Kakadu is another Northern Territory icon that we had all been looking forward to seeing but having recently heard several accounts of people saying how disappointing it was, without much water and that the big name falls were dry, we were a little apprehensive. Undeterred we chose to base ourselves near the Ubirr rock art site and close to the town of Jabiru. In addition this was close to the famous Cahill River crossing that we would be using to get through Arnhemland to get to the Cobourg peninsula. We dragged ourselves out of Noonamah (Where the hell is Noonamah, being its catchcry) and following a cruisy day looking for crocodiles at any opportunity, drawing blanks each time, we arrived mid-afternoon. A quick dinner and with the sun still in the sky I rushed to see the sunset from the lookout. Despite missing the sunset, a fabulous orange glow set a perfect backdrop for the green tranquil wetlands that stretched before us and as far as the eye could see. Hundreds of visitors, like religious disciples, had paid their homage to the sun god and now made an orderly exit from the park, before they got locked in.
The rock art at Ubirr is breathtaking, and a totally different style to that found in the Kimberley or even the Jawoyn art from nearby Katherine. Often referred to as X-Ray art, their depictions of water creatures include their bones and internal organs, often to depict the choicest part of the barramundi or pig-nosed turtle. Amongst the numerous galleries that the public can access are murals depicting stories that have lessons about behaviour, older ones depict images of extinct animals such as the thylacine, and some are just chest-beating efforts of artists showing that they can paint the largest fish, or can paint it the highest up the wall. Another depicts the Rainbow Serpent common throughout aboriginal heritage as the creator. One particularly interesting piece shows a woman with swollen arms and legs, a reference to radioactive sites that made people sick when visited. The controversial uranium mine, Jabiluka is approx. 45km away. A two hour Park Ranger tour by Glen was fascinating as he imparted his extensive knowledge of the subject.
A few hours were spent at Cahill Crossing fishing, unsuccessfully, but mainly watching the crocodiles who, at high tide, congregate at the crossing waiting for the waters to cross the road. When it happens a feeding frenzy commences as they prey on the hordes of fish that have been waiting to move upstream too. It was interesting to see them using their front feet to shepherd the fish towards their mouths, and as soon as they touch one a quick snap sees it disappear pretty quickly. The only thing I caught was an aboriginal spear that was floating down the river!
Despite the park being a rich source of indigenous rock art the public can only access a couple of sites, the other one being Nourlangie Rock. We took advantage of the Parks ranger guided tour. Christian gave three different talks at different points in the park, about the landscape formed by the aborigines and how they lived, then provided some insight into the most famous art piece, painted in 1963/1964 by one of the last true elders in the area, in a last-ditched effort to re-ignite a strong cultural spirit. In his life the number of people living traditional ways had dwindled from 2,000 to around 300. Two languages have been lost in the region since 2000, and another is due to die when the last existing person speaking it oases away. n the next decade there will be no more people from pre-contact days with the “White fella”, when the cultural degradation began as they were exposed to Western ways.
Kakadu and Arnhemland communities do, however, remain culturally strong despite this. Much of their land has been retained or reclaimed to use as they wish, and permits are required to enter many of these areas.
Christian also talked about a famous dig in one of the living areas, performed in the 1980’s. When locals turned up periodically they would ask what the ancestors had left for them to see that day. Looking at some poor archaeology undergraduate trying to identify a tooth dug up from thousands of years ago, they would ask what they were doing. When told the children would grab the tooth and identify it instantly. Another stone tool dating back almost 20,000 years was shown to them and they would reply that the stone didn’t come from around here. They would then explain it came from a region at least two days walk away. Where else on earth can an archaeologist tap into 20,000 years of living knowledge? Language is the law, and the law is the language explained Christian. When nothing is written down in the culture all stories and language have been passed down from all previous ancestors before. Plants only have names if deemed important enough by the ancestors.
We listened for 3 hours and could have spent a day listening to his passionate stories. Being white too he was very wary of ensuring he told stories correctly. The kids were enthralled to the end, and when he pulled out his collection of rock artefacts they were in heaven!
That afternoon we decided to take a path less travelled and drove some 70km along a 4WD track from the Old Jim Jim road back to Jabiru. This was the Kakadu I was hoping to see, beautiful lily and lotus lined billabongs, rich in birdlife, Jabirus, egrets, magpie geese, radjah shelducks and lots more. A few river crossings too to make it interesting.
Kakadu wasn’t disappointing in the slightest.