Wednesday, 16 August 1995

Nourlangie Rock/Anbangbang Billabong & Shelter

Nourlangie Rock
With a long day planned, we were up and about early and had driven to our first and most difficult walk of the day, ready to take our first steps by 8:15 am.

All of our walking, on this our last day in Kakadu, was to be in the vicinity of Nourlangie Rock and this first walk of 3.5 km was to an art site on the northern side of the Rock, called the Nanguluwur Gallery. It was typical of the walks we had done in the park, in that it was well marked, of an easy grade and not long. Despite this, we were again dismayed to find the most erroneous and ridiculous remarks in the visitors book at the art site. I say again, I would not invite the comments of morons who obviously know nothing of bushwalking or the culture which lias produced the dramatic art work on display here.

Once our anger subsided, we were able to soak up the atmosphere of this quiet, gentle place. A definite additional advantage of our early starts - apart from heat avoidance - was crowd avoidance and this morning was another fine example. As the only people at this ancient shelter, we not only had free run of the place to photograph from any angle and look at what we wanted unencumbered, we were also able toappreciate the atmosphere.

The paintings were of of me same extraordinary quality as those we had seen at Ubirr, but with a greater variety of subjects, there was some "contact art", with the drawing of a sailing ship very obvious, but also some harder to spot drawings of white men. Again, there were fish and goannas and other food sources painted in the relatively modem X-ray style which had been so impressive at Ubirr. Here, however, there was also some much older work. Life sized paintings of kangaroo were of a style which dated them as being seriously old - 15 000 years plus - and their obscured nature also indicated they had been painted over several times.

Contact art, Nanguluwur Gallery
Set under a huge rock overhang, this was also a warm shelter in the colder former climate which existed thousands of years ago, when the coast was much closer to this area. The northerly aspect would have made it a very pleasant place to be in the days when they did have winter here, rather than "the dry".

From this special place, we moved closer to the Anbangbang area of Nourlangie Rock . The aborigines called the rock Nawurlandja, with higher sections called Burrunggui and the lower sections called Anbangbang. Opposite Nourlangie Rock is a rocky outlier of tilted sandstone - Nawurlandja Lookout - which allows the climber the opportunity of looking east over Anbangbang Billabong, Nourlangie Rock and the magnificent Arnhem Land Escarpment. The sandstone top layers have been greatly eroded, exposing massive layers of conglomerate, which are evidence of a time when the water ran very quickly over the watery bed which caused these deposits.

Sitting on this exposed tilted plate and facing the incredible natural beauty which lay before our eyes to the east, I found myself being forced to sort through a mental catalogue of the best views I have seen. Certainly this was one of them and comparable or better than the ones I had always rated the highest: Grand High Tops at Warrumbungle NP; Mt Abrupt at Gariwerd NP (Grampians); and Middle Brother Mountain, near Laurieton.

The great line of escarpment man ran in horizontal simplicity roughly north to south; the sudden and almost violent imposition of Nourlangie in the foreground; the greens and blues of Anbangbang Billabong and the occasional flashes of colour as birds rose and then settled; the sea of paler greens which were the woodland eucalypts; the blue of the sky which met them all when they had exhausted their vertical their range; and the smoke haze that clung to the base of the cliffs, gathered there from all over the park by the winds - a reminder it was the end of the "burning time".

Whilst I can't say it was the greatest view I have ever seen, I know it will take it's place among the very upper echelon in my treasured memories.

Anbangbang Billabong
Near our vantage point, a large hole which had been caused by a weakness in the sandstone and the action of wind and water, made a mini cauldron perhaps five metres across and of similar depth. The children and Sue climbed down into it and were fascinated by the nature of it.

Walking down off the lookout - motivated by invading tourists - we discovered some rock art, tucked away in a little nook. It was like having your own private showing of a precious art work. Sue attempted to share this discovery with a passing tourist, but the language barrier and the desire of the newcomer to reach the top abrogated any chance she might stop and look at the paintings.

We returned to the car park for our packs and made our way to Anbangbang Billabong, for lunch (pronounced un-bung-bung).

This is certainly the best known of the billabongs in the park and probably the most visited. The fact
another access point - other than the walking track we were using - brings cars right to its edge, probably has a lot to do with it. Shrunken to half it's "wet" size, it was never the less spectacular, as the bird life was now contracted to a smaller area and therefore more concentrated. The walking track circles the billabong and we walked halfway around before finding a shady perch to consume our sandwiches and muesli bars.

