Hearts and craft

In a weaving circle in a remote Arnhem Land community, Brigid Delaney feels the power of the land and tradition.

In the dry season it takes all day and half the night to reach Mapuru in north-east Arnhem Land. We leave Darwin before dawn, packed in troop carriers, and stop for last-minute things in Katherine: contact-lens solution, lattes, sunscreen, a sticky bun.

Beyond Katherine commerce is just a whisper, scraps of the real thing. Where we are going people hunt for their food, or collect it at the river, or wait for a plane to arrive with supplies.

After Katherine we stop for a picnic lunch on a fly-blown plateau looking over a vast tableland. It's a tableau that almost gives me vertigo - not for the view, which is broad (we can see buffalo - black dots running in formation), but us. We could be early settlers' wives in our long skirts, some women perched on rocks with their sketchbooks and delicate bird-watching binoculars in hard leather cases. We nibble on sandwiches and wave away the flies.

We are at the edge of the plateau but are also at the point of the breach that is as old as white Australia: the point where you leave your world - what you know - and enter another. You need a permit from the Northern Land Council to go any further.

Somewhere over the threshold someone blasts Treaty in the vehicle and we sing along: "Treee-te AY, Treee-te AY."

We have entered Aboriginal Australia - remote Australia. "We are going to the middle of nowhere," I remark to a tour leader, John Greatorex, who only the day before hosted a seminar on the region in a classroom at Charles Darwin University.

Now his shoes are off, sleeves pushed above his elbows - something about him is loosening.

He corrects me in a voice of absolute certainty: "Mapuru is the centre of the world, everywhere else is the middle of nowhere."

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Mapuru is home to 200 people. In the clearing are a few buildings, including a school, some houses, a shower block and a nearby swimming hole. The country is extraordinarily beautiful - its beauty lying not in one particular feature but the pleasing arrangement of things: the shiny pink salmon gums, the dense bushland corrupted only by a thin dirt track running though it.

And the light. It washes and filters through the bush, giving everything a luminous green, white and gold glow. Everything glistens like Christmas baubles - even at night, when the sky heaves with stars.

In Mapuru, English is spoken but the predominant language is Yolngu. Greatorex speaks it fluently and another guide, Trent Wilkinson, is learning.

It seems to be a language full of humour, suited to banter, quick wit and easy laughter. The most common word used seems to be "yo", meaning "yes", giving everything a vaguely musical, hip-hop ring.

So what are we doing here? We are in Mapuru to learn how to weave baskets.

Our teachers are the women of Arnhem Land and we will live in their community for a week and weave from dawn until dusk.

On this tour, led by Wilkinson of Two-Way Tours and assisted by Greatorex, all meals are provided by the tour company, as are tents and sleeping bags. Half the cost of the tour is paid directly to the woman teaching us to weave.

It's a great initiative with so many layers of meaning - but it's also a rare opportunity to stay in a traditional community that is living very close to the old ways.

Aboriginal communities are not usually thought of as tourist destinations. For a start, the facilities are pretty rough.

At Mapuru there is minimal electricity, we are camping and there is only one shower in a basic toilet block. If you like a drink by the campfire, then this is not for you: the community is dry.

Secondly, communities are people's homes and - like homes anywhere - the thought of having a dozen women from a faraway place lob on your doorstep with their swags and knitting needles would be a disruption.

And then there is the social and political backdrop of the Northern Territory intervention. Aboriginal homelands are fragile places - and even this far away from Canberra there is a sense in the community that some sort of control could be lost at any time.

At the time of my visit the community was fighting to keep the local store viable.

Under the intervention it was not recognised as a suitable shop and so pensions were not able to be spent there, necessitating an expensive trip to Elcho Island.

So to welcome a dozen strangers, who do not speak your language, is an act of not only generosity but also of faith - that things will be OK and a viable tourist enterprise can be built on homelands and that self-determination can be achieved through commerce.

At first light the next day we make billy tea and Turkish coffee and cook our toast on the campfire before driving off with the local women and children into the bush to collect the raw material that will become our baskets.

Clara, clad in a long, colourful dress with a shock of Marge Simpson-like white hair and a strong, wiry body, leads the charge. We look at her in awe as she wanders up the rise with an axe in one hand and a child on her hip.

She swings at pandanus trees that fall in two or three precise chops. How old is she, we wonder - "50, 60, 80 or 100?"

Children dart here and there among the ferns, chewing on berries they have found, while Clara and her daughter, the gregarious, smiling Roslyn, order us to the ground. We dig around the roots of trees with our fingers, pulling at the bulbs that we later shave with the sharp edges of shells.

The shavings are boiled in a big copper pot and turned into dye to be applied to the pandanus leaves that we have also found in the forest. Covered in sweat, I gain a new appreciation of what it is to make something from scratch.

