East of Kakadu National Park across the crocodile-infested East Alligator River my family and I go deep into Aboriginal Arnhem Land in search of some of the world’s best rock art plus a tropical Garden of Eden teeming with birds, fish and exotic reptiles. We are visiting Max Davidson’s Arnhemland Safaris at Mount Borradaile, a comfortable collection of tree-shaded cabins encircling an airy dining room with deck and swimming pool. It is the only tourist operation in Australia located on a sacred Aboriginal site.
Mount Borradaile is magical. The art on the rock shelters tells stories that plumb tens of thousands of years yet when you shift your gaze to the landscape you can still see the crocodiles and the barramundi, the courtship dances of the brolga and the bright orange bodies of Leichardt’s grasshoppers. It feels like you have pierced the curtain of the 21st century and returned to prehistoric times. “The wetlands and the escarpments are so pristine yet indigenous Australians lived here for thousands of years,” says guide Clare Wallwork. “Aboriginal groups worked within the environment yet we Europeans seem to work against it. Everywhere you walk out here, it feels like they left only yesterday. And you never know when you will discover something new about this ancient culture.”
Max Davidson, a khaki-clad, silver-haired man with soft blue eyes and a significant girth, has knocked around the Top End for decades. In the process, he befriended many of the locals. In 1986 Mount Borradaile’s senior Indigenous owner, Charlie Mungulda of the Ulba Bunidj clan, approached the former buffalo hunter to open a safari camp on 700 square kilometres of leased land to show a select few balander (white folk) his country. While there are no hordes of visitors like those at the famous Ubirr rock art gallery in Kakadu National Park, the art at Mount Borradaile “is unrivalled”, according to archaeologist Josephine Flood, “in terms of artistic quality, quantity, colourfulness and excellent state of preservation.”
Visitors first came for the barramundi fishing and the birdlife. During the run-off in April and May “it’s not uncommon to catch 40 fish in a half-day session,” says Ray Curry, Max Davidson’s camp manager. “I came to do a spot of barramundi fishing and stayed to help out. I’m still here 17 years later. I just love it!”
We take a sunset cruise in a flat-bottomed boat across a billabong carpeted with purple waterlilies. Whistling ducks rise as a cloud into the clear blue sky, comb-crested jacana walk across lily pads (aka ‘Jesus birds’ for obvious reasons), white-bellied sea eagles soar and brolgas perform their intricate mating dance. Plump freshwater barramundi lurk just below the water’s surface. My youngest daughter squeals when she sees her first giant saltwater crocodile sunbaking on a muddy bank, its long tail curved so that every scale basks in the warm rays. And standing sentinel above all this life is the sacred site of Mount Borradaile, a chunky monolith of grey and orange sandstone. A guide offers champagne and nibbles and we toast the ‘fireball’ sun as it sinks swiftly below the horizon, silhouetting a sky full of birds singing a cacophonous goodbye to the day.
The scene is similar to what explorer Ludwig Leichardt experienced in 1845 when he wrote “The cackling of geese, the quacking of ducks…and the noises of black and white cockatoos, and a great variety of other birds, gave to the country… an extraordinary appearance of animation.”
The rock art
Over the years Max and his guides have discovered more than a dozen rock art galleries that are so exceptional that they almost eclipse the fishing and the wildlife. Yet the sheer fecundity of the wetlands provides a perfect backdrop for the art, offering living proof of the area’s riches and suggesting insights into the Indigenous spirit world. There is no fixed itinerary and each party of guests is assigned a personal guide for their stay.
Our guide, Clare Wallwork, takes us on a magical rock art tour. We see images upon images in cave after cave, from simple hand prints created by blowing ochre through grass stems to intensely sexual male and female figures and x-ray paintings of sought-after animals wrought as sympathetic hunting magic. My daughters find long-necked turtles, crocodiles, barramundi, wallabies, magpie geese and pythons on the walls not far from where Clare shows us living shelters with middens, grinding stones and soot stains from long-ago fires. Along the way, Clare explains how Aboriginal clans lived a complex life for many thousands of years before European settlement. She points out a number of plants with medicinal properties, such as the soap bush, which handily dulls the itch of mosquito bites, and the billy goat plum, which bears fruit rich in vitamin C. My youngest is terrified of the fierce six-meter-long fanged rainbow serpent that soars across the roof of another cave. Clare tells us that this creation spirit brought all the landforms into being and was a vengeful arbiter of justice dispensing storms and floods for punishment. The lightning man cave is nearby.
My husband is bowled over by what Clare calls the contact galleries, with their perfectly rendered gaffe-rigged sailing ships, Martini Henry rifle, a house on stilts and a man, hand on hip, smoking a pipe. The highlight for me is the catacombs, great honeycombed chambers of sandstone carved by wave action 100 million years ago and now spookily draped in the long tendril roots of rock figs. Here next to corpses wrapped in paperbark is a treasure trove: a Bell and Black tin matchbox, wooden ceremonial objects, a clay pipe, wallaby teeth wedged into beeswax, a quartz hammer, and even a hand-carved rosewood Macassan domino…all left just as they were found.
“There is nothing in the world like Mount Borradaile,” says Max. “It’s a living museum to a way of life that began 50,000 years ago and has now all but disappeared.”
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