Ex­pe­ri­ence Aus­tralia’s Abo­rig­i­nal past

Leonie Cor­co­ran spends some time eat­ing ants and avoid­ing croc­o­diles as wildlife out­num­bers peo­ple in Arn­hem Land

The Irish Times Magazine - - TRAVEL -

The oval co­coon of leaves is pul­sat­ing. Within se­conds, a nest of green ants surges out. They spill out in vast num­bers, jus­ti­fi­ably an­gry that their home has been twisted off a tree. They in­ject darts of ascor­bic acid into the arm of their at­tacker, our North­ern Ter­ri­tory guide Dave McMa­hon. Bat­tling the an­gry mob with one hand, McMa­hon opens a Ther­mos flask filled with hot wa­ter and crunches the whole nest in­side. McMa­hon is a se­nior guide with Aus­tralian tour op­er­a­tor Ven­ture North. He could also be Croc­o­dile Dundee or MacGyver in his spare time. Once the flask is sealed, McMa­hon con­cen­trates on swiping the es­capees off his bare arms, winc­ing only slightly, shout­ing quite a bit and then tast­ing one, two, three of the es­capees and en­cour­ag­ing us to do the same.

This wasn’t the bush tucker I’d been promised in Aus­tralia’s North­ern Ter­ri­tory but it seemed rude not to taste it af­ter McMa­hon’s self­less act. As di­rected, I touch the bot­tom of one of the ants to my tongue and get a hit of citrus. The ant con­tains a high dose of Vi­ta­min C, which ex­plains why McMa­hon wres­tled them from the tree in the first place – mixed with hot wa­ter, this ant nest soup will form the ba­sis of a cold’n’flu rem­edy for fel­low trav­ellers who are feel­ing un­der the weather af­ter a long flight to Dar­win. ( FYI: We added herbs and the tonic tasted de­li­cious.)

This is all part of McMa­hon’s day when trav­el­ling north from Dar­win through the North­ern Ter­ri­tory’s Top End. If you crave iso­la­tion, the North­ern Ter­ri­tory is the place to go – it is the least pop­u­lous of Aus­tralia’s states and ter­ri­to­ries. If you want even more iso­la­tion, aim for the Top End. To be even more re­mote, head to Arn­hem Land in the Top End. Con­tinue on and you’ll reach the Cobourg Penin­sula in north­ern Arn­hem Land, where we are trav­el­ling to stay at the Ven­ture North safa- ri- style camp. Trav­el­ling here is a priv­i­lege per­mit­ted by Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, de­scen­dants of the old­est sur­viv­ing cul­ture in the world, who re­main own­ers of the land. It’s not sur­pris­ing to find that wildlife out­num­bers peo­ple – across the 2,000km square of the Cobourg Penin­sula, the pop­u­la­tion is about 40 peo­ple.

The wa­ters around the Cobourg Penin­sula form a con­ser­va­tion area that pro­vides a home for nu­mer­ous en­dan­gered species, in­clud­ing log­ger­head, green, hawks­bill and leatherback tur­tles. It is also one of the rich­est fish­ing ar­eas in the world. On the land, it forms the Garig Gu­nak Barlu Na­tional Park and more than 280 bird species can be found here, about a third of Aus­tralia’s bird species pop­u­la­tion. They are joined in the trees by sugar glid­ers and other types of pos­sums, while mam­mals such as din­goes, bandi­coots, brush- tailed rab­bit- rats and quolls prowl the ground, along with rep­tiles such as goan­nas and ven­omous snakes. Although red kan­ga­roos don’t tend to make it to the Top End, the wal­laby can be found. I am pretty sure the North­ern Ter­ri­tory ra­tio of one croc­o­dile for ev­ery two peo­ple is some­what higher in Arn­hem Land, but I de­cide not to ask.

De­spite the small pop­u­la­tion, the Arn­hem Land is rich in hu­man cul­ture, with tens of thou­sands of Abo­rig­i­nal art­works across the es­carp­ment that runs for nearly 100,000km.

We take a dusty red track to­wards the Gun­bal­anya Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity to climb In­jalak Hill, a rocky out­crop about 300km from Dar­win. We slide and sidestep to the top of the rock with lo­cal rock art guide and artist Roland Bur­runali, a mem­ber of the lo­cal Bin­inj com­mu­nity and with­out whom we would not be per­mit­ted to ex­plore the area. “Most of the paint­ings here are 20,000 years old,” says Bur­runali. “And in 20 years, they are gone.”

Images of croc­o­diles, echid­nas, kan­ga­roos, birds, snakes and fish are all colour­ful- ly en­tan­gled and painted in reds, yel­lows, blacks and whites on sand­stone walls. The colours are re­mark­ably well pre­served, most star­tlingly the red which Bur­runali tells us was usu­ally a mix­ture of blood from the artist them­selves, some­times mixed with kan­ga­roo blood. The other colours were made us­ing berries and plants, all mixed in one of the many small pit holes that can still be seen hol­lowed in the rock.

The an­i­mals are ac­com­pa­nied by de­pic­tions of the “mimi spir­its”, the spir­its who taught the Abo­rig­ines how to sur­vive in this harsh land­scape. There are also de­pic­tions of Yin­gana, the Cre­ation Mother. Be­tween all of these, hand prints sig­nify the unique sig­na­ture of the artist.

For mil­len­nia these paint­ings have been part of the Abo­rig­i­nal prac­tice of sto­ry­telling, ac­com­pa­ny­ing oral sto­ries, songs and dance. Bur­runali points to an­other and re­it­er­ates the 20,000- year- old date stamp. McMa­hon later ex­plains that Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­ni­ties do not per­ceive time in the western sense and some paint­ings here are ac­tu­ally es­ti­mated to be 60,000 years old. For the Bin­inj, it is not their age that makes them sa­cred, it is their rep­re­sen­ta­tion of tra­di­tional sto­ries.

De­spite sur­viv­ing for cen­turies, chang­ing sun and rain pat­terns mean the art­works are now cor­rod­ing at a in­creased pace.

The Bin­inj peo­ple have de­cided they will not pre­serve the paint­ings at In­jalak. The el­der who sets the laws has also de­cided they will no longer paint on these rocks be­cause the com­mu­nity no longer lives there. In this com­mu­nity, any new art is con­fined to the In­jalak Arts and Crafts Cen­ter ( in-

From left: North­ern Ter­ri­tory guide Dave McMa­hon; A crafts­man works on a didgeri­doo at In­jalak Arts Cen­tre

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.