After we were packed and stocked up with food and ice and water, we hit the white stripes and got on the road to the world heritage listed Kakadu National Park from Humpty Doo along the Arnhem Highway, headed straight for the visitor centre to pay our parks pass fee and grab a map and check road conditions and the like. We also went in to Jabiru to grab a cold drink as the temperatures were getting pretty insane! The aim was to get to Ubirr, an area in the north eastern section of the park that is renowned for it’s abundance of beautifully preserved rock art from a very very long time ago – possibly 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. There was a ranger guided talk in the afternoon that we joined in on that was led by one of the traditional owners who worked as a ranger as well. He gave us lots of information about his people’s way of life and how the art recorded what animals and fish were in the area for hunting so that other members of their mob and visitors could know what was around for food.
Their illustrative records were beyond detailed though – beautiful examples of ‘x-ray’ art, where the inside of the animal is drawn out as well with bones and organs and muscles… a helpful guide for preparing the meat I guess! There were huge walls in the cavernous rock shelters filled with paintings of barramundi, big turtles, goannas, saratoga, wallabies.. and some thin wispy drawings of spirit people and other figures, some painted right up on the underside of the overhang many many metres up off the ground that made us all wonder how they got up there to paint it. When we asked our guide how it was done, he said his people believed that those paintings were there before his people arrived – that the spirits had marked it themselves. He also explained the difference between scientists and historians’ take on aboriginal history.. that they came and took samples and tried to find approximations of dates and years for the original inhabitants of Ubirr and they approximated that it was around 20,000 years ago, but his culture believed that it was longer – maybe 50,000 – and that some of his people would also say that they were always there, in some way or another, through the dreamtime and beyond. So that was an interesting way to think about the art not just as a practical guide for what’s there to eat, but as markers back in time, and markers that to some people might not be set in time at all.. they’re a part of the land itself.
We continued on the guided walk and saw some interesting drawings of what might have been the first sighting of white men in the area – fuller figures painted with white ochre and some with pipes in their mouths and so on. There was also an illustration of a rifle, to scale, possibly drawn as an explanation to someone else about what had been seen when the white settlers arrived in the area, or as a point of reference if they had brought one back to the shelters to look at. Then we stopped and had a look at a wonderfully preserved painting of a Tasmanian tiger high up on one of the rock faces. They obviously had been present on mainland Australia for a long time (and possibly quite abundant, since there are many more paintings like this one around NT and WA apparently!) before they had been over hunted or wiped out by other predators or animals competing for food. Very interesting stuff and very informative from the rangers that came along and showed us around.
The sun was getting pretty low so we all walked up to the top of the rocks to look out over the floodplains to the west and watch the sunset, which was one of the most spectacular we have seen yet, and such an amazing spot to be watching it from. So awesome. And then it was getting dark, so we jumped back in the car and drove down south to camp at Mardagul in the middle of the park so we’d be in a good spot for more adventuring around Kakadu tomorrow.