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 Asian Water Buffalo (Bubalis bubalis) was introduced into the Northern Territory at the time of first colonial occupation. Between 1824 and 1849 they were brought from Timor, Kisar and probably other islands in Indonesia. The first European settlements failed but the imported buffalo thrived. By the early 1960s there were believed to be more than 200,000 feral buffalo living on the coastal floodplains between Darwin and Arnhem Land. They wreaked environmental havoc, in various ways, but creating channels for saltwater intrusion was one of the most damaging. But despite a population explosion on the lowlands, they did not arrive on the Arnhem Land Plateau until the mid-twentieth century, said Bardayal Nadjamerrek who was born on the plateau in 1926 and witnessed their coming. But the people of the plateau had long encountered buffalo on trips to visit other indigenous clans in the lowlands. These big and sometimes dangerous beasts created strong impressions in a landscape where the biggest animals had been emus and kangaroos. These first impressions of buffalo remain, albeit tenuously, in rock art depictions. Keith Nadjamerrek, son of Bardayal, is pictured beside an early and almost lifesize painting of a buffalo on his clan estate of Mankung Djang. The painting is slowly being lost to wind and water erosion. The depiction of the buffalo head is very interesting. The artist has drawn the head in both plan and side elevation views — the plan view showing the ears and horns and the side elevation showing the jaws and teeth. Perhaps, stretching reality a little for the sake of good story, the jaws have been drawn with recurved teeth, like a python, hinting at the power and dangerousness of the beast.
On the plateau the buffalo populations escaped much of the cull which wiped out the damaging herds on the floodplains in the 1990s. The highland buffalo have been causing great damage to the delicate upland wetlands through trampling, pugging and creating erosion channels. For about eight years now the indigenous land management group, Warddeken Land Management Limited has been undertaking an annual buffalo cull with highly trained shooters operating from helicopters and targeting the areas where most damage is happening. This important action has turned around a dismal future for the upland wetlands which are returning to health.

Scanning my way back through a lifetime of prints and slides I came on this set recording the making and launching of Wubbun Djabayena (the canoe called sawfish) at Maningrida in Central Arnhem Land. The Kunibidji people have salt water in their veins and know their seas and coastal waters intimately. In the 1980s the Australian Museum commissioned a working dug-out canoe from master craftsmen Jimmy Bungurru and Albert Wurridjal. They felled a large paperbark in a jungle outside of town and roughed out the shape there with axes and short handled adzes. The people of Arnhem Land have had increasing access to the steel tools essential for work of this sort for perhaps 400 years, the approximate date when it is believed that Macassan fishermen from Indonesia first started coming to Arnhem Land each wet season. They came to fish for trepang which they boiled and dried for the Chinese market. They came with canoes to use when gathering the sea slugs in shallow waters and often, fully laden at the end of the season, made presents of their canoes to the local people as rewards for assisting with their endeavours and to establish friendly relationships. The english colonists banned the trepangers in the first decade of the 20th century and so local people were now completely reliant on their own canoe-making skills, although no doubt many had begun making Australian canoes much earlier. Women weavers made sails from the fibres of the pandanus palm. In the Gulf of Carpentaria sails were of an Asian style, big rectangles extending both sides of the boat. In Central Arnhem Land some canoe makers began to follow European styles and Djabayena was more or less gaff rigged. Despite being mesh, the canoes could move at a good clip under sail. Notice the wake in the photo near the barge landing, when Jimmy and Albert needed only to sit back and steer. Canoes stayed fairly close inshore and used currents as well as wind. Canoes linked coastal communities and Djabayena Wubbunj demonstrated its sea worthiness with a trip from Maningrida along to coast to Warruwi, about 60km away before being loaded on a barge to eventual end up in Sydney. Leading the women weavers is Daisy Wurridjal, but I can’t recall the names of the other women. Aluminium dinghies have now replaced the dug-outs for hunting for turtle and dugong and for travelling along the coast. In the photo showing Albert standing in the prow he’s loaded for turtle with a detachable style harpoon fitted into the end of a long shaft and attached to a rope, hand-made from hibiscus fibre. The style was for the hunter to leap into the air to drive the harpoon deep and firmly into the turtle shell. After clambering back on board the turtle would be brought on board after it had tired. A tug of war would have resulted in the harpoon pulling out.

Nigel Damsay Gellar

Nigel Damsay Gellar is one of Arnhem Land’s finest — a distinguished Denizen of the Deep North who has defied the sad statistics of indigenous male mortality to be still hard at work as senior ranger with Warddeken Land Management Limited as he approaches his 65th birthday. His record of leading a team of much younger rangers by example earned him the Commonwealth Government’s inaugural Kevin McLeod mentoring award in 2013. Last week he returned from Namibia after his second trip to Africa sharing the story of Warddeken’s success in controlling wildfire and greenhouse gas emissions by the application of indigenous traditions. This fire management tradition now incorporates use of helicopters, satellite imagery and 4WD drive vehicles while delivering strategies perfected over 50,000 years. Some years ago Nigel gave a presentation on his life story entitled “Growing up with two cultures”. Here’s an abbreviated version.

“I was born in the bush at at a place called Dandandanggal, just outside of the community that used to be called Beswick Station but now its known by its Aboriginal name of Wugularr. The year I was born was 1950. My father and mother and the rest of the family came down to Dandanggal for ceremony to join with other people from our area who had come to Beswick to work for the station. My father wasn’t a cattle man, he was a ceremony man.

