Friday, March 30, 2012


Before we relocate to Chile, we are taking a week's  holiday driving a great big equilateral triangle (For a given definition of triangle, and an even looser definition of equilateral) through Australia's Top End.   

The morning after our night-time boat-ride, we had been promised a boat ride in the daylight in a place called Nitmiluk.  And that's all we knew about that.  Having done all of my schooling in other places, my Australian geography is rather spotty, and in all our driving we were busy being stunned by the geography happening outside the windows of the car and we never took the time to do half the reading in the guide-books that we ought to have done. 
            A necessary pause in the narrative: 
Take a moment and open up Google earth, or Google maps, set it to satellite view, and do a search for Katherine Gorge.  Then zoom in until you can see individual tree-dots and white-caps on the water on the Katherine River. I'll even cheat - there's a shortcut on this page: photo number eight.
            Do you see it? 
            Fissures in the landscape -  kilometers long, as if the great red back of Australia had taken a mighty continent-cracking blow and split open along its planes and faces.  The cracks snap out at right angles, regular, geometrical and rectangularly precise.  The damage is industrial, almost, at a planet-spanning scale - the fissures are kilometers long and a hundred meters deep.
            Imagine us, with no expectations beyond a ride on a pretty, silty-banked river in the daylight, approaching a bluff - a scrubbly, rubbly eucalyptus-and-mulga infested bluff, and stepping forward to see a wall of burnt red rock fall away from our feet,  down and down and almost out of sight, to a strip of limpid blue water.  A big water hidden in the desert.

In another twin-hulled swamp boat , we motored along the bottoms of those great cracks, through narrow passages between sheer red walls that opened into right-angled pools of electric blue water that turned its face up to an even bluer sky.  There was exhilaration,  an awareness of unreality like you walk through in dreams, with tall trees turned to matchsticks by the depth of the canyons, and twenty meters of blue water under our keel in passageways so narrow we could almost brush the walls with our fingers, and there was the knowledge of the mad and the miraculous. Nitmiluk was a place of mad, extravagant, spendthrift throwaway abundance, a slash of wild electric life  -technicolor manna in the desert.  In a dry country of want and hoarding - a bone-deep desiccated hoarding, of air and sand floors as hot as a scalding bath, and dry sun to parch skin from bones, there was this place only one long step away from sight, hidden between the red rock walls.

The Jawoyn call it Nitmiluk - Cicada place.  The place name was given by Nabilil, an important character of their dreamtime.  He was travelling across the landscape and when he came to the gorge he heard the cicada calling "Nit Nit Nit!"  And he stopped here for a time.  The waters of the Gorge come from Bolung, who lives in the second pool.  He is the creator and the destroyer -  the water as life, but also the floods and storms of the wet season.  Because of his capricious nature, Bolung is approached with caution.  There is no fishing in the second pool.  There is no drinking in the second pool, and pregnant women and initiates (all people on the cusp of great changes in life) may not swim in the Katherine Gorge in case that their own energies disturb him and make him rise.
            These little stories are simple, incomplete- Jawoyn kindergarten tales.  The Jawoyn, like the other Australian peoples, measure their learning in their own personal knowledge of the world.  History lessons and morality tales are bound up in their creation stories, and tied to features of the landscape and the seasons.   Babies are taught toddler stories suitable to their own range of understanding - as are white Australians and tourists.  As Jawoyn children grow up and move through stages of life and initiation, they graduate to deeper, richer, versions of the early stories, and learn versions of new ones about new places  relevant to for their age, their gender, their moiety, and their position within their people.
            A man I met at Uluru last Easter had been working there for a year as a ranger with the parks service - babying tourists on walking tours around the rock. He told stories like these about Uluru.  The Anangu people there reckoned that since he'd been there about a year, he was about equivalent to a toddler taking its first steps through the place, so they gave him kindergarten stories.  Being a gringo isn't the same as being an Anangu.  Anangu kids will learn more - upgrading, if you like - as they moved through life and passed through initiations.  His initiation, if he chose to pursue it, would be one of endurance - staying there long enough to indicate he cared enough to be worth their sharing.
            Theres' a modern-day significance to Katherine Gorge as well.  It's the place where the Jawoyn people won the first successful native title claim in Australia. In 1989.
            Embarassing, isn't it?  The title claim was launched in 1978 and spent nine years grinding its way through the courts and - something that the Jawoyn speak of with a sort of amazed bitterness - days walking through Nitmiluk beside white politicians and judges -
            All a white man needed  to claim a piece of Australia was a flock of sheep and a gun, and once he had it, the land was his, forever and a day.  The whites with the guns wrote about the Aboriginal people hanging around the place when they got there.  You could say that there was clearly precedent, in fact: they even wrote down some of the blackfella histories, but that sort of stuff was anecdata.  Between the years 1978 and 1989, the Jawoyn people were asked to demonstrate their up close and personal relations, going back 40 000 years, with every bush and boulder and patch of scrub in the place.
            But they won.  Nitmiluk is theirs now.  They promptly rented it back to the park service and, and managing it themselves, share the place with us. 

