East aligator river stretching through Arnhem Land (Jon Connell)
Article Words : Piers Pickard | 01 July

Aboriginal Arnhem Land, Australia

Arnhem Land, a remote chunk of the Northern Territory, offers the chance to live and learn, with Australia's indigenous locals

The cool of the cave was welcome after the burning midday sun. Fred, my Aboriginal guide, stood on tiptoe and reached up to a rock-shelf in the back wall. He carefully pulled down a tapered, barbed piece of wood about a metre long and handed it to me with an air of reverence.

“Punishment spear. Ironwood.”

Fred didn’t waste words. “The barbs are there so you can’t pull it out. Once it’s in, you have to push it all the way through...”

The other Australia

There are two Australias: there’s the one you know – the Australia of Captain Cook, unbeatable sports teams, Vegemite and vineyards.

The place 18-year-olds flock to on their gap year, where the Queen is on the coins and the standard of living is third-highest in the world.

And there’s the one you don’t know. Hardly anybody does. This one traces its heritage back 57,000 years before Cook, yet it has lived so lightly on the landscape, you can barely find it. Today, it has just 460,000 inhabitants who for the most part keep themselves resolutely to themselves, living on the fringes of white society.

But white Australia hasn’t totally colonised black – one small sanctuary survives. Small in Australian terms, that is. Arnhem Land is an area the size of Scotland and Wales combined, where access by non-Aboriginal peoples is by permit only. It is a country within a country, the last corner of ancient Australia. Here, you can still apply in court to spear a man if he wrongs you.

“Judge says yes – we spear ’im.” Fred told me. He grinned: “Judge says no – we spear ’im anyway. It’s what we want. We’re brought up knowing if you stuff up, you get speared.”

In the cave, Sydney and Melbourne seemed a long way away. Soot blackened the ceiling. In the dust on the floor, a huge snake track led out into the sun. On a rock, a grindstone sat in its concave hole ready for its next use. It could have been there five years, or it could have been there 5,000 years.

Yet even in Arnhem Land, finding out about traditional Aboriginal society is almost impossible. The land is so vast, yet there are only 20,000 people here. For travellers, the only option is to visit one of the few camps spread out among the lush bush. For me, that meant a trip to the permit office in Kakadu National Park, followed by 40 minutes of bumpy flying.

Going bush

Our four-seater plane banked over the untouched forest, cliffs and wetland. The pilot pointed down to a gash of red dirt in the green below. Apparently, I’d arrived at Davidson’s Camp.

You know you’re somewhere pretty far from civilisation when the vehicle that picks you up doesn’t have a windscreen. It was an ex-military jeep – the jump-in-the-back kind – and the man driving it, Ray (who runs Davidson’s) cheerfully told me it didn’t need one. “You won’t be travelling anywhere at more than 20km/h now – you’re in Arnhem Land.”

So we rattled slowly along a dirt road into camp.

I hadn’t known quite what to expect from Davidson’s. I’d been told that it was pleasant, but warned that it was a little rustic. Actually, it reminded me of the kind of ‘camp’ people might have talked about in Africa or India a hundred years ago.

We parked next to an immaculately manicured lawn in the middle of the bush and stepped through a fly-screen door into a huge green dining-tent-cum-bar. There were armchairs. Fridges hummed full of wine. A bookcase sagged under the weight of anthropological tomes and bird-books. I could smell fish cooking.

“Welcome to Davidson’s,” said Ray.

He led me out a different door and over the lawn to my tent among the trees. It was a simple gauze cube with two iron beds, a light and a fan. We had time for a quick stroll in the late-afternoon breeze before the other guests got back from their fishing trip, so Ray gave me my bearings.

The camp was on a slight rise not far from one of the huge, croc-infested rivers that winds through Arnhem Land. So although we were in a sparse, leafy forest, there was a kilometre-wide river just a few hundred metres away. As a habitat, Ray explained, it was ideal.

“The river is slow-moving and full of weed. So there’s plenty of little fish. Which means plenty of bigger fish to eat them. Which means lots of birds and crocs to eat them. Here in the forest, there are lots of different plants, and the odd buffalo and pig. There are also lots of rocks and cliffs. So for the Aborigines, it was like a larder with all kinds of foodstuffs, and lots of natural shelter. For a hunter-gatherer society, it was easy living.”

Although we talked about Aboriginal society then and later at dinner, it surprised me that I only saw one black face. Davidson’s and the other camps are all whitefella-owned and (apart from the odd exception such as Fred) whitefella-staffed. So while the guides are very keen to educate you, you have to satisfy yourself with learning second-hand about Aboriginal ways, seeing the evidence of their lives, rather than the lives themselves.

Rock on

In the Mount Borradaile area, where my camp was, these signs were everywhere. Fred led me back out into the sun, and we sweated our way up through what the Aboriginals call ‘stone country’ – a maze of weathered sandstone outcrops, gullies and escarpments. It was easy to see why they spent so much time here.

