Brian and I were wading through a melaleuca swamp, trying not to tread on any crocodiles. We were on our way to an art gallery containing some of the world’s oldest paintings. Knee-deep in primaeval ooze in the Australian outback, I reckoned, made a pleasant change from Trafalgar Square and the crowds at the National Gallery.

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Arnhemland, Australia with Curious Travel

We were in Dream-time in Arnhemland, a vast tract of wilderness in Australia’s Northern Territory and one of the last great strongholds of aboriginal culture. Arnhemland is like a separate nation with its own border controls and traditional laws. Visitors require a permit issued by the Aboriginal councils. There are no roads, only tracks, no airports, only bush landing strips. Arnhemland is Australia before the white man arrived. It is also the repository of some of the greatest rock art sites on the continent. The paintings are stories, many of them over 60,000 years old, and Brian was sharing a few of them with me. ‘At the beginning of the world,’ Brian said. ‘There was marital discord. See that hill out there,’ Brian pointed over the heads of fig trees to distant rocks in the expanse of wetlands ‘That’s the first adulterer.’

Arnhemland, Australia with Curious Travel

Eggs of the Rainbow Serpent, Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve – Image from Shutterstock

We climbed out of the muddy soup of creation onto an island of sandstone, past upended boulders as big as tenements to a splendid natural penthouse, open to the winds. Sprawled across the ceiling was an ochre drawing of Umorrduk, the rainbow serpent who had created the rivers.

‘In the beginning,’ Brian said, ‘Waramurungundi walked out of the sea onto the dry land and set about creating things. She created children and animals and the landscape. Her husband, however, was a bit of a layabout. While the wife was busy with creation, Wuragag was chasing after younger women. The rows were terrible. When Wuragag eventually stormed off into the sunset, Waramurungundi turned him to stone along with a couple of his girlfriends. They became those hills.’ With his infectious smile, Brian made the beginning of the world sound like a story he had heard from his father-in-law over a couple of beers. Which is exactly what it was.

Brian was an aboriginal from the Bass Strait Islands near Tasmania at the other end of the continent. Twenty years ago as a young man he had gone walkabout and ended up in the Northern Territories where he had married Phyliss, a local girl. He liked the idea that his in-laws, the Gummulkbun clan, were spread across a quarter of a million acres of bush.

If you are interested in unique adventures in Australia please do contact us for a free consultation.

Kakadu National Park, Australia with Curious Travel

Kakadu National Park, Australia – Image from Shutterstock

In these parts, there is no shortage of space and much of the Northern Territory has been set aside for parks. I had begun my journey in Kakadu, the largest park in Australia, which means very large indeed. A World Heritage site, Kakadu is the size of Wales with a bewildering variety of different habitats — wetlands, floodplains, stone moors, monsoon forests, savannah woodlands, tidal flats. Like Arnhemland, it contains a wealth of ancient dreaming sites where the Aboriginal ancestors painted the world into existence in great rock
art galleries.

Pied Herons, Kakadu, Australia with Curious Travel

Pied Herons in Kakadu National Park – Image from Shutterstock

The floodplains are a paradise for water birds. At the marshes of Fogg Levee it was standing room only. Glossy ibis, pied herons, royal spoonbills, plumed whistling-ducks, magpie geese, swamphens, three types of egrets and 4 types of cormorants rubbed feathers over a light fish lunch. There were delicate jacanas or Jesus birds whose habit of strolling across floating lilies make them look as if they were walking on water and the wonderful jabiru stork, with its long bill and its blank hangman’s eyes. A sea eagle with a two-metre
wingspan carried off a 3-foot fish. Kites dive-bombed the cormorants stealing their catches while the pelicans hunted in packs, herding the fish into shrinking circles then gobbling them in unison.

The waterways of Kakadu are also home to the big salties, the man-eating saltwater crocodiles that grow to over twenty feet. The salties are alarmingly alert. Their sense of smell and vision is far superior to our own, and they register the slightest vibration in the water with a gland on the bottom of their jaw. You can be sure that whenever you spot a crocodile, he’s already been watching you for some time. The salties are a great draw for visitors in these parts, and they like to maintain their scary reputation by eating one now and again.

