Exploring one of Australia's greatest landmarks and the world's oldest civilisation in the flame-scorched earth of the Northern Territory.
Inside Kakadu National Park
Kakadu. The sound is soft yet distinctive, like a bird call that rolls and unfolds across the willows and the reeds, the waters, the low and smoky air, to reach me on the scrunched and scorched soil. On the earth that is itself Kakadu.
The word comes from an Aboriginal flood plain language called Gagudju, which flourished around here a century or so ago. And here is Kakadu National Park, an area of nearly 20 000 square kilometres and a UNESCO World Heritage Area to boot. It’s just a short drive (in Australian terms) from the less poetically named, but still raw and beautiful, Litchfield Park near Darwin.
Both bathe in colours I’ve never seen beyond a brochure. Colours so alive they bubble out of the ground and seep into my soul. Deep, thick, rich blue skies. Flaming orange soil that rises on horizons and flanks the roads like rail tracks before spilling out to touch the trees.
On the roads themselves...Emptiness. Mile after mile of emptiness.
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The Australian Outback: Empty and Full at Kakadu National Park
For this is Australian emptiness. Empty tarmac roads that connect towns, creeks and billabongs together like the energetic limbs of an exuberant stick man. Roads that probe, but not too far, into each of Kakadu’s seven regions, treading the delicate balance between “access for all” and environmental conservation.
But that’s not the only reason why some places are off limits.
Kakadu is still home to people who have lived on this land for tens of thousands of years. In fact, Kakadu’s World Heritage status honours the Bininj - or Mungguy - community as one of the oldest living societies on earth.
Kakadu National Park’s Aboriginal People
To say that the relationship between the Aboriginal people and the Balanda (non-Aboriginal people) is fragile in Australia would be like describing kangaroos as a "bit different" to sheep: a gross underdescription.
Getting this far down into the article has taken hours of consultation to try to get the words right and yet still I expect I will get things wrong. When it comes to writing about race, culture, nationality and religion, good intentions only carry you so far.
This particular conflict has its origins in the typical and distressing footprints of history. White colonial powers arrived. They viewed the native populations as, at best, a vulnerable people in need of Christian redemption and a sturdy European education. And, at worst, as a subspecies closer to the animal kingdom who could be exploited to further the wealth of the rich men back home.
It is a story known across the world. But while tolerance and integration developed with relative ease in some countries, Australia has had a stormy time.
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Shocking Past: Racism Made Plain in Law
As late as 1967, Aboriginal people “didn’t count” in the census, while well-meaning but flawed government programmes managed to engineer a damaging legacy. Alcoholism has become a toxic debate between individual choice, responsibility, stereotypes and community action in the wake of longstanding inequality - and the issue festers on.
It also creates an unfortunate first impression.
“I can’t believe the racism I hear,” says Dean, an eco-guide who finally opens up about the topic after days on the road together. “The number of backpackers who say that ‘all the abos do is sit around getting drunk all day.’
“It drives me crazy, you know? At some point, I say to them. ‘Look. From what I can see, all backpackers do is sit around getting drunk all day.’ So what does that make you?”
After days of getting nowhere, I’m relieved to find someone who’ll talk about the subject, to help fill in the gaps.
Promise You Won't Talk in Kakadu National Park
Before heading into Kakadu, I had to fill in an encyclopaedic collection of press access forms and undergo an interview with the authorities to convince them that I wouldn’t photograph – or even talk to – any of the Aboriginal people I might meet there.
In vain, I tried to find out why.
“Out of respect,” I heard time and again and I couldn’t move past that block.
I like to think that I am capable of treating people with respect. That I wouldn’t trample into a religious ceremony, ram a lens up someone’s nostril or pose for a racist picture.
So was there something else? Was there something about speaking to foreigners? Or to women? Or was there something intrinsic to photography that had a significance I could learn about?
“It’s out of respect,” I heard again, as if the case was closed.
The loss of my permit flashed before my I eyes and I decided to let it go.
A Background of Trouble
Back in Darwin, a “unnamed source” told me some more.
“They’ve just had so many bad experiences,” he said, about both the park authorities and the aboriginal peoples in general.
“A while back, they had a TV journalist do a strip tease on one of their sacred sites.”
(As a side note, dear Readers, let me assure your troubled minds that you will never have to see me do this. Anywhere. Ever. For any reason. Feel better?!)
