Arnhem Land and Kakadu. Earth’s most ancient landscape. Earth’s most ancient art.
Around 300 kilometres south of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory you’ll discover one of the oldest landscapes on earth, Arnhem Land and Kakadu. For many, this area and all that is found within it best illustrates the true origins of Australia. The people, the culture, the landscape and the art. This ‘country’ is home to 19 indigenous clan groups and the inhabitants, the Bininji/Mungguy peoples can claim rightful ownership of country that goes back over 60,000 years, making them the oldest continuing surviving human culture in the world. This was Creation Time, a time 60,000 years ago when the ancestors gave Bininji/Mungguy people a kinship system linking people to all things and the cultural responsibility to look after them.
In the Arnhem Land and Kakadu area, the kinship system is very complex. All people, plants, animals, songs, dances, ceremonies and land are divided into two groups, or ‘moieties’: Duwa or Yirridja. Each moiety is subdivided into eight ‘skin’ groups. A child’s skin group is determined by their mother’s skin group, but they inherit their moiety from their father. Almost every aspect of day-to-day communication with other Aboriginal people is governed by kinship ties.
As Creation ancestors journeyed across the country, they created landforms, plants, animals and people. They also taught Bininj/Mungguy how to live and look after the country. Today Kakadu is managed jointly by the Bininj/Mungguy peoples and Parks Australia to protect its outstanding World Heritage cultural and natural values.
In reflecting on my experiences in Kakadu, I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land which I visited, the Bininji/Mungguy people and recognise their continuing connection with the land, water and Community and pay my respect to Elders past, present and emerging.
Spirit of Kakadu
Dinah and I were staying with Dinah’s sister Helen (Mel) in Darwin and were keen to explore Kakadu and parts of Arnhem Land, and in particular, to experience first-hand the ancient culture of the area. The drive from Darwin takes about 3 hours down the Stuart and then the Arnhem Highway. The road is excellent with very little traffic. Once you leave the more populated areas, the speed limit increases from 100 to 110 and to 130 kilometres an hour, the fastest legal highway speed in Australia. Driving legally at this speed was a first for me, though I must admit that I tended to stay around a more familiar 110 kilometres an hour. Entering Kakadu, we called into the Visitors’ Centre to purchase a Kakadu Park Pass. It’s important for all visitors to purchase a pass, as the proceeds from the sale of Park passes goes to the upkeep of this amazing area. Kakadu National Park is about 20,000 square kilometres in size, larger than some European countries, so the cost of the upkeep of the park is considerable. The busiest time for visitors is during ‘The Dry’, the season between April and October when about 200,000 people visit the park. During the wet season, many of the roads flood making access to parts of the park virtually impossible.
Ubirr – rock of ages
Our ultimate destination was Jabiru, a small community in the heart of Kakadu National Park. Turning left off the Arnhem Highway just before reaching Jabiru , our first stop was Ubirr (pronounced oo-bir), the site of arguably the best displays of Aboriginal rock art to be found anywhere in the NT. This is a mind-blowing place, particularly when one considers that the rock paintings date back up to 3,000 years. Most of the paintings in this rock gallery are from the freshwater period, so within the last 1500 years. They show the abundant food available in the area surrounding Ubirr including fish, waterfowl, mussels, wallabies, goannas, echidnas and yams. The main gallery also has a depiction of European’s arrival in country, a ‘white fella’ shown wearing a shirt, boots and with his hands in his trouser pockets. He was most likely an early buffalo hunter painted in the 1880s. Close to the main gallery is a painting of a thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) thought to have become extinct around 2000 to 3000 years ago.
Legend has it that during the Creation Time, when the First People created the landscape and all it contains, Garranga’rreli visited this place as the Rainbow Serpent. She painted her image on the rock to remind people of her visit. Her stop here is part of a larger creation path which links this place with Manngaree, the East alligator River and other places in Arnhem Land. Her painting of the Rainbow Serpent is inspiring.
Heart of the Park
Leaving Ubirr, we retraced our steps back to the Arnhem Highway and then south to Jabiru, our destination for the night. The main township of Kakadu National Park, Jabiru was established in 1982 as a closed town to house the community living at Jabiru East near the Ranger Uranium mine. Subsequently the mine closed and today Jabiru is the heart of Kakadu National Park, hosting thousands of visitors each year who use the town as a base for their explorations of the park. There is ample accommodation here, from the rather opulent Mecure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel (aptly named to reflect its architectural design) to the Kakadu Lodge and Caravan Park and Anbinik Kakadu Resort. We opted for a spacious cabin in the Anbinik Resort, enjoying a late afternoon dip in the swimming pool to cool off in the 35 degree-plus temperature. Anbinik Resort is located on the road into Jabiru and is within easy walking distance to the town centre, making it an ideal base for provisioning to exploring Kakadu. That evening in the resort’s relaxed outdoor restaurant we enjoyed some of the best Thai food I have ever tasted. Check out the Anbinik Resort at: www.kakadu.net.au
Yellow Water and Mrs Croc
The following morning we were back on the road for an absolutely essential Kakadu experience, a Yellow Water cruise of the billabongs and rivers of the Ngurrungurrudjba area. Quite a mouthful, and quite an experience! Yellow Water is a 40-minute drive from Jabiru heading back towards Darwin. Turn left off the Arnhem Highway onto the Kakadu Highway about 7 kilometres from Jabiru and head towards Cooinda and Cooinda Lodge .
