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Living legends


Fiona Dunlop learns the lore of Australia's ancient Nitmiluk National Park through the eyes of the local Jawoyn people

The sandstone formation of Nitmiluk National Park in the Northern Territories is an astonishing 1,650 million years old. It's so old that no fossils exist as it predates vertebrates. But age, scale and starkness are the very power and lure of Australian landscapes, something we'll soon be reminded of by John Curran's movie Tracks, about writer Robyn Davidson's epic, 1,700-mile camel trek across central Australia.

In the tropical Top End, indigenous stories and superlatives combine as termite mounds reach mammoth proportions and rainfall during the 'wet' is Australia's heaviest, when the greatest number of lightning strikes in the world splinter the skies.

Amid these extremes, it is the snaking chain of Nitmiluk's 13 gorges, Katherine Gorge, that take centre stage, as spectacular from a hiking trail as from a helicopter whirring over the entire plateau or from a canoe gliding through the clear, early morning light. Yet when you see the towering, fissured cliffs at sundown, ablaze with every possible tone of yellow and red ochre, that incalculable Antipodean age becomes palpable, and the legends of the indigenous Jawoyn people come alive.

Bolung, the ubiquitous rainbow serpent, lurks in the river. Bula created the landscape with his two wives, while Nabilil, a dragon-like figure, coined the park name, Nitmiluk, after the characteristic nit nit sounds of the resident cicadas.

For many years, the stark beauty of this setting was only available to campers, self-caterers or to day-trippers from the uninspiring town of Katherine, 30km away. But in May 2013, a new lodge initiated an entirely different perspective: luxury and a 'can-do' spirit. "Cicada Lodge will be open all year round," its instigator, Clive Pollack, tells me. "If a client gets stuck on a road under water, we'll send a helicopter to pick them up." It certainly sounds intrepid, although I was quite happy to cover the four-hour drive from Darwin over dry roads, distracted only by wallabies and road-trains.

Cicada Lodge is an 18-room complex of high-tech, solar-powered cabins, ramps, deck and pool, referencing Aussie vernacular and raised lightly on stilts in bush above the gorge. Of the spare decorative touches, the most apt reflect the context: X-ray style paintings by local artist Long John Dewar. As a cosseting, professionally run operation, it offers a tempting panoply of tours and activities, including heli-picnics to swimming holes or even to neighbouring Kakadu National Park. Better still, from next year, Cicada Lodge will have exclusive access to one of the greatest rock art finds ever, a massive shelter dating back 45,000 years. For the moment, this 'cathedral' is still being researched, but I would sign up now to see this monument of the world's oldest living culture.

Like Nitmiluk Tours (which arranges some of the activities), the aviation company and the park itself, the lodge is entirely owned by the Jawoyn people, who for millennia roamed the area hunting, gathering and painting on rock. This custodian status was abruptly interrupted by 'whitefella' agriculture and mining, bringing marginalisation and the loss of traditional lifestyles. Then, in 1989, following lengthy lobbying, their ancestral land was returned to the Jawoyn, guaranteeing their right to hunt, forage and hold ceremonies, and ensuring that Aboriginal law is an integral part of park principles.

Today, as they live in settled communities outside the park, visitors do not necessarily meet the indigenous people, although Tessa, Pollack's anthropologist wife, comments: "About 20 Jawoyn now work in the park, and we're carrying out long-term training to ensure there'll be more." The aim is to be sustainable, so nothing is being rushed.

ancient customs

It is therefore gratifying to join an informal cultural workshop to learn first hand about surviving customs. In the shade of eucalyptus trees down by the river, I meet Terence, Tony, Prestina, Wyonna and a couple of mischievous kids, all of whom chip in at different moments. "You know for us it's all connected – plants, animals, rocks, everything. Some parts of the country have good spirits, some have bad," explains Terence. After tips on cooking goanna, crocodile or snake in a fire-pit, he eagerly demonstrates how to skin a roasted kangaroo tail. We taste a chunk each, but I am not smitten by the fatty, sinewy meat, in contrast to a delicate, lean wallaby dish by the inventive chef, Kenneth Clapham, that I sampled back at the lodge.

Hunting trips, traditionally with spears and boomerangs, though today often with guns, are greatly aided by rock art. "Seeing one of those is like walking into a store and finding a brochure, as the animal paintings tell us exactly what's around that we can hunt," says Terence. There are about 500 rock art sites in Jawoyn country along with numerous sacred sites, many of them barely accessible between towering rocks and dense bush. As women, too, contribute to the bush tucker, Wyonna describes foraging for sugarbag, native beehives, in certain eucalypts, and gathering diverse seeds and berries.

The screeches of a bower bird come from the tree above. "He likes to make his nest nice for the woman," comments Tony laconically, referring to the eccentric decorative skills of this native bird, one of 136 species in the park, while he continues to paint a crocodile on a section of canvas. When he demonstrates the didgeridoo, for once I find the deep rumbling sound incredibly moving, learning that its function is after 'sorry business', i.e. death.

second nature

The Jawoyn definition of five seasons is far more precise than the whitefellas' simplistic 'wet' and 'dry'. I learn that we are in Malapparr, which from June to August is the 'cold weather of dry', when water levels descend but before the humid build-up to the rains. This kind of specificity is reiterated on my last evening, on a sunset dinner cruise up the gorge. While we admire the changing hues of the craggy, chiselled rock, the kapok trees, pandanus and sandy beaches reserved for crocodile nesting, Tom, the quippy yet informative guide, points out the scent of the silver-leaf paperbark, on the point of flowering. This announces the arrival of the wet or, for the Jawoyn, Jungalk. In such a simple, fleeting sign, I realise that reading the world around them is second nature for aboriginals, and for millennia has been the key to their survival.

The local word for goodbye is boh boh, but there is none for hello. Why greet someone standing in front of you when it is obvious they are there? Such implacable logic, added to their deep environmental understanding and spiritual attachment to the land, should stand the Jawoyn in good stead in their new role as hosts at Nitmiluk.


Cicada Lodge

Tel. +61 8 8974 3100 /

Offers bed and breakfast from £195 per person per night based on two sharing. Many of the tours are offered in conjunction with Nitmiluk Tours (

Malaysian Airlines

Offers return flights from London Heathrow to Darwin, via Kuala Lumpur, from £1,067.

WEXAS Travel

Tel. 0207 838 5892 /

Offers an eight-day package from £2,560 per person, including international flights with Malaysia Airlines into Darwin and overnights in Darwin, Wildman Wilderness Lodge, Cicada Lodge, car hire and a one-day Arnhem Land tour.

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