Thousands of years ago, ancestral spirits traversed the land, carving out waterways, towering sandstone cliffs and deep gorges in the Australian Outback. As per the aboriginal belief system, this was the period of creation, when Australia’s rugged interior took shape. Among these spirits were the Rainbow Serpent, at once benevolent and fearsome, and the Mimi spirit, with a penchant for the arts.
Fantastical legends like these swirl thick and fast in the Australian Outback. The aboriginal communities who reside in the region share a deeply complex and spiritual relationship with the land. Their belief is that the spirits set out certain guidelines — a sort of handbook for life — on how to interact and live in harmony with nature. Indigenous communities have passed down this way of life for generations. Pictorial documentation of aboriginal laws and legends exists today at ancient rock art sites, scattered across the country’s mystical heart.
I spot some of these works of art on sheer sandstone cliff faces at a gorge in Nitmiluk National Park. In Australia’s Northern Territory, vast national parks with ever-changing landscapes stretch across the Outback. Before I visited, the Outback seemed like a remote, hard-to-reach region. But the city of Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory, is an ideal gateway into the remote wilderness, and a convenient port of entry into the country as well. In the local tongue, “Nitmiluk” translates to the “song of the cicada”, an apt name. The only sounds I hear from the Cicada Lodge’s forest-wrapped, rustic-chic cottage is the chirrup of the insect.
This is the country of the indigenous Jawoyn people, where the Katherine River forges a series of waterways flanked by towering sandstone cliffs at Nitmiluk Gorge. On a sunset sail, I hear the story of how the Rainbow Serpent carved out this awe-inspiring landscape and continues to live in the deep pools here. The local people do not fish, swim or drink water from the gorge where he dwells. Even in nearby water bodies, fishing is restricted to only what is necessary. The practice may arise out of an ancient belief system, but it prevents overfishing and helps protect the delicate ecosystem. I wonder if the region would look as pristine as it does today if it wasn’t for these sacred beliefs.
Do landscapes shape legends or could legends actually model the land? The line between imagination and reality is thin and often blurry here in the Outback, where local lore is never in short supply. This, I realise, is the perfect setting in which to let go of logic and let the stories of the landfill my days. Past scrubby plains and rocky escarpments, acres of wetland and crocodile-filled rivers, red earth rises up in great clouds around our four-wheel drive (4WD), obscuring views of the surreal landscape. So, when curious creatures, like the dingo or wallaby, waltz out of sight, I can’t be sure if they are just a figment of my imagination.
Driving into Kakadu National Park — a sprawling 19,000 sq km swathe of floodplains and scarps — the roads are lined with the fat purple flowers of the turkey bush plant. Black and white stork-like jabiru birds and flocks of magpie geese soar across the sky. Kakadu is home to a third of Australia’s bird species. Indigenous communities have inhabited the region for 65,000 years, and more than half of the park is traditionally-owned aboriginal land.
The management of the park is a joint effort between the aboriginal communities and Australia’s parks department. This combined effort results in an interesting mix of traditional and modern practices. Seasonal burning is employed as a tactic to control wildfires but the fire also holds a spiritual and cultural significance for the indigenous community. Feral animal populations are controlled in the park but the hunting of spirit or totem animals is prohibited. Several indigenous people identify with spirit animals such as the beautiful jabiru bird I spot often.
Ubirr in Kakadu is a craggy, historically significant region known for its collection of ancient rock art. A kilometre-long loop winds past rocky crevices and overhanging cliff faces, with several stations of Aboriginal art. We clamber across rocky paths and crane our necks up to see images of fish, turtles and rivers etched into the rock. Natural colours from stones and clay are used for the paintings, some of which are estimated to date back up to 5,000 years. Reds, yellows and whites are prominent colours used in the art.
Peering into the craggy crevices trying to identify patterns in the art, I spot a tiny rock wallaby, perfectly camouflaged in the folds of the rock. Several metres above my head, on an overhanging rock ceiling, I spot deep gashes of colour in an impossible-to-reach location. No human could possibly reach that spot, so how did the art get there? “The aboriginal communities believe the Mimi spirits pulled the ceiling down, painted on in, and pushed the rock back up — all when no one was looking,” said my local guide.
The Mimi spirits were the first ancestors to paint on rock and taught the aboriginal people how to create rock art. The paintings rely heavily on themes of nature, landscapes, and the relationship between man and animal. Another important piece depicts the now- long-extinct Tasmanian Tiger — a dog-like marsupial with stripes. If aboriginal people were painting an animal that went extinct in these parts 2,000 years ago, we can only estimate that the art is older than that.
At sunset, we climb up to a flat-topped lookout with sweeping 360-degree views. Only the sounds of nature surround us, and as far as the eye can see, there is the vast bushland of Kakadu National Park and the stacked rocks of Arnhem’s Land. Face tilted up towards the expanse above, which slowly fades from a fiery orange to a deep purple, all I can imagine are great spirits swirling across the sky.