Australia’s Katherine area: ‘Layers and connections listed below are infinite and plentiful with human spirit’ | Australia holidays
Language groups: Jawoyn, Dalabon, Rembarrnga, Gunwinggu, Wardaman and Mayali
It is said you can smell this great island hundreds of kilometers offshore as you approach Antarctica by ship from clear waters. Complex oils from eucalyptus dominate. The scent of our land. Whether lived or dreamed, we can indulge what this means for our own appreciation and imagination.
Approaching the top of Australia offers a similar effect as the vegetation transitions into radiation and smell, informing us about changes in the soil and the movement of the water.
From a great distance, large areas of color seem to seep away and merge, large coherent tendrils curl and open, some boundaries blur and differences between water, vegetation and soil become less clear. The diversity of the Mitchell Grass Downs Bioregion extends from what is now known as central Queensland to the northwest, extends south of Mount Isa through parts of the country of Yalarnnga, Pitta-Pitta and Wangkamanha, and continues through Warluwarra, Bularnu, Wakaya fort, Wambaya and Whyungu Land, dwindling around Jingili Land about 300 km south of the city of Katherine.
Nestled in crevices and plants … are some of the oldest stone tools in this land
This is the southwestern edge of Jawoyn Land. Here the country is transformed into the largest intact savannah in the world, which extends over the north of this island. The abundance of life is spectacular and diverse. The ecosystems vary dramatically, including dry, open forests, sandstone plateaus and heathland, moist monsoon forests, swamps, billabongs, and river systems – some with floodplains that stretch for miles from the riverbank. Certain tree-like forests such as paper bark, lancewood and acacia are also important elements. This complexity and the formation of the country have shaped the Jawoyn language and its speakers.
Nestled in crevices and plants that encounter all kinds of animal feet, noses, whiskers and tongues, are some of the oldest stone tools of this country and their hardships from local manufacture. A burrowing frog, pushing its way through the ground to escape the daily heat, has likely felt sharp stone edges deliberately handcrafted, and perhaps a pebble hill mouse incorporated some of these into the building of its home.
A lizard sunbathes in the Katherine area. Photo: Vicky Shukuroglou
It is worth considering whether a black-breasted buzzard looking for a tool to break open a hard-shelled egg would choose a stone that has already been cut. Had you been in the area a few decades ago, you might have spotted a golden bandicoot that turned such tools while searching for nutritious tubers and insects. Due to their age and changes in the environment, many of these devices are now buried under meters of earth. Sometimes they lie in significant layers along with other signs of persistent human habitation such as remains of flocks and plant material that were discarded during processing.
Among the larger stones are those used by humans for grinding fruits, seeds, and various shapes of onions in preparing nutritious meals. Some have been used to refine pigments, including yellows, pinks, reds, purples, and browns, as well as black and white.
Descendants of these innovators are now working with other researchers to investigate ancient stories embedded in these tools in the form of plant particles and markings of machined surfaces. Ongoing oral lore describing connections to this land and ways to weather dramatic changes over long periods of time are complemented by increasingly reliable methods of dating, analyzing, and piecing together information. The rich perspectives and extensive resources that such collaborations generate are available to all of us. These are exciting times, full of opportunities to better understand intimate details of our country and develop sensitive responses. This region has a lot to offer.
The room raises countless questions
Nawarla Gabarnmang is a stunning example of human creativity, adjustment and persuasion near the upper reaches of rivers including the Katherine. Specific conditions of strong geological forces and the interplay of water and wind over millions of years shaped this place with its graded steep slopes and striking pillars.
The space between the pillars is fascinating. This is an old gallery, a celebration, a living area that has been changed with sensitivity and sophistication. The surfaces are alive with hundreds of dynamic figures, various animals and tools painted with different local features.
The serene majesty of the Nitmiluk Gorge. Photo: Vicky Shukuroglou
Most of us will just see photos or read words that always fall short. Nawarla Gabarnmang receives the protection she needs when she takes pleasure in our absence and in her presence.
