Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

59. Living in the Dreamtime

The Blue Banana picked us up and took us a short hop down the road to the Merl campground at Ubirr. In the evening we shared a table with Helen and Kath, a couple of nurses who were very familiar with the area. They advised us that the following day was Arnhem Land's "Open Day". Arnhem Land is aboriginal land, and access usually requires a permit and thirty days notice, but on one day of the year Oenpelli, the first town beyond the border, allows anyone and everyone inside for a visit. We arranged a lift out to the town with the nurses, one of whom had worked at Oenpelli in the past, for midday of the following day.

The remainder of our first evening was spent trying to avoid the mozzies which were the worst we had ever encountered. During all of our travels, Karen avoided applying chemicals like Rid and Aerogard to her skin, preferring to use physical barriers like long sleeves, gloves and long pants to keep the biting insects at bay, but the swarms at Ubirr - fresh off the wetlands - caused her to throw her principles to the wind and lather up.

Even the tent provided no respite from the mosquitoes. The zips around the fly-screen doors had been showing signs of deterioration for quite a while. Perversely, they chose this night to finally stuff up big-time when Karen was returning from a short nocturnal stroll in the moonlight sometime in the wee small hours. She tried for ages to get the zips closed, eventually giving up in a lather of sweat. It then took me about ten minutes to get the zippers closed properly, and then only by holding the foot of the zipper at a funny angle and pushing the material of the screens away from the zip as I pulled it down.

The rising sun brought some respite from the mozzies. We did a short walk around the area, down to the Cahill Crossing of the East Alligator River where a constant stream of cars was taking advantage of the Open Day and driving across the border into Arnhem Land on the other side of the river. An increasingly familiar voice gave us a hoy as we crossed the road towards a short, monsoon rain-forest walk near the riverbank. It was John and Elaine, from Ellery Creek, Dunmarra and the Darwin harbour cruise. They too were on their way to Oenpelli, and we said we would probably see them there later in the day.

The East Alligator River crossing

We soon finished the rain-forest walk, and returned to the campground for an early lunch after stopping in at the aptly named Border Store. Helen and Kath met us a bit later and we were soon driving over the crossing into Arnhem Land.

During our stay in Kakadu we heard a story about the crossing, and about the mentality and attitudes of the men who fished for barramundi around it. We were told that the causeway acts as the dividing line between the brackish tidal waters of the East Alligator on the left, and the fresh water river on the right, and that the big barra like both environments. There are no alligators in the East Alligator River, of course, the early explorers misnaming the river after sighting heaps of crocodiles along its banks, most of which are salties and potential man-eaters.

The story goes that the president of the Darwin Game Fishing Club had been fishing for barra at the crossing. He had caught one monster and had been photographed with his catch suspended by his side. For some reason, the fisherman decided that the fishing would be better on the other side of the river so he began wading across the causeway in thigh deep water. The river was high and flowing strongly. The fisherman seemed to lose his footing, possibly walking off the causeway which would have been invisible in the muddy water, possibly knocked over because of the force of the water, or possibly attacked by a croc. If he was not taken by a croc initially, then he was later, because when his body was recovered later in the day the fisherman's head had been bitten off.

Next day the Darwin daily paper published the story of the fisherman's death at the hands of a man-eating crocodile, warning readers of the perils of straying too close to any water source anywhere in the Top End, and publishing the last photograph ever taken of the man, standing by his last huge barra. The following day there were a dozen or more fishermen standing in the waters of the East Alligator River all hoping to catch a fish as big as the one the president of the game fishing club had caught! Crazy!

The scenery inside the border was just as impressive as the more well known formations at Ubirr. Rocky tors, escarpments, lush green flood-plains and pristine billabongs dotted the countryside. We stopped at one point to walk to an elevated rock platform which looked down upon a large wetland, ever mindful of the potential danger, and soon sighted a large salty drifting almost imperceptibly down the billabong. We watched across the water as a black-necked stork - a Jabiru - speared a snake in the reeds and calmly and deliberately thrashed the life out of it. A truly magical scene.

After seventeen kilometres we reached Oenpelli. Helen drove around the town and gave us the cook's tour, pointing out the hospital where she had worked and the sports club where liquor could be purchased for consumption on the premises, but not for taking away. Having travelled around the country for well over a year by this time, Karen and I had seen many examples of aboriginal communities, most of which could only be described by non-indigenous eyes as slums. We had not been given any reason to suppose that Oenpelli would be different, but it was. It was neat and tidy, the houses were in good order and its people obviously had a great deal of civic pride. Apart from its idyllic setting by a huge billabong, it looked just like any other country town in Australia. This was the first time Karen or myself had ever seen aboriginal people in an environment of their own choosing and making a good fist at life. Oenpelli would not necessarily be considered a desirable town to live in for a lot of people, but compared to the communities we had seen previously on our travels, it was a real Shangri-La.