Nitmiluk has thirteen gorges in total, but we only sailed through five of them. In the wet season, the water runs so high and fast that the boats can't run on it, and in low season, the water drops so low that in the necks of the gorges natural weirs block the river.  Three times we had to disembark (or demount, possibly - they were very  little boats) and walk across the neck of the gorge to another boat floating on the other side.
            We went until we couldn't go any further - by boat or on foot, and stood on a high wall of tumbled rock and couldn’t credit that in the wet the water would flood higher than our heads and sail right over the wall with only a few rapids to mark the place.

On our way back up the gorge, we went swimming - which was another surprise for us.  Back at the opening of the second gorge,  on the downstream side of the gorge, where the river trickled down through a natural weir of sandstone and bottomed into a wide, shallow pool, we were told that our excursion was going to stop for a while so that anyone who wanted to swim could go in. 
            And we'd no idea.  We wished we'd read the brochure. Our bathers were back in the car at the Visitor's Center.
            And I had to go in.  I absolutely had to -  so I pulled off my shorts and went in in my shirt and underpants and it was the very best swim I'd had since we had left PNG nine years ago.  A beach is wonderful thing, but fresh water has a glory, and that day, it was like crystal -  cold and clear and sharp.  I curvetted.  And there were no crocodiles within half a kilometer, so I rode the current up and down until we had to come out and go away from that place.

There were no salties there, anyway.  The whole park was a water paradise - with people in canoes and bright plastic kayaks and picnicking on the rocks and hiking on the cliffs. The parks service clears out the salties at the end of every wet season, and salts the gorges with saltie traps - the bait is weighed with a tripwire that a freshie isn't heavy enough to spring.  The rangers check every morning - if the trip wire is sprung, they go crocodile hunting and no-one goes into the water until the saltwater crocodile comes out.

Back at the Visitors Center, we went swimming again, and the swim there was less than glorious.   At the Visitors Center, downstream of the gorges, the water was thick and green and dark.  The same sort of silty water we'd been puttering through last night with all those freshwater crocodiles.  And right above the little swimming jetty there was a colony of fruit bats in the trees doing what fruit bats do.  No-one wanted to come swimming with me, not even the indefatigable Sandor.  I was faintly custard-like myself, I confess.  I didn't want to swim alone in the dark water, so I waited for another lady to come padding down to the jetty and went in when she did.
            We swam with our heads above the water - the stuff was so thick we couldn't see our own limbs below the surface, and floating with yellow pollen besides.  We felt pale-fleshed and vulnerable, and we treaded water with our legs tucked up tight against our chests.
            "It's marvelous!"  We screamed, and waved enthusiastically, at Pippa and Thea and Sandor and Mr Tabubil and told them about all of the wonderful water that they were missing.  On shore, all were dour, so the two of us struck courageously out across the river toward the canoes pulled up on the other side, but we lost confidence five meters from the bank and we came back.  It wasn't that we didn't believe the harmless freshwater crocodile propaganda, exactly.  It was just that we weren't confident that they could sense us either in the murk, and didn't want to have to have to test their good behavior in a head-on collision.

So we came out.

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