5 Days Following the Songlines in the Top End

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Mar 28, 2017

From crabbing to croc fights, bushwalks to rock art, culture meets nature on a small-group tour of the Top End. Words and photography by Kerry van der Jagt.

I was six years old when I found the boomerang – grooved, splintered and hidden at the back of the linen cupboard. Longer than my skinny legs, it became my go-to piece for show-and-tell, bringing me nothing but merciless teasing when I pointed out what I believed were kangaroo hairs still caught in the wood. Eventually, in the mysterious ways of childhood, it was lost, becoming little more than a vague memory. Perhaps it was a dream.

A decade ago, spurred by the discovery that my maternal grandmother shared ancestry with the Awabakal tribe from around Lake Macquarie in NSW, I began a quest to learn more about Indigenous culture. What at first seemed impossible – bridging cultural and physical barriers – is getting easier, thanks to the rise of Indigenous tourism and boutique operators that specialise in cultural tours.

It’s midmorning on the first day of our five-day trip through Kakadu National Park, Arnhem Land and the Cobourg Peninsula with Venture North Australia. During the journey, we’ll cross coffee-coloured rivers, bump past herds of buffalo and banteng and encounter at least eight language groups, each linked to the next by songlines – Dreaming tracks that trace the journeys of ancestral spirits as they created the land. 

We are a small group of five: Sydney couple Kathy and Simon, who are celebrating a milestone birthday, Kim from Michigan in the United States, tour leader David McMahon (wildlife-spotter, chef and crab-catcher extraordinaire) and me.

After leaving Darwin, we ease into the Top End with a cruise on Corroboree Billabong, part of the extensive Mary River wetlands and home to the largest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in the world. We glide past pandanus and paperbarks as we navigate a carpet of lotus lilies, their delicate pink petals reaching out like dainty hands. In the distance a sudden splash marks a failed attempt by a croc to catch a darter. “Expect the unexpected,” says David, leading us deeper into Kakadu.

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Modern art on an ancient canvas

Ten minutes into our walk through Mount Bundy range, we see our first rock carving – all streaks and gashes etched into the bedrock like claw marks from a mythical creature. It’s as terrible as it is beautiful, with incisions and barbs running for almost 100 metres across the steep hill.

“It tells the story of wild rice,” says David, explaining that Indigenous Australians have been consuming this native grass for thousands of years. “But this is the work of Japanese sculptor Mitsuaki Tanabe.”

Part of a worldwide series, Tanabe’s sculptures – which can be seen in the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, France and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic – are designed to highlight the value of wild-rice habitats and the importance of biodiversity.

Finding kindred spirits among the traditional owners, Tanabe was granted permission to create his bush masterpieces, some of which had to be completed after the artist passed away unexpectedly in 2014. We are among the first to see the finished works.

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Heart and country

After a night in bush bungalows in the town of Jabiru, we negotiate the mighty East Alligator River, where saltwater crocs are known to line up like hungry grizzlies awaiting a salmon run. Today the causeway is flooded and our LandCruiser sends a deluge of water across the windscreen. Like barrelling through a time tunnel, we emerge into a new world that’s rare and perplexing and jumping with vitality. “Welcome to Arnhem Land,” says David. “This is stone country, home to the Bininj people.”

This vast tract of nearly 100,000 square kilometres of Aboriginal-owned land holds one of the last bastions of a vibrant traditional culture in Australia.

If my own tentative steps at understanding Indigenous lore have taught me anything, it’s that connection to country is not just paramount; it’s genetically factored into the DNA of its people. At least 60,000 years of unbroken stewardship of the land will do that.

At the Injalak Arts and Craft centre, we meet Thommo Nganjmirra, an artist from the Gunbalanya community. With a warm smile and an ease of moving through the bush, Thommo leads us up Injalak Hill, one of three sacred hills surrounding this tidy community of about 1000 people.

With legs and lungs on fire, we follow Thommo, an intuitive guide who stops often to point out lizard tracks or to extend a helping hand. “We’ve had some funerals lately,” he says gravely, “so please take photos only where I say, otherwise I’ll be in trouble with the old people.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural protocols can prohibit taking photographs, writing the name of the deceased or even speaking their name. It’s believed that this will call the spirit back to this world and affect the person’s passing into their Dreaming. Furthermore, ceremonies and mourning days (often referred to as “sorry business”) can last days, weeks and even months after a funeral. 

