Nhulunbuy is a township that was created on the Gove Peninsula in the Northern Territory of Australia when a bauxite mine and deep-water port were established nearby in the late 1960s, followed by an alumina refinery.
Nhulunbuy, also known as Gove, is located in the Top End of the Northern Territory by the Arafura Sea on the Gove Peninsula, East Arnhem Land. Nhulunbuy is remote by any standards, with the Central Arnhem Road providing the only land link to Darwin and the Stuart Highway; however, this region is prone to flooding and is usually cut off during the wet season. Nhulunbuy means ‘honey man’ in Yolngu language, but is also known as Gove. The Gove Peninsula was named by Europeans after Pilot Officer William Gove who died in World War II.
Known as an outdoor lover’s paradise Nhulunbuy is where locals enjoy fishing, sailing, bird watching and four wheel drive excursions to exquisite beaches and wilderness areas. The town has educational, health, social, sporting, cultural and shopping facilities for the people of the town and the very remote homeland communities of East Arnhem Land.
Serviced by daily domestic flights Nhulunbuy has many local attractions such as the Yirrkala Arts and Crafts Museum, Nambara Arts and Crafts Centre, and the annual Garma Festival, which all give a fascinating insight into the powerful traditional culture of the region’s Yolngu people.
Matthew Flinders, in his circumnavigation of Australia in 1803, met the Macassan trading fleet near present-day Nhulunbuy, an encounter that led to the establishment of settlements on Melville Island and the Coburg Peninsula. A beach close to the township is named Macassan Beach in honour of this encounter.
In 1963, a Federal government decision excised part of the land for a bauxite mine to be operated by the North Australian Bauxite and Alumina Company (Nabalco). The Yolngu aborigines at Yirrkala were strongly opposed, and forwarded a bark petition to the Australian House of Representatives, which attracted national and international attention and which now hangs in Parliament House, Canberra.
The town of Nhulunbuy was then established, housing the workers and their families, who were employed by the Swiss Aluminium company. The mine is now owned by Rio Tinto who acquired Alcan in 2007. At one stage there were over 100 different nationalities present. During the 1970s the population rose to approximately 3,500 with 1,000 students at the combined primary and high school. A new high school was opened in 1981.
Permits are required to drive to Nhulunbuy — over 700 km of unsealed roads — so most supplies and visitors are brought by air to Gove Airport or by sea.
James Strong, who went on to be the CEO of Qantas, lived in the town at one stage when he was the head of the mine and port operations. Geoff Dixon, Strong’s successor at Qantas, was also an employee.
Nhulunbuy is only 20 km from the Indigenous community of Yirrkala, famous for its Aboriginal art.
For the purposes of granting tax rebates to residents of isolated areas as per Section 79A(3F) of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936, the census population of Nhulunbuy is taken to be less than 2,500).
Owned by the traditional Aboriginal owners, the Yolngu people, it is a place rich in culture with Yolngu maintaining strong ties with their land, religion and traditions.. Many people still live mainly a traditional life.
Rather than the name of a clan or family group, Yolngu is the word that Aboriginal people from East Arnhem Land, including the Gove Peninsula, use to refer to themselves. The main five clan groups of the region are Gumatj, Rirratjingu, Djapu, Madarrpa and Dhalwangu.
Any non-Yolngu person is called a Balanda (thought to originate from the word ‘Hollander’ for a white or Dutch person).
Each August, Gulkula near Nhulunbuy, holds the Garma festival. This is a celebration of Yolngu culture is considered one of the most important indigenous festivals in Australia. Around 2,000 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people travel from around Australia and the world to attend the festival to learn and contribute. Garma is a Yolngu word for ‘two-way learning process’. There is traditional and contemporary music and dance, art and craft, education, performances and sport. Art and craft are gaining worldwide recognition and is an opportunity for Yolngu to gain economic independence.
The Gove Peninsula has three outstanding art centres, Nambara Arts and Crafts near Nhulunbuy, Buku Larrngay Mulka in Yirrkala and Elcho Island Art and Craft. The artists of North East Arnhem continue to paint their sacred designs using ochres on bark. This not only reflects the sanctity of their connection with the land they paint but an artistic discipline that is recognised internationally.
