The Aboriginal Art Of Australia’s Kakadu National Park

Aboritinal Art in Kakadu National Park
Kraig Becker

Australia’s vast and wild Northern Territory holds a number of wonders for visitors to discover, not the least of which is Kakadu National Park. Spread out across more than 7600 square miles, the park is the true embodiment of the Outback with a rugged and unforgiving landscape that includes some of the most breathtaking scenery that can be found anywhere on the entire continent. But Kakadu is more than just pretty scenery as it also holds important keys to understanding Australia’s past in the form of Aboriginal art that is scrawled across rock faces throughout the region. That artwork offers important insights into the history of the indigenous people who have inhabited Australia for more than 40,000 years and continue to have a lasting impact on the country.

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, Kakadu is one of the rare destinations that earned that distinction by scoring points for being significant both for its cultural and natural wonders. Travelers need only visit the spectacular Jim Jim Falls and Twin Falls to understand why the park earned the nod in the area of natural significance, as those locations are postcard-perfect representations of just how beautiful our planet can be. Both places require a little work to reach, but the payoff in both cases is a stunning waterfall dropping majestically into a serene pool of water.

Kakadu’s historical and cultural significance is also found at the sites of Nourlangie and Ubirr, where Aboriginal artwork adorns the rock faces in spectacular fashion. Since Australia’s indigenous tribes had no written language they would often leave messages for one another in the form of pictures on the sides of cliff faces. Those images could convey important messages such as which animals lived in an area and which were best to eat. Other images represented characters from Aboriginal legends, which were typically passed along orally from one generation to the next. Those characters gained a level of immortality by surviving on the rocks in Kakadu for hundreds of years.

The artwork that is found in Kakadu is simple in design but often surprisingly detailed. The artists tended to draw what they saw around them, so much of what is depicted on the rocks there is straight out of the daily lives of the Aboriginals. For example, at the Ubirr site there are numerous drawings of fish, the very distinct outline of a kangaroo, a couple of turtles and even a white man. That particular image clearly reflects the growing interaction with the Aboriginals and the strange outsiders who began visiting their lands just a few hundred years ago. The simple figure is depicted using white paint, which was surely no coincidence, and he is clearly wearing shoes and standing with his hands in his pockets, something that the indigenous people had no knowledge of prior to Europeans coming to their country.

Aboriginal Art in Kakadu National Park
Kraig Becker

Each of the images was created using ochre, a colorful mineral that is plentiful throughout the region. The soft material comes in a variety of yellows, whites and reds, although the industrious artists found ways of creating still other colors by mixing it with animal fats and other natural resources around them. In Aboriginal tradition, it was forbidden for female members of the tribe to gather the ochre, although they could use it in their artwork once the males had taken it from the earth. The location of the ochre pits remain sacred ground to the original inhabitants of Australia even to this day and some are still used for collecting the mineral for use in traditional ceremonies.

Because it can’t be carbon dated it is impossible to know exactly how old the artwork at Ubirr and Nourlangie actually is. But judging from what is on the wall it is possible to estimate an approximate age. For instance, Europeans haven’t been living in Australia for all that long, relatively speaking, so the image of the white man is probably no older than 300 years. On the other hand, visitors to Ubirr will notice an image of a Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, which have been extinct on the continent for at least 2000 years.

While the artwork in Kakadu has survived for centuries it remains a fragile piece of history that could be easily lost forever. The original artists never meant for their works to stay on the rocks indefinitely, as they were often erased or painted over with new artwork much like a blackboard. The images found in the national park have survived through the years in part because most of them are sheltered from the elements by overhanging rocks. That natural protection has kept this aspect of Aboriginal culture alive and on display for visitors to Kakadu to appreciate generations after the artwork was originally created.

Australia’s Aboriginal tribes wandered the country for millennia before Europeans began to arrive. Those indigenous peoples had an intimate relationship with the land and that shows through in their artwork and the places that they painted those indelible images. In Kakadu, where the landscapes are so beautiful and dramatic, that connection with the Earth can still be felt. It is as ageless as the artwork that marks the passage of time, sending us a message from the past that is undeniably powerful and humbling at the same time.

Aboriginal Art in Kakadu National Park
Kraig Becker

International Budget Guide 2013: Oaxaca, Mexico

If you are seeking an authentic and affordable taste of Mexico, look no further than Oaxaca.

The southwestern Mexican city has come a long way since the political protests of 2006, where non-violent activists clashed with corrupt government officials and militia in the streets. The protests led to a renewed sense of self-awareness and confidence for the city, and today, Oaxaca is once again a safe and welcoming place for tourists. The city boasts a strong cultural heritage, exciting contemporary art scene and deserved place as the gastronomic capital of Mexico. Central Oaxaca’s colonial buildings and cobblestoned streets have earned the historic district a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, and its many monuments are being spiffied up for the World Congress of World Heritage Cities, which the city will host in November.

Along with the old, there is also the new. Oaxaca’s universities imbue the city with a spirit of youth, creativity and entrepreneurial energy. In addition to the traditional markets and restaurants, there are plenty of exciting start-up businesses as well: affordable pop-up restaurants, yoga studios, mezcal tasting libraries and city cycling associations, to name a few.