If you are interested in unique adventures in Australia please do contact us for a free consultation.

Crocodile in Kakadu, Australia with Curious Travel

Crocodile in Kakadu National Park, Australia – Image from Shutterstock

From Kakadu, I flew up to Arnhemland in a small Cessna. From the air, the landscape was reduced to its essentials — silver and black, water and dry land. At Mudjeegarrdart airstrip, Brian was waiting for me while a couple of wallabies loitered on the edge of the bush like unemployed baggage handlers.

I spent the next couple of days with Brian touring the magnificent art sites of this mysterious region. They are found in the large rock outcrops that stand above the wetlands and which act as a shelter, staging posts on journeys, sacred sites, and art galleries, all rolled into one. The paintings that adorn their walls are stories, and Brian knew all the characters in rich detail. There was Nabulwinjbulwinj who goes about hitting women with a big yam for no good reason, Namarrgan, the lightning man, with stone axes on his knees and elbows to make thunder, and hosts of Namarnde who live in the hollows of trees and entice people to their doom by calling them by name. Namarnde are elegant Modigliani figures with six fingers, elongated toes and nipples, and dilly bags for the livers of their victims.

Nourlangie Rock Aboriginal art sites, Kakadu National Park

Nourlangie Rock Aboriginal Art Sites, Kakadu National Park – Image from Shutterstock

Quite a number of the red and white line drawings are X-rated. Pausing occasionally to give birth, strapping female figures, arms and legs akimbo, toes curled in pleasure, engage in acrobatic orgies with much smaller men. Spirits quarrel, magic string ladies transform themselves into crocodiles, catfish clog the rivers, a fat kangaroo bounds over a ceiling while two sailing ships hoist sail, recording the arrival in these parts of Europeans.

Yellow Water billabong, Kakadu with Curious Travel

Yellow Water Billabong, Kakadu National Park – Image from Shutterstock

I was stretched out on a stone ledge gazing across the wetlands of the Umorrduk River listening to a wonderful story about the “mimis”, the little stick figures who like to play practical jokes on people when Brian suddenly stopped talking. I looked up. A huge King Brown snake was sliding around the edge of a boulder a few feet away. He must have been 10 foot long and as thick as a man’s forearm. Very slowly Brian reached across and lifted my hat off my head. Then with the aim of an Australian spin bowler, he tossed it at the snake who
turned and slithered away.

‘There you go,’ Brian laughed. ‘Your own story in Arnhemland. Every time you wear that hat, you can tell folks of the time it saved you from a Big King Brown.’

If you are interested in unique adventures in Australia please get in touch so we can find out more about what you are interested in and design you a tailormade trip.

If you are interested in multi-day walks and trekking in Australia we can help you include one of the Great Walks of Australia into your trip.

If you are interested in wildlife in Australia we can help you include one of the amazing Australian Wildlife Journeys into your trip.

If you are interested in indigenous Aboriginal tourism in Australia we can help you include one of the fabulous Discover Aboriginal Experiences into your trip.

If you are interested in wine experiences in Australia we can help you include one of the Ultimate Winery Experiences into your trip.

If you want to stay in one of the Luxury Lodges of Australia we can work out the best way to include your preferences within your itinerary.

Enjoyed this story? Check out other stories from Stanley Stewart: from Vietnam, Portugal, India, Ecuador,  and Turkey

Stanley Stewart is a British writer, who is the author of three travel books: Old Serpent Nile, Frontiers of Heaven and In the Empire of Genghis Khan about journeys to the source of the Nile, through China to Xinjiang province, and across Mongolia by horse. The last two books both won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, in 1996 and 2001 respectively, making Stewart the only writer, with Jonathan Raban, to have won this prestigious award twice. He is a contributing editor at Conde Nast Traveller UK. His work appears in various periodicals including the Sunday Times, the Daily Telegraph, and National Geographic Traveler, and has been included in numerous anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2008 he was named the Magazine Writer of the year. He was born in Ireland, grew up in Canada, and has spent most of his adult life in the UK

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