Art that rocks

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2007, 12:00am

'The child cried louder and louder, whereupon a great wind sprang up and the Rainbow Serpent rushed into the camp, trapping everyone with its huge circular body and swallowing them forever.'

The ranger's voice holds the group spellbound as I examine the rock painting of the fabled serpent. The tale serves as a warning to Aboriginal girls to care for their children, because the crying child in the legend had been carelessly given the wrong food.

This is Ubirr, one of the foremost rock art sites in Kakadu National Park in Australia's Northern Territory, with cave paintings at least 5,000 years old. Given that the Aborigines had no written language, it's amazing these stories survive. It's a tribute to how each generation passed their tales to the next, thus preserving indigenous culture.

Other paintings depict a man struck down for disturbing a sacred site and animals painted in robust condition to enhance their abundance as part of hunting magic.

Later, as the blood-red Sun sets over the floodplains stretching towards the sea, a crowd watches in awe from Ubirr's lookout.

In at least one survey, Australians have voted Kakadu, about three hours' drive from Darwin, the No1 must-visit destination. It's one of the few World Heritage areas listed for both its natural and cultural value. With an escarpment cutting through lush wetlands, with savannah woodland and monsoon forest, it covers 19,000 square km, making it the largest national park in Australia and one of the largest in the world. It's best seen during the dry season, from early May to mid-September.

Before exploring the next site, I visit the Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre, where the Bininj tell their story. There are tales of the creation period, when the 'first people' made the land, plants and animals and set laws by which to live. Such beings include the spirit ancestors, or Mimi, who first painted on the rocks.

I then set out for Nourlangie Rock and the Anbangbang shelter, used by Aboriginal people for 20,000 years for refuge from the violent electrical storms of the wet season, and in which archaeological digs have unearthed rare organic objects such as bones and bark string. The rock art dates from thousands of years ago, although some sections were repainted in 1964 to encourage young Aboriginal people to stay on their traditional land.

In the main gallery is a picture of Namarrgon, the lightning man, depicted with a halo-like band connecting his arms, legs and head to indicate lightning, and stone axes on his knees symbolising thunder.

From the lookout at Nourlangie I gaze into the distance at the pillar-like cliffs of that Arnhem Land escarpment, sensing the ancient time when one spirit's journey finally ended.

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