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Klaus Helms was a wideeyed teenager when he flew into Gove in an old DC3 to work on a fledgling mineral exploration project.

He was handed a tent and a handful of bauxite – and told: “That’s where you’re sleeping and that’s what you’re looking for.”

The year was 1969.

“There was nothing in Gove in those days. No Nhulunbuy township, no port as such, just an old wooden wharf. Our camp – called Prospect – was next to an ex-military airstrip.”

The Yirrkala mission was out of bounds for the exploration team.

Klaus has come and gone several times over the past 54 years, but Gove is always where his heart lies.

He is the chief executive of the Indigenous-owned Gumatj Corporation and is respected throughout Australia for dedicating most of his life to helping empower Aboriginal people.

Klaus was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in the 2024 Australia Day honours list for services to the Indigenous community. The award was roundly applauded by Australians from all walks of life. Klaus was born near Bremen in northern Germany where his father Fred was an engineer and his mother Maria a swimming instructor.

The family migrated to Australia when Klaus was only one and a half years old.

“My dad was multilingual and always spoke English at home in Australia. He was determined to be an Australian. My mum was a real workhorse who spoke English with a terrible German accent.”

His father worked as a drilling engineer, which meant the family moved relentlessly for work from one part of Australia to another – New South Wales to the Pilbara to South Australia to Victoria to far north Queensland.

They lived mostly in a caravan.


this is not a job. it’s a life. an absolute commitment to the community and its people.


Klaus, the fourth of seven children, went to a staggering 22 schools.

“It wasn’t an easy childhood,” he says. “I moved school so often that it was impossible to make friends.

“I think that’s why I’m so passionate about Gove being my home.”

Klaus walked out of the family caravan at the age of only 14 and told his parents: “I’m off.”

He went to work on a remote sheep station near Orange in New South Wales and stayed there for 10 months – on his own.

“I taught myself about sheep, fencing and cooking. I don’t remember being too lonely. I was only 14 but I didn’t consider myself a boy. We all grow up fast at that time.”

It was an extraordinary start to an extraordinary working career.

After trying his hand at ferreting and working in an abattoir, his dad contacted him and told him there was a job going at a mineral exploration site in the Northern Territory.

He flew to Darwin and then scrambled into the DC3 for the 600 kilometre flight east.

Little did he know, but Klaus had begun a lifelong love affair with Gove and its Yolngu Traditional Owners.

Some of the Yolngu who worked with him in those early years are now on the Gumatj Corporation board. Klaus has had many jobs over the years and has worked in Indonesia, Canada and Britain.

His impressive CV includes helping start up Perkins shipping company in Gove as coastal manager, community relations manager for Nabalco, director of community relations for Alcan South Pacific and even working as a government business manager during John Howard’s Intervention.

But wherever he has roamed, Gove has always been home.

Klaus was a very close friend of the late Gumatj leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu.

“He was more than a mate – we were family. I respected him enormously. We knew each other for many, many years. I helped bury his father.

“I once told him that I couldn’t always understand his thought patterns and he said, ‘That’s because you’re a whitefella’.

“I was very emotional and saddened when he died.”

Klaus and his wife Petra own a house with a beach view not far from Galarrwuy’s old home.

“I bought the house because I didn’t want to just be given one. I was the first whitefella to buy a house and have a lease on Aboriginal land.”

In 2011, Galarrwuy asked Klaus to take on the challenge of developing the Gumatj Corporation to help Yolngu people become economically independent after the scheduled closure of the Rio Tinto mine in 2030.

He went about the task with tremendous energy – and the Gumatj now own a string of businesses, including timber, mining, construction, real estate and cattle. And more are being developed each year.

Traditional Owners even lease land for the Equatorial Launch Australia space centre.

“I’ve had to make some tough decisions. But Yolngu respect that – they know that I’m always working in their interest.

“And they know that when I say ‘no’, it means no.”

Klaus is 72 and thinks that retirement is not far off, but the Gumatj board has a different view. “This is not a job. It’s a life. An absolute commitment to the community and its people

“My greatest joy has been the Yolngu people and seeing them benefit from economic development.”

Klaus is eternally grateful that he moved to Gove.

“The Territory is a land of opportunity – it creates a destiny for you,” he says. “You can become what you really want to be if you are willing to put in the hard yards.”

When asked if he has any kids, the former NT Senior Australian of the Year smiles and says: “Yeah, 380 of them … just down the road.”

That’s how many Yolngu make up Gunyangara.