29 June 2017
Kakadu, arguably the Territory’s grandest if not best known icon – that title’s held by The Rock: Uluru. There are official – Parks Australia – unofficial – Wikipedia – and anecdotal +0tales of Kakadu. Somewhere in among all of them is The Truth. But I am not going to let truth get in the way of a good story.
Parks Australia’s Kakadu pages – parksaustralia.gov.au/Kakadu – is written in the first hand of a Traditional Owner, telling the reader about ‘their’ Kakadu. Wikipedia – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kakadu_National_Park – attempts to have some credibility via citations but is otherwise written and edited by people unknown whose reasons and perspectives we’ll never know. And the anecdotes are derived from hanging in and around Kakadu from May 2016 to September 2017, and those random and not-so-random conversations one has with complete strangers in strange places. So, my knowledge of Kakadu is ‘coloured’, verging on distorted, with a hint of mischief. The true true story is lost along with the Darwin stubby and the swashbuckling non-Traditional Owner pioneers who took on the Top End without really giving a shit about who was already there. Consequently, there’s a lot of stories, colourful and exaggerated about the heroic exploits of these pioneers. Yet, there are no stories at least at the individual level of the Traditional Owners who lived in the area for like 65 000 years and maybe even 80 000 years (https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/jul/19/dig-finds-evidence-of-aboriginal-habitation-up-to-80000-years-ago).
Roll that around your tongue. 80 thousand years. Here anecdote sneaks in and raises an ugly head. More than once I have been told with a degree of finality but without any evidence, that someone may have been in the neighbourhood for 40 000 years, but not those currently here claiming Native Title. Native Title requires a people to demonstrate they have been there continuously over ‘a period of time’. The inference being that the current Traditional Owners were not here 40 000 years ago and therefore can’t claim native title. Haven’t quite worked out why the age is set in these discussions at 40 000 years. Perhaps because the span of time back 65 to 80 000 years is beyond them.
It’s a deft little argument, given that the Traditional Owners have an oral tradition, not written. And the oldest rock art is tagged at a mere 20 000 years (parksaustralia.gov.au/kakadu/discover/amazing-facts/#how-old-is-kakadus-rock-art). Which although impressive is still a cool 60 000 years younger than possible occupation. Compare that to Europe. Home Sapiens made it to Europe a relatively youthful 35 000 years ago, less that half the time people could have been settled in Kakadu (let.leidenuniv.nl/history/migration/chapter111.html). The ‘groundbreaking’ rock art left by the first Homo Sapien immigrants into Europe is porn apparently, according to Live Science (livescience.com/20291-genitalia-rock-carvings-oldest-europe.html). Which does beg a question about what a man sees. Is Randall White, the anthropologist in charge, imposing his cultural perceptions on what the African migrants carved into the rock ceiling of their winter shelter? Makes me wonder.
Back in Kakadu, at least as the Beast trundles its way north of Mataranka towards Pine Creek, it’s still an odd argument, whether 40 000 or 20 000 years. 20 000 years is long enough to support the Traditional Owner’s claim to the land. But if the art is only 20 000 years old that ‘proves’ the original inhabitants were not those currently here (since the last 20 000 years). And if they were not the first ones, then that means they too are immigrants, just like the European settlers from the 18th century onwards, thereby justifying white settlement and the taking of land. Afterall the ‘so-called’ Traditional Owners took the land from the original inhabitants. I have even been told that the Traditional Owners “have no more rights to the area than we do!” It’s a truly beguiling thing to be told, and I suspect there’s a lot of deep seated guilt in Majority Australian society and they don’t know how to deal with it.
