The dreaded Covid-19 lockdown has opened up time for all those things I never got around to but meant to finish one day. It has taken so long to return to this blog I have mislaid my notes and rely on memory.
My discursive narrative does no justice to the rich cultural homelands where Australian First Peoples have lived for 10s of thousands of years. It is extraordinary to hear that here in Central Arnhem Land there are more language groups than in any other region in the world.
This part of the trip I travel west to Murwangi onto Barramundi Lodge ending up at Mount Borradaile, six days of very different experiences and different landscapes.
Perhaps I chose the wrong month to visit as this week coincided with the Gamma festival out of Gove plus a few funeral ceremonies so that many were away on sorry business. Added to that, the Art Centres were being run with few people because the upcoming Art Fair in Darwin and a print exhibition in Paris meant that many people who might have been in the galleries for discussion were not available.
Our first 2-night stop was at the elegant Murwangi Safari Lodge. (Murwangi was once a failed European cattle station and now under the control of an Aboriginal pastoral company).
From there we explored a corner of the 1,300 sq kilometre wooded Arafura Swamp an important Aboriginal cultural area.
The film, The Ten Canoes, the only film made in an indigenous language, was shot here and went on to win a number of Australian Film Industry awards. Unfortunately, because of sorry business or illness the local indigenous guides weren’t available but a guide from the camp took us to the swamp billabongs left when the Clyde River evaporates in the dry months.
He pointed out special flora used for food and medicine or for stripping and twining to be used for weaving. The Milkwood was traditionally used for body paint or for preparing adhesive for rock art. And the pandanus here was used for basket weaving.
Grooves in the rocks showed where food had been pounded for thousands of years.
This country has two main types of termite formations.There are thousands and thousands of termite mounds across the Top End. Termites came to Australia 100 million years ago and were originally found at the tops of trees. Across the world there are 250 species of termite and 150 of them are found in Australia. Only 7 species eat wood and generally all are part of the natural cycle providing food for birds and insects.
My favourite was the Cathedral mound said to grow as tall as 9 metres and reminiscent of eerie and grand shapes from childhood stories.
The shorter Magnetic termite hills with the razor sharp edges and thin profile are also impressive en masse. Were life long enough, the study of termites would be fascinating.
Later we went boating and luckily there was a generous twitcher with us who over the days took trouble to point out some of the hundreds of birds I sometimes glimpsed – including the jabiru, whistling kite, kingfisher, the blue winged kookas, egrets, brolgas and the tiny Jesus bird. This last is so called because s/he walks from lily pad to lily pad so that it appears to be walking on water,
The next day we visited the Bula’bula Art Centre in Ramingining and I was struck, as so often on this trip, by how central these art centres are to the economic wellbeing and cultural preservation of local communities. While we were able to visit the Centre and look at some of the delicate, intricate work being created, here as in all other stops in communities, we were not allowed to wander into or around the townships – just into and out of the cultural centres.
On the road again driving west; by the road I noticed a sign saying we were passing a ceremony site and the fine for being there without permission was $30,000.
And there were palms:
Our next two-night stay was at Barramundi Lodge. The Lodge is apparently a premier fishing destination and indeed the next day loaded boats took off to cast tourist lines into the Liverpool River. Some were experts in the making and others landed their fish. I was hopeless and didn’t enjoy being so.
Some distance from the Lodge is the township of Maringrida home to about 4,000 people and servicing around 30 outstations. The catalyst for the town was trade. It was a trading post in the 1930s when local goods such as turtle shells were exchanged. By the 1950s people started trading bark paintings and a township developed.
The Maringrida Art and Cultural Centre, the Djomi Museum of traditional craft and history and the Barbara Women’s Centre were some of the highlights of the trip. To my delight I found that the 8-foot weaved piece in my Sydney hallway called The Mermaid, came from here. This intricate open weaving is the local signature style. Maringrida has produced a number of well-known artists. In 2004 John Mawurndjui was one of a number of Aboriginal artists commission by Musee de Quai Branly in Paris.
The newly opened Djomi Museum is a gem with some exquisite examples of traditional craft and culture.
Unfortunately, the Women’s Centre where some impressive stencilled fabric is produced was not a hive of activity for the women were off preparing either for an exhibition in Paris or the Darwin Art Fair.
The next day we drove to Mt Borradaile leaving green landscape for stone country. On the trip we passed a number of variations in landscape including some wonderful – and my favourite – termite hills.
Mt Borradaile was, for me, the highlight of the trip because of the wonder -full rock galleries.
The sunset cruise on Coopers Creek nearby was second on the list of memorables for the peace, the beauty and the birds:
And, of course, there’s this fella and his mates…
Some of the country we walked through to get to the rock galleries
Mount Borradaile is a rock shelf 1.4 to 1.6 billion years old. In 1875, the first European explorer saw the castle rocks with their painting and parcels of bones wrapped in bark from the melaleuca.
In1975 Max Davidson, buffalo shooter, came across the spectacular art galleries. The Mount Borradaile sites are classified under the aboriginal Sacred Sites Act,1978.
Habitation in the catacomb caves range from 500 to40,000 years. We were told the white/yellow echres in the paintings could be 200 years old while the red ochres could be 40,000.
These galleries have the largest painting of the rainbow serpent (below) recorded anywhere.
It filled me with awe to see the ash from old, old cooking fires on the floor of the caves and the grinding stones that may have been in use thousands of years ago.
The final in the Arnhem Land blogs will be a short one – the last stop, Seven Spirit Bay.