On 29 November 2013 Rio Tinto announced the closure of the alumina refinery (but not the bauxite mine) by July 2014 with the loss of 1,100 jobs, or almost 25% of the town’s population. The refinery ceased production in May 2014.
Nhulunbuy’s population had already dropped by mid 2014, with some of the workforce retained to monitor the shutdown and survey holding ponds full of toxic compounds, but most will be gone by January 2015. A range of measures were announced to support the town and its former workers through the closure and the following three years, but locals anticipate further cuts to services since the school, hospital, power plant and flights were backed by Rio Tinto. The closure of the refinery also left flights on the Darwin-Nhulunbuy route to fall to around 50 to 60 per cent full, causing Qantas to suspend flights on the route from August 17.
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Topography and climate
Situated just 12 degrees south of the Equator, the Gove Peninsula has a monsoon climate. The non-Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory tropics recognise two distinct seasons, the dry season from May to October, and the wet from November to April. During the dry, temperatures range from 15 to 18 degrees Celsius at night to 28 to 30 degrees Celsius during the day. There is virtually no rainfall, clear blue skies and cool ocean breezes. The wet season brings the monsoon weather with hot and humid days ranging from 31 to 35 degrees Celsius and warm nights. Electrical storms are spectacular and there can be cyclonic activity. Humidity is high and rainfall averages between 100 and 300 millimetres per month with an annual rainfall around 1100 millimetres.
Yolngu however recognise eight seasons derived from changing behaviours and patterns apparent in the land, flora and fauna. Yolngu seasons calendar Dhuludur’ (‘the Pre-wet season’, October–November) when the weather is erratic, ‘female’ thunder and lightning storms are frequent, turtles and Threadfin Salmon are hunted, and the ‘male’ thunder shrinks the waterholes. Bärra’mirri (‘the season of Heavy Rain and Growth’, December–January) when there is heavy rains and prolific plant growth, the Magpie Geese arrive and shellfish are harvested. Mayaltha (‘the Flowering season’, February–March) when there are bright sunny days but little bush tucker, flies arrive and mosquito larvae are abundant in the pools. Midawarr (‘the Fruiting season’, March–April) when the east wind signals a time of abundant bush foods, including fruits, nuts and barramundi. Ngathangamakulingamirri (‘a two week Harvest season’, April) Dharratharramirri (‘the Early Dry season’, May–July) when the trade winds (south-southeast) arrive, the bush is fired, Magpie Lark flocks arrive and sharks and stingrays give birth. Burrugumirri (‘the time of the Birthing of Sharks and Stingrays’, three weeks in July to August) Rarrandharr (‘the Main Dry season’, August–October) when warm southeast winds blow, the soil is hot, young sharks and stingrays are hunted, and the stringybark flowers. National Oceans Office, 2003, Snapshot of the Northern Planning Area, Hobart.
The Gove Peninsula is barely touched by western development, with the exceptions of Nhulunbuy and the bauxite mine and alumina refinery. There are vast tracts of unspoilt land, beaches and ocean. The land is characterised by a mixture of savannah woodland, wetlands and patches of monsoon forest and rocky escarpment. The beaches, bays and islands are idyllic with stretches of beautiful white sand and clear blue ocean waters. Some favourite destinations of locals and visitors alike are Nanydjaka (Cape Arnhem), Lurrupukurru (Oyster Beach), Rangura (Caves Beach), Baringura (Little Bondi), Ngumuy (Turtle Beach), Garanhan (Macassan Beach), and Daliwuy (Daliwoi Bay).
There are three marked coastal walking trails, providing relatively short and pleasant walks. These are Daliwuy to Garanhan (3 km, red trail marker), Garanhan to Ngumuy (2.5 km, yellow trail marker) and Ngumuy to Baringura (1.5 km, black trail marker). Yolngu elders have provided interpretive material along the way so visitors can enjoy and appreciate their rich culture and beliefs
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