Barunga Festival 30th anniversary, Northern Territory: Bare feet stamping in Australia's Top End

In the centre of the Aboriginal community of Barunga, bare feet are stamping the earth into clouds of dust. Clapping sticks hammer out a beat for the corroboree, and young boys, women and old men dance together, kicking and stomping at the dirt.

Faces, arms and legs are painted and many of the dancers are wearing baseball caps and board shorts. It's the modern face of tradition, like Barunga itself.

The corroboree is part of the opening ceremony for the Barunga Festival, which has been held annually since 1985 at the Northern Territory community, 80 kilometres east of Katherine. 

For four days each June, Barunga's population increases tenfold, swelling from a community of about 400 people to a camp of 4000. Last year, at the 29th Barunga Festival, I was among them.

One of the great pleasures of the festival is its raw authenticity. Nothing here is confected or manufactured simply to attract visitors. 

"It's about local community people really doing their thing and saying to the rest of the world, 'come and join us, come and be part of what we're doing and sit with us and talk to us as friends, not as some political or cultural exchange'," says festival director Mark Grose. "If no whitefellas came to Barunga Festival, it would still happen."

Visitors dribble in on Friday, the festival's first day, and on Saturday morning the football competition rolls slowly into gear about 90 minutes after its scheduled start. Sport is one of the lynchpins of the festival. There's a softball carnival, a basketball tournament and a football carnival playing throughout the weekend.

The heat of the day casts a lethargic net over the festival. People huddle in the shade of trees during the day, often stirring only as events and workshops unfold in Culture Park, the festival's focal point.

Through the day there are weaving, bush medicine and didgeridoo-making workshops. One afternoon there's a didgeridoo-playing contest on the main stage, and the next day a spear-throwing competition, won by a man who hits an effigy of a kangaroo 50 metres away with two of his three throws.

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The festival has a particular focus on encouraging young people to get involved. Each day there's a performance on the lawn from the Flying Fruit Flies of Barunga, a circus troupe featuring around a dozen children from the community, who've trained for five weeks for their starring roles. 

New to the 2014 festival is the Jawoyn Junior Rangers. Students from Barunga's school lead guided walking tours through the community and the surrounding bush. Students have prepared for months for their guiding roles, though as shyness kicks in on the weekend, only three of the six student guides show for the first tour.

"Having all these people here is quite intimidating for them," says school principal Adrian Trost. "But it's something we want to build up, and also run outside of the festival."

It's a walk that sets out behind three shy boys, but as it continues from the town out into the savannah, where the boys search for local bush tucker – the likes of emu berries, billygoat plums and witchetty bushes – they thaw into three gregarious lads.

Almost 20 community bands from around the Northern Territory perform into the early hours on Saturday night on the festival's main stage. Headline bands take to the stage on Sunday night. In 2014, the festival was headed by Melbourne group Nicky Bomba and Bustamento and Geoffrey Gurrumul​'s Saltwater Band. 

A short distance away, under a pair of shade cloths, is a second, more personal music venue. Through the day the APRA Music Tent is the setting for music workshops and talks on subjects such as women's storytelling and the local Kriol language. 

At night the tent morphs quietly into an acoustic stage. Shortly after I enter the tent on the festival's first night, Geoffrey Gurrumul arrives unannounced to play an intimate acoustic set to an audience of less than 100 people.

Before the music each night, however, there's the ceremony, with dancers from Groote Eylandt performing a corroboree. The audience is invited into the ceremony and soon there's white moving among black, black among white. Within minutes everything is obscured by outback dust, and at Barunga all lines of division are blurred once again.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.travelnt.com

The 2015 Barunga Festival, which marks its 30th anniversary, is on June 5-8. Entry cost $35; for ticketing and other information, see www.barungafestival.com.au.

GETTING THERE

Qantas and Virgin Australia fly direct to Darwin daily from Sydney and Melbourne. Car rental is available at Darwin airport; Barunga is a 400-kilometre drive from Darwin via Katherine.

STAYING THERE

The bulk of visitors camp on the fringes of the community. If you want more comfort, Katherine is about a one-hour drive away.  See www.visitkatherine.com.au .

The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism NT.

FIVE OTHER ABORIGINAL FESTIVALS

GARMA Famed celebration of the Yolngu​ culture in Arnhem Land featuring song, dance, storytelling and art. Held in August. See www.yyf.com.au

LAURA ABORIGINAL DANCE FESTIVAL Biennial Cape York festival based around dance and song. The next Dance Festival is in June 2015. See www.lauradancefestival.com

CAIRNS INDIGENOUS ART FAIR Three-day event, held in July, showcasing contemporary indigenous art from Queensland and the Torres Strait Islands. See www.ciaf.com.au

YABUN FESTIVAL Australia Day event in Sydney, said to be the country's largest one-day Aboriginal festival, drawing crowds of up to 15,000 people. See www.kr00.com.au

SPIRIT FESTIVAL Annual cultural festival in Adelaide featuring dance, theatre, music and visual arts. Held in March. See www.thespiritfestival.com

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