Whilst we were watching the birds, we were lucky enough to have a ranger wander past. Ranger Sharon Hinton was on a break and had come down to the billabong to capture some of the birds on film. A relative newcomer to the park (April 95) she originally came from Victoria, where she worked at Gariwerd NP. This was a golden opportunity to ask the many questions which had formulated during our six days in Kakadu, in our own private session with a park ranger and it was a chance we relished. It transpired we shared many of the views held by the park staff: tourists as opposed to travellers; traditional owners and their importance to what the park is all about; visitor's books; wild life; and many other issues. We were grateful for her candour, information and company and bid her farewell with the utmost of thanks.

One interesting tidbit we gleaned, was the discovery of a tourist's body very near to a walking track we had completed a few days earlier at Ubirr. It was thought the person left the track and either became disoriented, distressed or was in need of water. What ever the cause, he must have collapsed and was not found for some months. By men, most of what remained was bones, a passport and several Nikon cameras.

Our final walk and visit for the day, was the wonderful rock art and former living quarters at Anbangbang Shelter.

This was a brilliant 1.5 km walk, which included passing through a natural shelter in the massive fallen sandstone boulders, which had been a home for aborigines for at least fifteen thousand years. The evidence for this comes from an archaeological dig done in the shelter, which unearthed stones tools and other artifacts from that period and right through to the last thirty years. We attended an excellent talk In this very cool, peaceful place, given by Ranger Dave Bowe. During his thirty minute talk, he spoke of the history of use of the shelter and passed around a number of stone tools found here during the archaeological dig. We were able to examine, at first hand, stone axe heads, spear tips, cutting tools and examples of the foods and berries which would have been eaten as the aborigines clustered together in here, away from the oppressive heat of the day or the driving rain.
Further into the walk, we also saw some old and new rock art: as detailed and as breath-taking as that
which we had seen at Ubirr.

The most striking of the very detailed X-ray style art was the work of "Barramundi Charlie" or Nayomboimi who worked for many years for Europeans and returned to his ancestral grounds shortly before his death in 1964 to paint these designs. He was aware of his imminent passing and wanted to record many of the stories and lore of his people, rather than have them lost. One particular wall of his work is probably the most talked about and photographed rock art at Kakadu. The clarity of the brush work and the importance of the stories combine to create stunning images which have the same moving affect as any of the great art works from white Australia's heritage.

Here was Namarrgon, The Lightning Man, and his wife Barrkinj. Namarrgon has lightning joining his head and feet and garramalg (stone axes) can be seen attached to his head, elbows and knees. It is these he strikes against the ground and clouds to create lightning and thunder. Namarrgon and Barrkinj produce offspring each year which herald the commencement of the storms of the wet. These are Aldjurr, the striking blue and orange grasshoppers which only appear at Kakadu and were observed by Ludwig Lelchhardt in his travels through this area. Consequently, they are known by white Australia as Leichhardt's Grasshopper.

At the top of this wall, Namondjok, a very dangerous spirit, is painted in stark detail. A feature of this painting is the exaggerated size of his penis and testicles - something very rare tn the art work of this area. It would seem this is associated with his deeds as a human, as Namondjok had made love to his sister: something very much taboo in most cultures. Both were punished heavily by their tribe, with Namondjok being thrown into the fire to die. His concubine plucked a feather from his head and threw it into the rock face of the Arnhem Land escarpment, where it can be seen today as a lone rock, silhouetted against the sky. The tribe left him in the burning coals, presuming his death. However, Namondjok crawled from the fire and dragged himself to the river, where he turned into Ginji, the saltwater crocodile. The bumps on his back are the blisters from the fire.

The painting is placed here, because the original offence is said to have happened on the rock ledge above.

It is the association of every painting to a story which teaches, warns, informs or entertains, that underlines the value which can be placed on these amazing works of art. Before coming to Kakadu, this was something unknown to me, but now, standing before these strong cultural signposts, I felt an awe I have experienced on few occasions.

Mind you, some of the gloss was taken away by the rudeness of the French tourists who were busy
jockeying for position and sniggering at the "extreme primitive nature of the art work on show". Someone should blow France up !

