Connecting to Country in Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Parks

By now you could well be used to the pathetic attempts at humour in many of our blog posts. It may therefore, come as a bit of a surprise that this one has a slightly more reflective tone. We learnt so much during our visit to Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta and it really opened our mind to the history and beliefs of indigenous Australians.

In Kakadu we stayed in Jabiru, a township originally built to service the nearby Ranger Uranium mine. Although it is surrounded by the National Park, it isn’t actually part of it. There are a few accommodation options including caravan parks and the famous Crocodile Hotel. We stayed in a Bush Bungalow at Abinik Resort which is owned and operated by the Djabulukgu Association representing traditional owners in north Kakadu and part of Arnhem Land. There are a number of choices for eating in Jabiru and Abinik has a very good and authentic Thai restaurant. Be aware, the licensing laws are peculiar in Jabiru and purchasing alcohol to take away is difficult, so if a you a like a drink with your dinner or as the sun goes down, bring some with you and do a bit of research beforehand.

Bush Bungalow at Anbinik Resort Jabiru

We were booked on two tours run by the same organisation that owned Abinik. The first was a day long 4WD bus tour into Arnhem Land to look at rock art and visit a present day art centre in the town of Gunbalayna. Our tour guide, Christie was fabulous and we found out that all guides have to take an accreditation course that allows them to relay the local stories. Christie had also spent extensive time with the people of Gunbalanya learning about their traditions.

It was our first introduction to the concept of ‘business’. The Bininj Kunwok people of Western Arnhem land have a rigid concept of what is men’s business and women’s business. The two sexes may not know about the other business. There are also separate mens and womens ceremonial sites and again, the opposite sex is not allowed to either visit those sites or learn about the ceremonies. The ceremonial sites are sacred and need to be treated with respect which includes no taking of photos. The tour guides are permitted to learn the stories of the people and relay them to visitors to a certain level. However, there are many levels which are not shared as they are not the business of outsiders. This may seem archaic in a modern context but when you were there made sense. We can only suggest that if a level of cynicism creeps in when reading this, that you pay a visit yourself.

We were fortunate to visit some of these sites and take photos where we were allowed. This included fabulous rock art. It was amazing to think that some of those pictures were tens of thousands of years old and the civilisation that created them still exists. Equally, some of the pictures were more recent and reflected encounters with Europeans. Some art represented stories of adventures, other pictures were detailed representations of wildlife and food. It is very hard to get across how enlightening an experience it was.

From art that was thousands of years old to the present day. We visited the fascinating Injalak Art Centre in the township of Gunbalanya where local artists produce a variety of forms of art for sale. We had a go at painting with wheat grass and even Jane who is a dab hand with the watercolours found it impossible – it’s so precise. We met and chatted with Heather and Anita who were weaving Pandanus in the way they were taught by their mothers. We also saw fabric being screen printed. As well as selling the fabric directly, the centre has a Fairtrade partnership with an organisation in Cambodia which provides work for people with a disability. They turn the Injalak fabric into goods such as bags and wallets which are then sold providing income for both organisations. The couple who manage the shop at the centre had only been there a few months and were from London. Apparently they had been on the same tour as us the previous year and fell in love with the centre. The management job became available, they applied, were successful and found themselves in Arnhem Land, a very long way, both physically and culturally from London.

The second tour we undertook was a cruise along the East Alligator river led by Roman, our local Aboriginal guide. He provided fascinating insights into the indigenous and European history of the area. We learnt stories of how the local people believe their land was formed, had spearing demonstrations and found about the impact that early European settlers had. A key part of the cruise was the local wildlife including birds, but importantly on this river, Estuarine or Saltwater crocodiles. We’d had glimpses of them in Queensland – see Duct Tape, Zip Ties and WD40 – but this was like a crocodile motorway. Apparently, the river was named by Philip Parker King between 1818 and 1822 who, with limited European knowledge, spotted the inhabitants of the river system and assumed they were alligators.

After the cruise we decided to have a walk through Ubirr art site which is near the river. This really blew our mind. The extent of the art work was amazing and the environment its set in really encourages you to reflect on the fact that you’re in the footsteps of people who were here for thousands of years before any Western culture. We don’t have a personal religious faith but the climb to the lookout at Ubirr, punctuated by the rock art was, without doubt, a spiritual experience.

A week or so later we were in the Uluru-KataTjuta National Park. Most people are familiar with images of Uluru, they are on a million postcards that you can buy just about everywhere in Australia. We really weren’t therefore sure what we would think of it. Had we become jaded to it? Would it live up the hype? Would it have been ruined by rampant commercialisation? The answer is no. From the moment Uluru comes into sight on the horizon you are mesmerised by it – it draws your attention and it is very difficult to stop watching how it changes in different lights. Uluru is simply amazing – there’s no other word for it. A few kilometres away are the rocks that form the other part of the National Park’s name; Kata-Tjuta, formerly known as The Olgas. They too are fascinating whether you’re looking at them on the horizon or up close and personal.

