It was the transition time between dry and wet seasons. The sun was hot, the air humid, the bush green, bursting with new life. Flies buzzed around us. A hundred birds sent up a greeting: a barrage of squawks, whistles, and caws from red-collared lorikeets, red-winged parrots, blue-winged koockaburras. We were walking through the bush along the Western Arnhem Land Escarpment, a sandstone outcropping that just abruptly from the flood plain in this isolated land on Australia’s northern coast east of Darwin.
Max Davidson, former farmer, longtime bushman, buffalo hunter, and now our guide, led us around boulders and under sandstone arches to a spot in the shade of a river red gum. There, under huge stone overhangs that sheltered two areas that could easily accommodate a dozen people, spread paintings in red and yellow ochre of animals, spiritual beings, and rough line art that would be impressive in any museum.
“I found these sites in 1988,” Max said, not boasting, just filling in some history.” The traditional owners said there was no art out here. No one’s been living here for about forty years. I was hunting buffalo with a German. We’d been out all day and were heading back. I decided to go a way I hadn’t gone before, just to look around, and we walked down through these stones and found this. I’d guess only about three or four hundred people alive today have ever seen it.”
I just sat and stared for the longest time when Max said some of this art was 20,000 years old.
I’d met Max when I’d flown in that morning from Jabiru, a settlement in the middle of Kakadu National Park a mere fifteen-minute flight away. He was as broad as he was tall, with a blondish-white beard trimmed close, and similar hair poking from beneath his hat.
Arnhem Land is off-limits to non-Aboriginal people. Permits for visitors can be obtained, but only if you come in with one of the few safari camp operators. Fines are high if caught without a permit and solo travelers will not be welcomed by local people, who prefer to be left alone. Max was invited to set up camp in the area near Mount Borradaile by his longtime friend, Charlie Munguda, with whom he’d hunted buffalo for years.
We’d headed out by jeep on a track that soon disappeared and bumped along past gum trees and over any plants smaller than the vehicle. Flies swarmed around our faces and I donned a fly net, an essential piece of equipment for softies like me. Max, of course, hardly noticed them.
We parked the jeep and set out on foot, with Max stopping to describe features of the bush. Stringybarks and woolybutts, two common trees, are the most common used to make didgeridoos; a billygoat plum, a native tree with small fruit, has 50 percent more vitamin C than an orange. Green ants are lemon flavored (I know, because Max offered me one to sample and I could hardly say no), and Aboriginals take the whole nest, scrunch it up, mix it in water, and drink to treat colds. They eat the bloodwood nut, and use the flaky bark from the paperbark tree to build ground ovens for cooking almost anything. They start with hot rocks in a hole, add a layer of paperbark leaves, some water, more layers of leaves, then fish, wallaby, buffalo, whatever is the day’s meal, and cover with paperbark layers. Termite mounds, conical eruptions of the red earth that sometimes reach over six feet tall, are used for medicinal purposes. The pitaradia acts as a decongestant; there’s a grasshopper here that eats this plant and nothing else.
Paperbark is a mellelucca, the family that provides tea tree oil, and the bark grows in dozens of thin layers to become several inches thick. Early whites who came to Australia did paintings on paperbark, but the Aboriginals didn’t. They used stringybark trees instead.
We tasted this and sampled that, learning a little about how to survive on “bush tucker,” food the locals have been eating for millennia.
We descended from the scrubby grassland to shady gum forests and walked toward the flood plain, a vast sweep of lush green grass, water, and birds by the hundreds of thousands. Flocks of egrets hung out in distant trees, white specks against deep green; huge flocks of magpie geese fed in the wetlands or filled the sky; iridescent kingfishers flitted here and there; white-breasted sea eagles (marawudis) swept the sky for a distant perch.
Soon we came upon the art sites, where we sat in awe. Conversation was subdued because the presence of so many generations represented by that art made us seem small beyond description. How many years do we have? Seventy-five? Eighty? A few more if we’re lucky, considerably fewer if we’re not? This work had been here for at least 20,000 years. It was impossible to wrap my mind around that.
Max has an outdoorsman’s respect for the land and an anthropologist’s respect for Aboriginal culture. “When an Aboriginal dies,” Max said, “the clan gets together and has a TsorryU where they spend four days with the body. They cut themselves, and talk, to show they’re sorry that he’s gone. Then they place the body on a tree platform for two years, and afterwards out of respect they collect and clean the bones, wrap them in paperbark, and inter the bones in the rocks. Every time they touch the body they have a ceremony. When someone dies they believe the spirit is gone, back to the ground, to the mother.
“Everything in Aboriginal society is shared,” he continued. “If I’ve got money, you’ve got money. Nothing is kept personally. If Charlie comes to me and says he needs money, I have to give it to him because I’m his brother. When he sees his friends and he’s got money, he gives it to them. It’s just the way it is.”