The forest and floodplains were dense and hot below, whereas here there was a wealth of shade – caves, huge overhangs in the escarpment and deep passages in the rock. Sometimes a whole mini-mountain had eroded so much that it was standing on rock stilts, providing enough shelter for a whole clan at once.

We reached a shady defile between two huge sandstone towers, and Fred pointed. There on the rock was painted; well I didn’t really know what. Strange shapes in reds, yellows and white. Weird humans with long arms and legs twisted at impossible angles, handprints etched onto the stone, and other, more esoteric shapes.

“See this?” asked Fred, pointing to what looked like a bull’s horns with a spike below. “Sexual art. This is the male anatomy; this is the female. This site was probably used as a classroom.”

I asked how old it was and Fred told me it was impossible to date, as no organic matter that could be carbon-dated was used. The paint is powdered rock, and the sandstone is so porous that it can soak in up to 7mm, so even if the rock erodes over the ages, the painting remains. What archaeologists have been able to tell is that there’s been human activity here for a staggering 57,000 years.

And Fred promised he’d later show me a painting of a thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), which has been extinct in this area for thousands of years. By finding paintings of extinct species and by dating paintings covered by ancient wasps’ nests (which can be dated), some of the art has been confirmed as 20,000 years old, but it could be much older.

Yet if the age of Aboriginal culture is mind-boggling, its recency is just as astounding. The last rock-painter in this area died in the 60s. Fred showed me paintings of whitefella buffalo hunters depicted standing cocky with their hands in their pockets and pipes in their mouths.

On a ceiling nearby was what were very clearly rifles and there was even a ketch complete with pretend lettering on its side. This is known as contact art, and its prevalence gives some idea of the momentousness of white invasion on Aboriginal society.

Natural history

The reason Aboriginal culture is so very difficult to find out about today is twofold: much of it is lost, and the bits that remain are now closely guarded for cultural reasons and due to lack of trust.

The Aborigines were so mistreated by Australia’s white settlers that by the time of the Second World War, when white Australia feared Japanese invasion, the government didn’t know which side the Aborigines would choose. So they took the barbaric step of destroying their society – moving them off their land and into missions, taking children away from their parents and mixing traditionally separated clans.

The echoes of this brutality still shape Aboriginal relations in Australia today – in one generation, the knowledge that should have been passed between father and son, mother and daughter, was lost. Now, the best you can do is get a permit to enter Arnhem Land and try to puzzle out how Aboriginal lives were lived until a generation ago.

They certainly seemed a busy lot. As we walked on, I realised just how much art there was. Once you knew where to look, the stuff was everywhere. Sometimes, there were layers and layers of paintings in the same place, so a human figure would be painted over a wallaby, below which might be the faint outline of a turtle. In some of the darker caves, it was so faded that we ended up sitting on it by accident.

I was fascinated to think that it could have been painted at the same time my grandfather was living such a different life in the Midlands.

Secret stories

We followed the escarpment along, clambering over the rough sandstone, finding art-site after art-site. It was quiet – just the buzz of flies – and eventually we reached a point where the ridge ran out and we were standing on a stony plateau with a view of the green floodplain below, Borradaile behind it and the forest to our right.

Fred stopped me in front of a line of boulders that snaked around the plain in an intricate pattern.

“This is a ceremony site. Do not touch any of the stones. Charlie said you can have a look around, but I’m forbidden to tell you the story of this place.” He looked to the women in my group. “It’s men’s business.”

He wasn’t being sexist. In Aboriginal society, the women have their rituals, the men theirs. That’s the way it is.

I followed the line of rocks: sometimes it curved; sometimes it split. I couldn’t see any pattern or point to it, but the place definitely had a feeling. If I was going to choose anywhere for a ceremony site, this would be it, with its huge views of untouched land.

I tried to see the country through Aboriginal eyes. A kind land, a land of plenty that gives me all the food I need – fish, birds, turtles, kangaroo, even crocodile. I dreamed of the generations who had come up here...

“Nothing human.” I jumped.

“What?” Tom, one of the other guides, had walked up behind me.

“You can’t see anything human from here.” It was true. I had almost a 360° view stretching for tens of kilometres, yet there was not a single sign of human habitation visible anywhere.

I wondered if I’d ever experienced that before.

“See that,” Tom went on, pointing to a lone mountain far away in the north-east. “That’s ‘sickness country’. It has one of the highest concentrations of uranium in the world. Walk over there and you’ll get boils and burns. If the government ever lets that go to the mining industry, it’ll be the end of Arnhem Land.”

Standing there with the sun beating down, the line of boulders at my feet and the feeling of magic – of generations of magic – in the air, that seemed almost unthinkable. Arnhem Land is unique. Its existence in the rest of Australia is as miraculous as a slice of the Kalahari in Devon.

But it is so fragile. The government is trying to remove the permit system that gives Arnhem Land its privileged status. Its detractors point to uranium wealth as the reason. If protection is lifted, the last symbol of Aboriginal nationhood will die with it – and the secret Australia will be gone forever.