Fol­low­ing In­dige­nous song­lines on a tour of the Top End

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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 cof­fee­coloured 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.

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

“If you come here at night you’ll hear mu­sic and danc­ing. But never come with­out a witch­doc­tor.” Artist and Abo­rig­i­nal guide Thommo Ngan­jmirra at an In­jalak Hill rock-art site

the artist passed away un­ex­pect­edly in 2014. We are among the first to see the fin­ished works.

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.

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 ev­er­p­re­sent 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 light­ningquick noc­tur­nal vis­its.

“We’re lucky to be able to visit a part of the world where the apex preda­tors are still in charge.”

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.”

Cool­ing off in Maguk, a gorge and swim­ming hole in Kakadu Na­tional Park (left); Ven­ture North Aus­tralia’s David McMa­hon nabs a crab on the mud­flats of Cobourg Penin­sula

The late Mit­suaki Tan­abe’s na­tive-rice sculp­ture in the Mount Bundy range (top); Arn­hem Land is four-wheel drive ter­ri­tory

Tour op­er­a­tor Hugh Gange serves a seafood bar­be­cue, NT-style (above); Cobourg Coastal Camp over­look­ing Port Ess­ing­ton

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