The anecdotal approach to deny Indigenous People’s inalienable connection to Country is not unique to Australia. As part of a huge suit of baseline studies I commissioned archaeological research, on behalf of Northland Resources’ Pajala Iron Ore Project in the north of Sweden. The Norrbotten’s museum discovered ancient settlements dating back some 11 000 years effectively re-writing Sweden’s immediate post-glaciation history (http://norrbottensmuseum.se/media/456877/166_2009_report-tapuli-english_palmbo-and-oestlund.pdf). This caused quite a bit of excitement. The project is on Sami land, Europe’s only recognised Indigenous People. A Swedish person commented “You see! We were here first!”, thereby attempting to deny the Sami’s claim to the territory.
It’s hard not to consider there was something egregious in the development of Kakadu. Small-scale mining of rich uranium deposits occurred in the area during the 50s and 60, along with less topical mining operations. By the 70s large deposits were discovered at Ranger, Jabiluka and Koongarra. Even in a mining-economy like Australia, mining uranium is not the same as mining iron ore. The Fox Inquiry was set up under the Environmental Protection Act 1974 to assess the pros and cons.
Meanwhile, ten years of discussion resulted in the Woodward’s Commission of Inquiry into Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory, 1973, advocating “Aboriginal title, combined with national part status and joint management” which ultimately resulted in Kakadu National Park, “born from (a) vision of compromise and shared land use”. Right.
The Fox Inquiry came back with the conclusion that:
“The Commission’s principal recommendations were: grant of title to the area claimed to the Aboriginals claimants; allowance of uranium mining at Ranger and consideration of future uranium mining at Jabiluka and Koongarra; the establishment of a large regional national park to include the proposed Aboriginal land; the resumption of two pastoral leases to enable Aboriginal land claims to be made over the area and the future incorporation of these additional areas into the national park; inclusion in the park of a regional centre, to be established to service the uranium mining operations; prohibited (initially) of tourist developments in the regional centre ; and preparation of a plan of management for the park, which should ensure that Aboriginal views were strongly represented.”
[Kakadu – Natural and Cultural Heritage and Management, Australian Nature Conservation Agency, 1995, pgs 1-3 Kakadu National Park “Reconciling competing interests”. Tony Press and David Lawrence]
So, there we are, we shall all live in compromise and “shared land use” enjoying traditional Aboriginal lifestyles whilst merrily driving 4WDs to well-organised sites and campgrounds in the shadow of large-scale uranium mining, all based in a National Park, Australian style. I don’t see any inherent contradiction in land use functions here.
Unsurprisingly, the “vision of compromise and shared land use” resulted in decades of opposition to Fox inquiry’s promotion of uranium mining. Jabiluka was eventually shelved by Energy Resources Australia’s ultimate boss, Rio Tinto’s CEO Sir Robert Wilson at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 (http://www.cpa.org.au/z-archive/g2002/1109rio.html). Mind you, by 2011 ERA expressed an interest to develop Jabiluka “to the benefit of all stakeholders” (http://www.smh.com.au/business/jabiluka-still-on-says-era-20110413-1de3g.html). However, by 2015 ERA decided to no longer invest in its existing Ranger mine, leading to potential closure by 2021, and although still expressing an interest to develop Jabiluka, reiterated that it could only do so with the consent of the Mirarr Traditional Owners.
I get that really uncomfortable feeling in the base of my stomach that Jabiluka won’t lay buried forever.
Back to reality. We are running out of time and Kakadu is at 20 000 Km2 the size of a small country. We are going to have to make some hard decisions about what we see and where we go. Ram’s also a bit fed up with the driving. Days just to get anywhere. We’ve been two days in the Beast. Fewer stops, longer stays seems to be the way to go.
The Big Attractions are all on the south side of Kakadu, with Ubirr the exception with proves the rule. Gunlom, Motorcar Falls, Boulder Creek, Yurmikmik walk/pool all along the Gunlom Falls road, the first attraction once in Kakadu along the Kakadu Highway. Jim Jim Falls road, a further 100 km, leads to Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu’s largest, Twin Falls and Barrk Marlam.