Two teams of highly talented aboriginal Australian Rules footballers were battling on the oval as we parked nearby. The school was swarming with people, looking at exhibitions of art and craft which had been set up in different classrooms, or sampling and buying bush tucker in stalls outside in the shade. A band provided music from the back of a truck, attracting a large audience, while aboriginal dancers performed nearby.

The band at Oenpelli

Because of the huge number of people who had been pouring into town all morning it was almost inevitable that Karen and I would meet someone we knew while we were in Oenpelli. It turned out to be Stuart, the Tasmanian motorbike rider we had spent a lot of time with in the caravan park in Alice Springs while he was waiting for his bike to be fixed after smashing it in the desert. We had last seen him over two months ago. He had been working in Darwin but would soon be headed home.

The nurses, Helen and Kath, had not been able to promise us a lift back to Ubirr as it was likely they would stay in Oenpelli for a day or two. Karen and I soon found John and Elaine and successfully bludged a lift back with them, even though it was a very tight squeeze in the back of their heavily-laden 4WD vehicle. It was fortunate that Oenpelli was so close to the border - the uncomfortable return trip only took about twenty minutes.

The battle against the mozzies was rejoined later in the evening. Another annoyance was the noisy arrival of cars returning from Oenpelli throughout the night. One bastard even arrived shortly after 3am. I suspect he had been celebrating Saturday night at the sport's club. In the morning Karen and I walked south along the East Alligator River to some distant rock pools, along the way finding a cave with aboriginal art and a grinding stone, a couple of crocs in the river and a new bird - the chestnut quilled rock pigeon. The walk was about twelve kilometres long.

We read and enjoyed the mozzie free atmosphere in the afternoon, knowing that it would not last. At 5pm we walked three and a half kilometres to Ubirr Rock for the sunset. We had a brief glimpse of the impressive rock art as we climbed with scores of other people towards the top of the large, flattish hill. After coincidentally arriving in Ubirr at the only time of the year we could get into Oenpelli without a permit, and coincidentally re-meeting John and Elaine at the crossing in the morning, and coincidentally running into Stuart again at Oenpelli, it came as no surprise to coincidentally meet yet another fellow traveller from our recent past. A guy was talking to a ranger about the aboriginal art as we walked by, and we soon recognised Paul, the four wheel driver who had served us Orange Peko tea in the West MacDonnell Ranges a couple of months earlier.

After a quick hullo with Paul, and learning about some talks the ranger would be conducting the following morning, we all climbed up to the top of the hill to witness spectacular views out over the wetlands of Kakadu, with Ubirr Rock glowing golden in the warm light of late afternoon. In contrast, the sunset was a bit weak - the sun went down, the sky got dark. A quick, dark walk back to the campground was soon followed by a strategic withdrawal from the nightly mozzie battle to the relative safety of the tent.

Aboriginal rock art

Karen and I returned to Ubirr Rock for three talks by the ranger the following morning, one at the main gallery where a drawing of a Tasmanian Tiger could clearly be seen overhead, one at the Rainbow Serpent site, and one at the site of the Namarrkan Sisters towards the top of the rock. It was here that Karen and I gained our first real appreciation of aboriginal culture, something which up until our visit to Kakadu we had both secretly believed did not exist. The ranger told us that in many aboriginal languages, the word for land and the word for story are the same. Aboriginal people can look at the land and see constant reminders of their history, their morality and their inter-relationship with all things. When aboriginal people go walkabout, they trek through their country. Every feature of the terrain is a story, explaining a different aspect of their life. A mountain could be an ancestor turned to stone for committing adultery. A river might be the trail of a snake who ate two little boys who had killed their sister. A tree might evoke memories of a Dreamtime figure who died after eating its poisonous fruit. For aboriginal people a journey through their land is like a white man reading a bible. The ranger illustrated the point with the following anecdote.

The rangers at King's Canyon were planning some steps and a boardwalk across the tops of the cliffs and through the Garden of Eden. Not wanting to upset the local aboriginal people by building their constructions in sensitive areas, the rangers had asked a group of elders to advise them on where to build. The elders no longer lived near King's Canyon, but were now living at a mission a few hundred kilometres away. A ranger vehicle duly arrived to pick them up, and the elders climbed into the back of the truck for the long drive out to their ancestral home. Pretty soon after being picked up, the elders in the back of the truck began singing, in their usual, traditional, seemingly endless, mournful, monotonous drone. They were actually singing the storyline of the land, a different chapter of the story being sung with recognition of all the major features of the landscape. Some of the elders may never have travelled this part of the country before, but they all knew the stories because that was how their law, their knowledge and their morality was passed down from generation to generation, making up what white man chooses to call "The Dreamtime". The singing was accompanied by much hand waving, and pointing at the landscape, which all looked much the same to the rangers. This went on for a while, until one of the elders started banging his hand on the rear window of the truck's cab. "Hey boss," he yelled. "Can you slow down a bit? We can't sing that fast!"

