Stories From the Gate


By Debra Sorensen

KAKADU NATIONAL PARK — "It's a bloody rip-off! Where does the money go, to the bloody Abos I s'pose?!"

This greeting is a common but by no means predominant sentiment. Thousands of visitors come to Kakadu each week at this time of year, yet only a handful are angered by having to pay the park entrance fee. Those visitors unwilling to pay are usually the same people who resent the fact that Kakadu is Aboriginal land and a percentage of revenue collected goes to the Gagadju Association.

In my experience (three months working here during which time more than 30,000 people have come to Kakadu), the vast majority of visitors are very supportive of national parks in general and of Aboriginal ownership of Kakadu. Many visitors, particularly those from overseas, come to Kakadu precisely because it is Aboriginal land and they want to witness the culture first hand. They are particularly interested in the rock art, which includes some of the oldest in the world.

Unfortunately, most of those opposing Aboriginal ownership are non-Aboriginal Australians. Many are under the impression that their views are universally held — an opinion daily reinforced by the dogma disguised as reportage in papers such as the NT News.

Media coverage in the Northern Territory of issues and claims arising from the Mabo ruling has served to confuse and anger the public. While commentators call on Keating and the federal government to "clarify" the ruling, they continue to misrepresent what Mabo means in a way that can only be described as scare-mongering.

Another myth perpetrated by some sections of the media is that once an Aboriginal land claim is successful, that land will be "closed off" for the majority of Australians.

The situation in the NT clearly belies that notion. Kakadu is open to all who come to visit, as is Uluru (Ayers Rock). Other areas of Arnhem Land can be entered on obtaining a permit from the Northern Land Council. Criteria are decided by the council, and it can take some time for a permit to be issued. However, this is mainly due to a restriction on the number of vehicles allowed into the area at any one time.

That Kakadu achieved World Heritage listing was due in large part to the area's cultural significance. The art on the rock walls of Kakadu records a rich culture of people co-existing with their environment over thousands of years.

Ironically, among the only places visitors are barred from entering are the private mine leases which have been carved out so that, while they are surrounded by the national park, they are not considered part of it. The mines are also on Aboriginal land.

The rock art of Kakadu also records the arrival of the Europeans. There are paintings of sailing ships, guns, men on horseback and men smoking pipes with their hands in their pockets.

It must have seemed inexplicable to the Aboriginal people of this area, now collectively referred to as the Gagadju, that everything of significance to them — the Dreamtime, the life force, the rock art and the land itself — meant next to nothing to the invaders.

As decades wore on, many of the Gagadju worked for the Europeans, mainly on their cattle stations. Often they were paid only with tobacco and flour. One of these people was Najombolmi of the Badmardi clan.

Najombolmi was a very good and respected artist who was also known for his hunting and fishing skills. He was known by many non-Aboriginal people, patronisingly, as "Barramundi Charlie". For years he worked on white people's cattle stations. Throughout his life, he also continued to visit his country to paint.

In 1964, disillusioned and fearful of what the arrival of the Europeans had meant for his people and land, Najombolmi returned to a place called Anbangbang at Nourlangie Rock. (Like Kakadu, an anglicised version of Gagadju, Nourlangie is an anglicised version of Nawurlandja, the name of the larger area that includes Nourlangie Rock). On the sandstone outcrop he repainted a traditional frieze in an attempt to invoke the Dreamtime and drive away the Europeans.

Najombolmi painted the dangerous spirit Namandjolg and Nammarkun, the lightning man who creates lightning by clashing together the stone axes on his elbows and knees. Below them he painted Barrginj, Nammarkun's wife, and a procession of women and men going to ceremony.

Najombolmi's painting was one of the last to be done on the rock walls of Kakadu. The artist died only a year after his attempt to invoke the Dreamtime. These days, while the painting tradition is still strong, it is carried out mainly on bark.

Every year tens of thousands of people from all over the world come to see Najombolmi's paintings and those of his ancestors. Platforms have been built around the larger rocky outcrops to enable better viewing while park rangers recount the Gagadju elders' interpretations of the paintings.

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