Gunlom is a 36 km drive in. Jim Jim some 57 km. It’s getting late. Closest, shortest it is: Gunlom. Also, we’ve heard rumour that Jim Jim Falls is no longer flowing.
First though, collect a bunch of firewood well before the park, since we’ll need it for any fires we care to enjoy. There’s a policy of to not take firewood, if not in the whole park, then at least around the main campsites to prevent widespread deforestation and denudation.
Arriving at The Worst Possible Time, when all or most of the campers have arrived and staked out their claim to a patch of dry stubble under the shade of some tree. All that’s left is fully exposed and/or on some awful slope. And the strange etiquette of Australian campgrounds means that they who are first get a fireplace which cannot be shared. Apparently. We cruise through slowly, searching, getting ever nearer the far side of the campground, running out of decent options. Two large 4WD on a decent patch of flat ground, kinda out of the way, next to a fireplace have that We Are Just About To Depart look about them. “Hi Guys” I say as I approach them “you coming or going?” Turns out their going and they wish us well with “a great place!”
Oztent up, Beast strategically position to suggest possession of the fireplace, food being prepared, fire going – for food includes damper – and we settle in. A vehicle approaches dangerously close. Yup, they are gonna camp just behind us. I am asked – since fires are a male’s domain here – if it’s OK they can share the fire. Funny etiquette, but nice they asked. I lend them our gas cooker since theirs isn’t working as it should. Nice couple from Darwin, with a couple of small kids. Not bad, when you think about it. Two hours out of the city and you can camp in a place like Gunlom. Not bad not bad.
It’s school holidays. Any thoughts of a peaceful evening get a rude interruption by the arrival of 155 students and assorted camp followers from The South, near Melbourne, in three large buses and couple of smaller ones. They put on an Evening Show of different entertainment performances by small groups. Goes on for hours. The show – vague hints at music, dance, comedy, satire – laughter applause, low mumble of the (adult) MC before the next show. For hours. But not all night. These are (high) school kiddies afterall. Seven, eight, it’s over. Then the campground is flooded by random small clusters of students pursuing their own nefarious agendas well out of sight of any probing supervisory adult eye or ear.
We go to sleep in the closest we’ll get to Aussie suburbia.
30 June 2017
I doubt the climb to the plunge pools above Gunlom Falls is more than a few hundred meters. It’s pretty steep in places occasional slippery under foot. It’s mid-morning when we ascend and people are already returning including families with tiny kids in tow. Can’t be too bad. Funny to watch the kids take on steps half the height of them. Mom or Pop holding one hand, down onto a knee, gingerly lower other leg until foot hovers tantalisingly just above the ground, trust in mom/pop, and kick off, land from sublimely elegant to damned-near going head-over-ass down the slope, stoically held by that hand from above. A grin, a quick glance at mom/pop, get some encouragement, then take on the next one. Must take them hours to get down. Wonderful to see.
Come over a bit of a rise and below are the plunge pools, with people doing plunge-pool-people things. We join them.
Leave our gear in a huddle and take on the fantastically impressive natural infinity pool. It may be tropical Australia, but it’s ‘winter’ and the water has a bite to it, as Ram demonstrates as she tries to enter. A vast expanse of western Kakadu lies before us, somewhat obscured by the smoke from the seasonal burns Aussies are enraptured with. Fire management they call it. Even though it’s quite busy, it’s still amazing. People come and people go, providing those luxurious ‘just us’ moments.
After the infinity pool we head up the small falls, checking out the other pools. The top one leads into a canyon. Ram’s swimming has improved tremendously, and she takes on the swim into the canyon. The water is definitely on the cool side, making long lounges in the sun on the rocks most enjoyable.
I don’t know where the school kids have gone, but they don’t come up. A pleasant few hours later we head back to find we share our campfire with another group. This time, three young Australian males. We’d commented on them at the pools. They had done the climb in thongs (flipflops), beers in hand, with a small esky of supplies. Now they are around ‘our’ fireplace, which we again need for damper.
