A somewhat cheeky portrayal of the female figure in this rock art image from Western Arnhem land. The artist has not only exaggerated the nipples but has carefully added a spiky bush of pubic hair, something that is quite unusual. On the right she has a woven dilly bag hung around her neck and in her left hand (at the viewer’s right) she carries a goose-wing feathered fan.
On their way down from their headwaters the Mann, Liverpool, Gumardir and East Alligator Rivers all run through extensive sections of gorges, which in many places are spaces where rainforest species are protected from wildfire. This gorge is on the Mann River, on the eastern side of the Arnhem Plateau. The indigenous people of the plateau talk about where rivers start and finish quite differently to the concepts used in Australian mainstream english speech. In Australian english rivers are spoken of as finishing in the sea. In indigenous ways of talking in West Arnhem Land a river finishes at the point where it starts its journey to the sea, and it starts where it enters the sea. It’s one of those “you say ‘start’, I say ‘finish’ things and quite confusing until each speaker picks up on what’s happening. The photo was taken a few years ago as water levels dropped in the transition from wet season to dry season.
Two of my favourite rock art images from the West Arnhem Land Plateau executed with such bold and confident strokes. In the incomplete picture of a Black Wallaroo the artist has emphasised the strong musculature of the Wallaroo’s forearms — a distinctive feature of the males of this species. The male is called Barrk in Kundedjnyenghmi dialect. The exaggerated perspective in the human figure emphasises the powerful legs of a figure running at full speed. These paintings are separated by only about 40 metres and I feel they have been painted by the same artist.
The Banded Fruit Dove (Ptilinopus cinctus) is found around rainforest pockets in sandstone escarpment country. This range is restricted to the West Arnhem Land Escarpment, extending as far south as the headwaters of the South Alligator River. In fifteen years working and living in the escarpment country I’ve seen it only a few times and only once when I had a camera. It’s on my list of birds I want to persuade to sit for some more extensive portrait sessions.
This Northern Fantail mother (Rhipidura rufiventris) looks a little puzzled by the sumo baby in her gorgeous paperbark nest. And well she might. My birdo mate Bob Gosford agrees that she seems to be a victim of a nest invader who has left her to raise its egg. That baby is just too big! The beak is already as big as the fantail’s. Likely culprits could be Little Bronze Cuckoo (Chalcites minutillus) or the Brush Cuckoo (Cacomantis variolosus).
Fungi are fabulous and are amongst the most numerous organisms on earth. Because of the ephemeral nature of their fruiting bodies they are not as well known as other organisms. When these small (12mm diameter) balls appeared in the sand at Kabulwarnamyo Ranger Station I was so impressed and intrigued that next time I was at a good bookstore I bought Bruce Fuhrer’s Field Guide to Australian Fungi in the hope I might be able to identify them. I’m fairly certain the genus is Calostoma, because three of the four Calostomas pictured and described are the only fungi in the book that look anything like these. The closest in appearance, and possibly, the correct species is Calostoma fuhreri which shares the black body with red coloured orifice which to my eye resembles Chinese characters. The name Calostoma means beautiful mouth.
This simple but elegant and graceful depiction of the female figure is one of tens of thousands of rock art images from the Western Arnhem Plateau. Only a small percentage have been recorded. The reddish orange pigment used here has soaked into the porous sandstone surface and has become very stable and permanent. This also makes it hard to tell the age of the painting, it might be as recent as a few hundred years old or it might be from earlier times in a tradition of art and occupation going back more than 40,000 years.
When the last member of the Barradj Clan died about 20 years ago she bequeathed her traditional lands to Dean Yibarbuk, who she regarded as her closest blood relative since they had a grandmother in common. Dean, the older guy with dreadlocks, is a senior ranger and expert in indigenous knowledge whose own father’s country is in lowland country on the Liverpool River floodplains. Early in 2014 Dean brought his family and some of Warddeken’s rangers on an expedition to survey some of the rock art sites in the country for which he now has management responsibility. From the ranger base at Kabulwarnamyo the survey party was choppered into the Kunbambuk location and spent five days finding and recording rock art. Some 21 separate sites were found, with more than 300 separate images recorded. The pictures ranged in age from the oldest styles of more than 20,000 years BP to the post contact era. Only one post contact era painting was found and we concluded that this marked a time when the bands on Barradj country went down to lowlands where feral buffalo had spread widely. From the late nineteenth century into the 20th century rugged Europeans and local Aboriginal people worked together shooting buffalo and preparing their hides for sale. The plateau country is beautiful country but not bountiful in easily hunted meat. The single post-contact image at the top here is a picture of the hind leg of a buffalo, showing the meat and bones and at left the cloven hoof. Dean and I concluded that people who had been down amongst the buffalo camps brought news of the readily available red meat back to the Barradj band at Kunbambuk. To make their point they drew this lifesize representation of just one leg from a buffalo. It seems that after this image was painted people gathered their possessions and went down to the buffalo camps. This probably happened early in the 20th century. People worked in the buffalo industry and were often paid with tobacco and soon developed nicotine addiction. Elders say that it was addiction to tobacco and ready availability of a variety of other trade goods that caused depopulation of the plateau. Since about 1970 people have been coming back to resettle the plateau. In the lower pictures Dean and young ranger Gavin Phillips have raked flammable grasses and leaves away from the painted shelters and have burned off. If left unburned, spinifex and other materials can accumulate and then a fire ignited by lightning can do serious damage to the paintings.
Young Japheth Miller enjoys his bush tucker and in this photo he’s found a tuber of Brachystelma glabriflorum, called badjdjo in the Kundedjnyenghmi dialect of Bininj Kunwok. Western agriculture has also recently discovered this indigenous food plant and its tuberous stem has been identified as a potential new food crop. This little round yam has white, sweet and tasty flesh. The stems are only above the ground in the wet season. They can be eaten raw or lightly roasted in hot ashes and sand.
I was working on the computer inside my tent at Kabulwarnamyo when Bill the Grey Butcher Bird and her family began kicking up a furious din. This was no mellifluous song but a loud chorus of alarm calls. I came out the back of the tent and found five birds all perched on branches in a group and looking at dead leaves near the end of an old log that I liked to sit on in the evenings. As well as the calls there was vigorous wing flapping and darting about. I noticed some movement down amongst the leaves and saw a very much adult Deaf Adder (aka Death Adder, Acanthophis praelongus, or Berk in the Kundedjnyenghmi dialect of Bininj Kunwok). The adder had bitten and immobilised a dragon lizard (Lophognathus gilberti) and was manoeuvring it into a good position to swallow. I thanked Bill and crew for the information and killed the snake. I wouldn’t bother a snake in the bush, but a deaf adder just outside my tent pretty much on the path to the outhouse…. sorry. Most snakes will run away if they hear you coming. But not the deaf adder, whose lifestyle is as an ambush predator who stays still but ready to strike at prey who might wander by, or some human unfortunate enough to step on it. The Deaf Adder is one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. Without quick access to the anti-venom the death rate is about 50 per cent…and Kabulwarnamyo is more than 120km from the nearest clinic that MIGHT have the relevant anti-venom. Deaf adders are quite small. One nearing a metre would be a giant. The venerable Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek told me that the most dangerous are not the largest and oldest but young snakes in the peak of life. As he understood it, and no-one would know better, venom production or toxicity declined in old snakes. The Grey Butcherbird, by the way, is known as Djobbo in the Kundedjnyenghmi dialect of Bininj Kunwok.