EDGE OF THE WORLD

Feel­ing re­mote in NT’s fur­thest reaches.

Australian Traveller - - Contents - WORDS CRAIG TANS­LEY PHO­TOG­RA­PHY SEAN FENNESSY

“I RECKON SOME­ONE MIGHT’VE gone through the fi­bre op­tics ca­ble on their trac­tor.” It serves me right, I sup­pose, for ask­ing the big, bearded bloke pulling beers be­hind the bar why I can’t get emails on my iPhone. The men all round him – knock­ing back ice-cold stub­bies af­ter a long day trolling for game fish – hardly look the Face­book type. Tall tales aren’t for mates a thou­sand kilo­me­tres away; they’re for the blokes be­side you. The ones that slap your back and scream ad­vice as you pull the big one in. The type who’ll back up your bull­shit sto­ries, be­cause they’ll sure as hell want you to back up theirs. “The same thing hap­pened last year.” Oh, the bar­tender’s ac­tu­ally se­ri­ous: some­one re­ally did run over the in­ter­net on their trac­tor. “All of East Arn­hem Land lost their sig­nal for a week.” The sun’s set­ting out­side, a splurge of or­ange and red so pro­found some­one should be sell­ing tick­ets; though no­body, of course, can post a sin­gle shot. Out in the man­groves and be­side the rough sand beaches that skirt the Gulf of Car­pen­taria – just be­yond the safety of my spot here on the deck of Groote Ey­landt Lodge – the en­croach­ing dark is full of crea­tures that would love to drag me down un­der all that blood-warm ocean. There’s al­ways been some­thing about be­ing in the Ter­ri­tory that makes me feel like I’m tee­ter­ing on the edge of an abyss: that if I take one wrong step, it’s cur­tains for me. To any­one who reck­ons it takes a sa­fari in Africa to ex­pe­ri­ence ul­ti­mate ad­ven­ture in the wild, I’d counter: where else on the planet but the North­ern Ter­ri­tory can you con­sider your­self an ex­treme trav­eller just sit­ting out­side your room hav­ing a cup of tea in the morn­ing? I’ll be spend­ing a week here, far from the bright lights of the cap­i­tal, Dar­win. Where I’m go­ing – the largely un­her­alded Groote Ey­landt, and the largely un­reach­able East Arn­hem Land – few tourists ever ven­ture, and so life goes on as it al­ways has, and prob­a­bly al­ways will. On Groote Ey­landt, they keep salt­wa­ter crocs for pets. And why

not? The Ter­ri­tory’s the only place in the world where you’re al­lowed to; and dogs and cats have a habit of dis­ap­pear­ing round these parts. Head ranger Adrian Hogg is cradling his pet crocodile in his arms like a new­born baby. “They make great pets,” he says, stroking its snout just above the teeth. “But they’re not for ev­ery­body. Just watch them, even when they’re lit­tle bug­gers, they bite and spin. They can strip your fin­ger in a sec­ond flat.” All but 30 tourists a year who come to Groote Ey­landt come to fish, this be­ing one of the world’s premier game fish­ing des­ti­na­tions. But the is­land’s newly ap­pointed tourism co-or­di­na­tor, Nick Darby, is adamant there’s much more to do. The roads on Groote Ey­landt that don’t lead to the mine (Groote Ey­landt pro­duces a quar­ter of the world’s man­ganese) are all fiercely cor­ru­gated red dirt trails. But they lead to places Nick’s only just dis­cov­er­ing, of­ten just days be­fore I do (and where else on Earth does that hap­pen?) He’s ex­cited to­day; he’s tak­ing me to an Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity on the other side of the is­land that he’s only just re­ceived per­mis­sion to bring trav­ellers to; I’ll be the very first guest there. Groote Ey­landt may well teem with wa­ter­falls and many-mil­len­nia-old cave paint­ings, but Nick’s only just find­ing them. Here at Um­bakumba Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity, a tiny out­back vil­lage sits be­side a sea the ex­act same shade of blue as the sky; it’s so clear that I watch queen fish jump, and tiny sliv­ers of bait fish chased by God-knows-what. An ea­gle ray leaps clean out of the water as I sit cross-legged on a tiny con­crete jetty savour­ing my morn­ing tea. “There’s a croc that likes to sit out there on the reef line,” Nick says, a re­minder, if I needed one, that the Ter­ri­tory is no place for ocean swim­mers. We bash back across the red dusty trail and cool down in the shade of stringy barks. I pad­dle in the clear, chilled wa­ters of Leske Pools, watch­ing blue-winged king­fish­ers flit from tree to tree. There could be death adders in the red sand be­side me, but at least I’m safe for now from salt­wa­ter crocs. Just around the cor­ner, Nick sur­prises me with a pic­nic he’s set up on a sand bar in a bil­l­abong. I sit in a plas­tic chair nib­bling cheese and sip­ping wine as a goanna shoves a yabby that it has fished from the water slowly down its throat. There are Abo­rig­i­nal cave paint­ings around these parts – plenty of them. Nick reck­ons maybe only 50 out­siders have ever seen the ones he’s tak­ing me to. They’re reached via a wind­ing trail through black snake coun­try, which takes me high above the gum trees below. And there are many more sites yet on Groote Ey­landt that will “blow my mind”, but I can’t see them just yet. “No white man’s ever seen some of them,” he says – rock chasms, se­cret canyons, green wa­ter­holes. No one sees any­thing around here with­out per­mis­sion from the lo­cals. Back at the lodge, I walk next door to the Anindilyakwa Art Gallery where res­i­dent artist Al­fred Lalara shows me a dash paint­ing he’s just fin­ished. When I ask its mean­ing, he looks shyly at a woman pe­rus­ing the art­work across the room. “Not with her here,” he says, so softly that I can barely hear him. Oth­ers sure don’t mind telling me sto­ries on Groote Ey­landt. Like the one I’ll hear most nights about the prawn trawler cap­tain who fought the mack­erel boat mob; then when he rowed his ten­der off to lick his wounds, he cap­sized and no-one ever found his body. When we drive past Groote Ey­landt’s nine-hole golf course, Nick points at the sec­ond hole green. “See that,” he says, point­ing at play­ers ready to putt. “They don’t know there’s a big croc sit­ting below them

