Enduring respect, love of country and trust in the rhythm of life has ensured the survival of this epic wilderness for millennia.

Kakadu’s pre-monsoon storm season, Kunumeleng (“the buildup”), doesn’t begin with a date on the calendar. It starts when it starts – usually October-ish – when the air becomes thick, lightning cracks open gunmetal skies along the Arnhem Land plateau, afternoon showers roll in and stone-country waterfalls start tumbling into dwindling creeks and billabongs. It’s when water birds spread their wings and barramundi shimmy downstream to the estuaries to breed.

But Kunumeleng is late this year. The ground is still dry in early November, the sky is hazy with smoke and it’s so hot here on Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) rock in Kakadu that the print on my water bottle is melting.

Rock at at Burrungkuy (Nourlangie), NT

I’m here in the late afternoon and the sun is still stubbornly high (at this, the hottest time of year, pre-dawn is safest for walking). But there’s an incredible payoff. Today, at one of the world’s most significant rock art sites, there are no buses in the car park, no cars lining the road. It’s just me, my guide, James Morgan, and works of art that were cast on the sandstone from the era of the woolly mammoth through to the early days of The Beatles. There isn’t another traveller in sight.

“You have to stretch your mind way back to get a sense of the history you’re walking through here,” says Morgan, a local Bininj (Aboriginal) senior park ranger and the owner/ operator of Yibekka Kakadu Tours. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, that’s a really old painting’ but they don’t fully understand how far back it really was.”

Guide James Morgan

With its mix of savannah woodlands, stone country and wetlands teeming with birdlife and crocodiles, Kakadu National Park, 250 kilometres east of Darwin, spreads across 20,000 gentle, rugged, wild and wonderful square kilometres of the Northern Territory. It’s a complex carpet of stringybark and ironwood trees, lush rainforest, berries and plums and rocks that spring from the earth, in Morgan’s words, “like the bones of an old country”. It’s where small, goofy lotus birds share lily-lined billabongs with apex predators, where wallabies bound, dingoes lurk and pesky introduced buffalo disrupt the fragile ecosystem.

To the area’s First Nations people – whose occupation of the region has been scientifically mapped to more than 60,000 years – their Country is also a keeper of stories, sacred djang (dreaming) sites that mark the passage of the creation ancestors and their transformation into other forms. “Most people just see the natural features of this place,” says Morgan, “but for Bininj people, we also see the story and our law connected with it. It adds a whole other layer of beauty and richness to an already amazing place.”

Burrungkuy (Nourlangie) Rock art, NT

Morgan grew up in Darwin and Perth and followed his mother into the public service in Canberra but his ties to this land stretch back generations. His grandmother is a Murumburr Traditional Owner and his uncle a Djok Traditional Owner (a person from a particular descent group with authority to decide matters relating to land). Every year when he was growing up, Morgan, now 26, would visit family here, camping and fishing far from the tourist spots. “I grew up eating turtle and snake and crocodile so I knew this world; I just didn’t know it.” Five years ago, he returned permanently to “reconnect”. “I never felt like any other place was home.”

Though not a Traditional Owner himself, one of Morgan’s roles as a ranger is to monitor this World Heritage-listed rock art site, which depicts life from the last Ice Age to the 1960s. When Kakadu was first established as a national park in the 1970s, Traditional Owners allowed it to be opened up “because they wanted people to come here and learn about our culture… when people are more aware of who we are, they are likely to be kinder and more willing to help protect what we have”.

While some of the paintings are thought to date back 20,000 years, their age is largely determined by what they depict: large, naturalistic wombat-shaped megafauna and the long-extinct thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) share the rock with fascinating depictions of the first contact with Europeans, including a sailing ship and guns.

Rock art at Nourlangie Rock, NT

“Why were they painted?” I ask, as Morgan points out an “X-ray”-style fish. Some simply tell stories of the day, he says. “Nowadays, what happens when people go fishing? They take a photo and put it on Instagram because they want to share the story – ‘Look at what I did! I caught this big barra today!’”

Some works are sacred and kept from public view, some have deep cultural significance and some are used to educate children. As two sulphur-crested cockatoos squabble in a stringybark tree, we stop at a painting of long, spindly Mimi spirits. “These spirits live in the stone country,” explains Morgan. Children are told that “if you go walking around by yourself, you’ll be taken by these spirits”. It’s an important lesson. “As rangers, we never go out by ourselves because you can get lost and if you fall and knock yourself unconscious, you’re as good as dead because there’s no reception out here.”

Created over two wet seasons in the early 1960s, the important works of two senior cultural men, Djimongurr (who is also known as Old Nym) and Nayombolmi (Barramundi Charlie) at the so-called Anbangbang gallery may be the only ones with a living witness. They tell the story of Namondjok, who broke the local kinship system – he wanted to marry a woman he called “sister” – and, as punishment, was turned into a saltwater crocodile. Djimongurr’s daughter, Josie, who is still alive, helped gather the ochre for the paintings in tobacco tins and watched as the men worked.

A feather from Namondjok’s headpiece appears as a rock, which Morgan shows me when we clamber up the nearby Nawurlandja lookout. Behind us is the South Alligator River and in the hazy distance, the Arnhem Land Escarpment, which, within weeks, will run with the water that gives this place life. We sit in silence, gazing out over trees and billabongs that seem to stretch forever. The setting sun lights up Burrungkuy as a flock of cockatoos explodes from a tree. “I come up here by myself sometimes,” says James of the roughly 1.8-billion-yearold rock we’re perched on, “just to sit and listen.” In the local language, “listen” and “feel” share the same word: yibekka.

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SEE ALSO: The Most Magical Things to See in the NT

Image credit: Jarrad Seng, Helen Orr, Peter Eve. Nicholas Kavo. Jarrad Seng

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