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11.000 km into Indigenous Australia with the new Toyota RAV4 – Part 2/3: Arnhem Land

Vance our Toyota RAV4 measuring up against a termite mound.

This is Part 2 of our epic 11.000 km / 7.000 miles Test Drive of the new Toyota RAV4 into Indigenous Australia. You can check out Part 1: Cape York here. By the time we reached Mataranka in the Northern Territory, we have already swallowed up almost 6.000 km / 3.700 mi… Our next objective is the magical Eastern Arnhem Land, home of the indigenous Yolngu people, one of the largest indigenous groups in Australia, who have succeeded in maintaining a vigorous traditional indigenous culture. We will then retrace our steps to get back onto the Stuart Highway to discover the Kakadu National Park, then traverse the entire continent again from North to South to reach Adelaide, the end stop of our journey – but that’s to come in Part 3 of this odyssey…

Our itinerary for Part 2 of this Toyota RAV4 Test Drive crosses Arnhem Land.

Arnhem Land is located roughly 500 km (310 mi) east of Darwin, the Northern Territory capital. This area, and in particular Northeast Arnhem Land which we will explore, has been home to the Yolngu Aboriginal people for at least 40,000 years. It is the location of the oldest-known stone axe, which scholars believe to be 35,500 years old. Why is it now named Arnhem Land? Because in 1623, Dutch East India Company captain William van Colster sailed into the nearby Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape Arnhem – at the top right of the map above – is named after his ship, the Arnhem, itself named after the Dutch city of Arnhem. Arnhem Land covers a 97.000 square km area and has an estimated population of 16.000, of whom 12.000 are Indigenous. Declared an Aboriginal Reserve in 1931, it remains one of the largest parcels of Aboriginal-owned land in Australia and is best known for the art of its people and the strong continuing traditions of its indigenous inhabitants. Rather controversially, after building a bauxite mine in the area in 1968, it was announced in 2019 that NASA had chosen Arnhem Land as the location for a space launch facility.

Central Arnhem Highway snaps

As a non-indigenous resident of Australia, I am not allowed into Arnhem Land without a permit. This can be easily organised online through the Northern Land Council. A couple of days after filling out a form on their website I receive my official Transit Permit which enables me to travel into and out of Arnhem Land by car during the specific period I mentioned. The turnoff to the Central Arnhem “Highway“ is roughly 50km north from Mataranka up the Stuart Highway, and from there it’s 675km (420mi) of almost entirely unsealed and very rough track, complete with bull dust and water-filled potholes hidden in the shade of the trees lining up the track. The big question mark today is how long it will take to arrive at my destination Nhulunbuy, the main hub of Arnhem Land. Indeed the car’s GPS is losing its mind on unsealed tracks, predicting a 36 hour-journey, and Google Maps isn’t doing much better with an ETA exactly 24 hours ahead. My only surefire info is that the track is open, and the couple in charge of the Mainoru Store 196 km into the Central Arnhem Highway tells me it’s “very wet” after Bulman… A rather vague road condition report that definitely doesn’t help narrow down my ETA. I realise that given the need of permits to travel through the area, most supplies and visitors to Nhulunbuy are brought by sea or by air to Gove Airport and cars travelling on that road are extremely rare. This makes real-time word-of-mouth on road conditions almost impossible to come by. Along the 675km of the track, I would indeed notice only one car driving in the same direction as me all day, and we passed each other a few times. Given that travel time unpredictability, I have to get started just after sunrise to try and maximise my chances of arriving in Nhulunbuy before sunset: driving after sunset in these remote areas is a big no-no due to wildlife coming out onto the road to play, forming as many potentially lethal obstacles. Plus, there is no accomodation (and no fuel) after Mainoru Store for just under 500 km, so unless I’m keen to makeshift camp in the RAV4 (which I’m not), I must make it in time. It turns out the road was indeed very wet but not to such an extent that it would significantly impede my progress and I thankfully make it to Nhulunbuy just in time for sunset!

Vance and I meet Yirrkala’s friendly locals.

Nhulunbuy, population 3.240, was set up on the Gove Peninsula when a bauxite mine and a deep water port were established in 1968. 18 km southeast is the Indigenous community of Yirrkala, population 809, famous for its Aboriginal art as we’ll see further down. Indigenous locals all wave at the drivers of the rare passing cars including myself, and leap into action to help me find the famous arts centre: “I’ll jump in the car with you and show you the way!” Amazing. Given private car ownership isn’t truly widespread and there is no public transport between Nhulunbuy and Yirrkala, Vance the Toyota RAV4 and I were more than happy to serve as bush taxi for a group of locals heading to town for their football training (the bloke) and their Uncle’s birthday party (the gals) – as pictured above. Across Yirrkala are wall paintings of famous locals. The first one pictured above is Roy Dadaynga Marika (1925-1993), the Father of Land Rights. Roy and his three brothers were involved in drafting the 1963 document Bark Petition sent to the Federal Government to protest at the Prime Minister’s announcement that a parcel of their land was to be sold to a bauxite mining company. Although the petition itself was unsuccessful (the bauxite mine went ahead), it prompted the acknowledgement of the indigenous people’s moral right to their lands. The second painting pictured above is Roy’s daughter, Raymattja Marika (1959-2008), a Yolngu aboriginal leader and a tireless worker for reconciliation and for building understanding between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people.

