Experience Australia’s Aboriginal past
Leonie Corcoran spends some time eating ants and avoiding crocodiles as wildlife outnumbers people in Arnhem Land
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