Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Rest of the Top End: Art, Marsupials, Cycads, and Beyond

6/30: Kakadu seemed to be giving me a migraine headache. Maybe this was the driving, the dust, the brushfires, Mozzie Night Dreaming, or the radioactive rocks. Seriously, there are a number of uranium ore bodies and a mine or two within the park; luckily most of the former will remain undisturbed. None of the tourist areas are really dangerous. Interestingly, most of the areas identified by geologists as radioactive have long been known as dangerous to the local Aboriginal bands.

Since my head was hurting, I took a pass on a morning walk and doped up with pain medications. Doing a headstand in the campground seemed too challenging. We bolted early for the Nourlangie rock art area. Paul drove, thankfully. It was fun to ride and see him quickly sort out the perceptions and mechanics of “driving on the left”.

Nourlangie is south of Ubirr by several tens of kilometers, but is also located along the escarpment. Geez, the rocks here were reddish sandstones with interbedded conglomerates, just like Ubirr, just like Keep River, just like the Bungle Bungle. Whatever.

The rocks in Ubirr and Nourlangie do not show much evidence of folding or other deformation. However, at Nourlangie, the overhangs seemed bigger. The escarpment per se was higher, and in several places large masses of rock had detached and slid downhill; this produced a number of large cavities. The trails wound through several of these openings. They were clearly areas of past occupation. Portions of the walls were stained with soot. The upper surfaces of several large rocks were pocked with concave depressions; the result of many years of grinding seeds and other foods. The walls were of course covered with stunning paintings. Similar themes to Ubirr; mythology, food, people. Here, the paintings seemed more vibrant and more colorful. The X-ray style was more prominent as well.

These sites were all isolated from us visitors by fences, or in the case of several of the cavities, raised walkway. This was fine except when a high school group wandered through clogged up the walkway. Several of the sites looked fresh to me. I wonder if they are still in use. The tradition in the art, as explained by signage, is to paint over preexisting art as necessary for religious purposes. In some sites there are clearly many layers of painting – no way to say how many.

This was another site where I felt: this would be a nice place to be a hunter-gatherer. Abundant food on the flats and in the hills, probably year round - no need to migrate very far. Given the cavities, also cool places to rest in the heat of the day.

Keep River and Kakadu have expanded my sense of Aboriginal history, as it were. My previous experiences were in more arid regions: the Pilbara, the Gascoyne, and the Red Centre. These areas can’t be as rich in potential food as the Top End. It makes sense that art in the latter is more elaborate than in the dry regions. There may be other explanations of course, such as the people involved, the length of human occupation (longer in the Top End) or the availability of “art supplies”. As I ponder this, I’ve seen more petroglyphs in arid regions, and more pictographs – painting – in wetter, more abundant zones.

Nourlangie occupied the morning. Post lunch, Paul drove us further south to Gunlom, our final Kakadu destination. Nearly 40 kms of dirt track took us to the campground. It was refreshing to be off bitumen; I felt like I was back in Australia, migraine or no migraine.

Gunlom attracted us because it featured many bushwalks. It also featured what had become common on the trip: a campground filled “chock-a-block”, lots of campers, lots of kids, lots of noise. We found a site on the edge of the area. Paul sat in his chair, facing out into the grasslands. I slept, hoping my head would clear.

7/1: A morning hike up the escarpment, along Gunlom Falls. Geez, more red sandstone and conglomerate! Here the rocks were tilted almost vertically, and were much coarser grained; lots of bouldery layers. A short and steep scramble brought us to the pool above the falls. This was the only place in the Top End that I visited where swimming was permitted. Every billabong and stream we had passed had featured a crocodile warning sign. This is also the NT rule of thumb; don’t swim if a sign says not to and don’t swim if there is no sign (the crocs may have removed it). Well, this pool at the top of a 200 meter ridge of sandstone is safe if anywhere is. I’ve not heard of a croc climbing that kind of a cliff before. We didn’t swim. The far views over the lowlands and the close-ups of the pool and rocks were sufficient pleasure.

Back at the truck, we agreed that two nights was enough for a first visit to Kakadu. We weren’t heat adapted for long hikes. There was more to potentially see before heading back to Darwin. I drove the RAV 4 south out of the park towards Katherine, NT. Nitmiluk, formerly Katherine Gorge, National Park, east of Katherine, sounded appealing. A good hour further south on the Stuart Highway, a brief pause in Katherine (the third largest town in the NT – supermarkets, aboriginal art stores, internet, the works), and off to Nitmiluk…

… to another crowded campground. There are two ways to see Katherine Gorge; by tour boat or by walking. Of course we walked. Of course, this meant climbing up a steep trail in the afternoon sun. Of course, the rock was red sandstone and conglomerate. The view from the top, once reached, was not particularly photogenic, so we hiked back to the campground to relax.

Nitmiluk seemed a bust. More people, more sandstone, more heat. Well, at least it had marsupials. At dusk, as Paul prepared dinner, a pair of Agile Wallabies appeared. They hovered around the margins of the campground. I suspect they were used to handouts. Their lack of fear was an opportunity to study them from just a couple meters distance. Wallaby and kangaroo locomotion has two main modes. First is the hopping we all associate with Down Under animals, it’s for covering ground quickly. To me, it’s also a marvel of animal mechanics. The animal hops on the toes/balls of its feet, which essentially form one balance point. Massive amounts of energy are stored with each hop in the animal’s leg, tail, and back tendons. It’s such a graceful, effortless motion, so efficient and beautiful. It’s also bloody uncanny when an animal looks at you and hops away. My brain expects it to walk; such is my Northern Hemisphere bias. Anyway, these wallabies were not hopping. They moved along the ground in a humped over position, alternating contact between their strong, clawed arms and legs. A slower movement, ideal for feeding. Equally amazing and pleasing as the hop. And did I write that they’re really cute?

I fell asleep using my mask and earplugs as normal. When nature called around 2 am, I stumbled over to the open air ablutions block. There were a good dozen wallabies and a couple kangaroos on the lawn outside the building. They ignored me. I went in to use the urinal. The trash can in the block was stridently signed “Keep Closed So The Wildlife Can’t Get In”. I heard a small noise. I turned around, and there was a wallaby sitting next to the trashcan looking at me. Then it looked at the trash can, back at me, back at the trash can, etc. I think it would have pointed if possible. I did not take the hint.

7/2: Escape from Nitmiluk commenced early. On the way back to Katherine, we could not resist a stop at the Jurassic Cycad Gardens. This is a private park – self-admittedly in its literature, “a hobby gone amok”. It featured several acres of cycads and other primitive plants. These veggies were around long before the dinosaurs; they pioneered the land in the early Paleozoic Era, and are ancestral to all of the plants we know today. Even spinifex (nothing is perfect).

It was a pleasure to see such a proliferation of uncommon plants, well arranged and well explained. Many of these are native to Gondawana – the southern continents

I drove us back north through Katherine, and eventually west towards Litchfield National Park. As we neared the park, the tourist density increased. Again. It was hot. Again. I could tell that the rocks would be red sandstone and conglomerate. Again. We made it as far as the Magnetic Termite Mounds (stay tuned) and turned around.

Where to camp? My Lonely Planet guide recommended the Tumbling Waters Holiday Park, somewhere on the very distal fringes of outermost Darwin. We found it. It was shady. The owner was delighted to give us a tent site, by the tumbling creek (mostly dry). The whole park had wireless internet. There was to be a crocodile feeding that evening. So a final NT evening of reading and rest commenced.

1 comment:

  1. In Oaxaca at Xmas time we went to the Ethnobotanical garden and they had cycads there, a native Oaxacan variety.