Into the heart of Kakadu

Kakadu National Park Travel Blog

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We have spent the last two days travelling around in a 4WD and camping in Kakadu National Park. Kakadu is an enormous wilderness that (together with Arnhem Land, the Aboriginal-owned wilderness to the east) makes up almost the entire "Top End" of the Northern Territory. Once all monsoonal forest, the area is now largely flood plains and tropical scrublands, thanks to 50,000 years of fire-stick farming by the Aborigines changing the ecosystem. Most of the area is protected within Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park, but some is leased for uranium mining. Actually, the land here is so rich in uranimum that certain sites were known as sickness sites, due to the high frequency of mutated and sick animals there.

The Aborigines of Kakadu and Arhnem Land are the oldest continuous culture in the world, the Bininj. At the time of European settlement there were 2,000 Aborigines speaking twelve dialects living in the area, with a sophisticated trade network extending down to the desert tribes of the Red Centre and up to the Malays of the Indonesian archipeligo. Land theft, introduced diseases, missionaries and deliberate armed incursions dropped the population down to only 200 and left only three languages viable  - Gagudju (Kakadu is a distortion of Gagudju), Gun-djeihmi and Jawoyn. Now the population has risen back up to 5,000 and the traditional lifestyle has been kept alive with more success than most other places in Australia. Perhaps this is because they are so isolated (to get permission to visit Arhnem Land is extremely difficult and there are no large population centres), or because they had a slower integration into modern life (with trading and contact with Malays and Chinese occuring for hundreds of years, maybe even a thousand, prior to European contact), or maybe the rich lands of the coastal north are more forgiving than the desert, making traditional culture more attractive and allowing a higher population density).

I would love to find out one day their opinion on how they are keeping the traditional lifestyle alive.

We spent the two days hiking to waterfalls and Djang (Bininj dreaming sites). With the topical heat the pools and waterfalls were a delightful reward after a long hike, we were quite happy to share the water with freshwater crocodiles just to soak in the refreshing coolness surrounded by such beauty. Of particular pleasure were the Aboriginal artwork at the Djang we visited (Burrunggui and Anbangbang), where stone ledges had been painted and repainted for tens of thousands of years in a variety of art styles. The paintings depicted the animals of the area, in a respectful acknowledgement of their sacrifice, "contact art" of European items (such as rifles), Nayuhyunggi (the first spirits and ancestors, who shaped the land, such as Namarrgon, lightning man, and Nabulwinbulwinj, a dangerous spirit who kills women after striking them with yams) and cultural dances and traditions.

The Bininj had (and in some cases, still have) a very complex network of laws, traditions and relationships that all needed to be taught to the next generation through song, ceremony and art. Among the Bininj all people (and animals, songs, dances, land and ceremonies) are divided into two moiety - Duwa and Yirridja. This is inherited from the father, while four skin groups are inherited from the mother. Actually even more complicated and there are 16 possible categories into which someone can fit, circumscribing what they can do and who they can marry - it takes four generations for each cycle to complete.

My favourite wildlife encounter in Kakadu was being woken up in the middle of the night by the howls of dingos, and finding them prowl around our campsite in the morning.

My least favourite were the hundreds of cane toad that infested the park. Cane toads were stupidly introduced into Australia from Hawai'i in 1935 to control the Cane Beetle in sugar cane planations around Cairns. They have spread in a horrible wave since then, reaching the Northern Territory in 1984, and have now penetrated into this last pristine habitat. The 200 million cane toads are a problem for the native frogs and lizards they eat, and also for the native birds and snakes that attempt to eat them and die from the poison they carry.

Andy99 says:
Fascinating information about Aboriginal culture and customs!
Posted on: Jan 29, 2009
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Kakadu National Park
photo by: Biedjee