Max refuses to speculate beyond what’s really known about the art here because anything else would be fooling yourself. “Lots of people who didn’t know much about the art here are now experts. Most of it they make up because the only people who know what these paintings mean are the artists who did them. There’s no need to tell lies about this, only what we know. There’s plenty to look at here.”
It is generally accepted that Aboriginal rock art is a continuous tradition dating back at least 35,000 years which chronicles traditional culture. Max pointed out faint red lines on the rock that indicated the oldest example of this art, when long blades of grass were dipped in ochre and slapped against the walls. A later example was hand prints, where the artists covered their hands with ochre and pressed them against the wall. Later still, they mixed ochre with saliva, held their hands against the wall and blew the color around it to form stencil patterns.
Simple stick figures and ancestral creation figures appeared around 10,000 years ago. At the same time active human figures began to appear, people in dynamic motion. Yam figures date to about 7,000 years ago as a staple in the diet, and around the same time began the X-ray style, renditions of animals with their internal organs visible.
In all cases, the paintings reflect the external world surrounding the people who lived here, and the internal spiritual world that tracks their journeys from the Dream time, the time of creation. The galleries display thousands of images, and if one could look deeper into the rock it would be thousands upon thousands because generation after generation the paintings were painted over, not erased but covered with new work. The colors are still vibrant, the detail refined, because the ochres bond chemically with the rock. As long as the rock is there the art will be there.
In time we walked on through a labyrinth of sandstone channels that in some places were narrow and dark and in others opened up like courtyards to the sky above. We were actually about fifteen feet below the ground with daylight streaming in amidst a jumble of huge roots from the gum trees above. The roots were as big as tree trunks and shot down from above like pillars, then snaked along the ground looking for soft spots in the rock to reach the aquifers below.
Thunder pealed in the distance and a moment later the sky darkened, the wind came up, rain began to fall. Max took us into a dark cavern where he asked us not to take pictures. Roots reached down from above and the dark floor was covered with human bones–skulls, femurs, pelvises, you name it.
“This was a burial site,” Max said, “but the bones have fallen through the ceiling. The site was up above.”
This scattering of old bones in the dark dirt of a sandstone cavern felt natural, dignified. Thunder rolled again, a deep, wondrous sound. Nature speaking. Saying hello, who’s next? In the context of antiquity here, all of us, to be sure, were passing like raindrops into the thirsty earth.
When the rain let up we headed back, the sky breaking into tumbling thunderheads and brilliant patches of blue. Crows and corellas yelled at each other like neighbors bickering over the back fence, and the light was a rich gold.
Later we headed out to explore the billabong by airboat. Max fired up the engine and it sounded like the wrath of God, the giant fan blasting air at anything behind it. Max suddenly got a boyish grin on his face and told us to climb aboard. His helpers shoved us into the water and it lapped around our ankles. Whoa, we were sinking. The stern was heading down. But Max saw it, revved the engine and the boat righted itself. We did a 360 and headed upstream, or at least what looked like upstream.
We headed into a narrow channel overhung with trees. The evening light was angular, a rich golden hue, lighting up the trees and the lilies and the grasses in iridescent green. The roar of the engine was deafening, vibrations ran through the aluminum hull, through our handholds and into our arms, like being jolted by lightning. The cacophony of birds was gone, lost in the shriek of machinery. It was the strangest wilderness experience I’ve ever had, making our way through a pristine landscape where little has changed in thousands of years on a machine as loud as an aircraft. But it was also deeply exhilarating.
You don’t really have too much choice in these regions when it comes to exploring the billabong. You have to go out in a sturdy boat with a motor. Try a canoe or kayak and you’re likely to experience an early end–as crocodile chow. The saltwater crocodiles up here are huge and abundant, and they will eat anything silly enough to present itself.
Max guided us through the increasingly narrow channel until it was barely wider than the boat. Slowly now, nudging against both sides, the dark, loamy earth grabbing at us. Water surged up on the banks, pushed ahead of us by the boat, but soon we were stuck, or so it seemed. Max revved the engine to screaming and the boat shuddered through, only to get hung up again. We were all in on the act now, pushing against the trees to keep the bow in the channel, jumping onto the bank to push the boat back in the water, the mud sucking at our feet. Pushing like mad, the engine shrieking like a banshee, engine wind ripping through the trees, water flying, and I looked up at Max and he sat there high on his perch, broad arms gunning the engine, trying to force that thing through, wearing a huge grin.
We got through that bind and ran into another. Max got into the water up to his knees to free the boat, and eventually we broke out into deeper, wider water. A moment later we saw a crocodile, and I realized that not once in our effort to get the boat through did I think about the danger. Was there danger, really? It sure seemed like it. There were crocodiles everywhere, why not where we got stuck? We could have stepped on one and only realized it when he let us know.
