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Deep in remote Northern Territory, culture and colour comes alive in a tiny Aboriginal town

Rachel Stringfellow -

I begin my journey to Barunga Festival in Darwin, and it's not long before I'm cruising through Noonamah, surrounded by wide open country.

I plan to break up the drive with a pit stop in Adelaide River and am pleasantly treated by the local convenience store to a drip of nostalgia.

Salty plum, the tangy taste a reminder of my childhood visits to the Territory.

Two hours later I make it into Katherine, a common throughfare for travellers, as a bright full moon dances out on the horizon.

As I'm handing out a program to one of the families coming in, I hear an excited voice from the back ask "is this disco on yet"?

This disco in question is referring to Barunga Beats, a program developed by the Barunga School and Gurrumul Yunupingu Foundation.

A cooling, croc-free free creek nestled behind the Skinnyfish stage at Barunga Festival.

As I make my way over, I jostle closer to get a peek into the dance circle which is bustling with a dance-off between the teenagers and younger kids.

The energy is palpable, as people fill the basketball seats to get a peek into the explosion of dance and culture.

Saturday brings clear skies and a cooling breeze, and I soon make my way to the festival's centre.

While the basketball court was the domain of the Barunga teenagers as they ran the Barunga Beats, this morning bounces to a different beat; the basketball competition.

Just a hop, kick and a jump away the AFL matches are also about to start.

Teams have travelled from various remote communities and with the rising temperatures I admire the athleticism and fierce competition at play.

After watching some of the games and drifting between vendors, I make my way to the Art Shed.

Nestled behind the hum of the Skinnyfish stage and bustle of sport, you could find the Art Shed at the heart of the Barunga Festival.

Unassuming from the outside, the interior revealed a rich display of culture, art, and joy.

Bush Medjijina's Kerstina and Bridget Mamarika at the Art Shed.

The Art Shed included the likes of Injaluk Arts, Barunga School, Merrepen Arts, Waralungku Arts, Anindilyakwa Arts, Tradara Art, Yirralka Rangers Bush Products, Thamarrurr Development Corp, Manuel Pamkal, Babbarra Women's Centre, Dillybag Collective, Bush Medijina, Bula'Bula, National Association of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Health.

There isn't often an opportunity like this, to meet so many different remote artists with unique, and beautiful artistry on full display.

Barunga Festival boasted rich tapestries, canvases, silk dyed from local communities, ornate earrings, balms and creams.

After the hot sun finally tempered down, the opening ceremony kicked off with the traditional dancers of Groote Eyelandt, in a spectacular meeting of culture and place.

Everyone is transfixed, gazes firmly planted to the rhythm of sound and dance before us.

Borroloola artist Rhoda Hammer at the festival.

Toward the end festivalgoers are invited to come up as well to take part.

Barunga Festival is jam packed, and soon after I'm getting a tour led by the Barunga Junior Guided Tours, with bright yellow shirts blazing and voice's being heard through a small megaphone.

There is a cool breeze flowing, almost as if gently nudging us from one place to the next.

We listen and come to learn a rich history, all from the future leaders of Barunga who speak strongly in their celebration, history, and excitement for their future.

We hear of the Barunga workers, we learn where to find the sweet taste of mandudjmi (green plum), and are pointed to the itchy-tree, the one you should never touch for reasons named.

Saturday night brings live music from blackfulla rock bands to the lawn which had earlier seated patrons for Justine Clark's show with the Barunga School kids.

With music rolling into the night, the next morning I wake up fresh and content, perhaps in part due to Barunga Festival being an alcohol-free event.

By Sunday most of the stalls have packed up, however workshops were still running. You wouldn't want to sleep in however, as by 9:30am all Banatjarl Weaving Workshops workshops were fully booked.

As I make the drive back to Darwin with the loom of the coming red-eye back to Brisbane, I find myself filled with a quiet gratitude and appreciation to have been welcomed into a small slice of Barunga's community.

Story by Rachel Stringfellow


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