Arnhem Land is the largest Aboriginal reserve in the country and entry is by permit only, writes Michael Gebicki.
The Tasmanian tiger disappeared from the Top End thousands of years ago, but you can see one painted on the rock walls of western Arnhem Land. Likewise big red kangaroos that are no longer seen in this part of the world now that the open plains that existed here during the last glacial period have given way to woodland.
Along with Aboriginal artworks that depict fish and animals, spirit figures, rainbow serpents and birth, paintings close to the camp also portray rifles, sailing ships and men on horseback wearing hats, signalling the coming of the white man to this country.
It's history, the slow and steady evolution of an artistic style and even climate change, spelled out in ochre on these rock walls and dating back perhaps 45,000 years. This is a rich and intoxicating legacy, the longest chain of artistic expression to be found anywhere on our planet.
Arnhem Land is one of Australia's special places, 94,000 square kilometres of tropical woodland, gorges, rivers and wetlands at the northern end of the Northern Territory, the top end of the Top End. It is the largest Aboriginal reserve in the country, and it's off-limits to most of us. Entry is by permit only, but guests who are booked at Davidson's are home free - the permit comes with the daily tariff.
Davidson's Arnhemland Safari Camp is the centrepiece of a 700-square-kilometre reserve in western Arnhem Land leased from the traditional owners. For the most part the reserve consists of low-lying woodland and floodplain studded with intensely weathered sandstone outcrops.
Like Kakadu National Park, Mount Borradaile is profoundly shaped by the seasons. During the wet, which lasts from December to March, rivers burst their banks and infiltrate the paperbark swamps, placid creeks become thundering torrents, and waterholes swell to engulf the wetlands.
Water plus heat provides a humidicrib environment, triggering an explosion of insect life. Insects attract frogs and fish, which provide meals for snakes and birds, and the cycle of life spirals up the food chain in a process that ends with a snap in the jaws of the saltwater crocodile.
The standard introduction to the wildlife at Mount Borradaile is the late-afternoon champagne cruise on Cooper Creek. On my first outing, as we motor through the paperbarks, a white-breasted sea eagle swooshes overhead with a catfish still wriggling in its claws.
Over the next two hours we putter past brolgas, jabirus, flocks of cockatoos and terns. Clouds of whistling ducks and magpie geese erupt from the soggy grassland of the floodplain, and jacanas, also known as the Jesus bird for their apparent ability to walk on water, perform a stiff-legged dance across the lily pads.
Several times we pass beneath tall trees where white-breasted sea eagles regard us with regal disdain, and then there are the crocodiles. In a space of about two kilometres we pass a half-dozen big salties, warming themselves on the muddy banks or on rock ledges that ramp into the water. Mid-year is prime time for crocodile viewing, when the weather is cooler and the animals spend more time on the banks, absorbing heat from the sun.
Towards sunset we anchor in still water, among pink lilies in the mirror image cast by the sunburnt flanks of Mount Borradaile. Our boatload of 20 boisterous travellers falls suddenly silent, quietened by the majesty of the scene around us.
Sensational as the birds, the crocs and the natural environment are, they pale by comparison with the rock art of Mount Borradaile. Over millennia, the lumpy sandstone outcrops that dot the landscape have been hollowed out by the sea, creating a labyrinth of caves that made ideal sites for human habitation, and a natural canvas for the Aboriginal artists of Arnhem Land.
Using ochre, charcoal, clay and vegetable dyes, these unsigned artists daubed the walls with images that formed the pivots of their existence - the animals they hunted, the spirits that shaped their world, and their women, the birth-givers.
The greatest concentration of artworks is located in an area known as "Major Art", a big sandstone platform honeycombed with grottoes and caves. Several styles of art are represented, from primitive stick figures to vastly detailed "X-ray" paintings that show the internal organs of fish, kangaroos and humans. Some show contact with gaff-rigged trading ships from Makassar, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
Climax of the site is an elevated platform with a long wall that arches to form a roof. Over a long period, it must have been used by many people, to judge by the dense overlay of artworks on the walls and the number of grinding holes that pockmark the rock. The artwork is fantastic - hand stencils, totemic figures, exquisitely drawn animals and fish and sorcery paintings, in red, yellow and white, and, sometimes, the blue dye that the missionaries used to whiten their collars.
