I’ve used the name “Nourlangie” in the title because otherwise almost no-one would know what I was talking about. The area mistakenly known as “Nourlangie” is actually made up of Burrunggui (the higher ground and Gunwarddehwarde Lookout) and Anbangbang (the lowlands and surroundings, home to the Anbangbang billabong and rock art gallery). Nearby is the Nawurlandja Lookout, of which “Nourlangie” was a corruption. I only say all this because, since the millennia-old names still survive, it would be really nice to go back to them (in my opinion, at least).
My first experience of traditional Aboriginal culture and gunbim (rock art), this region is one of, if not the most impressive collection of rock art in Australia and left me with a far deeper understanding of the land, the people and their history.
From the Nourlangie car park a 1.5 kilometre circuit leads up through the ancient galleries, through a shelter that has been used for over 50,000 years. Due to its dry, covered location – a rare find in these parts – objects left behind over the centuries remain preserved and make up the shelter floor, making it possible to date its use.
Aboriginals (in this region, at least) were traditionally a nomadic people. They had to be. The country and its food sources change completely from the Wet to the Dry, not to mention the myriad transitional sub-seasons in between. The bininj (Aboriginal people, of these parts) recognise six separate seasons. So there were no permanent settlements, but they often returned to the best spots – such as this one – year after year, generation after generation.
The rock was their canvas, various minerals (chosen for their vibrant colours: reds, yellows, oranges, blacks) were made into paint and, in this “oral tradition”, this “living culture”, the paintings were used to pass on stories, important lessons and pieces of knowledge – to teach, in other words. The painting itself is a reminder for the next generation to tell the story, and it is in the act of repainting in which the story is told. This is why painting over another artist’s work is not only acceptable, but encouraged (only by those who know and understand the story, of course) while to destroy or erase a piece of art is considered a serious offence.
Many methods have been used to date the various pieces of rock art, which range from 20,000 years old right up to 1986, making this one of the longest records of any culture in the world. The world has changed alot in that time and this can be seen documented in the paintings.
A Brief History of Aboriginal Rock Art in Kakadu
- If you believe this part, Warramurrungundji (Earth Mother) created the Mimi spirits, the first creation ancestors to paint on rock, who, in turn, taught the Nayuhyunggi (first people) to do the same.
- In the last ice age, the world was cooler and drier, the sea lower and the land larger. Australia and New Guinea were one continent, joined by land. At this time people were painting anatomically correct (naturalistic) portraits of animals, including depictions of now extinct animals.
- Humans feature as stick figures, wearing elaborate headdresses and their “goods” discreetly covered.
- A boomerang shows up.
- A “dynamic style” develops, in which people are depicted running and spears appear in mid flight, along with their path and tradjectory.
- From 15,000 to 6,000 years ago, the earth warmed up, the sea level rose and completely reshaped the landscape. (Bear in mind how many generations must have passed over this 9,000 year period. It wasn’t as sudden as history makes it sound.) Tribes were forced closer and closer together, creating conflicts over land and so on. From this period come what are probably the oldest depictions of human on human conflict, known as “conflict art“.
- With all the new food sources came “x-ray style” art, in which animals (and later humans) are shown along with their internal organs, in increasing detail.
- Yams appeared on the scene and so did “yam art” in which various yams as depicted, often attributed with human or animal features.
- Eventually the flow of saltwater was restricted, forming freshwater floodplains. Magpie geese and other migratory birds began to make an appearance, along with the spears used to hunt them and objects made from their feathers.
- About 300 years ago, Macassan traders showed up, shortly followed by the Europeans. Guns, knives, eerily accurate sailing ships, ladies’ gloves, men on horseback and a figure known as “bossman” all feature in “contact art“.
- With the arrival of balanda (non-Aboriginals) the Aboriginal population of the Kakadu area dropped to 25% (some estimate as low as 4%).
- In 1962, David Attenborough photographed the faded gallery at Nourlangie.
- In 1964, Nayombolmi (“Barramundi Charlie”) returned to repaint the gallery and the evil spirit, Nabulwinjbulwinj before he died.
- The last known art in Kakadu National Park was done in 1986.
- While the act of painting on rock here has now ceased, the traditions and styles live on in the form of tourist trinkets and modern Aboriginal art, painted on bark, paper, canvas, fabric, etc…
The trail continued up to the Gunwarddehwarde Lookout, presenting a panoramic view of the Park and the Arnhem Land escarpment.
You have to be careful not to take the turn off onto the grueling, twelve kilometre Barrk Walk, which leads up and down over jagged rocks, eventually passing the nearby Nanguluwurr Gallery (another major rock art site) before returning. (The Nanguluwurr Gallery can also by reached by an unsealed road and subsequent four kilometre return walk, which is signposted on the left before you reach Nourlangie.)
Next we headed to Anbangbang billabong, where we walked the 2.5 kilometre circuit around it and saw our first wallabies (thought they were kangaroos)…
…and hoped we wouldn’t run into our first crocodiles.
The circuit, which can be done from both the Anbangbang Billabong car park and the Nawurlandja car park, has views of Nourlangie Rock (Burrunggui) towering over the wetlands. The Nawurlandja car park is also the start point of the steep-ish 600 metre return scramble up the rough rock surface of Nawurlandja Lookout.
It was getting late in the day and the sun was setting, glorious gold, behind the rock. We watched as shadow gradually enveloped the Kakadu landscape. Despite one or two other groups, a desolate silence descended over the scene – a distinct lack of human presence. It reminded me of that movie, Walkabout.
Coming back down we happened across a ranger talk and sat down to listen, during which I learnt much of the knowledge I’m now passing off as my own in this post.
Christian is one of the “whitefella” rangers in Kakadu, though, listening to him speak, you’d think he’d been raised Crocodile-Dundee-style by Aborigines. He’s an incredible speaker and, with long beard flailing, explained the six seasons and how the bininj read the land: the ground dries and cracks, small rodents return, to live in the cracks, snakes appear, to feed on the rodents…
He talked about Namarrgon, the “Lightning Man”, whose “song” is painted along the Arnhem Land escarpment on the far horizon and which, when compared to modern scientific readings, echoes the lightning storms that signal “the build-up” (to the Wet) almost perfectly.
Finally, he told us about “Jeff” (Jeffrey Lee) – the only surviving member of the Djok clan, traditional owners of Koongarra (1228 hectares of abundant wildlife) – who, since he was a boy, has been turning down increasingly large sums (in the multi-millions) offered him by French energy giant, Areva, who would like to get their hands on the thousands of tonnes of uranium beneath his ancestral land – worth billions of dollars. He became famous when he left his homeland and travelled to Europe to make his case and appeal to UNESCO to defend his land. UNESCO eventually heard his plea and Koongarra was finally merged into Kakadu National Park.
Looking out over Koongarra, forever changed, we decided it was time for dinner, and set off again into the sunset.