Departure was 7:00 am. We didn't know it, but compared to the days to come, this was a relatively late departure. Perhaps they didn't want to frighten us too early in the tour 😉. We headed down Arnhem Highway pausing to look at some magnetic termite mounds then, a little later, stopped for refreshments at Corroboree Park Tavern, a truck stop where we saw a 60 metre road train and a six metre salt water crocodile. His name is Brutus and he lives in a cage.
Near Jabiru, we stopped at the Bowali Visitor Centre designed by Troppo Architects. Its long linear design is inspired by an Aboriginal Rock Shelter and has received many design awards. A large protective roof sails across the many exhibition spaces which are open to the air. Visitors to this part of the world should stop here as the centre contains a wealth of information about Kakadu.
We crossed into Kakadu National Park and proceeded on to Jabiru where we enjoyed lunch in a park by the side of lake Jabiru. There we had our first lecture about the dangers of Saltwater Crocodiles, the way they can conceal themselves and the speed with which they can move from the water to an unsuspecting human. We kept well back from the water's edge.
We then headed towards the sacred Ubirr rock art site site near the East Alligator River where some of Kakadu’s most important ancestral figures are depicted.
The traditional owners camped beneath Ubirr’s cool rocky shelters and used the plants and animals of the nearby floodplain and East Alligator River for food, tools and medicine. The smooth stone surfaces were perfect for making painted records of their lives.
Much of the art features fish, turtles, goanna and other important food animals. A painting of a thylacine, the Tasmanian tiger, which became extinct on the mainland at least two thousand years ago, gives an idea of the age of some of this art.
Some of Ubirr's Stone Age art is thought to date to the Paleolithic era, as far back as 30,000 BCE or even earlier. The art is considered among the best in the world, with fine examples of x-ray painting as well as contact art from the time when Indigenous people first encountered Europeans.
It is difficult to comprehend the age of the Ubirr site as a human habitation, let alone the people who lived here during the last ice age when the climate was so different and hostile to life. This link describes what it was like and how the people coped.
With the melting of ice caps at the end of the last ice age sea level rise moved the coastline hundreds of kilometres inland. Oral stories that have persisted for at least 10,000 years tell of sea level rise. This link describes evidence that these tales are true.
The Rainbow Serpent gallery is the most sacred site at Ubirr, and is for the traditional owners, a women-only site. The site was said to have been visited in the dream-time by 'Garranga’rreli', the Rainbow Serpent. On this visit she sang, bringing the people, animals and plants into existence. This song line is still sacred to the Indigenous people of the region. There is more here.
For us white fellas, or at least for this one, the whole concept of the Dreaming or Dreamtime is a mystery. But the following quotations taken from the website aboriginalart.com.au helps clarify it.
Dreaming is an approximate English translation of an Aboriginal concept, which has no equivalent in the English language. Groups each have their own words for this concept: for example the Pitjantjatjara people use the term Tjukurpa, the Arrernte refer to it as Aldjerinya and the Adnyamathanha use the word Nguthuna.
The Dreaming refers to all that is known and all that is understood. It is the way Aboriginal people explain life and how their world came into being. It is central to the existence of traditional Aboriginal people, their lifestyle and their culture, for it determines their values and beliefs and their relationship with every living creature and every feature of the landscape.
According to Aboriginal belief, all life as it is today - Human, Animal, Bird and Fish is part of one vast unchanging network of relationships which can be traced to the great spirit ancestors of the Dreamtime.
The Dreamtime continues as the "Dreaming" in the spiritual lives of aboriginal people today. The events of the ancient era of creation are enacted in ceremonies and danced in mime form. Song chant incessantly to the accompaniment of the didgeridoo or clap sticks relates the story of events of those early times and brings to the power of the dreaming to bear of life today.
The Dreamtime is the Aboriginal understanding of the world, of it's creation, and it's great stories. The Dreamtime is the beginning of knowledge, from which came the laws of existence. For survival these laws must be observed.
The Dreaming world was the old time of the Ancestor Beings. They emerged from the earth at the time of the creation. Time began in the world the moment these supernatural beings were "born out of their own Eternity".
The Earth was a flat surface, in darkness. A dead, silent world. Unknown forms of life were asleep, below the surface of the land. Then the supernatural Ancestor Beings broke through the crust of the earth form below , with tumultuous force.
The sun rose out of the ground. The land received light for the first time. The supernatural Beings, or Totemic Ancestors, resembled creatures or plants, and were half human. They moved across the barren surface of the world. They travelled hunted and fought, and changed the form of the land. In their journeys, they created the landscape, the mountains, the rivers, the trees, waterholes, plains and sandhills. They made the people themselves, who are descendants of the Dreamtime ancestors. They made the Ant, Grasshopper, Emu, Eagle, Crow, Parrot, Wallaby, Kangaroo, Lizard, Snake, and all food plants. They made the natural elements : Water, Air, Fire. They made all the celestial bodies : the Sun, the Moon and the Stars. Then, wearied from all their activity, the mythical creatures sank back into the earth and returned to their state of sleep.
Sometimes their spirits turned into rocks or trees or a part of the landscape. These became sacred places, to be seen only by initiated men. These sites had special qualities.
The following explanation of the Rainbow Serpent is from the book …
Water and identity go together in Indigenous culture - Aboriginal people strongly identify as salt-water or fresh-water people. The relationship with water id holistic: an element in the cultural blend of land, law, society and economy which flows through the generations. Or as an Anmatyerre elder expressed it, ‘Our cultural values of water are part of our law, our traditional owner responsibilities, our history and our everyday lives. Everyone and everything is related. It is the rules for men, women and country. Anmatyerre Law is strong today, but is invisible to other people.’
The Wagilag story of Central Arnhem Land concerns a scared waterhole protected by the serpent Witiji who was angered by the Wagilag sisters when they sullied the water unknowingly. It reared its arched body into the sky forming a rainbow and causing cataclysmic weather conditions which created the waterways. The sisters danced furiously to appease Witiji but the rainbow serpent swallowed and regurgitated them repeatedly in a timeless saga of death and rebirth. The boom of its voice is still heard in the didjeridoo, its spit is seen as rain and its flicking tongue in lightning.
Water is intimately connected with land ownership and custodianship laws as it is with Indigenous spirituality. In Arnhem Land and other areas where water sources are permanent and abundant, the law follows a clearly defined clan and descent-based system, whereas in desert regions where access to water is less predictable and seasonal, many other factors are relevant as where you were conceived, born, initiated and where kin passed away.
Rock pools, waterholes and soakages are spiritual reservoirs. They hold the souls of the recently deceased and the spirit of the yet to be born which can enter the womb of a pregnant woman, thus defining the child’s spiritual connection to that site in perpetuity. Mining activity and other rescue interests contaminate waterholes and river systems and the values that sustain both the cultural and natural values of water sources continue to be threatened. This can only be averted if the integrity of Indigenous laws and practices is recognised in resource management and the administration of Native Title.
Before going to our camp, we spent some time at Cahill Crossing, a ford on the East alligator River. The river is tidal at this point so at different times of the day there are variable depths of water flowing over the ford. Miss-judging the depth and strength of the flow can be disastrous as illustrated by the two vehicles in the water.
Accommodation for the next two nights was at Hawk Dreaming Wilderness Lodge, at Cannon Hill. The area has considerable importance to the local Aboriginal people, in fact the whole of the Cannon Hill area is a registered sacred site. The sandstone outliers around Cannon Hill host significant ancient rock art.