Thursday, November 10, 2011

Gagudju Dreaming

The Escarpment - Kakadu National Park
Lightning Man
It’s Build Up in the Top End.  Days start clear but soon the heat and humidity increase to oppressive levels.  People feel the air pressing down on them, feel irritable, sometimes a little ill.  Then clouds build up into dark grey thunder heads.  Flashes light up the sky over the escarpment where Lightning Man has made his home.  Things become a little cooler but still tense.  And then…nothing.

I’m talking about Gunumeleng, the pre-monsoon season that separates hot, dry Gurrung from torrential Gudjewg in the Top End, the coast of the Northern Territory of Australia.  These are the names the Aboriginal people of the area – the Bininj – give to three of the six seasons they recognize.  The local non-indigenous Australians call it Build Up.  The salt-water crocodiles don’t call it anything.  They’re happy that the pools shrink, the Billabongs empty, and the fish are concentrated and are easier to catch.
Salt water crocodile
This is where I’ve been for the last ten days, travelling in the 7,500 square mile Kakadu national park, being stunned by the thousands of waterfowl packed on the drying Billabongs, the profusion and rainbow colors of the parrots, and being moved by the Aboriginal rock art (so reminiscent of that of the Bushman peoples and yet so different).  And learning just a touch about the ancient culture and traditions.

I was travelling with friends, one of whom - Jill Wilson - is a bird photographer. All the pictures (except the aerial photo above and portrait of  Jacob Nayinggul) are hers.

Unlike the slender-nosed fresh water crocodiles, the salties are a serious matter. This is made clear by posted warnings everywhere and the rather droll symbol at the bottom of the poster

Jacob Nayinggul
“Our land has a big story.  Sometimes we tell a little bit at a time.  Come and hear our stories, see our land.  A little bit might stay in your hearts.  If you want more, you can come back…” Jacob Nayinggul, (Manilakarr Clan).

The iconic Jabiru Stork with lotus flowers
Indeed the land has a big story, and its history is depressingly familiar.  The indigenous peoples have lived there for up to 40,000 years.  Their first contact with foreigners was with peoples from the north who came to harvest sea cucumbers and other marine life.  But then when Europeans started to spread to the north of the continent in the nineteenth century, unfamiliar diseases ravaged the locals reducing their population.  But there was not much pressure on the huge Top End until the discovery of a variety of minerals including gold at Pine Creek and uranium near Jabiru.  Soon the land belonged to someone else.  But in 1973 the Woodward Commission returned much of the land to its traditional owners in tandem with the development of a national park and eventually the declaration of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The final pieces of the development took until the 1990s to get in place, and now many of the traditional owners live in the area in parallel with the national park based on a 99 year lease to the Commonwealth Government.  Some of the aboriginal people work at the various tourists centers, and they have representation on a joint management committee with the other stake holders.  While I can’t say I met any of the local people other than in their tourist guide capacity and hasten to say that my understanding is completely superficial, it does seem a fair and workable model which could, perhaps, be a talking point for the government of Botswana and the Bushman groups of the Kalahari.

Hard to appreciate from a small image. Think of 180 degrees like this..
The rock art is spectacular.  The belief is that the Mimi spirits were the first of the Creation Ancestors to produce rock paintings.  Some of the spirits became rock paintings themselves and became djang – dreaming places.  Some of these paintings are andjamun, which only senior men or women are allowed to see.  Others are open to everyone.  Sites can be andjamun too.  The cliffs where Lighting Man now lives is such a place.  Sacred and dangerous.  Should it be disturbed, bad things will happen in the land and in the world.  The Bininj would call The Place in DEATH OF THE MANTIS andjamun.  So close and yet so far apart are these two worlds.
Mimi spirit
Group of spirits including Lightning Man and his wife
As the Bininj would say in farewell:

Boh Boh
Michael - Thursday


  1. You, my friend, live a fascinating life. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Oh, how I love this post. Lyrical and sobering and awe-inspiring all at the same time. Thank you, Michael.

    Wish I were there.

  3. What a beautiful, charming trip you gave us. I think you are fortunate in seeing the more primal places left on the earth, just wonderful.

  4. Thanks Michael, really wonderful and at least for me so exotic that the photos might just as well have been taken on another planet far away.

    It must be great to see all this in person.

  5. What a wonderful story and a great description of what seems like a magical place for both culture and wildlife

  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I really am very fortunate to have had this experience. Unfortunately it's a bit like someone visiting Africa for the first time. You long to go back!