16-18 April 2015. In Australia’s Northern Territory there are three Alligator Rivers: the East Alligator River, the West Alligator River, and the South Alligator River. There are no alligators in Australia. An early explorer, who named the rivers, apparently mistook the crocodiles for alligators and the names stuck. For the record, and among many other details, crocodiles have a pointier jaw, and both upper and lower teeth show when their mouth is closed. Smiling crocodiles. Is that an oxymoron? Alligators have a rounded jaw and their lower teeth are hidden when the mouth is closed. Something I’ll be sure to look out for next time I come in close contact with one. Just to confuse matters further both are crocodilians.
We want to go to Arnhem Land but the road is impassable. You must cross the East Alligator River, full of crocodiles, which forms the boundary between Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land, and it is still flooded from the wet season.
We see 4WD vehicles on either side waiting for the water level to drop enough to make it safely across. Any day now. Are they camped out or do they think it will drop enough sometime today? We decide that our little sedan is more likely to be swept away than make it to the other side. Besides, since Arnhem Land is an Aboriginal Reserve a permit is needed to enter and we don’t have one.
Instead we take a cruise in an open boat up the East Alligator River.
Our guide’s name is Mahdahnyia, although he calls himself Neville for non-Aboriginal people. It’s easier to pronounce.
As we cruise along he tells us there are three to four thousand crocs in the East Alligator River, and that he’s seen as many as one hundred and fifty on the banks during the dry season cruises. During the wet season the water rises by several metres as the area is drenched with 1.5 metres of rain in a three-month period. During this time much of the land is flooded and the crocodiles spread out with the water.
The horizontal branch in this tree shows the depth of the water at the height of the wet season.
As we cruise along, Mahdahniya tells us about Arnhem Land, one hundred thousand square kilometres, twenty thousand people, fifty different languages. He is teaching his children the traditional ways of the bush, hunting, fishing, how to make spears, how to find food. They speak English at school but use their own language at home.
He points out wild figs, and tells us their spears are made from native hibiscus because they have very straight branches, and the tips are carved from ironwood. He shows us how to make a paintbrush from pandanus root, and a water dipper from the soft and malleable waterproof bark of a tree.
There are pandanus growing on the banks with their roots going down into the river, and also on higher ground in other parts of the park.
We pull over to the Arnhem Land side of the river and get out. We actually get to Arnhem Land, even if only briefly.
While we are there Mahdahniya shows how a woomera is used to launch a spear with far greater force and distance than would be possible without it. The spear sits perfectly into the end of the carved wood, which is used to hurl it. When he throws it the spear goes flying clear across to the middle of the river. No kangaroo, or rock wallaby
could possibly survive the force of such a weapon.
By rubbing two small orange rocks together with a little water, Mahdahniya makes paint, and taking the pandanus paintbrush slowly and deliberately paints the image of a warrior spirit on his arm. He is visibly moved.
Kites fly overhead in the hot silent stillness.
Aboriginal people have occupied the Kakadu National Park area and the adjacent Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve continuously for at least forty thousand years. They are the oldest living culture on earth. Today the traditional owners of the land are descendants of the original clans of the area and manage the park in partnership with Parks Australia, playing a key role in Board decisions and hands-on management. Much of the park has been returned to Aboriginal ownership and the rest is in the land claims process.
The name Kakadu comes from the Aboriginal word gaagudju, which is the name of a language that was formerly spoken in the northern part of the park.
There are five thousand recorded art sites within Kakadu National Park illustrating Aboriginal culture throughout the millennia. The oldest of them are more than twenty thousand years old. It is a rich and irreplaceable heritage of human activity. We visited three of the main sites: Nanguluwur, Anbangbang, and Ubirr. All three sites have dwellings of various sizes, overhanging slabs of rock, where the people sheltered during the wet season. One was easily big enough, and protected enough, to house up to fifty or sixty people.
From the Nanguluwur site:
The frieze of fish and turtle is an excellent example of x-ray style art. Notice that the organs of the animals are included in the paintings.
Algaihgo (pronounced Al-guy-go), the fire woman, is one of the First people, or Nayuhyunggi, who created the world. She planted the yellow banksias in the woodlands and used their smouldering flowers to carry fire.
Stories about Algaihgo tell how she hunted rock possum, her favourite food, with the help of the dingoes who travelled with her.
People are afraid of Algaihgo, because she kills and burns people, and avoid her Djang (sacred site) on the Arnhem Land Plateau where her spirit lives.
As our people visited and sheltered here in the old days, they hunted meats, gathered fruits and vegetables, shared food, played games, told stories, painted pictures, and sometimes performed ceremonies. The gunbim (rock art) in the shelters is left as evidence that this place has traditionally been a place of living and learning.
A quote from Violet Lawson – Murrumburr Clan, about Anbangbang
That’s a place where people sheltered from the rain in Gudjewk (monsoon season). A place for making tools, telling stories, doing string games while the tucker is cooking. Go hunting down the river, when the water goes down a bit. Hunting yams, kangaroos, and sugarbag. Waiting around til the dry season comes. Today we got house and still cook galawan (sand goanna) on the coals of open fires.
This is Nabulwinjbulwinj. He is a dangerous spirit who eats females after striking them with a yam.
From a sign at the Ubirr Art site: A lesson in Good Behaviour. This painting of Mabuyu reminds traditional owners to tell a story which warns against stealing.
Mabuyu was dragging his catch on a string after a fishing expedition when a greedy person cut the string and stole his fish. That night Mabuyu waited until the thieves had eaten his fish and were camped inside their cave near the East Alligator River. “Then he blocked the cave with a huge rock. Next morning they never came out. Because they pinched it they got punished. Kids, ladies, and men all dead – finished.” . . . . Bill Neidjie
The bones of this person have been swollen by Miyamiya, a sickness you can contract if you disturb the stones of a sacred site downstream near the East Alligator River.
One of the reasons Aboriginal people are so concerned about protecting their sacred sites is that some sites, if disturbed, are considered to be extremely dangerous for everybody.
We visited just three of five thousand sites. There is widespread evidence of Aboriginal occupation throughout Australia. I remember in my twenties, when I lived in the far north-west in the small coastal mining town of Dampier, when out hiking I would frequently find Aboriginal rock art, un-noted, unheralded, a natural part of the rocky desert landscape and taken for granted.
For forty thousand years the Aboriginal people have been part of this earth, living in deep harmony with their natural surroundings. Left to their traditional ways there is no separation between them and the land. They know all the secrets the land, the plants, the animals have to offer, and nothing is done without honour and reverence. Everything is respected and everything is sacred.
From the top of the escarpment at Ubirr, looking out over the valley, green from the wet season rains:
The land is rich with flowers like this grevillia,
and dancing dragonflies.
Where there is dry ground we see the giant mounds of grass-eating termites.
And where the wet season has flooded the land we see water filled with lilies and egrets,
and a pair of brolgas, the native Australian crane.
We only saw a small portion of Kakadu. Much was still closed to the public due to flooding making the roads impassable, and due to the presence of crocodiles. What we did see is magnificent. An ancient culture and an ancient land: powerful, mysterious, and eternal.
Next post: the boundaries of the park are artificial lines on the map. Australia’s Top End is vast and empty. Our exploration continued as we headed south – fruit bats, pythons, hot-water rivers, deep gorges, cascading pools, and Mindil beach at sunset.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.