Day 7 – West Arnhem Land
The others went off to West Arnhem Land – I didn’t go as I knew I’d run out of energy soon on what promised to be a long drive and then a long walk and a late return to camp.
While they were away, I rested, swam, and found the energy to walk to the reception shop to peruse the goodies. I ended up buying two books (of course): ‘Injalak Hill Rock Art’ and ‘Kakadu People’. If I couldn’t be at Injalak Hill, I could at least read about it. I also rummaged through Candice’s massive box of books – on the natural, social and Indigenous history of the NT – and was successful in finding useful stuff to occupy myself.
I also searched out and found another toilet block – a gaggle of teenage Melbourne schoolgirls had been clogging up the nearest one in the mornings and evenings. They (and the equivalent schoolboys) had apparently flown up from Melbourne to Darwin for school holidays and were being taken around in two large buses.
The East Alligator River is the eastern boundary of Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land is to the east of the East Alligator River, a boundary with Kakadu National Park.
You mustn’t go to the rock art sites without an Indigenous guide. They’ll take you to the ‘culturally safe’ sites and explain what they are culturally allowed to about some of the paintings. There are thousands, from millennia old to recent ones and touch-ups. A painting can be interpreted on many levels, depending on the degree of knowledge of the cultural knowledge holder. We white people get the basic level.
This is a living site, not a museum. There are also burials in the area, so you must stick with the guide to avoid serious cultural mistakes.
Kath takes up the story …
Our written itinerary was quite prophetic when it described our trip into Western Arnhem Land, Tuesday 14 June 2022, the 7th day of our 10 day outback adventure: ‘Today a once in a lifetime experience awaits’.
We were collected at the reception of Cooinda Lodge (in Kakadu National Park), at around 7 am and bundled into a slick grey 4WD bus. Today we were being guided into West Arnhem Land by a young man who had been given permission to speak about the cultural heritage of the sites we would visit during the day.
The First Nations guide talking about ochre used in the paintings (photo by Bruce Moore)
The entry point for West Arnhem Land is across the East Alligator River, at Cahill’s Crossing, located in Kakadu National Park, but a fair distance away from Cooinda Lodge.
The original crossing was the site where Leichhardt crossed the East Alligator River in 1845, on his journey from Queensland to Victoria settlement. The crossing is named after Paddy Cahill as he used the crossing to access his dairy lease at Oenpelli (issued in 1906). Why it’s called the East Alligator River is another story … apparently the early explorers mistook our crocodiles for alligators and the misnomer has persisted.
Cahills Crossing is classed as ‘permanently closed’. You need a permit from the Northern Land Council coming from the Kakadu side before entering Arnhem Land. The crossing is infamous, due to it being a narrow artificial causeway that lies across a river infested with huge saltwater crocodiles.
Cahills Crossing (photo by Bruce Moore)
When the tide is low, all-terrain cars and conventional vehicles can cross the causeway. Fisherman and sightseers can venture out on either end of it, but you would not attempt to cross on foot. It holds the title of ‘The World’s Deadliest Crossing’ according to one Youtube video.
When Roger and I visited Cahills Crossing in 2015, we were two of hundreds of people watching a spectacle of huge crocodiles tearing apart an intruder crocodile, as the rising tide of the river allowed these magnificent creatures to swim across the causeway. [The crocodiles also mass together to catch schools of fish swimming over the causeway.] On the Kakadu side of the crossing there is a viewing platform designed to get people away from the dangerous crossing, so they can watch the gory spectacle in safety. However, when we arrived on this recent trip, it was low tide, and the viewing platform was closed for renovations.
We crossed Cahills without incident. West Arnhem Land opened up around us as we ventured into this timeless place.
Arnhem Land long grass and escarpment (Photo by Kathy Pearce)
Like many outback open spaces, that ancient escarpment of sandstone could be seen edging the vast open spaces that we have come to identify as savanna. We arrived at an isolated place, where the predominant vegetation was woodland with stands of beautiful eucalyptus, forming open canopies up to 20 metres high, supporting an understorey of tall grass, growing up to 2.5 metres high.
Eucalypts and understorey tall grass (photo by Kathy Pearce)
We were told to keep together and not wander off from the group, for our own safety, because of wild buffalo – obvious from piles of fresh dung found in the sandy walking track. Then there were the crocodiles that were lazily lurking in the waters of the beautiful waterway, which we encountered as we walked tentatively into this idyllic yet somewhat scary landscape. Yes – beyond the sand is croc-infested water!
Buffalo and croc country (photo by Kathy Pearce)
Crocsville, Arnhem Land (photo by Bruce Moore)
We were warned to put at least 20 metres between us and the water, to have that starting chance in case a croc decided we were worth chasing for a feed! Some of us even chatted about the safest perch to jump up onto should a croc charge. This place was beautiful, but none of us relaxed completely, so out of our comfort zone was this experience.
The 4WD bus almost disappeared among the tall savanna grasses, which reminded me of sugar cane fields in Far North Queensland.
Next stop was an initiation site, where young males were expected to throw their spears and hit mandated targets on the ceiling of a massive rock.
Initiation rock (photo by Kathy Pearce)
Imagine the javelin throwers at the Olympics, having to hurl their javelins up into the sky and hit a specific spot within a few square metres. We could see pits in the rock where spears had hit their intended mark.
You can see old spear-tip holes in the rock (photo by Bruce Moore)
Next stop was a series of huge open caves halfway up a steep rocky incline, where we came across many rock art drawings that were in perfect condition.
Arnhem Land art site (photo by Bruce Moore)
Caves housing rock art (photo by Kathy Pearce)
European sailing vessel painted in the 1930s; the painting on the right is thought to represent a European’s lace-gloved arm (photo by Bruce Moore)
I identified a grinding stone rock nearby.
Grinding stone (photo by Kathy Pearce)
Next stop was lunch at a tranquil picnic spot, replete with interesting local flora, and rock art of a big red kangaroo that is not usually found in these parts, according to the guide: either someone visiting left the art, or someone who had seen a big red on walkabout had brought that image back with them.
Thought to be the oldest painting in the area (photo by Bruce Moore)
Photo by Bruce Moore
Lunch was excellent.
The guide provided lunch (photo by Kathy Pearce)
Lunch (photo by Kathy Pearce)
We saw more beautiful scenery on our return trip.
Last view of the rock art site (photo by Kathy Pearce)
Crossing Cahill’s again was a wee bit more hair raising: the tide was rising and some of the cars returning to Arnhem Land struggled to cross due to the water hiding potholes in the road surface.
Photo by Roger Wier
Thankfully, our guide stopped at the Injalak Arts Centre where we were encouraged to look at [and buy?] a very large range of arts and crafts produced by the local First Nations artists.
Thanks, Kath, and now back to me …
The next day was another big one – packing up and heading towards Katherine and a new campsite.