WORDS & IMAGES: DANIELLE LANCASTER
This is Kakadu – My People’s Country
Selone takes travel writer and photographer Danielle Lancaster on a special tour of Kakadu – one of Australia’s iconic National Parks. The winter season is the perfect time to experience the ‘Top End’ of the Northern Territory.
A slim, ebony finger points to the horizon. “Listen,” says the young, soft yet firm voice, “it will rain before the sun fully sets and we will get wet.”
A few clouds are gathering on the horizon, however above the sky is clear. “Can you hear the frog?” I strain my ears listening intently and finally hear a lone, short but deep croak. “He only talks before the rain,” says Selone Djandjomerr.
This is Selone’s country. This is Kakadu. Listed in 1992 for full World-Heritage listing it has more ticks on its list than any other UNESCO site due to its cultural and natural importance. It’s recognised as the longest continual art system in the world, dating back over 20,000 years, while underground are the richest uranium resources known on earth.
Tourists hurriedly pass us by clambering over the orange rocks for a higher vantage point for sunset. Selone assures me this is the best place. We sit in silence on Nardab Lookout, a short walk from the Ubirr Aboriginal rock art gallery sites and a popular location for tourists to see the sunset.
Kakadu and northern Australia were thrown into the international spot light 30 years ago with the release of the movie Crocodile Dundee. “We love Crocodile Dundee,” says Selone. “My grandfather was in the movie – many of our people were. This is a place they showed him.”
I’ve become lost in the moment and realise those once faint clouds on the horizon are now dark, angry and looming in on us. Before the sun sets we are indeed wet.
The next morning it is art class with Selone, the artist in residence at the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel. It’s a new initiative by art lover and General Manager Richard McArthur. Local indigenous artists are provided with canvasses and paints and visitors are welcome to join in for free.
The freshwater reeds we collected yesterday on our tour of the ancient art sites are prepared for our brushes. Selone prefers to use four natural ochres: yellow for the sun; red for the blood of mother earth; white for body designs in ceremony and black, charcoal, which has secret meanings and rubbed into cuts it creates raised scars for tribal markings.
We attempt to paint with our new reed brushes and quickly appreciate the intricate work Selone makes look so easy; ours look more like a painting by a two-year old. Selone explains the importance of the thickness of the lines and the way they are applied. “This tells our Skin Group – mine is Yirridia; our clan – mine is Bolmo and our country – mine is Marlgawo.”
We are joined by more local artists and other visitors keen to experience this new interactive experience and connect with the indigenous owners. They share with us generations of knowledge from their elders as in this living cultural landscape, messages, rules, customs are still today passed down orally and through art.
We learn about the six season calendar, that there are 22 clans and once 12 different language groups across the broad Kakadu region.
Selone seems much wiser than his 26 years. He moved with his family from East Arnhem Land to Jabiru in the early ‘90s because his uncle was a police officer. He continues to learn his culture from his father Mark and family elders and the new arts centre he tells me makes him very proud.
“The visitors, they enjoy sitting with us. Some stay for hours. It is two-way learning as we learn a lot about different cultures and faraway lands.”
Kakadu, once a remote frontier, is now readily accessible to all. Fully sealed roads lead 253 kilometres from Darwin to Jabiru as well as linking Kakadu’s major attractions. Regular tours are also available.
Accommodation options are varied, from the famous Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel, an indigenous-owned four-star hotel and undoubtedly one of the world’s most distinctive hotels. It was designed to represent Kakadu’s most famous inhabitant, the saltwater crocodile. The region also has cabins, camping and glamping.
I decide to surrender my painting attempt and opt to purchase a canvas painting by Selone instead. At the meagre price of $20 it will form a nice talking point and reminder of my special time learning about Kakadu and my time with one very special man: Selone.
Images courtesy © Danielle Lancaster
Danielle is a photojournalist based at Mt Tamborine, just outside Brisbane. She is a winner of several photography awards, with her most recent being the ‘Best Travel Book Writer’ at the 2014 Travel Journalism Awards held in Fiji. Danielle loves nature and the outdoors, and particularly loves photographing the Australian outback. Danielle is the author of ‘Out Around the Bulloo’ which is a unique collection of her photos taken in Outback Queensland, inclduing the Bulloo Shire and ‘Corner Country’. Danielle is also the judge of our photo competitions and owns Bluedog Photography: www.blue-dog.com.au