Visitors to Oaxaca find a cultural experience that can’t be found in over-touristed resort towns like Cancun and Cabo. It is very much a city on the verge.

Budget Activities

The Zocalo: The historic Zocalo, bordered by the governor’s palace and main cathedral, can provide hours of people-watching entertainment. You could spring for a drink at one of the dozens of restaurants lining the plaza, or just buy a 10 peso (US$1.10) corn-on-the-cob and grab a park bench. Either way, there’s plenty to keep you busy in Oaxaca’s most famous plaza. On one side, activists protest peacefully for a change in government. On the other, small children push oversized balloons high into the air. And between, Oaxacans from all walks of life converge. It’s the true heart of the city. Between Hidalgo, Trujano, Flores Magon and Bustamente Sts.

Monte Albán: These ruins just outside Oaxaca once comprised one of Mesoamerica’s earliest and most important cities, said to be founded in 500 B.C. The impressive Main Plaza contains hundreds of carved stone monuments, with curious etchings that were once thought to be dancers, but are now believed to be tortured war prisoners. You can easily book a guided tour to Monte Alban from the dozens of tour offices across the city, but a cheaper option is to take the 50 peso (US$4) round-trip tourist shuttle from the Hotel Rivera del Angel, which departs every hour between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. http://www.hotelriveradelangel.com Calle Fransisco Mina 518

Bicycle Night Rides: Experience Oaxaca on two wheels by joining one of Mundo Ceiba’s “Paseos Nocturnos en Bicicleta” – nighttime bike rides sponsored by a local cycling association. The rides take place every Wednesday and Friday starting at 9 p.m., with meeting points in front of the Santo Domingo Church and on Macedonio Alcalá in the city center. Bicycles are available for rent between 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. at Mundo Ceiba’s headquarters at The Hub Oaxaca; bring 50 pesos (US$4) and prepare to leave your passport as a deposit. Quintana Roo 2011

Hotels

Hotel Azul Oaxaca: With 21 guest rooms designed by local contemporary artists, the stunning Hotel Azul Oaxaca is a concept boutique hotel aiming to combine art, design and comfort. The standard rooms are chic and clean, but the real treasures are the suites, like the minimalist Suite Dubon, the playful Suite Leyva and the geometric Suite Villalobos. If you’ve always sought a high-design hotel experience at an accessible price, this is your place. From US$130. http://www.hotelazuloaxaca.com Abasolo 313, Centro

Hotel Casa del Soltano: Housed in a historic colonial building, Hotel Casa del Soltano is a solid budget option that oozes Oaxacan charm, with its colorful yellow exterior, lush gardens and rooftop terrace overlooking the nearby Plaza Santo Domingo. The rooms are a bit cramped, but the outdoor ambience more than makes up for it. From 770 pesos (US$62). http://www.mexonline.com/sotano.htm Tinoco y Palacios 414, Centro

Hostal Casa del Sol Oaxaca: This charismatic hostel offers private rooms and dormitories – without the teenagers and tequila shots. Casa del Sol’s centerpiece is a bougainvillea-shaded courtyard that is perfect for enjoying a casual drink with fellow travelers. Its warm and welcoming atmosphere has earned it legions of glowing reviews and a spot on TripAdvisor’s list of top 25 Mexican bargain hotels for 2013. Dorms from 160 pesos (US$13), private rooms from 450 pesos (US$36). http://www.hostalcasadelsol.com.mx Constitucion 301, Centro

Eat & Drink

La Biznaga: Oaxaca’s artistic community regularly converges in the courtyard of La Biznaga, a popular restaurant serving creative, upscale Oaxacan fare. Chef Fernando López Velarde embraces the slow food movement, and he makes regular use of locally sourced ingredients. Prices are comparatively high but a bargain by American standards; expect to pay about US$20 a head for a multi-course dinner. Don’t miss the fried squash blossom appetizer, which pairs perfectly with the bar’s inventive mezcal cocktails. 512 García Vigil, Centro

Itanoni: The focus is on the corn at Itanoni, a humble eatery about a 15-minute walk from central Oaxaca. The restaurant specializes in tapas-style dishes featuring its famous house-made tortillas, made fresh in front of you from different varieties of local, organic, stone-ground corn. Alice Waters, the godmother of America’s farm-to-table movement, calls it her favorite restaurant in the city. Belisario Dominguez 513

El Olivo: The second-floor bar above the Meson del Olivo is a fixture on Oaxaca’s happy hour scene. Dark but atmospheric, it features an extensive selection of beers from local microbreweries, as well as a solid wine list and the requisite mezcal cocktails. The 100 peso (US$8) happy hour includes four small tapas and a beer or glass of wine. Murguia 218, Centro

Logistics

Get Around: The historic center of Oaxaca is very walkable, and it’s unlikely that you’ll require additional transport if you stay in the city. Oaxaca’s bus system is a safe and convenient option for inter-city jaunts. Buses are clearly and colorfully labeled with their destinations, and standard fare is 6 pesos (US$.50 – try to carry exact change). Taxis are also a decent option, but be sure to negotiate the fare before hopping inside. A ride within central Oaxaca shouldn’t cost more than 50 pesos (US$4), though fixed fares from the airport are significantly more expensive. Expect to pay upwards of 200 pesos (US$16) for the 20-minute ride into town.

