This time last week I was in a tropical paradise. A place where the sun sets over the aquamarine waters of the Arafura Sea, and where in the cool depths of Kakadu rock shelters, layer upon layer of gigantic fish jostle for position, overlapping each other, x-rayed in red and white ochre, sometimes coloured in sandstone yellow, sometimes beside a wallaby or turtle or a human.
The giant fish are Barramundi. I’d been eating them all week and it was a lightening moment of connection to realise that I shared a taste for this soft, white, flaky fish with the humans that lived here thousands of years ago.
[Attribution Wikicommons: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bild:Aborigine_kunst.jpg%5D
At both Ubirr and Nourlangie in Kakadu National Park you can visit Aboriginal rock art sites that are over 20 000 years old. The sheer scale of time is shocking. Yet on the Bardedjilidji walk near Ubirr, a walk that takes you through layered sandstone outcrops, it felt like I was entering an abandoned city. The rock shelters with their hearths and middens, looked as if the inhabitants had only walked away that morning. It was easy to imagine that the artists had only just recently been painting on the walls of these cavernous rock shelters that were an oasis of shade in the 35 degree dry season heat.
(Image of Namarrgon, lightning man, at Anbangbang gallery)
The joy in these paintings is palpable. It’s particularly apparent in the overlapping abundance of food, particularly fish, that is depicted. And in the fact that layer upon layer of images have been painted over the top of each other over thousands and thousands of years, giving the distinct impression that it was the making of the art that mattered so much more than the final product. Perhaps they were painted in the wet season when the water ways flowed and both people and animals (except crocodiles) retreated to higher ground. A time when the hunt might have been a little easier and the feasting and dancing may well have gone on well into the night.
And what about the stars 20 000 years ago? What did these spirit people see at night as they looked up from their camp fires?
I guess we’ll never know. Because although the traditional owners, the Bininj/Mungguy, still manage Kakadu National Park and maintain a deep spiritual connection to their country, they no longer live the traditional life that had been theirs for tens of thousand of years before colonialisation. This is the joy that has been ripped out of the heart of Aboriginal culture. This is the dispossession.