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Lirrwi’s deep sustainability – Yolngu style – is back in business

Lirrwi Tourism, the Aboriginal immersive cultural tour operation that grew too fast and was placed in administration earlier this year, is back in business.

The Arnhem Land operation that has attracted the support of leading corporate figures such as former Qantas chief Geoff Dixon and venture capitalist Mark Carnegie was placed into administration early this year after rapid growth threatened its viability.

It’s now back in the hands of the Yolngu family that originated the idea, and a new board.

Chair is now Djawa (Timmy) Burarrwanga and fellow directors are Barayuwa Mununggurr, Bill Wright, Denise Fincham, Marcus Lacey and Peter Harm.

Aaron Shorthouse, a pilot who has business experience under his belt with a Northern Territory airline venture, was appointed chief executive in May, initially in an interim position, and now on an extended contract.

The venture is a rare opportunity for visitors to be hosted in Aboriginal communities and experience not just the culture but its underlying and fundamental sustainability.

The Fifth Estate last year was part hosted by the venture and later reported with a series of feature articles on the experience. See below.

One of the articles was based on an interview with tour guide Randy Yibarbuk who is a designated future elder from West Arnhem Land currently learning the tour business in order to assist with his father’s rock art tour business and also be a mentor for younger Aboriginal people.

He is an avid supporter of maintaining homeland viability as a powerful way for young Aboriginal people to straddle both traditional and western life, and as a way to “spread the message” to non-Indigenous people about the fundamental interconnectedness of country and spirit.

Mr Shorthouse said he was excited about the potential, but that growth would be moderate.

(A concern of some visitors last year centred on plans for sealed roads and higher quality accommodation: while some improvements would be welcome, the thinking went, most visitors were interested in a more authentic experience.)

Mr Shorthouse said there would be some improvements to roads, but not sealing and that some improvements to facilities would also go ahead.

He said there had been a lot of support from corporates, particularly the Commonwealth Bank and Telstra, which send teams of executives each year to experience the tours.

“We’ve had a lot of support from corporates and a lot of interest,” Mr Shorthouse said.

The 2017 dry season was already filling fast, he said.

Currently the tour was operating with three homelands and there were several more interested to get aboard.

Mr Shorthouse said many of the visitors were impressed by an enhanced respect for Aboriginal culture, and in particular the welcoming smoking ceremony.

“They make friends for life; traditional owners invite them into their life and into their homelands.

“There is also the beauty of Arnhem Land that many people are unaware of – the white beaches, beautiful islands and friendly people.

“We are the only tour organisation that is able to access these homelands.”

Others, however, were “coming through”.

Mr Shorthouse described his background as “cross cultural”. He grew up in Papua New Guinea and moved to nearby Nhulunbuy in 2008.

He said he had been “in and out of tourism”.

“I’m a commercial pilot. I helped establish an aviation company in Arnhem Land”.

He also held an environmental science degree and had worked for state and federal government agencies.

Bush medicine in action at one of the homelands during a Lirrwi cultural tour

Bush medicine in action at one of the homelands during a Lirrwi cultural tour

Comm Bank and Telstra supportive

James Burton, executive manager with the Commonwealth Bank based in Sydney, has been on secondment to the Lirrwi operation at Yirrkala to provide insolvency and reconstruction advice.

The bank send three to four executive teams each year to the homeland tours, to “experience immersion and work as a team”, Mr Burton said.

A statement from the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations said Lirrwi Tourism would be returned to Yolngu hands “after a successful financial restructure that helps to ensure a positive future for tourism in Arnhem Land communities”.

“Lirrwi remains open for business and is stronger than ever,” the statement said.

“As part of its restructure, Lirrwi Tourism has established a new board with a diverse background that provides ideal support for its future development. The board now comprises representatives from Yolngu homelands, industry leaders and local expertise, ensuring Lirrwi Tourism remains in Yolngu hands while drawing on the best available experience from business and tourism.”

The ORIC said the operation was not in a sound financial position and had introduced “new financial management practices to ensure it remains profitable and improved internal practices to safeguard the viability of its tours”.

Mr Shorthouse brought “extensive experience in a variety of areas including environmental science and research, logistics, tour operations and natural resource management”.

The company said its season starting in May included several corporate and school tours but some private tours were also available.

The statement said Lirrwi particularly thanked the support it received from MH Carnegie & Co, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, the Northern Territory Government, Telstra, Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation, Indigenous Business Australia and Qantas Airways.

“Our vision for a sustainable tourism economy in Arnhem Land is unchanged and we remain dedicated to developing new employment opportunities for Yolngu communities while at the same time sharing and strengthening our culture for future generations.”

Nike, one of the local residents at a Lirrwi Tours homeland

Nike, one of the local residents at a Lirrwi Tours homeland

Read a series of articles on Lirrwi here:

Randy Yibarbuk is a designated future elder of his clan in the Yolgnu nation in west Arnhem Land. Before he was 10 he was sent for two years to “walk” with his father and elders, and ancestors, in the bush, learning “men’s business” – traditional ways and the skills that would help him start the deep layering of knowledge of the Earth and her ways.

I’ve signed up for a week’s tour in remote Arnhem Land. It’s a women’s group, run through Lirrwi Tourism. We are to visit two Aboriginal communities learning something of their culture, perhaps sharing in some secret women’s business and bush medicine. It’s the land of the Yolngu nation. The area we are visiting is perched on the edge of the mighty Gulf of Carpentaria. It’s three-and-a-half hours south of Nhulunbuy, which is about an hour’s flight east of Darwin. But as our plane commences its descent to the small airport of Gove, we pass over a patchwork of weirdly coloured ponds, a strange mutation on the landscape

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