Empowering walk from the past to the future

Batumbil Burarrwanga was just seven years old when she first made the special 60km walk from her home in Mata Mata to Cape Wilberforce through remote East Arnhem Land.

Along the way her parents and grandparents would teach her things about the land. They were important lessons like which foods to eat and which to avoid and where to find water.

Now at age 60, Burarrwanga, the leader of the isolated Mata Mata community has decided it is time to reinstate the walks of her childhood to teach young Yolngu people about their culture and to give visitors a rare glimpse of her world.

She is inviting a small group of people into her homeland on a walking tour, to join her and other community members on the trail.

She says when she was growing up her father would go out in his dug out canoe hunting for food and she and the other girls would help the women collect food, which they were taught to prepare.

“All the parents they used to take us along this coast and we’d walk along and they were showing us all the food that we can eat, in the land and off the coast in the sea,” she says.

“We grew up with it. What I want to do now, my choice, is to make a walking path, getting back to the old trail, so for me reflecting back how I grew up and what type of food I ate when I was little.

“I came up with an idea of doing this. It’s sharing something very special. They will be learning and hearing, like teaching them about how I survive and I grew up.

“There are the water holes where we survived to drink the water, to spend a night or two and then moving on. Eating our traditional food — yams and all those, like oysters and stingray and fish. Everything.

“Our parents they taught us. They taught us well. They told us everything about the food we want to eat and which food we don’t want to touch. Our parents took us into the bush, showing us how to find the yams, how to find another food, to cook them and eat.

“Because we have this like open education environment around us. In our world we have the education. It’s in the environment. It used to be not sitting in the classroom but our parents would teach us. We learnt in our own education first. They taught us well.

“Our parents are all gone now, our fathers and mothers, but they leave us with an education, an education that wherever we go we can find food. We know the places.”

A group of about 15 guests will set off with community members on September 17. The walk is expected to take up to 10 days and will also visit Burarrwanga’s father’s burial site at Elizabeth Bay. It will raise money for the Mata Mata community, which can range in size from just five people up to 1000 at special times of the year. People can sponsor the walkers.

Burarrwanga, a former teacher, takes her role as the custodian of the lands very seriously. She says it’s important that they can continue their work and teach the younger generations and the world about their culture.

“For the generations — they don’t know what we grew up with,” she says. “It’s important to pass it on so we don’t lose our culture, we don’t lose the taste of our own food.”

  • If this month’s walk proves popular, the Mata Mata community will look at holding another walk in the future. Peter Botsman is helping organise the event — Walking the Yolngu Road — and can be reached at

Wendy Caccetta

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