Kakadu National Park

by Bill Lennox / 03 November, 2011

Visiting the tribal area where an ancestor set up a mission after an arduous 2000-mile bicycle journey is a cultural experience worth repeating. 

On the Ayal Aboriginal Tour, Victor gently places a green ant back onto its nest, a clump of leaves drawn together on a living tree. He’s been explaining how to hold an ant by its head and nip off its body. That way you won’t get nipped yourself, and the ant juice is a good decongestant. He draws together the branches of a bush to show how his people made fish traps. He points to a lone ironwood tree on the edge of the clearing. It’s used to make steel-hard tips for fish and goose spears.

On the Guluyambi Cruise, Roman shows us a fishing spear made from branches of riverbank hibiscus, expertly straightened over fire. It bounces back out of the water. You don’t want to lose a good fishing spear, see.

He casts a heavier cane spear in a high arc. A shower of these fired into a flock of magpie geese is pretty sure to bring down a good feed.

I’m hearing all this because of a combination of careful choosing and ancestral coincidence. The Ayal and Guluyambi operations are run entirely by indigenous people at home in their own country. Otherwise I could be just one of the million and a half tourists who visit Northern Territory’s Kakadu National Park every year and barely meet an indigenous person.

I chose the Guluyambi, a low-key ride in a metal boat on the East Alligator River, because it promised “a cultural experience” and lots of crocodiles. It delivered so well on both that I go again whenever I return to Kakadu.

But the Ayal Aboriginal Tour sort of chose me. I met Victor, its owner-operator, at the end of a 3000km drive along the route taken by my grandfather, Andrew Lennox. In 1899, Andrew was a Christian missionary at Kapalga billabong, 200km to the right of Darwin and close to the mighty South Alligator River. To get there he rode a horse straight up the middle from Adelaide when the only tracks followed the overland telegraph line.

A year later he rode a Red Bird safety bicycle back again, the fifth person to made the trip on wheels. Actually, he walked beside it quite a lot. The mission needed funds and the trip got him into the papers.

Congregations in Adelaide and Sydney turned out to hear “the black-bearded and well-browned missionary” describe not only his brave endeavours to bring civilisation to the blacks of the far north, but also his “arduous journey of over 2000 miles across the arid heart of the Continent … with no other equipment than an indispensable billycan and a blanket”. They were so impressed they donated enough to buy him a boat, which he later sank. So they bought him another one, and he sank that, too.

Victor and his family live down the track from the spot where my grand­father cleared an area the size of two football fields and established his “industrial mission”. People who had lived off the land for more than 40,000 years would learn the Lord’s Prayer and be taught how to grow foreign vegetables in their country.

Kapalga is now part of Kakadu National Park, but the Minitja people, whose country it was when Andrew was here, will soon hold legal title. Then they’ll lease it back to the state but retain the right to live and hunt on it. So I was taken to Kapalga by the indigenous owners – in the manner of 19th-century Europeans, Andrew just turned up.

I tell Victor I’m surprised to be here so long after my grandfather died, and 50 years after he wrote his unpublished memoir. Victor is in no doubt – I was chosen, just as his grandmothers chose him to care for their respective countries. As well as the land around Kapalga, he is responsible for country just inside Arnhem Land. “They send the good ones back,” he says with a tiny grin.

Victor was one of the first four Aboriginals recruited in 1979 as trainee rangers when Kakadu was declared a national park. He represented the Minitja people on the Park Board for many years. Now he lives on his country with his cousins and their families. Most were born and brought up on a cattle station near Darwin. Victor spends his days looking after the affairs of the Minitja Aboriginal Corporation, and running one of the region’s few genuinely indigenous tourist operations.

On his small group tours, Victor talks quietly about rock art, bush tucker and the floodplain country his ancestors inhabited. Almost a century after his great-grandmother left here to work for buffalo hunters, the family are back. So the tourist operation is infused with passion and real knowledge. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to taste a rare bush plum and the sweet flesh that lines the stem of a water-lily flower.

On my second trip to Kapalga, I spend a night at Kapalga billabong. It’s a half-hour’s drive from any houses. By sunset I’m firmly locked inside my campervan – there are masses of mosquitos and almost certainly snakes. In the morning there are crocodile tracks to and from the billabong and dingos wondering who is invading their space.

Victor plans to take Ayal Aboriginal Tours off the main tourist route and into currently restricted Minitja country. A visit to Kapalga billabong will be a must. Tell them about the stuff that’s happened here over the years, including my grandfather’s relatively brief enterprise – after the Minitja people left there was a mining lease, cattle farming, buffalo and crocodile hunting, peanut growing and a long period of scientific research into the ecological impact of buffalos and fire. Not that they learnt much about controlled burns that Victor’s family couldn’t have told them.

He is also planning to take tourists onto the South Alligator River. The Arafura Sea is 50km downstream, but there can be 8m tides even this far inland and the crocodiles are huge, so you need to know what you’re doing. Then they’ll sail along the coast to Manassie Reserve, an important cultural site at the head of the West Alligator River.

Victor drives me over some of the return route. We pass an abandoned airstrip, built for the science-research operation, and get to a serene billabong on the West Alligator. There are clumps of rare red lilies and we taste the stem of the white lily. As Victor reaches into the shallows for the lily, he keeps an eye on a ripple on the surface. “No worries. Just a mullet, that one.”

On the way back, Victor points to a rock and plaque beside the road. It marks the completion of the road from Jabiru to Arnhem Land and there’s a great story behind it. The day it was unveiled, Bill ­Neitjie, the iconic Kakadu man who inspired the indigenous people to care for and reclaim their land, turned up and objected. The rock the authorities had concreted into the soil was not from this country. They’d trucked it in from somewhere else. Big Bill told them to get a local rock. It was simple enough – you can’t just transplant a rock from another country and expect it to mean anything.

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