Yellow Water Cruises will take you on a discovery tour of the world-famous Yellow Water Billabong and South Alligator River. You can take an early morning tour or an evening tour, or one of the daytime tours. Different tour times mean that as you cruise the waterways you will see a variety of wildlife and birdlife and of course, the occasional crocodile or two. These are fearsome creatures and as you guide will explain, demand real respect. They are at the very top of the food chain here. We were incredibly fortunate to see a number of large crocs resting on the river banks, but the highlight of our tour was an up-close and personal viewing of Mrs Croc lying on her nest of eggs. Her open-mouth smile meant that she was happy to see us – we think!
You cannot visit Kakadu without exploring the wildlife and birdlife of the region on a Yellow Water Cruise. Bookings are essential so visit www.kakadutourism.com or call 1800 500 401.
Welcome to Burrunggui and Warramal Clan land
Travelling back from Cooinda towards the Arnhem Highway, we turned right about 24 kilometres from Cooinda and travelled 12 kilometres to Burrunggui and the site of yet another gallery of Aboriginal rock art. This is an amazing country. You can travel for miles along roads through scrubby flat land then, right in front of you a huge outcrop of layered sandstone rock rises above the tree-line to the sky. From the strata rock formations, it is apparent the terrain is old, very old. These mountainous formations not only provided protection and a home for our indigenous peoples, they also provided a natural canvas and gallery for some of the most amazing examples of ancient art.
For over 20,000 years, people came here to camp in the shade of the sandstone cliffs and to hunt and gather food from the country nearby. Only since the 1950s have visitors come here to see the art. This is a place of learning, a place where we can learn first-hand a little about the First People, about how they lived and hunted meat, gathered fruits and vegetables, shared food, played games, told stories, painted pictures and sometimes performed ceremonies. The ‘gunbim’ (rock art) in the shelter of the overhanging rock ledges and caves remains as evidence that this place has traditionally been a place of living and learning.
This is also a great place to explore. There are a number of walks you can take; from an easy one kilometre walk up to the rock face and rock art galleries where you will see a magnificent selection of rock art and learn about Namarrgon, the ‘Lightning Man’, to the twelve-kilometre Barrk walk. This walk will take 5 to 6 hours and is recommended only for experienced walkers.
As we headed back to Darwin the following afternoon, Dinah and I agreed that our visit to Arnhem Land and Kakadu had been far too brief. What we saw was amazing and inspiring and provided us with a far deeper appreciation of our country and First Peoples. It also highlighted that there was just so much more to see and do in this remote and beautiful part of Australia. A return trip to Arnhem Land and Kakadu in the near future is now firmly on our agenda.
Tips for the Trip
The Bininj/Mungguy calendar recognises up to six seasons. The most popular time to visit Kakadu is from May to September. At this time the weather is comfortable and roads are accessible by 2WD and are generally open. From October it becomes hotter and more humid and the first rains turn the parched landscape green. Flooding between December and April closes unsealed roads, but many places remain open and are lush and vibrant. Visit https://parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/plan/when-to-come/and plan your trip through Aboriginal eyes.
Average daily temperatures, even during the dry season are 35 degrees-plus so you need to wear appropriate clothing. A loose-fitting long-sleeve bush shirt will provide you protection against any thorny undergrowth you may encounter, plus a hat and plenty of sunscreen. Forget thongs. You’ll need sturdy shoes to transverse the rocky landscape. Good walking shoes with ankle support are recommended for this is a desolate and rugged country and definitely no place to sprain an ankle – or worse.
You’ll also need to stay hydrated.Dehydration can cause severe headaches and in extreme cases even result in death, so make sure that you carry and drink water regularly. Considering the constant heat and humidity (even at night), five to six litres a day is recommended out here.
Self-guided or guided tour? A matter of personal choice. In our case, our self-guided tour was aided in no small way by the local knowledge that Dinah’s sister Mel provided. Having lived in the Northern Territory for over 30 years, Mel knew where to take us and what to see. For first-time visitors the advantage of a guided tour; either large tour company coach or smaller mini-bus tours, is that the tour guides have a wealth of local knowledge so they know the best places to visit and their commentary adds tremendously to what you can take away from the experience. It also means that all the itinerary planning is done for you.
Kakadu National Park gets very busy during the Dry season, May to September so it is essential to pre-book all your accommodation and tours. For information and bookings, including commercial and Aboriginal cultural tours, contact the tour operators at: https://parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/do/tours
Or contact Kakadu Tours and Travel on (08) 8979 2548; Katherine Visitors Information Centre on (08) 8972 2650; Tourism Top End Darwin on (08) 8936 2499 – or you can free call on 1300 138 886
Main picture: 3000 year old rock art at the Ubirr site in Kakadu National Park
- Dinah and Mel at the entrance to Kakadu
- The Ubirr Rock Art sacred site
- Viewing the natural rock galleries of 3,000 year old art from Creation Time
- The bones of this person have been swollen by Miyamiya, a sickness one can contract by disturbing the stones of a sacred site
- The Rainbow Serpent in all her glory
- The rock art depicts all the creatures important to the indigenous peoples
- Overhanging rock ledges have protected the galleries for thousands of years
- On Yellow Water. Picture postcard-perfect
- The wildlife and birdlife is amazing
- Spotted a croc!
- Look hard, he’s there on the riverbank
- Mrs Croc on her nest – up close and personal
- Even our Ranger guide was blown away by this
- The Burrungkuy gallery
- Its a long way to the top, but the view is worth it