Beauty and the beast. Cattle egrets (Ardea ibis) hanging out with their big ugly mate on the floodplains beside Yellow Waters in Kakadu. Pizzey and Knight tell us that the cattle egret colonised the Northern Territory (probably from Indonesia) sometime in the 1940s as part of a worldwide expansion of range. Today they are found throughout most of Australia including Tasmania but not usually in the driest parts of the inland. They have however been recorded in Alice Springs. The gorgeous flush of colour in plumage comes with onset of breeding season. They do like hanging out with cattle and, in the Top End, with the water buffalo (Bubalis bubalis) introduced with the earliest European settlements in the north, early in the 1800s. By the 1970s the feral buffalo population had trashed the seasonal wetlands of Kakadu and other parts of the North. A big campaign to eradicate tuberculosis and brucellosis in buffalo and cattle saw a huge reduction in numbers and in Kakadu a wonderful recovery on the flood plains. For Aboriginal people, buffalo had become a very important source of protein and thus the focus of a land management dilemma… how do you achieve a balance between the negative effects of buffalo on country and the value of a prime wild food source to a people with few jobs available where they live and very low incomes? Indigenous land management groups are grappling with that problem and searching for a “best fit solution”.

Love and respect have kept artist and activist Jack Green and Josie Davey together now for 10 years and blessed them with two gorgeous kids, Jackie and Shantrelle. But on Monday this week, 150 people from the four main indigenous language groups from the south-western Gulf country around Borroloola gathered in the bush to see them formalise that relationship in a unique wedding ceremony. The wedding was in a special “something old, something new” style, drawing on indigenous symbolism and the making of lifelong social contracts, not just between individuals but between families. Jack and Josie want to bring back the best of their traditions, traditions that have been worn down by more than a century of colonisation. The families gathered around two bush shelters in the soft light of the late afternoon out of town near Jack’s camp. In one bough shade, Jack and men from clans he connects to painted up and began singing to the beat of clapsticks and the drone of a didgeridoo — with Jack playing the didgeridoo. A little way off Josie and women sat and painted up the bride and also her bush “bridesmaids”. A chanting chorus and escort of women elders walked with Josie to a central point where, holding her father’s hand she left her women folk and walked towards the party of Jack’s clan coming from the east. Jack and Josie’s hands entwined and they walked back towards the groom’s shade. Speeches were made… about the importance of ceremony and preserving Aboriginal law. The ceremony now links Jack in a special ceremonial obligation to Josie’s clan, a relationship symbolised by the passing of a burning firestick. Says Jack: “Ceremonies like this symbolise long relationships between families and clans. It’s like if there’s a ceremony on, the groom has to dance for the bride’s brother. I have to dance for that fella, because I’m married to that fire, to that sister of his. I’m tied in there now under our law. And like you have to look after fire, I have to look after and take care of Josie for the rest of my time”. As the ceremony concluded with a feast of rib bones from a ground oven, road trains from the McArthur River Mine roared past only a hundred metres away, carrying ore to the port at Bing Bong. But that’s another story, and not a happy one like this.

7 o’clock this morning at the McArthur River mine — the smoke is from out-of-control chemical reactions deep inside the mountain of waste rock. There’s no doubt this is an environmental disaster — the only question is … Just how big a disaster?
This is what Jack Green and the rest of Aboriginal people who live at Borroloola have been protesting about. Watch this space. Just finished a 1000km drive today.

When I pulled into the Hi Way Inn at lunchtime today after a 600km drive from Darwin I thought I’d driven onto the set of Hitchcock’s movie The Birds. Surrounded by a fairly parched landscape at this time of year, the roadhouse has plenty of water, shade from a grove of exotic African Mahogany trees and plenty of pickings from the passers by. The roost at the Hi Way Inn is ruled by Apostle Birds (Struthidea cinerea)— at least 150 of them, making a huge racket and being the wildly social creatures they are. They squabbled over scraps, huddled together, groomed one another frantically and generally made whoopee. Apostle birds, so named because they are usually in family groups of about a dozen have quite few other common names — grey jumpers, happy families and lousy jacks, the last being name I was given for them as a kid in Queensland. From the frenzy of grooming happening they do seem prime mite hosts, or else they have a grooming fetish. The birds around the Hi Way Inn and Daly Waters are part of a separate Northern Territory population unconnected to the main populations all down eastern Australia. The Northern Territory population doesn’t get as far north as Katherine and covers maybe 20% of the Territory. At a distance they look fairly drab, but up close they are a handsome and appealing bird. Drove on to Borroloola to finish a 940 km day.

It’s time to share some stories of more Denizens of the Deep North, beginning with one of the most outstanding people I have been privileged to know since I first went to work at Maningrida in Central Arnhem Land in 1972. His name is Victor Rostron and he’s a senior ranger with the indigenous Djelk Rangers at Maningrida. He’s a singer/songwriter, a crack shot, a superb bushman, a “professor” of traditional knowledge of land and culture, a community leader and a role model to young (and older) folk in Central Arnhem Land. And he’s a gentle and humble family guy. I’ll allow him to introduce himself in words taken from a Facebook post he made this morning. That’s Victor a few months ago in the top picture and below that is Victor aged about 10 with his mum, Mary. Mary’s holding a superb dilly bag she made and Victor holds a little dancing belt she made for him from emu feathers and cotton fabric. They’re pictured inside their traditional house at Birba, about 90km inland from Maningrida. Victor writes: “Hello, my real name is Victor Rhunu Rostron. I was born at the top of the Cadell River at a place called Djanmard, in Wurrbarn clan country. My mother wrapped me in a paperbark blanket when I was born. My Grandfather and Grandmother, they were everything for me when I was growing up. I’m happy to share my story with all my Facebook friends. Back in 1968 my father travelled to Maningrida, maybe from India…but I never met my father, he didn’t stay around, and I grew up without him. It’s really painful to think about now. I look and see my kids and I don’t want my kids struggling hard without me there. I went through growing up in the bush with no school but I want my son and daughter to see the world clear with a school education for their future. It’s really good seeing my kids learning both sides — balanda (non indigenous) and bininj (indigenous) culture. Going back to my story— I was really proud of my grandparents. When I was older I went to Maningrida school a little, but my grandparents taught me about living in the bush with bush tucker and animals and the importance of corroboree, like I saw my uncle mob playing and singing mimi (rock spirit) songline back in 1979 (when the photo was taken of Victor and his dancing belt). After that I started learning to play the guitar and singing gospel song. But most important I hear my grandparents voice saying ‘no stealing, no breaking in, no back talking, no jealousy, no fighting, respect old people’ — that’s what I learned. … This Maningrida Dukurrdji (clan) country is true paradise where the Djomi Dreaming (baby spirit) site is. I’m happy with the ranger program that I’m working with and I’m happy to see my kids growing in the right direction. I want to say thank you to Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, youth centre, Maningrida school and Djelk rangers. Big thank you from Victor Rhunu Rostron”. Expect more stories from Victor’s adventurous life in future blogs.