National Geographic : 2013 Jun
66 national geographic • june 2013 A finger across the throat and a glance seaward. That’s the signal. The two men grip their spears, hand-carved from stringybark trees, and walk barefoot over the red soil to the water’s edge. This time it’s Yiliyarr with his spear, and when the turtle appears, he lets fly, and again the spear is true. The tip dislodges, and a second rope plays out. Gaypalwani reaches into the water to grab the first rope, and both men tug, veins ris- ing, hauling the ropes in hand over hand, and soon the turtle is pulled to the side of the boat. The men reach over, and each grabs a thick, flapping flipper, braces his feet against the side of the boat, and leans back. The turtle rises from the water, and the men fall backward as it slides into the tiny boat, the weight of the creature tossing the dinghy about. Before I was able to visit Matamata, a lost- in-the-bush village of 25 or so people, I needed permission from Gaypalwani’s mother. Phyl- lis Batumbil is the matriarch of Matamata, a woman of unrestrained opinions whose laugh could loosen your hat and whose scowl could, and often did, set a dog to whimpering. There are two telephones in Matamata. Batumbil owns one. The rest of the village shares the other. I rang, and Batumbil answered. She speaks several dialects of Yolngu Matha, the language of the Yolngu, as well as excellent English. Like many Yolngu, she uses an English first name and an Aboriginal second name and prefers to be addressed by her Aboriginal name. Batumbil is an artist—painting is among her many avo- cations—and we had been put in touch by the manager of an art gallery that represents her. She creates highly symbolic depictions of stingrays and lizards and other sacred totems on strips of By Michael Finkel Photographs by Amy Toensing Then into the aluminum dinghy, engine revved, and across a warm shallow bay of the Arafura Sea, at the wild edge of Australia’s Northern Territory. Terrence Gaypalwani stands at the bow, feet spread for balance, staring intently at the water and indicating with the tip of his spear which direction to travel. He’s 29 years old, mid-career as a hunter. Peter Yiliyarr, over 40, a senior citi- zen, works the motor. The shoreline’s a lattice of mangrove roots; the sun’s a heat lamp. No sign of another human. Gaypalwani stares, points. Thirty minutes. The men haven’t spoken, though even when they’re not hunting, the Yolngu sometimes communicate solely in sign language. Then Gaypalwani raises his spear, cocks his shoulder, and I look over the side of the dinghy and see a great shadow in the water. Yiliyarr guns the motor, and the spear is heaved, a vio- lent throw. The shadow rises, the spear falls, and the two intersect at the water’s surface. The turtle, struck, dives deep. It’s as big around as a card table and probably older than either of the men. The metal tip of the spear, buried in the turtle’s shell, dislodges from the shaft, as designed. The shaft floats off—they’ll retrieve it later—but a rope has been tied to the notched base of the spearhead, and the line whizzes out, fed from a coil by Yiliyarr. Both men have thin, elongated scars across their palms and chests. The line runs completely free, though attached to the other end is a white, basketball-size buoy. It flies from the boat and disappears beneath the water. The men stand, scanning. The ball pops up, and the boat zips toward it.