Evidence of human habitation is not confined to the cave walls. Scattered about on the floor of the caves are rifle barrels, glass shards once used to sharpen spear points, the remnants of paperbark mattresses, and burial sites. Tucked into ledges of the caves are the bones and skulls of ancestors, guardian spirits that watch over their children. It's like walking through an open-air museum of anthropology.
It is this richness and diversity of Aboriginal heritage that most differentiates Mount Borradaile from the visitor experience at Kakadu. The national park most likely has a treasury of Aboriginal art sites, yet visitors are corralled into just a few. No chance that you will wander and explore freely, and no chance that your guide will ever pick up a spear point from the cave floor and let you run your finger along the blade. This is the hands-on version, the connoisseur's Kakadu.
Davidson's Arnhemland Safari Camp has come a long way. I first visited in 1996, when it was just a handful of tents with bucket showers. Transport was aboard a battered ex-army Series II Land Rover and a small fleet of battle-scarred tinnies, one of which bore the teeth marks of Sweetheart, a crocodile famous throughout the Territory for its taste for aluminium.
The location is still the same, but it's been lifted from hot, scratchy and dusty into the realms of a comfortable khaki experience. In the past, you grit your teeth and put up with it for the sake of the sensational place you were in. These days, you smile and applaud.
Propped on stilts, the steel-framed cabins are spacious and equipped with fans, proper bathrooms and solar hot water. Above waist level there's nothing but insect screen between you and the great outdoors, but the cabins are widely spaced and only the local wallabies watch. The lack of blinds guarantees you'll wake with the sun, but the early-morning bird chorus is a precious part of the experience.
The impresario behind Mount Borradaile is Max Davidson, a one-time buffalo hunter and safari guide who spent much of his adult life knocking about in sweaty and remote parts of the Top End. These days Max has handed over the everyday running of the camp to Ray Curry, his trusted and long-serving lieutenant, but he remains an honoured presence.
Among the most heartening changes, Max now employs Aboriginal guides, which brings another dimension to the experience. My guide for much of my time at Mount Borradaile is John Ryan, originally from Gove, at the other end of Arnhem Land, now resident in Milingimbi. John comes from another world, where tradition holds sway, where English is a second or third language, where young men are still taken out into the bush and ritually circumcised, where the clan strictures are governed by law. It's another reality, and it's an eye-opener.
It's John who guides me through Major Art, deciphering the iconography of mimi spirits, file snakes, dugongs, barramundi and long-neck turtles. John has only been working at Mount Borradaile for a couple of months. Major Art is unfamiliar territory, and he's in the mood for exploration. We stumble through a dark passage with squeaking bats flapping around our heads before we grind sideways through a narrow aperture that leaves us at the bottom of a deep pocket with steep walls all around.
At head height, picked out in faded red ochre, is an alien figure with spiked hair flaring from its head, painted upside-down. "Maybe first time, seeing this one," says John. What I think he means is that I might be the first non-Aborigine to ever set eyes on this painting, and just that possibility is enough to take me into a Dreamtime all of my own.
The writer was a guest of Tourism NT and Qantas.
Qantas has direct flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Darwin starting from about $490 return. From Darwin, guests heading for Davidson's Arnhemland Safari Camp can either fly to Mount Borradaile via light aircraft or drive. The flight takes about an hour and costs $525 per person each way. Driving to the camp takes about six hours. The last 40 kilometres is very rough and not for the inexperienced, even with a four-wheel drive.
The daily rate at Davidson's Arnhemland Safari Camp starts from $750 a person and that includes all meals and guided tours. See arnhemland-safaris.com