look­ing up at them.” The town here’s not much more than a rough grid of red soil and strangely re­silient green grass that con­sti­tutes a footy field. There are mango trees and a row of fra­grant frangi­pani, about all that sep­a­rates subur­bia from the cru­elty of the out­back. In the evenings, I lis­ten to the fish­ing mob warm up their tales, but when the light fades out en­tirely, I pre­fer the si­lence out here un­der the star­ri­est skies I’ve seen. Beam­ing plan­ets shine down at me, tiny stars glint and blink­ing stars shoot across the en­tire sky so slowly I can look away and still catch them. I fight the urge to watch it all ly­ing on my back on the beach be­side me. I spend two more days on Groote Ey­landt, but I long to go fur­ther into the Ter­ri­tory, be­yond where any com­mer­cial air­line can take me. In the Top End, if you re­ally want to go bush, you’re go­ing to need your own plane. And in the Ter­ri­tory, no plane’s more ca­pa­ble of get­ting you there than a Cessna 210. “It’s the work­horse of the Ter­ri­tory,” my pi­lot says, rub­bing his hand af­fec­tion­ately across the wing of the Cessna fly­ing us to David­son’s Arn­hem­land Sa­faris’ lodge from Dar­win. The lodge is built within a land be­long­ing exclusively to the lo­cal In­dige­nous peo­ple, set on 700 square kilo­me­tres of sa­cred land exclusively leased from the Amur­dak peo­ple of East Arn­hem Land. East Arn­hem Land is home to some the old­est peo­ples on Earth. And this morn­ing, they got even older. The pa­per I’m read­ing says an­thro­pol­o­gists have dis­cov­ered that Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple have lived in East Arn­hem Land for 18,000 years more than the 47,000 they’d pre­vi­ously es­ti­mated: 65,000 years of con­tin­u­ous oc­cu­pa­tion. Imag­ine. As we lift into the sky, keep­ing low over a land­scape of red-brown sand­stone es­carp­ments, bro­ken only by skinny, snaking rivers that flood come the wet sea­son, mak­ing all I’ll be see­ing to­tally un­reach­able, I try to com­pre­hend thou­sands of gen­er­a­tions of hu­mans ek­ing out a life down there below me. Air­ports in East Arn­hem Land come with­out se­cu­rity screen­ing or cafes. They’re no more than a bumpy red track cut be­tween gum trees and barely wide enough for a plane to land on. We’re met by a bloke in a dusty LandCruiser, and driven just around the cor­ner to the lodge. David­son’s Arn­hem­land Sa­faris’ eco-lodge is as lux­u­ri­ous as it gets this far east of Dar­win, though lux­ury in the Ter­ri­tory comes with­out Jacuzzis or gold-plated bath­room van­i­ties: five-star round here is about ex­clu­siv­ity, and at David­son’s there’s no one around you for 200 kilo­me­tres in any di­rec­tion.

Five-star round here is about ex­clu­siv­ity, and at David­son’s there’s no one around you for 200 kilo­me­tres in any di­rec­tion.