“They” in this case turned out to be the Kakadu Board of Management, a group of both Bininj and Balanda who work together to manage the park. The traditional owners have leased their land to the Director of National Parks and the Bininj form the majority on the board.
After a hike around (and through) freshwater waterfalls, I caught up with Dean again over a helping of kangaroo burger. (Only kidding. But it was on the menu.)
“Also,” Dean went on, “people talk about ‘aborigines’ as though there’s just one group of people. There are hundreds. With different languages and customs and territories and religions...
“Just like Europe, really.”
Aboriginal Languages and Concepts That Don't Translate
According to the Bowali Visitor Centre, stationed inside Kakadu National Park, there are around 100 Aboriginal languages spoken across Australia, with at least 50 forming a key part of everyday life.
As a lover of words, I thrill at some of the place names. Badbong Bawardedjobgeng, for example, means “the short-eared rock wallaby cut the rock.” Others, despite their juicy sounds, like Anbangbang and Mardugal, have no ready translation.
And while place names overlap with European culture, personal names do not. And the concept of “ownership” is about as far away as those English, French and Dutch courtrooms that came up with the early colonial rules.
On my first day in Darwin, I met Robbie from the Larrakia clan, who spoke a little about the customs and traditions that permeate his world. About identifying plants, chewing green-backed ants, predicting the weather and avoiding conflict through avoiding people.
“We have an ancient Cold War when it comes to that,” he said. “When I see my mother-in-law, I turn my back and we do not speak.”
He spoke about the Milkwood tree, or churra in his language, saying that each time one falls a baby is born. And that each new churra signals the death of someone else.
He touched the bark. “My ancestors are in that tree.”
Don't Write Things Down - Aboriginal Philosophies
Robbie, and the Larrakia in general, take a dim view of the majority of my work: writing things down.
“You people. Always on a screen, with a pen, on paper, writing things down. My people, we don’t need to write things down. We don’t need to keep records. We pass on our knowledge through our spoken words. Through our stories.”
I pause for a moment, pen mid-air, iPhone in pocket, wondering what to do next.
I keep the pen mid-air. “So...How do you feel about me writing things down?”
“Our culture believes in equilibrium,” he went on, ignoring the question. “We believe governance belongs to our elders, since they have experience. We believe that babies are innocent.
“We are older than the pyramids and older than the bible. We have had no dictators. No caste systems. Limited numerology. And no concept of money."
This is all sounds rather good. But where are the problems? Surely every culture has problems? What about equal rights between men and women, for example? That’s usually a telling place to start.
The answer to my question falls by the wayside in a manner reminiscent of our dear political leaders back home.
Still, at least we were talking. And for that I was grateful.
Yet for all that, the Larrakia live on the edge of the navy base in Darwin, not on the open plains of Kakadu National Park.
What about the tribes who do still live on their land? What do they believe?
Since I cannot meet them, I turn to the next best thing. Their intriguing rock wall art – and an enthusiastic park ranger called Douglas.
How to See Aboriginal Rock Art in Kakadu National Park
On the arid cliffs at Nourlangie and Ubirr, swirls and brush strokes create two-dimensional figures in globular white and flat ochre that splash upwards along the curves of the rock. Many begin with the concept of creation, which principally involves the Rainbow Serpent splitting stone apart to form the waterholes and crevices of Kakadu. This same serpent represents the custodial duties of the Bininj people towards the countryside they live in, which would probably cover most modern conservation and ecological practice. Then there are representations of Namarrgon (Lightning Man) and Warramurrungundji (Earth Mother,) together with stories about incest bonds and other moiety principles of inheritance that I can’t quite follow.
The heat presses down and I’m almost out of water. From high on a rocky outcrop I watch the blue-tinged treetops camouflage the wildlife underneath. 10 000 species of insects. 2000 plants. 290 birds. 68 mammals. And more than 120 reptiles.
Of which there is only one that holds the record. The record for size. The record for aggression. And the record for living here unchanged for nearly 200 million years.
Can you tell what it is yet?
That’s right, folks. It’s the saltwater crocodile.
Kakadu National Park & Saltwater Crocodiles
As little as a week ago, I’d held the unexamined conviction that crocodiles only attacked when provoked. That their size, their Darwinian age (evolution-wise, not city-wise) made them slow and cumbersome.
In short, that I’d stand a chance.
How wrong you can be.