Back at camp, we learn to weave under a bark shelter by watching the Arnhem women at work. Working cross-legged on a blanket, we are then informally paired with one of them who keeps an eye on what we're doing and assists us if we go wrong. But mostly it's a case of watch and learn.

My fellow weaving students are a dozen women, mostly from Melbourne and Sydney, who have an interest in crafts. There is a contingent of children's book publishers, some who heard about the tour from their craft guilds and others with a particular interest in indigenous culture.

We weave all day, while Wilkinson makes delicious lunches and dinners that we eat by the fire. Each afternoon we swim at the perfect waterhole, with someone from the community watching out for crocs.

And so the days pass - but I find myself drifting away from the weaving circle.

The others are quicker than me, they enjoy it more. They finish their baskets and start on seconds. They weave until the last possible light and resist calls for dinner until it is too dark to see the needle.

Instead I play with the children. Football mostly. Or rustle up local company for swims that are becoming increasingly extended, or just sit on a log near the fire and stare into the light-green bush.

From nearby on the weaving mat, the women sometimes break into singing rounds, Anglo songs they have learnt in the choir in Melbourne, their voices coming in and fading out, rising and falling.

Talk is like that, too. For hours we sit under the bark in silence (except for the demure "pass another pandanus please") and then someone drifts in with a fragment of conversation: "I had the strangest dream last night," and the talk picks up, for a little while anyway.

For all the women, it seems that weaving is a meditation. But you can't just drift off. You have to concentrate.

Occasionally there are curses as the pandanus dries out in the afternoon sun and becomes brittle and broken. It then has to be passed under a tap, soaked in a bucket or run through your mouth.

Other times a basket will assume a weird shape - quite out of the control of its maker - or, in the case of mine, is woven with such a heavy hand that the work is nobbled, uneven and lumpy.

Towards the end of our trip - after camp dogs have stolen a succulent piece of lamb - we decide to hunt for our own food. Wilkinson and Greatorex shoot a buffalo with spear guns and we walk through a thigh-deep waterhole to retrieve the carcass.

My fellow weavers, a generation older than me, have obviously seen more than me and they observe the butchering of the buffalo carcass coolly. I hop around it like a maniac: "Oh my god!''

Wilkinson and Greatorex quarter the animal and thread a sturdy stick through a leg. Three of us carry it back across the tableland. This was how our ancestors did it: sun setting, walking across the river with a beast across their shoulders. We eat our catch that night in a stew.

The children of Mapuru are also a revelation. You mighty be sitting on a log in quiet contemplation and feel a downy cheek press against your elbow and it's a child wanting to play or cuddle or give you a drawing with your name in a love heart.

After a week we say goodbye and pull out down the dirt track while one of the women in our group is silently weeping. She has got to know and love one of the little girls and finds saying goodbye too much to bear.

Ah dear, this is no ordinary holiday.

The journey back seems too long to do in one burst so we stop for the night, sleeping in a hall. It is so unlike Mapuru that we feel unsettled. There are signs forbidding pornography and alcohol. All the houses have neat lawns. It's eerily quiet. "Our Mapuru" was wild, with rusted cars and rubbish; complicated and authentic and heart-breaking and real. I drag a gym mat outside to sleep under the stars.

Ten Canoes was filmed near Mapuru. One night we drag an old TV and DVD player out, fire up the generator and the entire community comes out to watch it. We sit on blankets and watch a film shot on their land, in their language. I don't get the jokes but it is enough to watch them watching it with a laughing "Yo, yo!"

After making Ten Canoes, filmmaker Rolf de Heer talked on radio about how even the most remote, exotic and wild people on Earth don't come close to the sense of difference and foreignness of Aboriginal Australia in its almost intact, traditional state. I know what he means.

This is my country but it is not my country. It is more beautiful and ruined, elemental and mysterious and sacred and yielding and complicated than I had ever thought possible.

It would be like a dream now, except I brought something back from that other world - a shallow, lumpy, imperfect structure that is not quite a basket and too strange to be a dish.

But at least I can say I made it myself.

Brigid Delaney travelled courtesy of Tourism NT.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Jetstar and Virgin Blue fly to Darwin from Melbourne and Sydney. Tiger Airways flies from Melbourne from $98 and Qantas flies from Sydney for $227; fares are one way including tax.

Four-wheel-drive transport is required between Darwin and Mapuru, about 600 kilometres.

Weaving there

The next Arnhem Weavers course is May 29-June 6 and costs $1200. Phone (08) 8946 6983, email john.greatorex@cdu.edu.au, see www.arnhemweavers.com.au.

The Mapuru residents provide a traditional bark shelter for shade. Participants bring their own mosquito domes or small tents and non-perishable food. Weaving materials are supplied.

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