Exploring Galiwin’ku Elcho Island’s Indigenous Culture: Bala Lili Reciprocity on Country | Norther Australia

Having never ventured into Arnhem Land, I could only do it justice by volunteer-travelling for an immersive experience within this sacred part of Australia. As a chef, I packed my four aprons and a tent (forgot the fly…oops!), and swapped a cushy restaurant kitchen in coastal New South Wales to bush catering at a wellness camp in the Dharrwar homeland of Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island).

three aboriginal first nations women collecting pandanus leaves with axe on Galiwin’ku Elcho Island northern territory

Arriving to Galiwin’ku Elcho Island

During the charter flight over crystal blue waters, winding rivers and ochre lands towards North-East Arnhem Land, fellow Hope for Health volunteers and their stories emerged. I was in absolute awe upon realising that all the volunteers were women of diverse demographics and wellness professions, who paused their lives back home in support of a program aimed at closing the chronic illness gap for a group of Yolŋu Traditional Owners. On arrival, volunteers, university researchers and Hope for Health staff all congregated in the town centre of Galiwin’ku for induction. Having received permission to enter Galiwin’ku, it was essential to grasp even the basics of Yolŋu cultural factors such as their Lore, complex kinship systems, matha (language), and the ever-present impact of Western interventions. The following morning, we jam-packed a bright red troopy and bounced 44 kilometres along dirt roads to Dharrwar homeland, situated 10 metres above the glistening Arafura Sea.

three women cooking on a bbq at Galiwin’ku Elcho Island northern territory

Stretching in Galiwin’ku Elcho Island

If you want to challenge yourself, Galiwin-ku is where you learn to expect the unexpected. Within the first night of camp, wild pigs had busted the pipes to our fresh water source which momentarily busted our spirits. Yet soon enough, the crew banded together to adapt the catering for the numbers, and “croc-watch” bathing became somewhat of a thrilling yet slightly off-putting routine. Despite such surprises, the rhythm of our days began to set in. Mornings were greeted by fiery, expansive sunrises across the bay, followed by group walks to the beach where the women would scout for crabs and shellfish and the men would go spearing. While I crouched low amongst the rock-pools in hope of finding something, the Yolŋu Yapas (sisters) with their laser vision instantly struck unassuming surfaces to reveal palm-sized, juicy native oysters. 

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Hunting and Foraging Galiwin’ku Elcho Island

On the bush track back to camp, the Yapas introduced us to rare bush berries and eyed out signs of the prized Ganguri (wild yam). Our evenings were rounded off under the uninterrupted starry sky by the campfire, with the final night centred around a giant traditional ground oven that slow-cooked seafood, root vegetables, and kangaroo tails. The reality however, is that the majority of the island’s inhabitants now reside within the town centre for service access. Hunting has thereby become inaccessible and replaced by costly groceries shipped from Darwin and cheap junk food. Witnessing the Traditional Owners back in their element of hunting and foraging, you could appreciate the importance of this to their physical, cultural and social wellbeing.

group of first nations aboriginal people around a fire on Galiwin’ku Elcho Island northern territory
first nations aboriginal woman creating traditional artwork painting Galiwin’ku Elcho Island northern territory

Culture Galiwin’ku Elcho Island

The richness of the Yolŋu culture was generously shared by the Traditional Owners through teaching traditional bark paintings, seashell and seed jewellery-making, and traditional dances. Though it was uncustomary for women to make spears, I felt humbled when the Yolŋu Wäwa (Brothers) permitted me to venture into the thick bushland to source Macaranga trunks with them, and partake in stripping the bark of the spear shafts. On a day out of camp, fellow volunteers and I luckily came across the Elcho Island Arts Centre Manager and skilled Artist, Megan Yunupingu. Megan guided us on the cultural significance of the exhibited pieces and the history of the local Aboriginal artists behind them. Needless to say, a few of us added extra baggage for our flights home! After being out-bush, it was a treat to spend some remaining time exploring the colourful city of Darwin.




jewelry organising with first nations aboriginal hands on straw mat Galiwin’ku Elcho Island northern territory

Giving Back Galiwin’ku Elcho Island

The social and economic disparity is apparent in Galiwin’ku and imaginably in many other Arnhem Land communities, yet the Yolŋu people showed resilience, generosity and strong cultural expressions. I’m sharing my travel experience for those seeking meaningful Top End adventures. Thank you, Norther for contributing back to Galiwin’ku and other remote communities by donating to Happy Boxes Project, a Not-For-Profit that provides access to personal care and health products to First Nations women in over 80 remote communities.




first nations aboriginal and white men people dancing around a fire on Galiwin’ku Elcho Island northern territory
woman watching the sunset set over the sea on Galiwin’ku Elcho Island

What an amazing moving experience Jude had on Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island). We would love your feedback on this page – please comment below if you’ve been to Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island) or know of any history.

Norther would like to invite you to explore more about the beauty of Galiwin’ku (Elcho Island) here. And… as always you can get more inspiration for other Destinations & National Parks to visit by following @northerhq or get your Galiwin’ku( Elcho Island) daily fix @elchoisland.

Picture of Jude


Jude is a qualified Social Worker and a passionate Chef, holding a wider purpose of Social Gastronomy and 'Bala lili' (Reciprocity in Yolŋu). Head to Instagram @juicy.jubes for more culinary adventures. This piece was written to coincide with International Women's Day 2023.

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