Battling lung cancer thousands of kilometres from his birth country, David Gulpilil is longing for his remote Northern Territory homeland.
One of Australia’s most celebrated actors, Gulpilil is renowned for his roles across nearly five decades of cinema, including Rabbit Proof Fence, The Tracker, Storm Boy and Crocodile Dundee.
From his current home in Murray Bridge, South Australia, he told the ABC this week he felt “stuck” and wanted to get back to Ramingining in Arnhem Land while he still has a chance to do so.
“I’m missing so much my homeland, and my people,” Gulpilil said.
“I’d go there to my homeland, stay with my family, live in my own country, hunting and fishing and stay there with my community.”
Since his teenage years as a traditional dancer, the Yolngu performer and painter has always held a strong connection to his country in Arnhem Land — even when he was living far away from it.
“The community want me to go back there. But for me, I’m sort of stuck here,” he said.
“And I’m not very well.
“And I’m still wondering how I’m gonna go back to Arnhem Land. It’s really hard.”
Finances, medical treatment prevent travel
Gulpilil has been receiving treatment for his cancer and emphysema in Murray Bridge, about 70km from Adelaide, and more than 3,000km from his namesake homeland, Gulpilil, near Ramingining.
Despite his prolific cinematic career, Gulpilil said he did not have the finances to travel north.
“Nah, not enough funding to get there,” he said.
“I’m still waiting [to see] if someone will help me … to go back to my homeland.”
Even if he could afford the travel, Gulpilil said he was uncertain he would be able to access the specialist health care he needs to survive while staying in the Northern Territory.
“I got this cancer, and that’s why I’m staying here, and I can’t leave this place, closer to my medicine, and my doctor,” he said.
“If I get to Darwin or somewhere like that, well, I don’t know what type of medicine they have. It different. I might die there.
“Not good enough [treatment] to look after me up there.”
While he said his cancer was stable at the moment, Gulpilil, sporting a greying beard and long, white hair, conceded his condition was “not very good”.
‘Doesn’t like flying at the best of times’
A return to Ramingining at this stage in his illness could prove too risky, said his Murray Bridge carer Mary Hood.
“If he got sick out at Rammo, they would ship him into Royal Darwin or the hospice,” Ms Hood said.
“He’s stable at the moment, but we’ve been up this road before of him wanting to go home … he couldn’t do a road trip because he even gets exhausted now and restless from going to Adelaide and back again.
“And he doesn’t like flying at the best of times.”
Ms Hood said it had taken the actor “a long time to trust doctors and the medical system”.
“There’s no way that we would want to leave them for too long,” she said.
“We more or less take it from doctor’s visit to doctor’s visit to see how this cancer’s going. It’s stable, but you never know.”
Plans are in play, she said, to raise money to bring Gulpilil’s family members to visit him in Murray Bridge.
Despite his carer’s reluctance, Gulpilil said he hoped to try and make the long trip home — even if just for a short stay.
“That’s my home. That’s very important, my home because I got an outstation there, Gulpilil,” he said.
“I feel like to be in my homeland in Ramingining, Gulpilil, and stay there with my family.
“Only thing I’m thinking about is to go back there … for a visit only. Then come back.”
Parallel to his storied acting career, Gulpilil’s personal life has been wreaked with tumult, including periods of homelessness and a 2011 stint in NT’s Berrimah jail for domestic violence.
In 2018, Gulpilil’s illness forced him to pull out of a main role in director Stephen Johnson’s outback Territory epic, the yet-to-be-released High Ground starring Jack Thompson.
Later that year, Gulpilil was presented with a lifetime achievement award at the annual NAIDOC Awards, where in a video acceptance speech he revealed he was dying from cancer.
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