Yirrkala didgeridoo and Arts Centre finds.

The Aboriginal community of Yirrkala is the traditional home of the world-famous music instrument Yidaki or didgeridoo, and some of the world’s finest didgeridoos are still made at Yirrkala. It is also internationally known for bark paintings, and a visit to the Yirrkala Arts Centre unveils some breath-taking works of art indeed (see above), one of which I purchased. The Centre is an invaluable resource for anyone seeking a better understanding of the local Aboriginal culture and traditions. Almost all staff is Indigenous and all too happy to explain an artefact or work of art exhibited here. Yirrkala is naturally home to a number of leading indigenous artists, including Mithinari Gurruwiwi, Birrikitji Gumana and Mawalan Marika.

The beaches and coast near Nhulunbuy are stunning.

Beyond the bauxite mine in Nhulunbuy, it’s a relief to discover that the Gove Peninsula still features vast tracts of unspoilt Ocean, beaches and land covered with very diverse flora spanning from savannah woodland and wetlands to monsoon forest and rocky escarpments. Here the sand is bright white, the water clear blue and the wind salty and coarse. It’s like a return to primitive Nature, the way it was before man’s arrival. My favourites are Daliwuy (Daliwoi Bay), Baringura (Little Bondi) and Garanhan (Macassan Beach), pictured in this order from top to bottom above, even though given the presence of crocodiles in all waters of the area it is strictly forbidden to swim. But why the Macassan naming? Here too there is a fascinating backstory: Matthew Flinders, in his circumnavigation of Australia in 1803, met the Macassan trading fleet, based in the present-day Indonesian province of South Sulawesi, near the beach that is named in honour of this encounter. Long before western explorers set foot on this coast, Muslim traders from Makassar of Sulawesi visited Arnhem Land each year to trade with the local Aboriginal tribes and exchange goods such as cloth, tobacco, knives, rice and alcohol for the right to process sea cucumbers or trepang coastal waters and employ local labour. A common pidgin language was even established, and this Macassan contact with Australia is the first recorded example of interaction between the inhabitants of the Australian continent and their Asian neighbours.

The Nhulunbuy car landscape is dominated by the Toyota Land Cruiser 70.

What about the car landscape of Nhulunbuy and nearby Yirrkala and Gove? Turns out it is quite unique relative to other remote areas in Australia, but in a very logical way. If you have read our previous Test Drives in the Red Centre of the country – such as the Toyota Prado to Uluru and the Toyota Land Cruiser across the Simpson Desert – you will already know that the “mascot” of these regions is the valiant 2007 Toyota Land Cruiser 70, notably used by virtually all local police and cattle station owners. Although I thought a stronger reliance on this workhorse wasn’t possible, this is even more pronounced in Nhulunbuy with the Toyota Land Cruiser 70 representing roughly one-third of the local car landscape, another 20 to 25% being Toyota Hilux across the previous two generations – meaning these two nameplates account for more than 1 in ever 2 vehicles in circulation in town. Interestingly, it’s the Troop Carrier variant (J78) that is the most popular here, well above the pickup variant (J79), but it shouldn’t be a surprise when we notice that this exact variant is the outright best-selling vehicle in neighbouring Papua New Guinea. As we discovered in Part 1 of this Test Drive, the extreme north of Australia is closer both geographically and culturally to Papua New Guinea than it is to mainstream Australia.

Vance the RAV4 was put through its paces during this part of the trip.

Before we move on to the third and last Part of this Test Drive that will include my Review of the car, it’s time to give you a quick update on how Vance the RAV4 is doing so far. Since we left continuous bitumen back in Laura at the very southern end of the Cape York Peninsula, the following 5.000-odd km (3.000 miles) have only seen rare stretches of bitumen and have mostly been a mixture of gravel, earth, mud, bull dust, rocks, pot holes, and sometimes downright scary-deep flowing creeks. The 1.500 km return trip through Arnhem Land was where Vance really got muddy, as the track was indeed “very wet” as the folks in Mainoru Store warned. But as it was the case on bull dust in Cape York, the RAV4 sticks to a wet road in a much better way than I anticipated, and we were able to plow through the wetness unabated. Central Arnhem Highway is a constant succession of borderline emergency braking to avoid ruts and potholes hidden in the tree shadows and frank accelerations to take advantage of the smoother sections of the track and waste as little time as possible. The RAV4 relished this torture test without batting an eyelid and most strikingly never letting its tail-end wobble. At speed, its grip on a very irregular and unreliable road surface is outstanding. If heavy braking can surprisingly turn out to be quite hazardous on gravel as the brakes often disengage and send the car skidding forward, I was able to reach high speeds of up to 125 kph (80 mph) on unsealed smooth tracks, an impressive feat made possible partly thanks to excellent dampers that contain the car’s bounce on bumps meaning you don’t need to slow down that much to avoid the car hitting the ground on a low bounce. The third electric motor used on the RAV4 AWD Hybrid to drive the rear wheels is a true godsend and delivers Tesla-like acceleration when you expect it the least, namely at 110 kph when overtaking a road train on bulldust. Unlike its predecessors, the new RAV4 is definitely a lot more than a soccer mum people mover.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of this adventure taking us through Kakadu National Park, the Devils Marbles, Alice Springs and Coober Pedy where we had a very close encounter with a big red kangaroo… 

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