Our land trip in the 'top end' of Australia

On our land trip from Darwin through a couple of the national parks, we learnt so much about the aboriginal culture, way of life, the land and the wildlife. In Kakadu we attended a series of talks by one of the rangers, Christian - a very knowledgeable and interesting chap who speaks several native languages.

He gave us talks on subjects as diverse as Aborigine life and culture, geology of the area, the duties of a park ranger (from trapping nuisance crocodiles to burning country), how green ants build their nests (they stretch themselves in a line to hold two leaves together then glue them using larvae), the many uses of paperbark trees (from baby 'nappies' to wrapping the dead for burial) and how to tell the difference between a strychnine and quinine fruit when the tree looks exactly the same (strychnine is striped and quinine smooth - or is it the other way round?) and a multitude of other things!

The traditional Aboriginal culture is fascinating and in many respects quite inspiring. However we had real difficulty in trying to assimilate this with the reality which 21st century urban aborigines both face and pose within white Australian society. We found the issues to be complex and hard to understand or define, nevertheless we have to admire the traditional aboriginal culture and history.

The Aborigines have inhabited the Australian continent for over 50,000 years – the longest of any indigenous populations. Their origin begins with ‘dreamtime' or ‘creation time' when (they believe) their ancestral spirits (Mimi spirits) came through the land, creating the landscape, the flora and fauna. The Aboriginal ‘law' which has been passed down through the generations binds the people to the land and gives them the responsibility to care for it and all within.

The ancestors created a kinship system where everything is linked – people, plants, wildlife - and everything belongs to one of two groups. You could be in the same group as a crocodile who is therefore your ‘brother' and as such is sacred to you. Within each of these 2 paternal groups, there are 4 sub groups which are passed down maternally. This is where it gets very complicated because there are only certain combinations which can be mixed. The ‘law' dictates who you can have relations with and who you must avoid. All knowledge is passed down through the generations by word of mouth and through rock paintings. The Mimi spirits were the first to paint - they then taught the Bininj (people) how to paint. It's the act of painting which is important rather than the painting itself and many of the original paintings we saw had been painted over.

There are more than 5000 rock art sites in Kakadu - we only had time to visit a couple, though we have subsequently visited many more on our sea adventures. The paintings depict life at the time and tell of the creation and changes in the land and climate (many of which have been confirmed by archaeologists). Some are old, and some are quite contemporary. Language is also extremely important – each tribe having a different language and different knowledge. Over recent generations many of the different tribes have disappeared and along with them much of that knowledge.

The ‘top end' is ruled by the wet and dry seasons - in Kakadu there are 6 seasons within the wet and dry – these dictate what activities take place. The first signals of change come from the flora, then the fauna – the Bininj take their cue from these –the best time to hunt geese, snakes and turtles, the best time to burn the land or to harvest a crop of yam. Burning has always been an important part of the Aboriginal way of life – when the Darwin Woolly Butt starts to flower this is the time when burning will do the least damage to the country but will have significant benefits by cleaning the land and encouraging biodiversity to flourish. As the Woolly Butt flowers at different times in different places, the burning is done in a mosaic fashion. Burning during this cool season also helps prevent wildfires later in the hot dry season.

Kakadu, an area of 20,000 sq kms which borders Arnhem Land, is a World Heritage living cultural landscape. Whilst some of the traditional owners have leased or sold land to the mining companies, others have ceded their land to the National Parks to be maintained and managed for future generations by a board of management which consists of 10 Bininj and 5 Balanda (non-aborigines) working together. Many of the traditional land management techniques are still continued alongside modern technology.

The park has 7 different regions – savannah woodlands, monsoon forests, floodplains, hills and ridges, mangroves, stone country and tidal flats .

The South Alligator region is home to a large wetland area of Mamukala. Whilst we were there the wetland was full of different birds and the magpie geese had just started to arrive.

Jabiru is the only town in the park but is a good base for visiting two of the other regions – East Alligator river and Ubirr which borders Arnhem Land and Nourlangie. Ubirr has some great rock art sites and from a 250m high rocky lookout there are fabulous views over the Nadab floodplain.

We had a trip down the river with a local guide and came across many large crocs!

More interesting rock art at Nourlangie and a great billabong with a very impressive backdrop of the Arnhem Land escarpment. We watched the rocks change to a deep red colour as the sun went down.

In the Yellow River region we took another cruise through the wetlands – great bird life.

Kingfisher                                                                                             Heron


Conclusion:   Australia's top end is a fascinating part of this huge country and most definitely one of our highlights. Not to be missed!


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