Extensive scientific work draws our attention to its remarkable history: at least 47,000 years since the first occupation, 26,000 years of painting tradition, and 35,000 years of making stone axes with bottom edges for specific purposes. This is the oldest of these tools in the world – important in connection with human movement and cognitive development and knowledge transfer. The space raises myriad questions and we can think endlessly about these old people’s reasoning and the experiments they have done in shaping and removing pillars that offer more space and alternative uses. The layers and connections here are infinite and rich in human spirit.
There are pillows under the stones that have been broken off, removed, shaped, stacked and placed. That’s right, pillow. Some Jawoyn people speak of them in the same way today, others live in distant places with different views of this vast island, speak different languages and eat their local foods. You also speak of stones that are used as pillows. Someone’s head was held here while they rested, perhaps after throwing the last bone from their meal into the fire or before grinding pigments in preparation for a concentrated time painting.
What value do you see in the country, its waters and all that they contain as you travel through part of Australia and ponder the depth of history that reigns here and the ongoing care given to the land? What kind of map would you draw and how could you show our nation’s potential? What focus would you choose and what plans would you suggest for the future?
Indigenous cultural experiences, tours and relevant organizations
Healing balm from women of the Banatjarl Strongbala Wimun Grup. Photo: Vicky Shukuroglou
Visitor center and tours in Nitmiluk National Park
Nitmiluk National Park Visitor Center is an award-winning company that has everything you could want when visiting Nitmiluk Gorge. You can book tours on the river by canoe or boat, informative walks and various accommodation options, from camping to special private rooms at the Cicada Lodge.
People who work here can share their knowledge of the hiking trails through the national park. Note that many walks in the heat of the day can be tiring, especially in rocky areas. There is also a cafe and shop with great publications for sale. The proceeds are 100% owned by Jawoyn and fund critical services and programs, as well as tourism and land management employment and training. Explore their website for more.
Leliyn (Edith Falls)
If you are well prepared and fit enough to hike the 60 km long Jatbula Trail, you will travel through different countries including monsoon forest, forest and river systems. The trail starts in Nitmiluk and ends in Leliyn – a spectacular place full of ancient stories that changes dramatically with the seasons. Forty miles north of Katherine on the Stuart Highway (park entry 20 miles down Edith Falls Road) on 08 8975 4852
Mimi Aboriginal arts and crafts
Representation of artists from freshwater and saltwater lands, from the desert to the Kimberley and Arnhem lands. Mimi exhibits and sells paintings, pottery, textiles, prints, carvings and more. Details on workshops can be found on the website.
You can enjoy many hours in this wonderful arts center with paintings, ceramics, prints, weavings and textiles made by artists of the Nauiyu area (Daly River). They also sell some interesting publications. Cultural tours can be arranged.
As described on its informative website, Djilpin Arts is a non-profit organization in the remote indigenous community of Beswick / Wugularr. Experience the Blanasi Collection, the colorful retail store, and find out about accommodation options, tours, and if the Walking with Spirits Festival is on at the time of your visit.
Takes place every June – three days of dance, live music (traditional and contemporary) art shows, cultural workshops and lots of sports. Learn about the history of the festival and how it was founded, connections to the Barunga Declaration, and Yothu Yindi’s song contract.
Read on and listen
MalakMalak and Matngala Plants and Animals: Aboriginal Flora and Fauna Knowledge from the Daly River Area, Northern Australia is a wonderful resource that embodies the knowledge of many people. This book contains information on more than 400 plants and animals as well as interesting details about the language.
The Jawoyn Association, in collaboration with other organizations, has released a similar publication relevant to the country and language of Jawoyn. Look for Jawoyn Plants and Animals: Knowledge of Aboriginal flora and fauna from Nitmiluk National Park and the Katherine Region of Northern Australia.
The cover of Loving Country. Photo: Hardie Grant Books
Also, search the CSIRO website for indigenous calendars that provide insight into the seasons of the region and other areas.
The Artist Aboriginal Corporation (ANKA) in Arnhem, Northern and Kimberley provides an excellent overview of art centers and organizations.
Hear Nitmiluk, a song by Blekbala Mujik that celebrates the strength of cultural identity through connection to the land and more.
• This is an edited excerpt from Loving Country by Bruce Pascoe and Vicky Shukuroglou, available now from Hardie Grant