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 primeval ooze in the Australian outback, I reckoned, made a pleasant change from Trafalgar Square and the crowds at the National Gallery.
We were in Dreamtime 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?” He pointed over the heads of fig trees to distant rocks in the expanse of wetlands. “That’s the first adulterer.”
We climbed out of the muddy soup of creation on to 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 on to 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.
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, flood plains, 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.
The flood plains 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 four types of cormorants rubbed feathers over a light fish lunch. There were delicate jacanas – or ‘Jesus birds’, whose habit of strolling across floating lilies makes 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 three- 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.
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 act as 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.
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.
I was stretched out on a stone ledge, gazing across the wetlands of the Umorrduk River and 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 round 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.”
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.