Climbing higher, we squeeze through tight chasms, pass grinding stones and abandoned spear tips, and stare in wonder at the skull and thighbones of a long-passed warrior, tucked into a rock ledge like a family portrait.

“If you come here at night you’ll hear music and dancing,” says Thommo. “But never come without a witchdoctor or you might get speared by a bad Mimi spirit.” 

Higher still we enter galleries of rock art; layer upon layer of red, yellow and white ochre depicting crocodiles and barramundi, Mimis and hand stencils – even Macassan boats, which are testament to the centuries of trading between Aboriginal people and their Indonesian neighbours. It’s estimated that some of the paintings are up to 20,000 years old, probably more. “We need to keep our stories alive,” says Thommo. “It means a lot to us that you’re interested.”

Leaving Gunbalanya we drive deeper into West Arnhem Land, passing the billabong at Murganella, where we watch spellbound as two male crocodiles rage against each other in the lead-up to the mating season. All around, termite mounds are bursting at their seams, frilled-neck lizards are emerging from their burrows and the air is shrill with the arrival of migratory birds. We’re here at the start of the build-up, or gunumeleng, the pre-monsoon and one of six seasons Aboriginals recognise – a “calendar event” that predicts the upcoming rains. 

From Murganella we throw a boomerang-leg north-west, crossing onto the Cobourg Peninsula, a coral-shaped finger of land that clings to the top of the Territory like a stray glove. For the next three nights Venture North’s coastal camp, within Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, will be our home and base for further exploration.

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Cobourg Coastal Camp

If it’s true that you are what you eat, then I’m a big fat mud crab, having just devoured one all by myself. And let’s not mention the fresh oysters, cockles in white wine and giant trevally cooked with lime, ginger and chilli.

We’d spent the day on the beach, learning to hunt and gather like the Arrarrkbi people whose land we are on – mud-crabbing, collecting cockles and foraging for oysters. David taught us how to throw a spear, warning to “keep an eye out behind you. The shovel-nose rays love to sneak up and nibble your calves.” Later we’d taken to the open water, successfully trawling for trevally and rock cod, spotting hawk’s bill and green turtles and watching eagles soar overhead. If there’s a wilder or more magnificent stretch of coastline, I’m yet to see it.

“People say it’s a shame we can’t swim here,” says David, referring to the ever-present crocodile and shark danger. “But I reckon we’re lucky to be able to visit a part of the world where the apex predators are still in charge.”

As wild as it is, the two young owners of Venture North Australia, brothers Hugh and Aaron Gange, understand that guests still appreciate creature comforts. Built on land leased from the traditional owners, the semipermanent safari-style camp caters for a maximum of 18 guests spread across eight tents and has an undercover open-air dining area and a small lounge with a library of books.

The twin-share tents, situated on the cliff-top overlooking the bay of Port Essington, are fitted with comfortable single beds, timber floors, solar-powered lights and small fans. The three outdoor monsoon showers and eco-friendly toilets are a bit of a walk, making for lightning-quick nocturnal visits.

No two days are the same. On one morning we explore the desolate ruins of Victoria Settlement, a failed British outpost that clung to life from 1838 to 1849; on another we search the beach for tracks made by nesting turtles. Evenings are for feasting and camaraderie around the communal sunset viewing area, watching the ever-changing lightshow.

On our final night as I walk back to my tent, the sky explodes, sending spears of rain into the dusty earth. I hitch my skirt and race through the undergrowth carefree, content in the knowledge that the seasons are cycling as they’ve always done.

These past few days have opened my eyes to the essence of Aboriginal Australia – the world’s oldest continuous living culture – and my own heritage. Where I once saw a beautiful yet harsh landscape, I now see one rich in story and sustenance. Where I felt isolated, I now feel welcomed and connected. I also feel entrusted with something precious, like being handed a message stick. Listening to the rain, my thoughts turn to the words of Kakadu Elder, the late “Big Bill” Neidjie: “But now, you know this story... you responsible now. You got to go with us.”

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