problems with infrastructure and sound, festivalgoers were not disappointed by the entertainment, with three nights of bands pumping out music that ranged from didge-inspired trance to reggae and blues sung in Yolngu language.
Ticket sales to Balanda were capped at 150 to keep numbers balanced and allow for genuine exchanges between cultures. Throughout the festival the visitors were taught some traditional moves of the Bungul dancing ceremonies and performed them together with Yolngu. While it was a unique opportunity to witness these ceremonies, the feeling of unity was created more by authentic interactions between people – smiles on the dance floor, friendly words or shared silences – than by the organised ceremonies or activities such as spear making or basket weaving.
Board member Michael Dawu hopes more people can be offered this opportunity with a similar event to be held in 2013.