As it turns out, crocodiles are cunning predators, lying quietly out of sight for day after day until they’ve learnt the behaviour of their intended victim. When they attack, it occurs without warning. They can swim faster than the fastest Olympian on record and jump to reach a vertical height of more than 10 feet.
A single bite can crush the head of a pig, according to the Parks and Wildlife Commission NT, and fatalities occur around here pretty much every other year.
And when did I learn this new information? Why, while swimming with one of course. Dangling on a chain inside a heavily scratched clear plastic container while holding meat out of a gap in the side. But more about that another day.
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Here, in the darkness, a velvety purple light is spreading across the morning. The water is still. The air is quiet. Slick, slow ripples swim across the surface, carrying the remnants of the moonlight on the crest of their curves. I lean on the rails, camera ready, scanning the horizon.
Within minutes, two curves don’t belong. They’re ridged. Fixed. And a silver halo creeps around a slight silhouette.
The snap comes so fast it is almost silent, the sound waves lagging behind the light. Mighty jaws, a writhing fish, giant scales, a crown of spray...and then gone.
The fish that is.
The crocodile remains, jaw open and teeth exposed in something of a prolonged victory gloat.
I move back from the edge of the boat. So does everyone else.
The crocodile swims towards us, eyes malevolent and amber in the lilac morning light.
Birds flee overhead, a splitting of the Red Sea in the sky.
I hold my breath. And press the shutter again. And again and again and again.
Leaving Kakadu National Park
Back on dry land and back in the car, I’m racing along the tarmac in a sprint towards the airport. But something’s wrong. Terribly, primitively wrong. I feel it, somehow, before I get to see it.
That bluer-than-blue sky so vibrant before now carries a pallid, grey haze. The sides of the road no longer meet on the horizon but merge into something darker. As I draw closer, the unease moves from a whisper to a roar, with flames spitting in every direction and dust clawing at the sky.
I pull over, uncertain. Smoke stings my eyes and ravages my lungs while the tender tendrils of panic curl around my mind. There is no-one behind me. No-one ahead. The last signs of life passed me miles and miles ago. I have no fuel to return.
There’s coughing. Mine. There’s thinking, barely. Water, I need water.
I have water. Yes, that’s right. Half a litre of drinking water from a dented plastic bottle is really going to make a difference.
Help. I have a phone! It has no signal.
I pace. Coughing more. Stinging more. Getting back into the car.
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I have reached the end of the road. The only option is to read the manual. My fingers fumble through the park paperwork and paraphernalia. How to survive a crocodile attack was somewhat disappointing but perhaps How to survive a forest fire will be more, shall we say, illuminating.
I find it. The information about fires that is.
They’re deliberate. An ancient aboriginal practice, outlawed for a time by the all-knowing Balanda before various plants and animals withered and died and they realised that after 50 000 years or so, the Bininj might actually know a thing or two about land management.
The fire was deliberate. There was no-one to tell. A planned practice designed to recycle nutrients and promote biodiversity.
Burn it all down – and trust nature to start again.
What Kakadu National Park Taught Me
I remembered Robbie’s words about my notepad and iPhone. I thought back to the rock art, one image painted over another and over another.
It’s not so important to keep the painting, not to the traditional owners at least. It is important to have a place to paint. It’s the experience that counts, more than the painting.
My feet crunch on the scorched soil.
Kakadu has the oldest living reptile and the oldest living society.
It rebels at manufactured permanence, be it rock art, photography or a land held “safe” from fire. Perhaps, once you’ve notched up so many years, these “trinkets” no longer matter.
Perhaps it’s my own society’s newness that compels it to record. Our own lack of faith in the permanence of our lives, our way of living and our souls. Calligraphy-touched manuscripts that morphed into newspapers and then on to frenzied streams of tweets, Facebook updates and Instagram photos. Restoring frescoes, making notes, reviving languages, curating everything we possibly can.
Then again, perhaps that’s just the lack of oxygen talking. It is ferociously hot now.
I’m tired. Febrile. Thirsty. And that violet billowing smoke moves closer, growling and spitting as it grows.
My footsteps crunch. I need to end my maelstrom of thoughts.
If I am to achieve permanence - of any kind whatsoever -I must leave – and leave now.
To learn more about Kakadu National Park, I have to forget today's attempts to keep records.
I have to trust that I’ll be back.
Thank you and congratulations for reading this far! This trip and article wouldn't have been possible without help from Tourism NT. As ever, I was free to write whatever I liked - as usual. As always. Read the exciting disclosure policy.