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.

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”.

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”.