FISHING or football? It's a tough call on Groote Eylandt.

A speck in the Gulf of Carpentaria, 600 kilometres from Darwin, the island is a tropical paradise where lush coastlines meet sandstone escarpments and dusty trails converge with dusky pink sunsets.

A trip to the beach will uncover ancient rock paintings, though the saltwater crocodiles tend to keep all but the bravest of swimmers safely on the shore.

Groote is a fisherman's dream, according to resident Rob Hince – "I can't fish, but I catch fish!" he exclaims – the bays and tributaries teeming with fish, dugong and turtle (a local delicacy).

The fishing is world-class. But the footy is just as sure to impress, as are umpiring's newest recruits, local women Retsina Barabara and Seralina Lalara.

Rob Hince (back row, centre) with Groote Eylandt's female umpires

Their games make the footy a spectacle not only to watch, but to listen to. You'll notice the players respectfully abide by all decisions. When required, the women will drop casually into the local language, Anindilyakwa, to defuse any misunderstanding.

The women found umpiring through Hince, who manages AFL Northern Territory's remote programs, a challenge that is both cultural and logistical.

Players from the remote Arnhem Land outpost catch charter flights to Gove on the mainland every fortnight, representing the island team, the Stingrays. The team is selected every other week, from matches between three Groote Eylandt clubs.

The style of play is fast, furious and free-flowing – or as Hince describes it, "all attack".

A player flies for a huge mark during a game at Alyangula Oval on Groote Eylandt

Barabara's and Lalara's decision to take up umpiring is extraordinary in historical terms. Aboriginal women taking up the whistle is rare, if not unheard of, in this part of the world. But the teams have welcomed their cool-headed presence.

After completing a community umpiring course, the women jumped head-first into senior men's footy, officiating alongside an experienced umpire who can assist their development.

Both women are quietly spoken, but learning to blow the whistle, signal and pay decisions has been an empowering experience.

"It [umpiring] makes me feel strong," says Barabara. "The players are good. We talk to them before [the game] … they never backchat."

"They don't say much, but they command a lot of respect," Hince says of the pair. "They were timid at first, but with each quarter they've become braver and braver. The guys have embraced it."

Umpire Retsina Barabara and AFLNT's remote programs manager Rob Hince


Bridging the divide between English and Anindilyakwa, Hince coaches through the officials' sign language, acting out infringements with a player at training to teach the signals of paying free kicks.

Injecting some flair into the universally recognised holding decision will no doubt come with experience, but Barabara and Lalara are already playing a role in crowd education.

"We teach the umpires to speak loud enough so the crowd hears the decision and are less likely to have an issue," Hince explains.

02:34 Mins
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Groote Eylandt footy programs are heavily tied into community health initiatives and range from Auskick to junior development and senior men's and women's teams.

Reconciliation week marks a special place in the calendar, with footy teams represented at Alyangula Oval, where the centre circle proudly displays Aboriginal colours.

Activities feature regularly between the Aboriginal population and island school children, many of whom have family ties to the GEMCO manganese mine, and learn customs such as weaving, making damper and spears from Indigenous locals.

Growing up with a strong sense of culture may make the decision a little easier when it comes to fishing or football. Why not both?

Visit umpire.afl to learn more about becoming an umpire.