In a culture without writing, it was a very efficient method of passing on knowledge, but it has one major drawback - it cannot handle change. Once aborigines are removed from their land, they are deprived of their law, their knowledge and their morality. They suddenly have nothing. Aboriginal culture existed on this continent for forty thousand years because of Australia's isolation from the rest of the world, but it was almost certainly doomed to extinction the moment the sails of a more "advanced" culture appeared on the horizon.

Wendy and the Blue Banana picked us up in mid afternoon and we headed for Nourlangie Rock, arriving just in time for a talk by an aboriginal ranger at the Lightning Man gallery. Although the information was good, the highlight of the talk was a new bird we spotted in a tree above the ranger's head - the white-lined honeyeater. After the talk, Wendy took us on a quick walking tour of other art sites and lookouts before we returned to the bus. We stopped by the Angbangbang Billabong for the obligatory photograph across its waters to Nourlangie Rock, then it was on to the camping area at Cooinda. Wendy was also staying at Cooinda overnight, and after dinner she dropped over for a chat, bringing with her a litre of red wine for all of us to share.

The Lightning Man

During our post-dinner chat we were again harassed by mozzies, though not as badly as we had been at Ubirr. This led us into a discussion about mosquitoes and flies. To illustrate the problems caused by flies in countries where sealed rooms, flyscreens and closed windows are not the norm, Wendy told us a story about her travels in Indonesia. It concerned a hotel she stayed at, and a strange local custom. It seems that the dead are placed on public display for a day or so prior to burial. The owners of the hotel where Wendy was staying had lost an uncle, and his body was on display in an open coffin in the foyer, surrounded by a mosquito net. I misunderstood why a mosquito net was being used, and started laughing.

"What's so funny?" Karen asked.
"Can you imagine a poor mozzie landing on the dead body and trying to suck some blood out?!"

Cooinda is famous around the world for its Yellow Waters Cruise. Karen and I walked down to Yellow Waters from the campground early the next afternoon, impressed so much by the wetlands that we decided to book the cruise, but highly unimpressed by the horses and cattle we saw wandering about. The following morning on the cruise we asked the guide about their presence in the national park. His explanation shocked us.

He told us that the waters of Kakadu remain fresh due to a series of natural levees, only a metre or two high, which hold back the salt water tides. It was explained to the people on the cruise that these levees were highly vulnerable to damage by livestock. Yet here was livestock running wild within a few miles of the levees. Who owned the livestock? Why was it allowed inside the national park? We were told that the cattle and horses belonged to local aborigines from property adjacent to the wetlands. They had been asked by the rangers over a month before to remove their stock from the wetland, but they had made no attempts at retrieval. When we asked why nothing was being done about the situation, we were told that it was politically sensitive as there was a move afoot to allow the aborigines to run herds of cattle and horses in the park, because after all, it is their land! Karen and I wondered why the activists who protested so loudly about the uranium mine were not equally as vociferous in their condemnation of aboriginal livestock control. After all, the mine could not destroy the park, but the livestock certainly could.

Karen and I tried to ignore the cattle and horses and enjoy the cruise anyway. The forty or so other tourists on the boat were all pensioners and not too boisterous, so the boat was able to approach crocs, birds and even a snake fairly closely without too much disturbance. We were now halfway through August, well into the dry season, and the wetland waterholes were shrinking. This concentrated the fauna into relatively small areas, and as a result we saw hundreds of birds and scores of crocodiles. During the wet, with the wetlands flooded, the animals disperse far and wide and sightings are minimal.

One of the many crocs seen on the cruise

We added another good tick to our bird list with the sighting of a whiskered tern over the marshes. Rufous night herons were everywhere, a far cry from our two previous single sightings in Lawn Hill and on the Nelson River in Victoria. We had spied another Lawn Hill regular - the barking owl - prior to the cruise, along with a pair of nesting sea eagles not far from the jetty. Despite their name, sea eagles are not restricted to coastal areas, and can be found far inland along all the major permanent river systems.

Our disappointment with the behaviour of the local aboriginal community was partly alleviated later in the day when we visited the Warradjan Aboriginal Culture Centre. We noticed a painting on the wall, inspired by an aboriginal legend from the Dreamtime, and beside it was a transcription of the legend itself. It is worth repeating, unlike a lot of the aboriginal legends which, when taken out of their natural context, seem fairly childish at best.

"An aboriginal man with a huge libido found two girls sleeping in a cave. Thinking they were a gift, he ravaged them both. Their family punished him by putting him in a deep hole from which there was no escape. While in the hole, he masturbated so much that his penis fell off. He found that it made a good didgeridoo, and he used his testicles as clapping sticks. Then he turned into a bird and flew off. "

Any culture that can invent a story like this one can't be all bad!

Next Chapter
Back to Contents