I feel blessed to have grown up in the late 70′s and 80′s in a small remote community (3500-4000 people) called Nhulunbuy (pronounced Nool-un-boy), also referred to as Gove due to it’s location on the Gove peninsula at the northern tip of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The town affords a perfect location right on the Arafura Sea, with pristine wilderness areas, islands, beaches and places that still hide ‘secret’ indigenous rock paintings.
We moved from a small country town (Mount Gambier) in South Australia to Gove in 1979, and it was a choice of two available places where we could have grown up. As the story goes, my dad turned up at my nana’s house, and claimed that he had two job choices – Libya (to work in the oil industry) or Nhulunbuy, an unknown town in northern australia which had a new bauxite mine and refinery. My nana was naturally horrified at both options, especially Libya. And of Nhulunbuy, she said ‘they don’t have fresh milk there, and there are crocodiles’, in which my dad replied that the company did provide a video on how to deal with a crocodile encounter and what to do if a buffalo chased you! So the choice was made, and this choice determined our futures.Our journey to Gove was also our first experience on an aeroplane (in fact it took about 4 flights to get there in those days).
My dad accepted his employment at Nabalco, which provided our family with a house and support in settling. Nabalco (now Rio Tinto Alcan Gove) was a Swiss/Australian consortium that started mining 250 million tonne of bauxite deposit in the early 70′s (world’s largest) , and put Nhulunbuy (Gove) on the map as a new town. The Yolngu people from Yirrkala strongly opposed this mining but sadly, law did not at that time allow ‘prior rights’ to land to indigenous people.The area has been home to the Yolngu people and their ownership for atleast 60,000 years, with recognised land and marine estates. Today the Yolngu people retain cultural and spiritual links to the area. So to live in Nhulunbuy we had to have a permit.
When we arrived in this small community and town, which was built in the early 70s, were picked up and shown to our new house in Casuarina Avenue. A small stucco coloured plain rectangular dwelling (with breezeway), with a good sized yard, with lots of ferns, palms, banana plants, and a park right next door (which had swings). The following morning after arrival, my dad was to commence work at the refinery leaving my mum with my sister and I to settle ourselves in our new abode. On this very day mum discovered critters that we would soon be accustomed to. A huge green tree frog which made it’s home in the toilet, leaving mum to refuse to use it (instead going to the local shops to use the toilet) and big ‘horse’ size cockroaches that flew around the rooms, and the sounds of cicadas that were deafening in the wet season!
The climate in Gove was tropical, and involved the dry season (May to October) which brought cool nights and fine dry days, and the wet season, one which is humid and hot with frequent showers and storms. On one occasion, the lady across the road came over and spoke to mum, advising her to fill up the bath tub with water and pull all the mattresses into the hall way, tape up windows and ensure we sleep all together that night. Well, mum did fill up the bath, but that was all. The neighbour asked the next day how did us kids go sleeping with them during the category 3 cyclone (gusts of wind up to 165km/hr), mum naive to what a cyclone was like said she made us sleep in our rooms!
I remember we had some interesting characters living next door! There was Ken, a Scotsman, who worked previously in the UK as a Queens Guard. He had a bad temper and could not mow a lawn, and evidently would get frustrated trying it (he would throw the lawn mower around). In the end my mum used to mow both ours and his front and back lawn – and he repaid her with a didgeridoo!. Then there was Lofty, as we knew him, 6 foot 7 and a police officer, whose wife taught my mum to fish. There was also a man who used to bake (only for my dad) apple strudels and bring them over. On on occasion my sister and I brought inside the new neighbours to introduce to our mum who was in the bath! As you can imagine she was rather shocked to have us open the bathroom door and announce the newbies in the street!
The magic of Gove was not just unspoilt wilderness, and untouched hidden beaches, it was the community lifestyle. Not privy to the technologies of metropolitan cities (though we did have a television), it was the outdoor sports and activities, like fishing, camping, boating that got people together more. Everybody was friendly, everyone knew everyone, there was great camaraderie and always invitations to barbeques, fishing trips, or neighbour street parties. When mum and dad were working it was safe for us to wander to a neighbours or friend’s house, or the park next door where we would try and pulley ourselves up the tree, or make cubby houses out of sticks, or try and climb coconut trees.
I adored the natural environment. The beaches were filled with giant 50cm starfish, Baler and cone shells the size of a pawpaws, and lots of hermit crabs which I would play with and bring home as pets. We also had wild buffaloes that would clop around our front and back yard at night or day, and we would hear it slurping water from our small swimming pool. I also used to play with garden critters or plants, not realising I would be allergic!. I learned that I cannot touch furry catepillars (no matter how soft or beautiful they feel) or jacarandas because I break out in swollen eyes (leaving slits) and lumps on my face. But I became an expert at catching small lizards, skinks and blue tongue lizards, and also used to bath and towel off Green Ants.
Green Tree Ants are common to Gove, they are also known as weaver ants, they have a green abdomen and yellow-green thorax (indigenous people eat their bottoms). They are aggressive ants and will inflict a painful bite and squirt formic acid from the tip of their abdomen – they do not sting, though. Somehow I never got harmed. These amazing ants weave leaves together to form their nest sometimes as big as a football!