Lo­cals have another mea­sure for lux­ury in these parts too, it’s how cold your beer is. The fur­ther into the Top End you go, the harder it is to keep your beer cold. The diesel they need to run the gen­er­a­tor that keeps your drink chilled at David­son’s has to come from Dar­win, five or so hours’ drive down a dirt track through the bush. In the Wet, no truck’s got a hope in hell of mak­ing it through. Ranger Luke Troup sits me down at the bar, be­fore I leave the rel­a­tive safety of our com­pound. “If you walk off into the bush around here you tend to per­ish,” he says slowly. “And don’t get too com­pla­cent, sal­ties [salt­wa­ter crocs] will walk long dis­tances across flood­plains, mostly at night, so don’t think fresh water in the Ter­ri­tory is safe.” We tra­verse tracks among mon­soonal rain­for­est and past pa­per­bark swamps in the back of an old mod­i­fied LandCruiser (no one trusts any­thing but a LandCruiser in the Ter­ri­tory) un­til we reach sand­stone es­carp­ment coun­try. Here val­leys, over­hangs and caves have been oc­cu­pied by the Amur­dak peo­ple for tens of thou­sands of years. We climb a trail be­neath a tow­er­ing es­carp­ment, un­til we reach an over­hang on the cliff face. We squeeze through a tight gap while above us, an enor­mous ser­pent is painted at face level. “This one they reckon goes back 20,000 years,” Luke says ca­su­ally. “I’ve had peo­ple from all over the world study­ing rock art and they reckon the rock art here’s bet­ter than any­where. Lots of paint­ings round here, no an­thro­pol­o­gist has ever seen. The Amur­dak peo­ple don’t want them to. We only find out what they want to tell you, and, mate, they don’t tell you much.” Among the flow­er­ing gre­vil­lea in the cracks be­tween the rocks, where 100-year-old ken­tia palms man­age to make the out­back look trop­i­cal, there’s an en­ergy flow­ing right out of the earth. You don’t have to be cosmic to sense it ei­ther, you just have to open your eyes: all around me white, ochre, yel­low and red rock draw­ings de­pict the last 50,000 years of hu­man habi­ta­tion on this planet. Later, when I’ve let the heat drain from a Top End af­ter­noon in the bar (bond­ing with lo­cal char­ac­ters like vet­eran tour guide Seb Lord, who tells me he “won’t touch ve­gans” when he’s book­ing clien­tele), we take a slow boat ride up a creek lined by pa­per­barks, into a bil­l­abong dwarfed by tow­er­ing es­carp­ments. Cor­morants and brah­miny kites cir­cle the heav­ens above, stay­ing clear of the thou­sands of mag­pie geese who scram­ble off to­wards the sun­set (40,000 gather here each Septem­ber). Salt­wa­ter crocs lurk in the shal­lows, only their pre­his­toric heads show above the sur­face, set in per­ma­nent sneers, their rows of in­cisors warn­ing enough for any crea­ture to keep its dis­tance. For the next three days I ex­plore this place day and night; I’ll hit a five-me­tre croc in a five-me­tre run­about in the shal­lows of a nar­row creek en­trance, rid­ing the wash as it thrashes about in protest. I’ll tip­toe through caves full of an­cient bones, all that’s left of the peo­ple who once lived here (“they’ll be here till they break down to dust and go back to the earth,” my guide tells me). And in the qui­eter mo­ments – afloat on a bil­l­abong with Cham­pagne in hand as the colours of the sun­set lend a del­i­cacy to this place that makes me for­get mo­men­tar­ily that I’m sur­rounded by crocs twice as long as me – I re­alise that there’s no limit to ad­ven­ture in the Ter­ri­tory. If we view hu­man ex­is­tence in Aus­tralia as a sin­gle day, non-In­dige­nous peo­ple’s time in Aus­tralia makes up a mat­ter of min­utes, whereas In­dige­nous peo­ple have been here since the crack of dawn. A visit to the Ter­ri­tory isn’t about where you go, it’s about the pas­sage back through time you take – thou­sands and thou­sands of years – to the peo­ple who lived and died here so many times over, and the me­mory of them that lingers.

All around me white, ochre, yel­low and red rock draw­ings de­pict the last 50,000 years of hu­man habi­ta­tion on this planet.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Ranger Luke Troup sur­rounded by thou­sands of years of rock art; Forms from be­yond time for­ever marked on stone; In­dige­nous art from each re­gion of the Ter­ri­tory has its own unique style; There are some an­i­mals that don’t want to eat you.

THIS PAGE: Vis­i­tors gather on Dar­win’s north­ern beaches to watch the sun set into the Ara­fura Sea. OP­PO­SITE: Artist Al­fred Lalara; Abo­rig­i­nal artists use what they find in their sur­round­ings to cre­ate their work .

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