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Part 2: Elcho Island Yolngu Health Update

18/08/2015 No Comments

Hello from Elcho Island!!

My name is Jessica Gaunt and I am one of the Naturopaths at Living Valley Springs. Over the past year we have partnered with the Hope4Health team in Elcho island to support a dream they and the Yolngu people have of reclaiming the extraordinary knowledge in traditional nutritional health that the Yolngu people possess and use it as a way forward for indigenous health.

The Yolngu people never knew what Diabetes and chronic disease was until European involvement. The life expectancy of Indigenous Australians is up to 17 years less than other Australians due to health related and preventable diseases from poor nutrition and a lack of health education. Over 50% of the population have Diabetes and more with cardio-metabolic conditions all largely preventable if proper nutritional education were present.

In April this year that dream was made possible with a specially selected group of Yolngu women who left their island with a vision in mind to go abroad to learn about health and bring it back to the Yolngu people and start their own pathway to health through a island start up health retreat. That way, their culture, their history and their community would no longer be threatened by the devastating effects that chronic disease was responsible for.

So fast forward to the very present and now its our turn to embark on a journey to Elcho Island and follow up with the women on their journey. I didn’t want to just do that. I wanted to listen, learn and adapt in any way I could. To somehow gain some perspective and context into their way of life and also find ways in supporting them on their own health journey as they continue to move forward.

On Friday the 14th of August Michelle Luxford (one of our main centre team) and myself arrived on Elcho Island greeted warmly by Tim and Kama Trudgen (the backbone of Hope4health), their son Eli and a beautiful bunch of Yolngu women. The airport seems to be a social hub for everyone so we felt instantly welcomed by all.


The scenic flight to Elcho

That afternoon we were reunited with some of the ladies and we had a Friday night health gathering that Tim and Kama do regularly on a fortnightly basis. This involved showing them how to make kangaroo spaghetti bolognese with tomato paste so we avoided the sugar. We also removed the pasta which was replaced with zoodles (Zucchini noodles). The Yolngu ladies were surprised at how easy it was to make zoodles and felt it would be easy to get their children to eat it because it looked like noodles and tasted great.

Tim Trudgen showing the ladies how to make zoodles.

Tim Trudgen showing the ladies how to make zoodles.

One of the ladies Helen, showed me photos on her phone of all the food she had been cooking which was low carbohydrate and high in fat and protein (a traditional Yolnu diet). She told me she had completely quit smoking, was walking early in the morning and felt better than she had ever before. She never wants to go back to how she was feeling and is just so happy she now knows how to not just ‘be’ healthy but she also knows what healthy ‘feels’ like and this is what is motivating her to change.


Helen has a great food photo log on her phone of some great high fat and low carb meals.

Helen shows some great high fat and low carb meals she has been cooking.

We watched a beautiful sunset over the water, the first I had ever seen. The smoke covered the light of the sun and you could watch it setting like a giant fireball into the ocean. As we watched the sunset I asked the ladies what areas they would like to change in the community. At the moment they are fundraising for a ‘Health centre/food store’ with the idea of it being made out of two shipping containers. The takeaway stores seem to be the primary food source for most of the people on the island and the health centre would provide education and nutritional foods that people could easily access if they wanted low carbohydrate snacks, coconut products, nutritional herbs, spices and greens.

Our first Elcho Island sunset.

Our first Elcho Island sunset.

While we were eating dinner we watched a movie and Tim translated it into Yolngu. The movie was called That Sugar Film, which goes into detail about the negative effects of sugar in the body. They were alarmed when they saw the amount of sugar that the average Australian eats however the reality is the Yolngu community consumes more than double that amount. The ladies told me a lot of the kids have Coke for breakfast.

A lovely combo of zoodles and That sugar film resources.

A lovely combo of zoodles and That sugar film resources.

As we ended our fantastic evening surrounded by so much health and wellness I realised just how big this was and how my main mission on this journey was about to change and it had only just begun! So many things were brought up, so many challenges to find a way over but I am already realising that this is all part of the the health adventure and it has become so much more than I could ever have hoped or dreamed.


The ladies getting into zoodles a little too soon.

I will update you in our next post of our hunting adventure in Gawa up the top of Elcho Island. The traditional Yolngu diet is one of the most nutritionally rich diets I have ever seen and I am so honoured to be able to have experienced it in all its traditional glory.