As the strong “Top End” sun rose higher in the clear sky, Wilfred Nawirridj, my Aboriginal guide, patiently led me up a faint trail between boulders and rocks. We were clambering up Injalak Hill on the fringes of Gunbalanya, a one-time cattle station turned Anglican mission and now small Aboriginal town.
Eventually we paused by a huge boulder and a smooth pale section that had sheared off long ago. Among the ochre paintings of fish and other animals stood the distinctive outline and stripes of a thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger. Now almost certainly extinct in its last stronghold, Tasmania, they probably haven’t lived up here in the Northern Territory for two or three millennia.
Remote, raw, Arnhem Land starts where the famous Kakadu National Park ends. Among the most untouched of Australia’s wilds (and with the almost mythological-sounding Gulf of Carpentaria and Arafura Sea for company) its scattering of Aboriginal communities – mostly along the tropical coast – have been left to themselves more than anywhere else. Named after a 17th-century Dutch explorer’s ship, Arnhem Land defied virtually all attempts to make it “useful”, so its declaration as an Aboriginal reserve in 1931 – all 97,000 sq km – was not genuinely altruistic.
Unless you’re flying in, one of the simplest entry points is via Cahill’s Crossing on the East Alligator River. The crocodile warning signs and exhortations not to swim set the tone, as do the river’s tidal tables, which govern when you should and shouldn’t drive across. Driven by my keen guide Hamish Clark, we bumped along a well-graded track, skirting creeks and verdant marshland, and edged closer to the so-called “stone country” and the great rocky ramparts of the Arnhem Land Plateau.
Clark was familiar with much of the art and some sacred sites. We paused for breakfast on an elevated outcrop and watched the twin-humped brow of a “saltie”, or saltwater crocodile, patrol the adjoining billabong.
Later, we pulled up at the Injalak Arts & Crafts Centre, a vital conduit and thriving shop front for regional artists and artisans, where I was introduced to Nawirridj. About 3,000 visitors come here annually and all need Arnhem Land permits – readily obtainable from the Northern Land Council back in Kakadu or Darwin. There is talk of their abolition but Anthony Murphy, who runs the Injalak Centre, is adamant the system has helped protect local culture as nowhere else.
The ancient galleries in nearby Injalak Hill and the modern one at the centre satisfy most tourists’ curiosity about Arnhem Land but I was just warming up. My focus was the Mt Borradaile region – only about 25 miles north but since the 4WD road there was doubtful because of recent rains and deep mud, we backtracked to Kakadu to fly in.
Perhaps only by flying can one appreciate the sheer wildness and inhospitality of this terrain. Swampy flatlands and mangrove-lined creek systems are sporadically ruptured by the sandstone outliers of the main plateau.
Banking just short of Mt Borradaile, the pilot aimed our Cessna at a dusty rectangle cut from a sea of green and down we went. A ramshackle Land Rover jolted out of the bush to take us to Davidson’s Camp. Max Davidson – former buffalo hunter turned celebrated guide and tour operator – was instrumental in opening this pocket of Land. Originally he used to shoot out here, often with Charlie Mangulda, an Aboriginal elder and the area’s senior traditional owner. Mangulda knew of some art sites from childhood but together they stumbled across more.
One day, about 20 years ago, Davidson happened to gaze up at an outcrop that stopped him in his tracks. Hidden in a deep overhang stretched a large and extraordinarily beautiful image of a rainbow serpent, among the most important of ancestral beings. “From that day I stopped being a hunter and began exploring,” Davidson told me, “and Charlie was happy to share his people’s culture.” Indeed, Mangulda’s permission was needed to bring in visitors and, because Borradaile was registered as a sacred site, additional permits were (and still are) required.
Today some visitors come as much for the fishing and a spot of hunting. Yet it’s the incredible wealth and concentration of art in time-forgotten sites that truly distinguishes the Mt Borradaile area.
According to Dr Josephine Flood, an eminent Australian archaeologist, author and former head of the Aboriginal environment section of the Australian Heritage Council, much of it is very well preserved, in part because so few tourists come here so the sites have not become “worn” like many in Kakadu.
Davidson says he’s still finding more. I spent three days in his simple camp (basic but comfortable enough tents, communal dining block, showers and toilets) content not to be distracted by the trappings of luxury but elated at feeling a bit like Indiana Jones.
Each morning and afternoon I went with articulate guides to visit magical and haunting sites, first driving and then walking through woods and across low bare ridges. We crouched in deep overhangs or beside dim crevices as another eerie world unfolded – spirit figures, ancestral beings and animals. We clambered into catacomb-like caves that even now have a few skulls and scattered bones on their sandy floors, and even skeletons wrapped in paperbark lying on little wooden platforms. There is also “contact period” art depicting early European riggers and Timorese boats, along with 19th-century hunters’ relics, from rusty metal matchboxes to a Martini-Henry rifle and crumbling bark beds.
As for sacred Mt Borradaile, visitors are only ever taken to a few spots at the base of the hill. Most of it – and I was told its distinctive, almost horseshoe-shaped, amphitheatre hides numerous burial grottoes and scared sites – remains off-limits to all but its rightful owners. Sadly, most of them have now faded away, taking their strange stories and arcane knowledge with them.