We were fortunate, to be staying at Longitude 131, a 5 star glamping resort with views of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta so we saw a fair bit of them during our 3 day stay. We’ll write another post about the resort, but one of the great things about it was the tours that were included. We went on several walks, including the 11 km around the base of Uluru, and through Walpa Gorge at Kata Tjuta. We also learnt some of the stories of the local Anangu people.

Just as in Kakadu, only certain stories are shared with outsiders. However, we learnt that Anangu live by a system of laws and beliefs, known as Tjukurpa which guide their lives. Central to this belief system is that the land was once a featureless landscape which was formed by the creation spirits and we can see evidence of this formation in the landscape today. They call this evidence, Tjukuritja. In this post we’ve included some photos of different aspects of Uluru but to see the Tjukuritja you’ll just have to visit yourselves, as many are sensitive sites and photos are not allowed.

A great example of one such story is that of the blue-tongued lizard man, Lungkata, who came to Uluru from the country to the north. He had stopped at Kata Tjuta, but was lonely and continued to Uluru because he had heard that there were many other beings there and that the land was good. After hunting for food, he looked around for somewhere to make a home. High up on the face of Uluru, to the west of the waterhole at Mutitjulu, he spied a cave, and climbed up the rock to claim it for his own.

One day, Panpanpalala, the crested bellbird man, was out hunting when he speared an emu, which ran off towards Uluru with Panpanpalala in hot pursuit. The lizard, Lungkata, was also hunting that day; near Mutitjulu, he spotted the wounded emu, with Panpanpalala’s spear still protruding from its side. Although the emu was obviously the prey of another hunter, Lungkata killed it, meaning to eat it himself. He began to cut up the carcass in order to cook it; however, he suddenly panicked, realising that the hunter who had speared the creature would be along soon. So he hid the meat and, when Panpanpalala came along, following the tracks made by the wounded bird, he denied having seen it.

Panpanpalala moved on, but soon came upon the unmistakable signs of the skirmish that had taken place when Lungkata killed the emu. Realising he had been tricked, he doubled back and followed the tracks of Lungkata, who by now was carrying the emu meat back to his cave – dropping much of it as he went.

When Panpanpalala arrived at the foot of Uluru, he saw Lungkata climbing towards his cave. He lit a fire at the base of the rock; overcome by the smoke, and burned by the flames, the great lizard rolled back down the face of Uluru and fell to his death.

On one of the sides of Uluru you can see Lungkata’s cave and the speared emu leg which Lungkata dropped as he was running away. A face of lichen is the skin of Lungkata which was left on the rock as he rolled, burning down the side.

From the story, children are taught aspects of Tjukurpa including that it is wrong to steal, it is wrong take another person’s hunt as your own and that it is wrong to lie.

There are many more stories with evidence on Uluru, including those of the Mala who the Anangu believe they are descended from. Mala were hare wallaby people and until recently Mala Rufous Hare Wallabies still lived around Uluru. There is now some work being undertaken to reintroduce them.

A great starting point to learn about Tjukurpa and the stories of the Anangu is the superb cultural centre in the National Park. As well as learning about the Anangu, you can see artists at work and purchase local artwork. The centre was designed in close consultation with the Anangu and the architecture has won awards. From above, it takes the form of a snake as another Uluru story is about the pythons (Woma) and the venomous snakes (Liru). If you want to read some more of the stories before visiting Uluru-Kata Tjuta, have a look at this website: https://austhrutime.com/mythology_uluru.htm

There are few stories shared about Kata Tjuta. We understand that this because it is a sacred men’s site and the stories are not the business of women or outsiders. Nonetheless it was fabulous to walk around Kata Tjuta, which translates as ‘many headed’. Walpa Gorge, meaning windy gorge, lived up to its name though, Jane had to wear a Jedi poncho. We wondered if the spirits weren’t too keen on us visiting as we definitely felt like we were being blown back.

We’ve come away from both Kakadu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Parks with a much deeper understanding of the aboriginal view of life, and the complexity of their civilisation. This is despite both of us working closely with aboriginal people and aiming to show respect to them for the last eight years that we’ve been in Australia. We wouldn’t claim to be sudden converts to Tjukurpa but we were moved by the connection of the people to the landscape over thousands of years and can begin to see how these belief systems developed. It sounds hyperbolic to say that our visit was life changing, but in some ways it was and it will inform the rest of our travels in Australia. We would strongly encourage anyone visiting this beautiful land to include The Northern Territory near the beginning of their itinerary.

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3 comments

  1. […] We were back in the Dune House in good time for our evening tour and managed to sneak in a cheeky beer. There is a really well stocked bar and we had open access as part of the cost of staying there, just like the mini-bars in the tent. They even had one of Andy’s favourite beers – Balter – which is brewed on the Gold Coast. Our evening tour was a walk around part of the base of Uluru so we got our first up close look at the rock. During the evening, our fabulous guides, Caroline and Amy, told us some of the stories of the hair-wallaby people – the Mala. You can read some more about how much we enjoyed connecting to the stories of the Aboriginal peoples of the Northern Territory in our post, ‘Connecting to Country’. […]

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