The Bulman-Weemol community is located in the heart of Arnhem Land, halfway between Katherine and Blue Mud Bay off the Gulf of Carpentaria. Nearby is Bodeidei Camp, an eco-tourism venture operated by Dreamtime Safaris that offers the experience of visiting the country of the Ngkalabon people, in cooperation with the residents of Weemol. The story of how this tourist venture came to exist is told by its founder, the French national Francois Giner, in Heart of Arnhem Land: a memoir (Longueville Media, 2011; translated from the French En Terre Aborigène, 2007).
Like many memoirs of life in remote Aboriginal Australia, Heart of Arnhem Land is a perplexing and occasionally maddening document. It offers a promise of cooperation and the hint of salvation. Yet it follows an all-too-familiar trajectory that begins in innocence and ends, despite its seeming best intentions, in misery and loss. Is this the inevitable plot line of encounters between western and Indigenous cultures? And then whose story is this?
Giner first came to Australia in the mid-1970s, but it wasn’t until about fifteen years later that he first traveled out to Weemol, where he met George and Maggie, elders of the community and began to establish a friendship with them. Within a few years, he had conceived of the notion of what was to become Bodeidei Camp, a place where Giner could bring his own countrymen to learn about Aboriginal ways and to explore the extraordinary beauty of the land his Ngkalabon friends had introduced him to. In the early pages of his memoir, Giner appears as a complex mixture of sympathetic outsider and eager entrepreneur. But he gains the trust of George and Maggie, and they agree to help him establish the camp as long as he remains respectful of their land, and takes care to have local escorts to insure that he and his guests do not unwittingly intrude upon sacred sites.
As the relationships deepen, Giner is adopted as George’s brother, and by 1992 the first incarnation of the camp has taken shape well enough to begin bringing tourists in to share in the glories of the bush. The activities of the camp receive very little attention in the remainder of the book; the memoir concentrates more on the people of Weemol, their trials and hopes, and the ways in which Giner becomes increasingly involved with local business of all sorts during the half-years he spends with them, and continues to spend in their company to this day.
If the first half of this memoir focuses on Giner’s introduction to the country and asserts both the spell it works on him and his desire to share its riches with his European compatriots, the second half treads in well-worn paths of disappointment and dysfunction. Even as he tries to create an economic engine in the tropical heart of Arnhem Land, Giner sees the onset of decay. There is confrontation with the government men who come to Weemol and Bulman, episodes of mutual mistrust and disdain. Alcohol begins to take hold even in the isolated camps, despite George’s attempts to assert his authority. The shuttling of individuals between the outback and the towns keeps the depredations at bay for a while, but there is the inescapable sense that the battle is already lost.
Giner never gives up his attempts to create a bridge between the worlds of the Ngkalabon and the Europeans. One of the characters who enters the story as part of this linkage is the renowned yidaki player David Blanasi, who traveled to Europe on numerous occasions to bring the music and culture of his country to the wider, cosmopolitan world. Blanasi eventually accompanies Giner and George to Europe, where Giner has a chance to reciprocate by showing the men his own homeland. They are much taken by the strangeness of Europe, but also find connections when Giner takes them to visit the cave paintings at Gargas, where stenciled handprints, including one of a man who was missing part of his little finger, convince the men from Weemol that the mimihs had created this strange, cold country as well as their own homelands.
Blanasi’s arrival in the narrative is a harbinger of doom, though. Not long after the men return from France, a series of deaths begins to disrupt the community, robbing it of the elders who are the last voices of tradition and the bulwarks against the loss of knowledge and concern for country. Blanasi himself disappears; he walks out into the bush and is never heard from again. The prolonged period of searching for him, hoping that reports of him being sighted somewhere in Arnhem Land will prove true, in the end only prolong the slow descent into hopelessness.
Even when George takes Giner on a journey back through his life’s story, going back to Ramingining, the tale is suffused with death and valediction. Although Bodeidei Camp continues to prosper, it feels increasingly like a fairy-tale outpost in the midst of a community wrapped in its own fog, a sort of strange inversion of the Brigadoon trope. Giner’s determination is unwavering; he remains committed to doing what he can to raise awareness of the beauty and the history that is being lost, but his attempts, despite his best efforts, appear increasingly irrelevant.
But perhaps I am too harsh in my judgements, and should find more promise than I do in this tale. The camp does continue to operate, although the FAQ on its website suggests that interaction with the community has become attenuated over the last decade. And this video broadcast by the ABC on the occasion of Heart of Arnhem Land‘s publication in June 2011 suggests that controversies with the Northern Land Council may bring Bodeidei to a close after more than twenty years. It is perhaps, at least, another chapter in the tale of conflicted intentions and confused consequences that is the history of Arnhem Land in the last one hundred years.