Monday, March 19, 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.   


Our hotel in the little town of Jabiru was shaped like a crocodile, with four legs and a tail and two glowing red eyes mounted above the reception lobby.
            The receptionist who checked us in handed us our keys and pulled out a map.
            "You're right here, in the mouth."  He said.  "Get back in your car and drive around to that carpark, over there next to his jaw.  Walk in through his front paw and go across his shoulders around the pool, and you'll find your rooms."
            We giggled, and asked if it got old.
            He snickered.  "Depending on the crowd, I'll tell them to go down to the tail, climb up his arse and make a left!"
            Our hotel was shaped like a crocodile because for the Gaagudju people, who are the traditional landowners of the Kakadu National Park, the crocodile is one of their spiritual ancestors and a part of their creation myth.
            In the beginning of things, Ginga was a man.  Sleeping next to a billabong, he rolled into his campfire and fled into the water to soothe his burned back -that's why crocodiles still have lumpy backs today.  As a crocodile, Ginga crawled and carved his way across the landscape, digging and raising it into the shapes that are there now.  And once he's completed the job, he turned himself into a ridge of stone - the lumps on his back still there for everyone to see.
            We wanted to see, so we dropped our bags on the floor in our rooms, climbed back into the car and drove to Ubirr.

Ubirr is located in the East Alligator region of Kakadu, because the 19th century European explorers didn't know their alligators from their crocodiles.

Ubirr is a natural gallery, a cluster of rocky sandstone outcrops and overhangs covered with rock art.  The rocks carry 40 000 years worth of stories, history and lesson and hunting trophies overlapping and interwoven, escher-esque and rorsach blotted, climbing up the walls and across the underhanging lips of the overhangs.
            We walked up to a 30 foot wall painted with every sort of animal that was hunted in Kakadu across its history.  The animals were painted with the insides and the outsides all together - a fishing and shooting guide and an anatomical reference chart all at the same time.  Archaeologists have used these paintings to date climate and habitat change - telling when certain animals were found here - and when the climate changed and went away, when they stopped appearing .  Among the later drawings there was even a skeleton painting of a white settler in his breeches and his rifle.  One wonders at him showing up on a wall of hunting trophies. 

Among them were long skeletal figures two stories tall.  These were the Mimih Spirits - the Australasian version of Europe's fairies and little people.  They lived inside the rocks and came out to teach people how to hunt and fish and weave and make fire.  You must be careful of them, because they can catch you and take you away with them inside the rocks.  So tall and thin that they could slip through cracks in the rock and could be blown away by a stiff breeze,  the aborigines believed that they had painted the oldest pictures - they could do that - they brought the rock down to ground level and painted them there.

A ranger appeared (out of the rocks?  We wondered.) and gave us story lessons.  She told us that in the wet season, where we were standing was under half a meter of water - for half the year it was all about boats and crocodiles.  So this explained the bare floor of the land we'd been driving over.  I was unreasonably happy.
            Other rock faces carried other sorts of paintings - stories about law and creation and the life of the people in this place.  We wandered from rock face to rock face, climbing up the cliffs.  All the time, people were joining us, all climbing upward. We climbed until there was no more up and we spilled over the lip of a flat rock plateau and - my Word, my Gods- in front of us was the sunset and below, as far as the horizon, there was Kakadu- the Kakadu from storybooks and travelogues - ten thousand square miles of water, green and blue and shining in the low light.

It was one of those moments, you know?
            A hundred people were struck dumb, milling about aimlessly and stretching and sighing and then, quietly, finding a place along the edge of the rock to sit and watch the sun go down.  Yellow, then orange, then red, then purple.  Small and swollen and utterly astonishing.  Except that the Sproglet was screwing up her mushroom nose like an infant Popeye and blowing kisses, and half the plateau rather missed the moment when the sun dropped below the green horizon.  There were seven tooth'd smiles going on.

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