“Na mate! ‘b great to av a fire. Got me sold!” they reply enthusiastically when I ask if they mind I get the fire going for damper. They get so enthusiastic they take their 2WD Commodore and head off into the darkness to get some more firewood.
01 July 2017
A languid start. We’ve not far to drive today no matter where we go. First we pull into Coinda, where tours for the famous Yellow Waters wetland start. Large, high-end, full of tourists. We wait our turn at information only to be told that we can camp here and go on an organised tour run at specific times. It doesn’t resonate. A bite to eat later we’re off again, stopping at the turnoff to Jim Jim Falls road. Check it out or not? Ram’s just not into it, so we continue to Jabiru pulling in a Bowali Tourist Centre to say Hi! to En-Hui and enjoy an iced-coffee, before heading off to Ubirr.
The plan, of course, is to get to Merl Campground, but a few kilometres from Ubirr, before the late afternoon crowd. Early afternoon it’s mostly empty and we do several loops before choosing a campsite, one unlikely to get crowded out by other campers once rush hour hits around 1500. Dutifully set up we head to Ubirr to find the carpark full. We park at the rear of the carpark, content to add a hundred metres to our walk. Armed with water, camera, gorilla-pod and headlamps. We are, afterall, aiming for Ubirr’s famous sunset. One thing we’ve found about sunsets in the Top End is that they are spectacular, short lived and invariably followed by a pitch-black night. To avoid having to leave the rocky outcrop offering the best views to ensure a safe walk back to Beast, a headlamp is indispensable.
We walk past the ancient First Nation’s rock art and climb the rocks leading to Nadab lookout, settle on a spot comfortable to sit and unlikely to be obstructed by overly enthusiastic late comers not content to be behind the inevitable crowd. It is high-season and there’s no reason to expect today to be short of crowds.
The immediate foreground of the plains has been burnt, leaving an ugly black scar in the otherwise impressive green of the wetlands. Low clouds at first appear to threaten our sunset. But, actually, they hover tantalisingly above the horizon. We should get some impressive colour shows on the clouds once the sun descends below them and hits the horizon.
Rapidly the crowd turns up. It’s a group occasion, the low murmurs adding to the anticipation, their expectation and excitement palpable. A large group of high-school students turn up juuust as the sun is getting into its mood. Teenagers live on a different planet and the mood changes from subdued expectation to more up-tempo high-school narratives. And they flood the place, seeking viewing spots normally reserved for rock-wallabies. As they clamber ever more riskily to ever more precarious perches the anticipatory mood reflects the risks. Are we to witness an ill-advised choice and a tumble down the cliff? I think we all expected perhaps hoped the supervising adults would reign them in, but in truth that would be impossible and invariably destroy the moment for the rest of us. Words of caution are uttered but otherwise we all simply hope and trust in the mountain-goat abilities of the teenagers. Selfies start getting done in abundance, individuals, BFF, groups. Interesting is it to bear witness to how the next generation bear witness to moments of grandeur.
The sunset does not disappoint. The colours defy explanation or description. With the sun just below the horizon the vast majority of the crowd dissipates leaving the more languid to enjoy the spectacular after-party. Eventually, with the mozzies settling in for a good feed, the night rapidly gaining prominence and dinner yet to be cooked, we too head back. Carpark’s empty, campground’s full. We have neighbours but not too neighbourly.
02 July 2017
I love rock art, the whole neo-lithic caveman Joe cavewoman Jolene thing. Comes from being a caveman in a past life. Kid. You. Not. Was. Toooo. My job was to find the cave. The whole live-in-cave thing was never really my style. A style, I might add, I’ve carried over to this life. I love imagining the artists and the groups, the whys they painted, drew or chipped, what was happening with everyone else, what season, y’know, the whole neo-lithic thing. There’s something quintessentially exciting and, well, human about it all. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not nostalgic or anything.
