Kakadu National Park

This morning Troy got up at 05.30am to drive me downtown where I picked up a tour bus to Kakadu National Park. This is the largest park in Australia, 200k deep and 100k wide, taking in the great wetlands of the Aligator Rivers and the massive sandstone escarpment and plateau which marks the boundary of Arnhem Land. Apart from its spectacular landscape and unique biodiversity this magical place is home to the oldest rock paintings on the planet. Since he has never visited this area before I was a little disappointed to be travelling without my friend but I think I have already come to understand that he would not feel comfortable turning up to this sacred landscape with a group of day trippers. Besides, he still had those contacts to track down.

I even had to make do with a “Whitefella” guide when we finally got to one of the few rock art galleries that are open to visitors. Glen was not that bad, he carefully described the difference in levels of understanding to which outsiders and different members of the community could be admitted. Apparently we were like the young children of the tribe and only permitted a Level One interpretation of the drawings: the Rainbow Serpent creation story, identification the different types of food animals available in the region and, most interestingly, a health warning to the next nomadic tribe that should pass this way. A stick figure with swollen joints clearly illustrated the hazards of remaining too long in a region whose water has such a high uranium content.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that one of the world’s largest deposits of the ore was discovered and the Ranger mine is now fully enclosed by the park’s boundaries. While the management of and profit from the park itself is more than 50% Indigenous, I’m not so sure about the mining operation. Whatever the full story of modern development, a problem with ground water very obviously pre-dates the arrival of the Europeans. A much more detailed rock painting told the tale of a forbidden brother/sister love and its catastrophic consequences.

In Aboriginal society there are profound taboos against such relationships that extend far beyond the nearest relatives. I found this hard to reconcile with modern news stories about the prevalence of child abuse in the encampments. From bitter professional experience, I know that most sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by close family and community contacts. With the exception of certain countries like Yemen, where raising the age of consent is considered un-Islamic and the abuse of young girls is practically state sponsored, Instances of this concealed phenomenon seem to be common to all societies and all parts of the world. If traditional Aboriginal society has developed such strong prohibitions over the millennia, I wonder what the true picture is today. I’m afraid it is going to vary according to who you are talking to because, despite its growing multi-ethnic immigrant population, Australia is a country rife with prejudices against the poor “Blackfella”. One of my (all white) travelling companions, an engineer from Western Australia, was prompted by seeing the rock paintings to describe a horrifying account of the torturing of indigenous people by the first settlers. Apparently this information had turned up in some old company books but was unlikely to make its way into the public domain any time soon. “They don’t want us to know the half of it”, he sighed.

Our Ranger for the Yellow Water boat trip, however, was a native Australian. Darting kingfishers, jewel coloured bee-eaters, sacred ibis, magnificent sea eagles, the Jesus bird and the iconic jabiru: all of these were paraded for our photographic delight. These amazing wetlands, situated on a major migration route and surrounded by the encroaching desert of the Dry season, provide one of the finest bird watching opportunities on the planet. Even I got a few snaps. There was also an optional light aircraft flight which just happened to have a place left. So I flashed the credit card to sit upfront and see both the endless green flood plains and the towering orange rock formations from the air. Of course I also had to see the great spoil pit of the Ranger Mine and a luxury hotel shaped like a crocodile but it was all part of a truly unforgettable experience.

(This is being written at my Jakarta stop-over on the way home. If anyone had told me how much I would fit into this brief visit to the other side of the world I would not have believed them. My head is as bursting with impressions as is my baggage with souvenirs).

2 Comments

  • Ann says:

    I’m stuck on that stick figure with too much Uranium. Gads!!!

  • Sandy says:

    Here in the US, based on the fear of the of transexuals going into restrooms of their choice, the child sexual abuse must come from them and not the “friendly uncles”.

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