ARNHEM LAND TALES

ARNHEM LAND

WORDS & PHOTOS DICK EUSSEN

DICK EUSSEN REMINISCES ON DANGEROUS AND DARING ARNHEM LAND EXPEDITIONS.


ARNHEM LAND is a region I lived in for 10 years, during the entirety of the 1980s. But my first experience goes back to 1963 when a mate and I drove from Pine Creek to what is now Kakadu National Park. At Yellow Waters barramundi and shot buffalo and boar; it was a Boy’s Own adventure.

Other trips followed, but in 1977 I flew into Maningrida for a three-week fishing trip as guest of a mate. The locals took me out fishing and crabbing in the Liverpool and Cadell Rivers, and it cemented a reason to return. I did so when I landed a job as information officer with the new Ranger Uranium Mine at Jabiru in 1979. Living there was a dream for a fisher and hunter and most weekends were spent chasing that dream, but I left Jabiru in 1989.

I renewed my friendship with the indigenous people of Maningrida as much as I could, taking several trips up there. The Central Arnhem Land Road was only a 4WD track in those days and it took almost a day to travel the 300km. These days the road has been upgraded to a good gravel surface, but the river crossings remain and only 4WDs can travel on it.

I was instrumental in arranging meetings between the traditional owners and Kenny Russell, who started the Arnhem Land Barramundi Nature Lodge. I flew in from my Queensland home to fish and promote the lodge many times and still do. The fishing is out of this world and is the reason why the area is high on the bucket list of anglers.

When Russell pulled out of the lodge, fishing media personality Alex Julius and legendary fishing guide Lindsay Mutimer took over, expanding the operation. Lindsay dropped out later and Alex operated it for years before it was sold to Outback Spirits. Alex is a mate, and I made many trips by road and air to Maningrida to fish the lodge and promote it in my articles. As a bird lover, I noted many species that call the region home and mentioned to Alex that a birdwatching operation would be popular.

The outcome was that Lindsay, Trevor Robb and I did a bird count and in four days we ended up with a massive number of 194 species within a 50km radius of the lodge (which is 20km south of Maningrida). We organised a bird week, with myself as a guide. I was joined by an old mate from my Jabiru days, Johnny

We had to take an Aboriginal guide with us to ensure we didn’t wander into forbidden areas. One was Stuart Aiken, who one day told me I was to be his brother, a great honour that meant I was to be accepted in his clan. I met his family members and others and was trusted to roam on their land alone with clients. Their land borders between the Cadell and Blyth Rivers, an area consisting of open flood plains, vast swamps, patches of monsoon rainforest, open woodlands and mangroves forests.

A network of tracks provides plenty of access, but if there are none the locals make their own with Land Cruisers and Troopies. I have seen them fearlessly driving into kilometre-wide swamps, following old walking paths. If a 4WD gets stuck, they may leave it there until the swamp dries out enough later in the dry season.

In search of rare birds, we travelled on bush tracks right to the base of the imposing Arnhem Land Escarpment. In the many outliers that jut out from the main range we discovered cave paintings that had never been seen by anyone, apart from local Aborigines. One showed a woman being hit by lighting. I told the Indigenous guides that this had also happened to me, and I was an instant legend to have survived that - it’s true, and the reason I have a pacemaker fitted.

We were taken to burial sites, hidden springs and other rare treasures. The guides had never been there, but they had been told by the elders where they could take us and how to find such places, a rare happening indeed. The birding was outstanding and so was the game, with big boars and even bigger water buffalo adding an element of danger to the outings.

ARNHEM LAND

THE region was named by Dutch sea explorer Willem Joosten van Colster who sailed into the Gulf on the ship Arnhem in 1623. Later explorers, like Mathew Flinders, reported other boats in the surrounding seas including prau sailboats manned by Macassans who hailed from Sulawesi to harvest trepang, a harvest that started in 1705. The trepangers had a major influence on the Aborigines, with some coastal tribes working for the fishermen. However, other tribes were not so welcoming and would attack and kill the trepangers if they landed on their shores.