But now we were free and cruising the billabong. Crocodiles dove with one swipe of their powerful tails as we surprised them. Water birds took flight as we approached. A darter dropped from a tree fruitlessly trying to catch air before he hit the water like a bomb, then ran ahead on the surface till he got airborne and out of our way. Trees lining the channel whipped by and we broke out onto the flood plain into that glorious, golden light. Huge clouds tumbled along the horizon glowing white and yellow in the evening sun. For as far as we could see the landscape was silvery water and brilliant green vegetation, a fertile, primeval soup as close to the origins of life as I’ll ever get. Flocks of magpie geese fed in the thousands all around us. Thousands more took flight as we passed, filling the sky with their graceful forms. Ibises and egrets hung out in the trees, jabirus watched from the distance.
We raced across the billabong, the airboat blasting over lilies floating on the surface. Each time we bore down on another patch I was sure we’d slam into earth and go flying into the water where the hungry crocodiles waited. Max staunchly kept the throttle forward and we flew on, bumping over the matted growth, free of obstacles, free of restrictions, cruising the flood plain.
Later, clouds darkened the sky and rain fell in a torrent. We put on rain jackets but within minutes were soaked to the skin. Max pulled up under a dense canopy of mangroves and said, “Do you want to hold up for a while?”
“Why?” I laughed. “Makes no difference to me.”
“Can’t get wetter than we are,” he said, and off we went, Max’s poncho blowing in the wind like a shroud.
It was like flying through a thunderstorm in an open plane. The air was water and we could hardly see. Forward, faster. Birds scattered, and the boat raced over the water into the storm.
Gradually the rain let up and eventually stopped. Now we had a chance to look at the land, illuminated in soft, heavenly light. Max edged the boat aground so we could get out and rest awhile. Soaked as we were, it was nice to be on land, even though it was boggy.
Max began digging in the earth with his bare hands to collect some bush tucker, legumes from the roots of grass, busting up the knotted earth. Clumps of grass flew this way, clots of soil flew that way. He dug, and dug, fingering the roots, rejecting them as too scrawny. He kept at it, oblivious of my calls to stop. “It’s OK, Max, we don’t need to taste them.”
He seemed obsessed, as if starved, and I began to think he deposited us here just so he could get some of this bush food. He was grinning, glowing, completely consumed by this communion with the Earth. And then he found them. He pulled up some skinny bulbs, knocked the dust off, put them in his mouth and chewed. He smiled, then looked at me.
“This one’ll be sweet,” he said, handing me a dusty clod. It wasn’t. It was dry and starchy, something I wouldn’t choose to eat but could live on if I had to. But to Max it was pure heaven, God’s own repast, and he waited only an instant to make sure I approved before he dug for more.
After he’d eaten his fill, we wandered up past land that looked as if it had been rooted to death by wild pigs. We sat on the rocks and talked about life out here, the almost overwhelming serenity of it all, and Max began to get wistful about the old hunting days.
“There’d be forty buffalo over there, sixty over here. Now, naturalists consider the buffalo a pest that destroys the integrity of the billabong because it’s not an indigenous animal. But they’re beautiful animals. They’ve been in the area for a couple hundred years, and it can’t hurt to have them around in small numbers. It’s a shame to try to take out an entire species, especially when they provide a source of food and income for the Aboriginals.”
Then he began to tell stories, rolling them off his tongue like sweet water, one after another of his days in the bush with Charlie Munguda, and Big Bill Nadji, the traditional owner of Kakadu, and sundry other characters. He talked on and on, recounting tales full of love for the land, for his wild way of life, for the Aboriginal people.
Suddenly a wave of melancholy swept over me. Looking around at this extraordinary land of billabong and flood plain, I felt a deep emptiness, a loneliness rooted in my sense of having no connection to the land. Where was I from? What did I know of ancestry and earth? Was this just a malady of my own, or symbolic of a malaise shared by all First Worlders? The kind of connection I lacked you can only get from working the earth, coming from it, knowing it as part of your spirit. The Aboriginals had it. Max had it. But looking at that amazing green land carved in squiggly patterns by rivers and streams and buffalo channels, I knew it was something I would never have, unless I changed my life completely. And maybe even that wouldn’t be enough.
The light was failing, dropping in pinks and purples. The sky was going dark, and we headed back. We took it slowly, enjoying the flight of magpie geese, the purple reflections of clouds on the water, the calm after the storm. Suddenly a huge splash erupted to our left and Max stopped the boat immediately. Waves two feet high coursed toward us from the single flick of a crocodile’s tail, and the boat rocked as if crossing a wake. There wasn’t a sound on the billabong until Max uttered, “Now that was a big crocodile.”
The image of that crocodile we didn’t see stayed with me. The power of that creature, so ominous, so primeval, so bent on satisfying its hunger and nothing more, reflected the frightening beauty of these wild places. There are things here we cannot fathom, powers that make a mockery of our civilized concerns, hidden creatures with clear meanings. We are at the top of the food chain, yes, but only by a thread.
About Larry Habegger:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.