It was tough damn life and the rock art merely proves the power of art if even among all the adversary they would have been facing, that it was important enough to do in the first place. As opposed to getting a good night’s sleep before the berry picking root digging beast hunting of the next day.
Perhaps it was the latest neo-lithic social media thing, with the gammy Elders tutting about how much time them darned youngsters were wasting on such trivial pursuits like spraying ochre tainted spit over hands superimposed on a decent bit of cave ceiling or wall. Who knows. Anyway, I love it.
Ubirr has tons of really accessible rock art dating back zillions of years to comparatively recently. All superimposed one on top of the other as last years is out of date and this year’s style is in.
It’s so comparatively recently that it wouldn’t surprise me if there are Bininj/Mungguy First Nation’s people still around who do know why they were painted. A further point in favour of trying to preserve such cultures, rather than drive them into extinction under the false promise of ‘contributing to the modern economy’, ie: get a job and be productive.
What’s not obvious when wandering around the Ubirr rock art sites is that this is now like museum pieces, long lost to the artist’s original purpose. Respect needs to be given to the Bininj/Mungguy for allowing us non-Bininj/Mungguy the opportunity to tramp all over their sacred site and take photos and otherwise have absolutely not one real clue about the Bininj/Mungguy culture that spawned it in the first place.
There are, so I’m told anecdotally, many places nearby with rock art kept well away from the insatiable curiosity and inadvertent desecration of mass tourism. Guess they had to do a trade off when Kakadu was formerly created: “Give something to the crazy white folk otherwise you’ll never hear the end of it. Add a sunset and decent fishing spot and they’ll love you for it” or words to that effect. And they gave us Ubirr, and Cahills Crossing for the fish. Thanks Guys, really appreciate it.
The rock art is beautiful, alluring, informative and fascinating. Am sure whole bunch of other superlatives could be added, but you get the point.
Takes hours to wander around get a feel for it all, and the odd tourist-free photo.
Then we take to Cahills Crossing.
So what’s so special about Cahills Crossing? Aside of being the only way into Western Arnhem Land, it’s a fabulous fishing spot and … well the following newspaper clippings will help you get the idea:
“Man, 47, killed by monster 3.3m CROCODILE at notorious flooded river crossing where the predators lie in wait for cars passing into Kakadu National Park (Jan 2017)”1
“Australia’s most dangerous water crossing: notorious croc hot spot”2
“MARCH 1987: Kerry McLoughlin, 40, a Jabiru storeman, decapitated by a 5.1m crocodile while wading at Cahill’s Crossing on the East Alligator River in Kakadu”3
A little bit of Max History is applicable here. In late 1987 through early 1988 I worked in Pine Creek, just south of Kakadu. I frequently travelled in Kakadu. I was knee deep in flowing water at Cahills Crossing February 1988 when a guy next to me says “Oh, by the way, did you know this was the spot that bloke got took by a croc about a year ago?” “Na! Really?” responds I as we continue fishing. Yes, guess I got lucky that day.
Unless the raging tide is washing vehicles off the crossing, and the four tires pointing at the sky on the downstream side shows this is still a popular pursuit, or someone’s catching something, or the mullets running and the crocs are in abundance at the buffet or some fool has gotten him or herself chomped, there’s not a lot said for Cahills Crossing. Muddy banks, grass and tree lined, muddy river flowing, or not, submerged road, the odd vehicle crossing. That’s about it. Cahills is pure reputation. The chance something may happen whilst you were there for the half hour you are prepared to spend checking it out. From the safety of the lookout. Yes, it’s such a popular sport they’ve built a safe place for people to stand and watch. Reminds me of tourists paying to go look at tulips grow in the Netherlands. People are weird and tourists weirder still. And Ram and I are right there, just in case.
After that, it’s back to Scott and En-Hui’s in Jabiru and my turn for the Barby. And for Ram to take a spin on Dreamer.
Kakadu has been done. For now.
Jabiru, 28 June 2017