“My Mum and Dad didn’t really know white people that time. They grew up living a traditional life in the bush on their country. But white people had been around my country before my dad was born. I didn’t know this story until just recently but it turns out that in about 1890, that’s 114 years ago some white people tried to start a station up on the Arafura swamp near Ramingining, not far from my country.

“They didn’t ask permission and when our people started killing their cattle they started killing our people. There were big fights and a lot of people got killed. This was in my grandfathers time, before my dad was born.

“My dad died when I was just a baby, only about two months old. In my culture we would say people sung my father to death. He just got sick and died but we believe he was killed by what white people call sorcery. He was a top person for ceremony side and maybe people were jealous and that’s why they killed him.

“As I grew up at Wugularr and Barunga I went to school and eventually went on to finish high school in Darwin. As a young fella I took a liking to Aussie Rules Football and even though I was the shortest bloke on the field I did pretty well with Wanderers team — the main team that Aboriginal people in Darwin followed.

“Later in life I worked as a research assistant with CSIRO scientists at Kapalga Research Station. I worked at Maningrida learning to fix trucks and tractors and later spent some years as a Ranger at Kakadu National Park. I followed up later working as a tourist guide with an Aboriginal tourism business at Manyallaluk, near Katherine.

“Then one day my old mate Freddy Nadjamerrek got in touch and asked me to come out to join him and his dad Lofty Bardayal Nadjamereek setting up a community on their country and starting up Warddeken Land Management.

“That was back in the early 2000s and I’ve been back in the bush working as a senior ranger every since. I’m happy to see these young fellas learning to be rangers and using the knowledge and traditions from two cultures. Must be I’ve got a few more working years left .”

Photos — Top: Nigel and his team of Warddeken Rangers in 2008. Photo courtesy of David Hancock Below: Nigel and Freddy together with Lofty 10 years ago, soon after Nigel arrived at Kabulwarnamyo.

Karndayh stencils

I spent last week working with people of the Marrirn clan in Western Arnhem Land recording rock art images made anytime from tens of thousands of years ago to the mid-twentieth century. At one site (top) we came across a line of symbols made by an artist blowing a slurry of white pigment from his mouth past a hand with a bent finger to create stencilled images. The symbol on rock and hand signal signifies karndayh, the female antilopine kangaroo (Macropus antilopinus). When out hunting, someone spotting karndayh would not (for obvious reasons) speak to communicate but rather perhaps touch their companion’s arm and use the bent-fingered hand symbol to say “game on” and gesture “karndayh over there”. The symbol can be made with right or left hand — the rock stencil is with a left hand, my example with my right. The act of making a symbol on rock in this way is called bid-kuykmerren. Hands of adults and children are often stencilled and sometimes the feet of infants. Boomerangs and other material culture objects are also stencilled. We have no idea or way of knowing when the row of karndayh stencils was made and we can only guess that perhaps the group indicates a hunter creating a record of his prowess. The central element of the rock painting below is karndayh and off to the left at shoulder height is the crooked finger symbol. This painting was made mid-twentieth century by the famed artist Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek AO. This is the only example I know of a rock painting with a caption.

Allosyncarpia ternata

Allosyncarpia ternata, known as Anbinik to the Kundedjnyenghmi-speaking people of Western Arnhem Land is an ancient and magnificent tree endemic to the Top End of the Northern Territory and in particular to Kakadu National Park and the adjacent Western Arnhem Land Plateau. Its origins parallel those of the Eucalypts, of which it is a distant relative. It is a plant sensitive to fire and the gorges and gullies of the plateau have provided refuges from wildfire. Flying across the plateau we see Anbinik providing a closed canopy within extensive areas of gorges. Creeks, sometimes spring-fed and permanent and others only seasonal, meander through these gorges under the Anbinik and in the deep shade conditions are cool and pleasant. Anbinik has also survived in patches on flat ground amongst Eucalypt forest, true relictual stands from a time when the climate was wetter and when Anbinik extended much more widely. Its survival in the face of wildfire can perhaps be attributed to particular fire protection management by the indigenous people, past and present. Indigenous people today are working with scientists to protect the isolated stands of Anbinik. They speak reverently of these trees and say “our old people loved the shade and comfort of the Anbinik. When we work to protect these trees we remember the affection our old people had for them”.

Kunumeleng is the Kundedjnyenghmi name for the season that white folk call “the build up” — a time of oppressive heat and humidity relieved by isolated storms. The storms often include spectacular displays of lightning. The Top End of the Northern Territory has some areas with amongst the planet’s highest numbers of lightning strikes per year. Indigenous people of the deep north don’t relate to the European temperate regime of four seasons. Kundedjnyenghmi names six seasons: kunumeleng (the build up), kudjewk (the monsoonal wet), bangerreng (last rains and strong winds that knock down tall grasses), yekke (early dry season), wurrkeng (colder weather) and kurrung (hot weather when the ground burns bare feet). Kunumeleng is a time when plants spring back to life and many edible fruits mature. This picture was taken at the road crossing at Manangayhbalhmeng, known in english as “Dreaming Lady Crossing”. The name Dreaming Lady refers to yawkyawk mermaid spirits which live in the billabongs down stream from this open rocky road crossing. The bush is still recovering from Cyclone Monica which has the record for most intense tropical cyclone on record for Australia. It knocked down and stripped trees throughout western Arnhem Land in early 2006. It peaked with winds of 250kph (155mph) and Dreaming Lady was right in its path. I have seen large trees that have been stripped bare of bark by the wind strength. Rocky hills clothed in forest were left as bare rock. Slowly the bush is recovering.