Arnhem Land: Secrets of the ancient wild

By Berwyn Lewis

Cave art at this sacred site tells of human and spirit life, writes Berwyn Lewis.

A traditional ceremony in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, an Aboriginal-owned sacred site.
A traditional ceremony in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, an Aboriginal-owned sacred site.

It's a place of catacombs and caves where galleries of rock art, some estimated to be at least 40,000 years old, tell stories of powerful spirits and survival.

Tools, such as seed-grinding stones and piles of bleached bones, speak of ancient ceremonies and hunting and gathering. It's on the doorstep of Davidson's Arnhemland Safari Lodge - a multiple tourism award-winner at Mt Borradaile, in a remote corner of northwest Arnhem Land, Northern Territory.

Nature provided everything for the earliest inhabitants. Bandaid? Grab a strip of swamp bloodwood - that's how Aborigine people used it. Stuffy nose? Inhale a bundle of green ant nest leaves; it's a decongestant.

You need a permit to access this Aborigine-owned, registered sacred site. It makes some past civilisations look like newcomers: take the paintings of a well-endowed wallaby and the 15,000-year-old, generously equipped man and woman. One theory holds that initiated tribesmen could manifest food, water and fertility by painting with red, yellow and white ochre to communicate with spirits.

While men painted tales of hunting and maps of camp sites, women wove more than 120 stories with string. There are also hundreds of hand stencils, from ceremonies that once took place.

A paradise of abundance, it was created by the mythical Rainbow Serpent depicted on a rocky overhang. The area is now another kind of paradise for anglers, birdwatchers and bushwalkers. The Mt Borradaile escarpment overlooks the area's floodplains, home to more than 170 species of birds. Sea eagles, high-stepping straw-necked ibis, rufus herons, pelicans, azure kingfishers and jabiru skim across the billabongs, swamps and mangroves.

When the wet season blows in, the mythical "lightning man" strikes. He ushers in thunder and floods, carving out pillared caves where rock art paintings show that goanna, turtles, birds, wallabies, barramundi, echidnas, crabs and sharks were once on the menu.

Davidson's Arnhemland Safari Lodge offers before- and after-lunch expeditions. There's a swimming hole nearby and sunset cocktail cruises along Cooper Creek are available.

No adventure in the Top End is complete without dipping into the wild beauty of Litchfield Park's waterfalls and swimming holes. A personalised tour with Offroad Dreaming includes an expert guide who knows the flora, fauna, history and culture of the area.

After a picnic lunch, take in one of the area's mysteries - the Lost City formed by wind and water erosion about six billion years ago. Further down the track there's a metropolis of 2m-high magnetic termite mounds where the temperature remains at 32C. In contrast, a humble, desolate tin abode, Blyth Homestead, was built in 1928 and was once occupied by a miner's family. It's a reminder that the call of the wild will always weave its spell over all adventurous spirits.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Entry into the Mt Borradaile area is by permit only. Get there by air charter flights from Darwin and Jabiru. Drive in a 4WD in the dry season (May to October) with a $50 track-access levy.

Accommodation: Davidson's Arnhemland Safari Lodge is open from February to November. If in Darwin, try Mantra on the Esplanade apartments.

Further information: See OffRoad Dreaming for tours of Litchfield National Park.

The writer travelled as a guest of OffRoad Dreaming and was hosted partially by Davidson's Arnhemland Safari Lodge.

- AAP

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