We left the Nourlangie Rock area, exhausted but thrilled by what we had seen and experienced throughout the day and returned to camp for ablutions and a good night's sleep.

The Kakadu Experience had been one which we had anticipated for so long. We had been concerned we might feel an anticlimax when it actually happened. However, the physical and spiritual beauty of this place is such that no such disappointment is possible to anyone with an open heart and mind.. In our journey north/tie had heard conflicting reports from tourists, referring to the place as "Kakadon't" etc. and saying it was just another place to go. Many rated Litchfield NP as a superior park. This form of negative comment is hard to understand or justify and our conclusion was these people felt threatened or did not understand the aboriginality of this place. In most cases, their comments included a diatribe against the traditional owners, so this could well have been the case.

From our point of view, this is a case study of what can be achieved when "whitefellas" listen to and work in partnership with "blackfellas". Here, ownership is recognised and therefore, usage of the park is enhanced by the goodwill and willingness to share of the owners.

Anbangbang Shelter
The ranger staff are knowledgeable and informed and all share an empathy with the local aboriginals:
developed in talking with them, formally and informally. The facilities are excellent and appropriate for what you should expect in a well managed NP. All types of accommodation are available for all types of people, which leads me to the down side of our visit. Too often - visitor's books, lookouts. Visitor's Centre - we experienced morons who should never come to such a place. They have no intention of recognising the significance of the owners or their culture and generally, are ill-prepared for walking and enjoying any nature they can't drive their car to. It is a pity some form of screening test can't prevent them from coming here, because it is unlikely the experience will change them. Their self-indulgence is the antithesis of what this place is on about.

The scenery is fantastic - certainly on a par with the best we have seen - and we know we will need to
revisit. When doing so, it will be at a different time of year, so we can experience another part of the yearly cycle of life in tlie park. The indigenous people of Kakadu, do not recognise the four seasons we from temperate climates know so well. Whilst most Europeans would identify two seasons here - wet and dry - the aboriginals identify six seasons...

Gunumeleng (October-December)
The pre-monsoon season of hot weather which becomes more and more humid. Along the creeks, the air is heavy with the scent of blossoming paperbark trees which attract colonies of feeding fruit bats in the evening. Thunderstorms build in the afternoons and scattered showers bring a tinge of green to the parched earth. As the streams begin to run, "old water" washes into the permanent billabongs from stagnating pool, causing localised fish kills. Waterbirds disperse as surface water and new growth becomes more widespread. Barramundi move out of the water holes and downstream to the estuaries. It is time for people to move camp from the floodplaln, to shelter from violent storms of the wet season.
Gudjeuk (January-March)
The time of violent thunderstorms, heavy rain and flooding. Heat and humidity generates an explosion of plant and animal life. Magpie geese nest among the sedgelands. It is egg gathering time. Flooding may cause goannas, snakes and possums to seek refuge in the trees, where they are easily caught.
Banggereng (April)
Most plant are fruiting and animals are caring or their young. Expanses of water recede and streams clear. Violent storms flatten the two metre high spear grass; hence the name "knock 'em down season".
Yekke (April-June)
Early morning mists hang low over the plains and waterholes. The shallow wetlands and billabongs are carpeted with waterlilies. Drying winds signal it is time to commence burning the bush in patches to "clean" the country and to encourage new growth for grazing animals. Early season fires are insurance against destructive fires in the hotter months. Eucalyptus miniata begins to flower and when flowering ceases by early August, fires are usually no longer lit.
Wurrgeng (June- July)
The cold weather time with low humidity, days of 30 degrees C and nights as low as 17. Creeks cease to flow and floodplains quickly dry out. Magpie geese, fat and heavy after weeks of feeding, crowd the diminishing billabongs with a myriad of other waterbirds. Burning continues, dampened by the dew at night. By day, the birds of prey patrol the fire lines as insects and other small animals escape the flames.
Gurrung (July-October)
Windless and hot, the land seemingly lays dormant. It Is still 'goose time' but also a time to hunt file snakes and long necked turtles. Sea turtles lay their eggs on the sandy beach of Field Island, where goannas rob the occasional nest. White-breasted wood swallows arrive as thunderheads build again with the return of Gunumeleng.

We felt honoured the four tribes who have ownership of the park had shared their home with us and in listening to their stories, reading their words and viewing their art work, we hope to honour them by our acceptance of its immense value.

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