Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Unselfconscious Selfies on Ubirr

At the northeast end of Kakadu National Park, bordering Arnhem Land which is reached by crossing the inimical ford across the East Alligator River at Cahills Crossing is Ubirr. What makes Ubirr popular with the tourists are the fantastic view across the Nadab floodplains of the East Alligator River from the top of Ubirr, the outstanding examples of indigenous art, and the possibility of spotting a "saltie" from the viewing platform at Cahills Crossing.

 Nadab Floodplain

We arrived at Merl campground in the early afternoon. Like all the facilities in Kakadu, the campground has gone past tired and is now well into decrepitude. In the bathroom block, water leaks from pipes in the roof and has been "mended" with adhesive tape; and mended about as well as a water pipe under pressure would be fixed by adhesive tape from your local newsagents. The toilets are either out of order, or so full of spider webs that you are afraid to sit down. This is the country, after all, where 90% (or some ridiculously high number) of the worlds most poisonous insects are endemic, so, unless a spider can be conclusively identified as a harmless Daddy Long Legs, it seems wise to be suspicious. This is all a real shame as the campground is otherwise very nice with big private sites each with a table (and a fire pit, more is the pity). The mosquitoes, once the sun goes down are horrendous, but this is Kakadu, and to expect anything else would be foolish.

 Long necked turtle

We had time to wander, on a poorly marked track out to Cahills Crossing from the campground where the tide was rushing out over the crossing and a bunch of indigenous folk were fishing from a rapidly rising sandbar in the river. The East Alligator River is silty silver with mud as it rushes 5 km upstream from the weir, which is itself 70 km upstream from the Timor Sea. The tides here average about 7 metres - a lot of water to move up and down four times a day. 

 Looking towards Arnhem Land

At 4.00 pm, we went up to the Ubirr art site as one of Njanjma (indigenous) Rangers was giving an evening talk. I imagine it is pretty hard for black fellas, subject to intense discrimination across the country, to give a two hour talk to a white mob, but this young man managed very well. He told Dreamtime stories, explained the rock art, and talked about how the indigenous population gathered and hunted food across the Kakadu area before the influx of white man. The art at Ubirr is rich and complex. In some areas, up to twelve layers of paintings overlay one another. Most is on low easy to reach sections of the cave walls, but, one intriguing and intricate drawing of sorcery figures is high up on the roof overhead. The aborigines believe Mimi spirits, who are tall and thin, lifted the rocks down, painted the figures and then set them back up again. Standing atop Ubirr with the verdant green wetlands spread out below, jagged sandstone towers on the horizon, ungainly Jabiru launching into elegant flight, prehistoric reptiles preying in the silty waters of the tidal river, and the ever present rowdy call of the cockatoo ringing in the air, it is easy to believe in mythical beings. 

 Mimi spirit figures

The contemplative nature of the sunset moment, was, however, spoilt for me when I turned around and confronted a dozen out of shape white fellas unselfconsciously snapping "selfies" of themselves seemingly ignorant of the magnificence of their surroundings. Have we always been so absorbingly self-obsessed or has our too comfortable life divorced from the natural world and lost in crowded cities promulgated the me generation? Would we still be drawn to cave paintings from a lost era if they featured exclusively realistic self-portraits of the artists instead of communicating Dreamtime stories of creation and emblematic representations of mythical spirit creators? Perhaps, it is just another indicator of our crackbook culture wherein, if we don't photograph it, post it, brag about it, and, most importantly, get credit for it (in the form of "likes" and "thumbs up") it never happened. 

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