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

Uluru remains open for climbers

Last summer we reported that the Australian national parks service had recommended to the government that Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, be closed to climbers. Officials reasoned that climbing on the giant monolith was a safety risk and increased traffic there was causing accelerated erosion. Even more importantly, Uluru is held as a sacred site to the Aboriginal tribes in the region, and they have been very outspoken against allowing climbing there.

At the time of our original story, the proposal was going to be open for public discussion for two months before getting passed on to the Australian Parliament, who would make the final decision on the future of the Rock. Last week, the government handed down their decision, allowing climbing to continue on Uluru for now, but saying that it could yet be closed off in the future.

Uluru is a World Heritage Site and one of Australia’s most recognizable natural resources, rising 1,142 feet above the desert that surrounds it. Every year, more than 350,000 visitors flock to the monolith, with 100,000 of those electing to scale its sandstone walls. All of those visitors has caused environmental issues however, with trash and human waste littering the area.

The Australian government set down three very specific criteria that need to be met in order to ensure that Uluru remains open for climbing. First, they want to see the number of visitors who climb the rock drop from its current 38% down to just 20%. They also want to discourage climbers from coming to the place for the sole purpose of making a climb, and finally, they want to develop new experiences for visitors to experience, including ones that highlight the Aboriginal culture.

So, for now, climbing on Uluru is safe, and Parliament has promised that they will give at least an 18-month notice before they decide to close it in the future. Adventure travelers who still want to go to the top of the monolith are allowed to do so, but they should be prepared to tread lightly and expect to see fewer people on the routes to the summit.

Outback Australia: Kakadu Culture Camp

Yesterday I told you about the wonders of Kakadu National Park. What made my experience there all the more organic was the unique place that I called home for three days. I’m not much of a hotel person and I certainly wouldn’t want to stay at a resort while trying to appreciate a national park (even if one is shaped like a crocodile). Ideally, I would camp in my own tent and cook my meals on an open fire. But short of that, a cabin and personal time with people know that land better than anyone else may be the next best (or even better) option. And that’s exactly what I found at Kakadu Culture Camp.

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By no means is Kakadu Culture Camp a Colonial Williamsburg of Aboriginal culture. Rather, it is the only accommodation in Kakadu that is owned and operated by indigenous people whose have called the region home for countless generations. The Hunter family runs Kakadu Culture Camp to provide not only accommodations for visitors, but a learning experience for anyone who visits the park. Jenny, Fred, Dell and Douglas were all born and raised in what is now Kakadu National Park. Jenny and Fred work as park rangers while also operating the camp. In other words, my hosts had a wealth of knowledge about the region, the land, its history and the local cultures.

I was greeted at Kakadu Culture Camp by Andy Ralph, who is noticeably white. He’s married to Jenny and helps operate the camp and leads various talks and tours as well. He would prove to be a valuable source of guidance on what to see and do while at Kakadu National Park and also hosted a fascinating talk on water buffalo and the history of hunting in the park.

I was housed in a safari tent, which was nestled in the woods and provided both privacy and comfort. All of the structures in Kakadu Culture Camp save the restroom facilities are temporary, as the area is under several feet of water come wet season. I had a full-sized bed, screened windows to allow for airflow and was situated a fair distance from the campsites that can also be reserved on the property. While the accommodations were basic, they were perfect for a national park visit, as I spent most of my time exploring hiking trails and rock art rather than relaxing in bed. And in the evenings, the pitch black surroundings and near total silence allowed me to sleep off the day’s activities.

Kakadu Culture Camp offers a variety of tours and demonstrations to educate the public on indigenous culture. One does not need to be staying at the camp to attend these tours, so they also provided me with an opportunity to meet other travelers and share tips on what to see and do. I attended a discussion on bush tucker, a demonstration of didgeridoo playing (Douglas is fantastic while I am horrendous) and a tutorial on spear throwing. I also went on their moonlight boat tour in search of local fauna. While everyone searched vigilantly for a crocodile, I relished the opportunity to see the activity of nocturnal birds and the many fruit bats that call the area home.

Because Kakadu Culture Camp is owned and operated by native people, the entire experience was more respectful and authentic than other tours I have attended that have been hosted by people who do not directly represent the culture that is being discussed. The Hunters are quite proud of their heritage and share that passion with their guests.

Breakfast and dinner are provided, and Andy typically grills up a wonderful meal of local meat and vegetables. Dinner also provides a peaceful opportunity to ask the Hunters questions about the area and how life has changed since the land became a national park.

Kakadu Culture Camp is a wonderful blend of rustic accomodations and experiential travel. You could easily stay there, keep to yourself and explore the park all day, but you’d be missing out on the wonderfully organic cultural experience that exists there. The Hunters made Kakadu Culture Camp one of the more unique experiences I had in the Northern Territory. Just be sure you ask Andy to make your water buffalo patty medium rare. Those things can get a bit chewy.

For more information on Kakadu Culture Camp, visit their website.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read the other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.

Outback Australia: Kakadu National Park

Kakadu National Park covers 7,646 square miles of Australia’s Top End in the Northern Territory. How big is that? Well, you could fit both Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks inside of Kakadu with room to spare for all of the fanny packs (that’s bum bags for you Aussies) that would be roaming around. In other words, it’s massive. It’s also the native homeland of several groups of indigenous peoples. It’s a living history of Australia’s Outback story and a great place to begin a trip to the Northern Territory.

