Soon after leaving Darwin on Wednesday afternoon for the three hour drive south to Katherine the horizon becomes wide and red and the first of the many ant hills begin rising from the ground. (I counted ten billion before the light of the setting sun made it too difficult to continue.) After staying the night in Katherine we were back on the road at 6.00am for the ten hour trip across to the Garma festival site at Gulkula situated 40 kilometres from the township of Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula.
The day is a haze of red dusty roads, swamp pandanus, turkey bush, wooly butt gum trees and increasingly large ant hills including one that is the spitting image of statue of the Virgin Mary, and one that is so big I could easily have mistaken it for the Empire State Building were I not pretty sure that I was in one of the remotest regions of the Southern Hemisphere.
After crossing three crocodile infested rivers along the way it was - to put it mildly - somewhat of a relief to arrive at the Garma festival site. The Garma Festival is one of the largest Indigenous gatherings in Australia and features three days of business and educational forums, dancing, music and-a personal highlight-even has its own nightly Indigenous film festival. There was also a youth forum featuring music, print-making, circus skills, dancing and writing workshops for youth aged 12-18. And if that all became too much-you could wander away and simply enjoy the silence and drink in the amazing view of the plains below stretching right across to the Arafura sea.
At the various open air theatres I was lucky to hear many powerful speakers-including Australia's Human Rights & Equal opportunity commissioner Mick Gooda and the inspirational East Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta-speak about the multitude of complex issues facing the ongoing struggle for housing, education and social equality for Australia's Indigenous people. As Mick Gooda said, nothing less than an intergenerational commitment by the entire nation will be required to fully resolve these issues, but while many problems still remain, significant advances are being made and a mood of cautious optimism seemed to prevail.
The nightly films explored these issues in a very tangible way both through feature films and documentaries and a variety of shorts which featured off-the-wall comedy, recollections of elders and compelling re-tellings of traditional stories.
Perhaps the highlight, however, was the traditional afternoon Bunggul dancing. Underpinned by the timeless raw power of the didgeridoo (yidaki), lone singers and the complex rythyms of the clapsticks (bilma), various Yolngu tribes presented a spectacular demonstration of many different forms of ceremonial dances. I was struck by the involvement of the whole community in these dances - from elders to three year olds - and impressed by the relaxed celebratory approach of the performances. By turns peaceful, loud, silly, colourful, awe-inspiring, funny and occasionally baffling they were undeniably powerful and exciting expressions of a proud and complex culture and were an amazing insight into the living riches that indigneous Australian culture has to offer us all.
While fellow Indigenous Literacy Foundation ambassador Josh Pyke ran music workshops at the youth forum, I conducted two small book making workshops in which I invited the participants to tell and draw their own stories. As always the young writers surprised me with the warmth, humour and originality of their stories. You can read thirteen of the very best stories that collected from the last five years that I've been running similar style workshops in remote communities all over Australia in the forthcoming book called 'The Naked Boy and the Crocodile'. By purchasing a copy of the book you'll not only be able to get an insight into the lives of children in remote communities you'll also be assisting the work of the ILF in providing much needed books and literacy resources into more than 200 remote communities and helping to ensure that living in a remote community is no barrier to receiving the education that is a basic right for all Australian children.