Culture and crocs snapped up

Photo of Annelies Gartner

ANNELIES GARTNER jumps at the opportunity to immerse herself in the Top End’s indigenous art and, along the way, spots a few saltwater dwellers.

“Don’t worry, we’ll fix it,” indigenous artists David Cameron says with a laugh as I once again blob paint all over my canvas with the bulrush reed I’m using as a brush.

I’m gaining a whole new appreciation to the intricate skills needed to create Aboriginal paintings at the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel in Jabiru.

Cameron is a Kunwinjku artist who was taught to paint at a young age by his father and uncles. He paints with the stem of freshwater reeds that are pared to the thickness required for his skin group. The thickness of the lines and the way they are applied are important because, beside skin, they tell the clan and country of the artist.

There is a wave of art-based tourism taking place all across the Northern Territory of which Cameron is a part. He’s a regular at the crocodile-shaped hotel where he sits amongst paintings created by local artists showing off his honed technique for all to see.

By appointment, guests can organise to sit down and attempt to learn the delicate craft under his expert tuition.

The World Heritage-listed National Park offers much inspiration for artists of all skill sets and well as just keen observers. About a 30 minute drive away is Nourlangie Rock, one of the best rock art sites in Kakadu.

The gallery of ancient art adorns the walls of the remnants of Aboriginal shelters and is an easy 1.5km walk — although carry lots of water as it’s a hot hike. The well-marked trail includes a lookout but it is the exceptional examples of rock paintings, or gunbim, on the craggy rock faces that is the highlight.

A further 30 minutes drive is Warradjan Cultural Centre. The design of the centre represents the Warradjan or pig-nosed turtle. After learning about Aboriginal culture in Kakadu visitors have the opportunity to sit with local indigenous women and learn some weaving skills.

There’s no need to book for this interactive experience with the women there daily ready to help anyone taking a place on the mat under the trees.

The women use Pandanus leaves, or Pandan, that are dyed using locally foraged ingredients. The yellow, purple and naturally-coloured fibres are woven into baskets, mats and accessories. Creating one of these articles can take months so visitors start off learning the basics by making a something a little simpler, a bracelet.

There are two tours that nature photographers should put on there must-do list. A short distance from the cultural centre is Cooinda Lodge which sits beside the Yellow Water Billabong.

A two-hour Yellow Water cruise leaves late afternoon and meanders down the flood plain. Amongst the Paperbark, Pandanus, mangroves and water lilies an abundance of bird life reside.

Indigenous guide Mandy has many tales to tell of growing up in the area and an extensive knowledge of the flora and fauna. She also knows where the many territorial crocodiles that call the waterway home are most likely to be sighted.

On our tour a pregnant female preparing a nest is one of three salt water crocs spotted. The boat is expertly manoeuvred alongside the mother-to-be so everyone on board has the chance to capture the moment. The cruise ends in a spectacular sunset as birds roost and more crocodiles glide through the billabong.

For a tour with a view, book a scenic flight over the park with Kakadu Air. The trip in the Cessna 210 began with an overview of the soon to be defunct uranium mine before flying towards the escarpment.

Pilot Mitch was an informative guide who made several passes by the most spectacular features making sure those on the left and right side of the plane had opportunities to take photos — at the end of the wet season the flowing Jim Jim Falls was most impressive from the air.

Kakadu isn’t the only area embracing the long history of indigenous art. A day trip out of Darwin, Tiwi by Design day tour offers insight into one of the oldest and diverse art centres in Australia.

The centre produces ochre paintings on canvas and bark, ironwood carvings, screen printed fabrics, ceramics, bronze and glass sculptures and limited edition prints.

A ferry leaves from Cullen Bay terminal for Bathurst Island. On arrival visitors are welcomed with a traditional smoking ceremony and treated to dances which depict the local wildlife.

The Tiwi Design complex includes a carver, pottery, screen printing and painting studios where the artists can be seen working as well as a gallery. After a tour of the local museum and the impressive church, which blends tradition and Catholicism, participants are invited to try their hand at screen printing.

Everyone is invited to choose a ready-made frame and design and then shown how to mix the paints and draw the squeegee over the screen by the artists who work at the centre.

If you’re not a deft hand first time around, time permitting, there’s the chance to have another go to create a souvenir worthy of space in your suitcase.

Of course as well as gaining an appreciation for the talent of Aboriginal artists and getting hands on experience, a holiday in the Top End is also the perfect opportunity to pick up an authentic artwork or two to take home.


Annelies Gartner travelled to the Northern Territory as a guest of Tourism NT. They have not seen or approved this story.


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