You can drive to Kakadu from Darwin in under four hours, and that’s exactly what I did. Be forewarned, though, that once you’re a few hundred kilometers out of Darwin, you’ll probably only get one radio station (ABC) that is a combination of NPR and local news talk radio. But if you’re a travel geek like me, you’ll enjoy listening to local music and hearing about the regional political conflicts as you scan the endless horizon for any sign of a town or passing vehicle. Along the way, you won’t pass much and you’ll quickly realize that the Northern Territory is defined more by what isn’t there than what is. It’s a land of natural beauty and devoid of much man-made structure. And Kakadu is the epicenter of much of that scenic wonder.

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The first thing I noticed upon entering Kakadu were the signs for the East Alligator, West Alligator and South Alligator rivers. The second thing you’ll notice is that there are no alligators in Kakadu. Or in the Northern Territory. Or in Australia. In the early 1800s, an English navigator by the name of Phillip Parker King visited the region fresh off of a trip to Florida. He mistook Australia’s crocodiles for alligators and the misnomer has stuck ever since. Just another quirk in an already quirky country.

And those crocodiles are prevalent in Kakadu. You’d be foolish to swim in any of the billabongs or rivers that you find in your travels. However, there are plenty of opportunities to safely observe these descendants of dinosaurs safely. One of the best is on the Yellow Water Cruise. Don’t let the odd name fool you. The cruise takes you through some of the most serene areas of the park and allows you to view wildlife from crocs to jabiru. It’s a great way to spend a morning and both kids and adults will be in awe of the creatures and landscapes that you witness. For the best experience, sit in the back of the boat with the guide and stand on your seat to take pictures without fear of blocking anyone’s view.

While Australia’s most famous inland natural wonder, Uluru, is several hundred kilometers south of Kakadu, the park is not lacking for dramatic rock outcrops. Nourlangie Rock (Burrunggui in the native language) features some pristine rock art and breathtaking views of the wide expanses of the Northern Territory. You can clearly notice paintings of wallabies and hunters (pictured), as well as many of the traditional spirits who are the central characters of the indigenous people’s Dreamtime or Dreaming. These are the oral traditions that make their history of the universe and their land and the art provides a window into how the native people lived thousands of years ago.

Similar to Burrunggui, Ubirr Rock has a “gallery” of art that dates back thousands of years. Park guides regularly host scheduled talks at various art sites to explain the pictures and their significance to the native people. I was beyond pleased to see several aboriginal guides working at the park and sharing the stories of their heritage as they had learned them as children.

Ubirr Rock is a popular destination for park visitors because of its breathtaking sunsets. The good news is that the view is even better than advertised. The bad news is that you’ll be sharing the experience with several hundred of your newest photo-crazed friends. Anticipating a rush of people around sunset, I elected to climb Ubirr (it’s a fairly easy walk) in the mid-afternoon. The top was nearly devoid of people during the hottest part of the day and I looked out onto the flood plains and water buffalo grazing areas in quiet solitude. It wasn’t until around 5:30 that the hordes of tourists with their cameras and boorish behavior arrived en masse. By then, I had enjoyed several hours of peaceful reflection high atop the Outback with nothing to keep me company but welcomed breezes and the occasional white breasted sea eagle.

That said, the sunset at Ubirr was phenomenal. As the evening approached Kakadu, the sun itself seemed weary after a long day. It relinquished its position high above the plains and seemed to sink meekly towards the horizon, as if conceding that the moon had once again claimed victory in this daily battle.

For a true sense of the Northern Territory’s size and scope, Kakadu National Park is a must-see. Many travelers camp or stay in camper vans while visiting. Others stay at the crocodile-shaped Holiday Inn in the mining town of Jabiru (not to be confused with the bird). No matter where you lay your head at night in Kakadu, however, you won’t wake up far from some of the most beautiful vistas you’ve ever seen.

One could easily spend several weeks in Kakadu lingering in various sections of the park and interacting with the land. Sadly, I had only a few days. Thankfully, I stayed in some incredibly unique accommodations that helped me learn about the park from the people who grew up there. And that’s what I’ll be covering tomorrow.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read the other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.

Disgusting tourists use Uluru as a toilet

The otherworldly red rock of Uluru (Ayers Rock) that rises above a flat expanse of Australia‘s Northern Territory has long been considered a sacred site to the native Aboriginal people. Against their wishes, over 100,000 people climb the rock, which is just over 1100 feet tall, each year. Recently, the National Parks service proposed a plan that would close Uluru to climbers.

There were many reasons given for the proposed climbing ban, including the site’s significance to the Aboriginal people, increased erosion on the rock, and the danger involved in climbing the rock(it is estimated that around 35 people die while attempting to scale it each year). A guide for the Anangu Waai tour company has now cited another reason – people are using the sacred spot as a toilet. After they get to the top, they take a “bathroom break” out of sight before starting their descent. It’s an idea so revolting that you hope it can’t possibly be true, but the director of the National Parks has backed it up. He says that in busy times, the levels of E. coli at the base of Uluru reach dangerous levels as the filth washes down the rock with the rain.

The Northern Territory government opposes the proposal. If Uluru were to be closed to hikers, fewer people might visit, and the area’s tourism industry could suffer. As per usual, environmental and social ideals become tangled with economic concerns and the country’s Environmental Minister will have to consider both when he makes his decision on a 10-year plan for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which he says will be made “in due course”. Looks like it you want to climb Uluru, you should get there now….but please hit the bathroom before you go.

[via Times Online]