The road less travelled to Ngukurr

In September 2010, I was very fortunate to be offered a freelance writing and photography assignment with the Northern Territory Government.

The job involved travelling to the remote Indigenous community of Ngukurr, located in south-east Arnhem Land. I would stay at Ngukurr for two days and cover the Futures Forum, part of the inaugural Yugul Mungi festival. I snapped up the opportunity.

Before I left, Darwin locals who had experienced remote Territory communities warned me about Ngukurr. “There will be rubbish everywhere”, “don’t touch anything, it will have human s**t on it” and “don’t walk around at night, it won’t be safe,” they told me. But other people told me it was fine and “one of the good ones.”

It was with some trepidation that I boarded the plane. This could be a tough assignment. I mentally prepared for the worst.

Ngukurr is part of the Yugul Mungi region, located on the Roper River in the lower Gulf of Carpentaria. The region is home to about 2500 people. The Roper region is hilly and lush – thanks largely to its namesake river. The views from Ngukurr across the wilderness of Arnhem Land are stunning. The Roper River is incredibly pristine – it is literally the cleanest waterway I have ever seen. Cruising down her in a boat was the most peaceful I have felt in a very long time.

Set in this beautiful untouched landscape is Ngukurr. And what I found was a clean and friendly township – albeit ramshackle in parts. It is a dry community and appears to have excellent leadership. The locals are shy and gentle but also proud and strong. The children seem healthy and relaxed. And there was less rubbish lying around than in suburban Darwin.

But I did see some surprising sights. A house with a cottage garden complete with rose bushes. Cigarettes being sold for $30 a packet at the general store. A village donkey. The community pool closed during the festival despite the heat – because even in sweltering outback towns Territorians think it’s too cold to swim in the dry season.

I know the community was on its best behaviour with their town on show, but my Ngukurr experience really shifted my perception of remote communities. I had only heard the negatives – the violence, the chaos, the rubbish. Take away alcohol and add a rubbish collection service and things can look very different indeed.