Seasonality: Oaxaca’s southern location and high elevation provide it with pleasant temperatures year-round. Peak visitor season is from October to March, but it is also worth making a trip in late July for the famous Guelaguetza folk festival, with attracts cultural performers from across the region.

Safety: Oaxaca is a relatively safe place for visitors, particularly compared to other Mexican cities that have reputations for drug-related violence. However, you should still heed the precautions you would take in any Latin American city. Keep your belongings close to you, don’t flaunt expensive jewelry and be careful about walking alone at night.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user MichaelTyler]

Photo Of The Day: Morning Landscapes Of Hampi, India

The sun rises over boulders, the Tungabhadra River and the ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire’s former capital to make a gorgeous golden landscape in today’s Photo Of The Day, taken by Arun Bhat. Located in southwest India, this tide of rocks and history are a part of the Hampi World Heritage Site. At its height, the ancient capital was the largest city in the world. Now, it’s home to countless temples and historical sites in a beautiful state of decay.

Be sure to submit your own photos for a chance at our Photo Of The Day. You can do so in two ways, submit it via our Gadling Flickr Pool, like Arun did, or mention @GadlingTravel and tag your photos with #gadling on Instagram.

[Photo credit: Flickr user arunchs]

Video Of The Day: Huayna Picchu Offers Bird’s-Eye View Of Machu Picchu


Standing on the mountain ridge of Machu Picchu, the most recognized site of the Incas that sits high above the Urubamba Valley in Peru, is an experience sought after by people from all over the world. Walking around the UNESCO World Heritage Site, one can’t help but wonder what life was like for the Incas who lived there in the 15th century. As visitors take a moment – or in some cases, several hours – to sit and soak up the surrounding peaks of the Andes Mountains, one gets a sense of the kind of connection the Incas must have had to the breathtaking landscape that surrounded them. One of those peaks, Huayna Picchu, or “Young Peak,” is the emblematic sugarloaf mountain that rises over Machu Picchu in most photos. The Incas paved a trail up the side of the mountain and built temples and terraces on its summit – where local guides say the high priest and local virgins lived. Today, 400 tourists can enter Huayna Picchu each day by purchasing advanced tickets for 152 Peruvian neuvos soles, or around $57 U.S. dollars. The one-hour climb to the top isn’t easy; it’s a steep ascent the equivalent of 253 flights of stairs that includes some dizzying hairpin turns where climbers must use steel cables for support and – in certain spots – leaves climbers exposed on the side of the mountain on tiny steps. In this video, Mike Theiss takes viewers to the summit, showing how hikers must squeeze through a cave at one point and demonstrating just how harrowing some of the stairs can be. But the best parts about the hike (and the above video) are the 360-degree view from the top and the bird’s-eye view of Machu Picchu. Watch closely to see the switchback road the buses take to transport travelers from Aguas Calientes, the town below the Inca site, to Machu Picchu. Believe me, the views are worth braving your fear of heights and the soreness that results from the climb!

Pyramids and monasteries among the many ancient monuments under restoration

pyramids, pyramid
Around the world, ancient monuments are crumbling. As our heritage wears away through neglect, “development”, or simply the harsh treatment of time, some countries are doing something about it.

The pyramid of Djoser, the oldest of the pyramids of Egypt, will be the object of a major restoration effort. The government recently announced that funding has been earmarked for restoration after the people previously working on the site put down their tools, saying they weren’t getting paid. The money that’s owed to the company would be paid and workers would be assured their salaries, said Mohammad Abdel-Maksoud, Egypt’s new Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. The famous Zahi Hawass was let go during the recent revolution. Hawass was briefly replaced by Abdel-Fattah al-Banna, but al-Banna quickly resigned amid criticisms of his lack of credentials.

The Djoser pyramid at Saqqara was constructed from 2667 to 2648 BC and is a step pyramid rather than a true pyramid. It now suffers from numerous structural problems and a crumbling facade.

In Tibet, the Chinese government is investing almost $9 million to restore monasteries and homes of the 10th century Guge Kingdom. Among the attractions in the ruins are some colorful Buddhist murals, caves, palaces, and pagodas. BBC News has an interesting video showing of the site here.

It’s not all good news, though. Many treasures of the past are under threat. While Rome’s Colosseum is being restored, several structures in Pompeii collapsed last year. In Red Rock Canyon, Nevada, volunteers and experts had to clean away graffiti sprayed on Native American rock art. In England the Priddy Circles, a collection of Neolithic earthworks from 5,000 years ago, were half destroyed when someone bulldozed them.

It’s nice to see some governments working hard to maintain their monuments, but lack of funding and simple human stupidity are making their job difficult.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]