Here are some fond memories to share of places and events during my time in Gove:
The Aerator – anyone who lived in Gove during the same time, knows this place well. The Aerator was a hot water outlet (overflow) out of a bore, where the water was cooled underground for drinking. Everyone used to swim here! and it was full of tadpoles and I remember green slime in some places. But the fun part was sitting in the big part of the tank that spilled water into the water hole, it was like being in a spa without the bubbles! The adults would sit on the bank and relax with a beer or two! There was one occasion when mum was meeting another friend with her children here, and my mum being playful and bored thought she would bring Shampoo. She poured the shampoo into the overflow tank, and then was horrified as it turned the whole pool into one big bubble bath. One of the workers come along shortly after to read the meters, and asked who did it, my mother acted dumb saying we just got there and it was like that. Later in the local rag (Gove Gazette) it published a note saying some idiot put soap in the aerator!
Jacks Pool – this was the local swimming pool named after Jelly Bean ‘Jack’ who had a big round belly, and he’d give you a jelly bean if you swam all the way across the pool or did a whole lap. And to learn how to swim he’d push you in and yell swim! On one ocassion Lisa Curry, a famous swimmer of the 80’s visited, and we met her and got her autograph. Apparently Aussie olympic swimmer Geoffrey Huegill was born in Gove around the time I was living there too.
Gumbies – this was our takeway option of the 80′s and of Gove. By the locals it was affectionately called ‘chew and spew’ and was located undercover near tennis courts and the surf club. As a family we would go there to get fish and chips,dim sims and a chip bucket full of crumbed moreton bay bugs.
4 Wheel Driving – the roads were muddy, sandy and unsealed in most places, so my dad was pretty excited to have a 4 wheel drive to go off road and get bogged, and find new places to explore. The first vehicle we had was an orange two door suzuki, and he never thought about the comfort of us girls – nor seatbelts! We used to be in the back with Sarah our doberman dog, sitting on the wheel arches and holding on to a strap as we bumped up and down, left to right through treacherous 4 wheel drive tracks. I remember how uncomfortable it was! However, around the town, mum had a groovy little open top mini moke – with a flowery removeable top.
Camping was always fun in Gove, because there were so many hidden and secret places that people would find or explore, but not share with others. We once found an abandoned aboriginal community college that may have been used during WWI as a base, and everything was still intact. There were wonderful waterholes we would play in and flying foxes, and nothing beat a good old fashion marshmellow crackling and bubbling over the fire, and the stars in a clear sky.
Salt Water Crocodiles– In the first two weeks of living in Gove, the neighbours invite mum and us girls away to a place called Dalywoi bay to go camping or fishing. My sister and I were in one of the beach canals enjoying ourselves, when an Army guy raced down to tell mum to get us girls out of the water because a 16ft crocodile just went past them, they were only a little further up from us. My mum was angry at our neighbour Lofty for saying it was safe to be in the water. He said it was full of crocodiles and they wouldn’t hurt us! then pointed out a moving stick in the water, a crocodile that was well known in the area, due to spear that was still stuck in him! On another occasion as a family we went to set up a fishing spot on a beach, only to have forgotten a rod or something like that, so we left and came back to find a crocodile in the spot – we simply waited for it to move on.
Yirrkala – this is a prominent well known indigenous community of 800 people, 18km from Gove, and is the is a traditional home of the Yidaki (didgeridoo). There is the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Art Centre and Museum in Yirrkala, where you can buy and appreciate traditional aboriginal culture. When I was at school we not only used to be taught aboriginal verses of songs by our principal, but we also went on field trips where we would go out with elders in the bush and learn how to find wild honey from tree barks via tracking native bees, identify bush tucker and cook food under the ground. It was grounding and respectful to understand the indigenous cultures and what they knew about the land around them.
Dhamitjinya (East Woody Island) and Galaru (East Woody Beach) – this was one of our favourite beaches to explore. The island is a conical shaped granite peak that lies at the end of the East woody beach and is connected by the beach to the mainland. We used to wade out when the tides were out and had to ensure we returned before it come back in. I remember how we used to sunbathe on the huge big rocks, and how dad and I would go inside and explore vast caves. My mum used to sunbathe topless and would go around the island to find a secluded spot, however on one very rare occassion she was shocked when a fishing boat came round and saw her in all her glory..LOL.
Rainbow Cliff (Banambarrnga) – This is a sacred indigenous site – and my memories are of standing on this huge clifftop and looking below to see the body of a poor kangaroo who plunged over the top to the sand below.
Mount Saunders – this is a look out and registered sacred indigenous site. The interpretive signage around the lookout describes the recent history along with the story of Creation Ancestor Wuyal, known as the Sugarbag Man. We used to wind up the gravely road spiraling round and round to the top where you were afforded a beautiful view over the town.
Boating and Fishing – I certainly remember lots of trips out on the boat to small islands, and remember being frightened by huge jumping fish the size of the boat in the ocean. There was one little island that contractors had built a barbeque, hammock and makeshift seats, for people who came to fish or barbeque. I remember also a big swing set up which I love, and a Tamarind tree, where I would pick off the fruit and suck on the flesh ( I can even taste it now sour and fruity as I think it). There was also one occasion when we come back from boating and got near the wharf as the boat motor conked out! the sea was rough and I remember being scared. We had to climb up and be hoisted by oars to get onto the wharf!
World War II relics – During World War II, the Gove Peninsula was a key in the defense of northern Australia and there are many remnants of this activity. Historic sites include Drimmie Head where the Catalinas landed in the bay and taxied onto land, remnants of an observation station and rocket tracking station. Yolngu people played a significant role in WWII as soldiers and bush guides in a special unit, and aided in monitoring Japanese intrusion. Many of the old airstrips, bunkers and aircraft wreckage can be seen around Nhulunbuy and throughout the region.