On the literary (cultural) road, in the Top End

Last month, Mr Gums and I holidayed in the Top End (of Downunder). I’m not quite sure where the Top End ends as it is a loose description for the northern part of Australia’s Northern Territory, but I believe it encompasses all the areas we visited. For ten days, we explored Katherine and Nitmiluk National Park for the first time, and re-visited Kakadu National Park and Darwin. Besides the fact that we love exploring Australia, it provided a good opportunity to escape the cold. The maximum in our city the day we left was 7.8degC. In Darwin, that same day, it was 32degC. A little different, n’est-ce pas?

Katherine Gorge

Gorgeous gorges in Nitmiluk National Park


The landscapes here are ancient (dating back 1650 million years and more) and are home to some weird and wonderful flora and fauna, of which the crocodile is probably the most (in)famous. Like most landscapes, they have inspired many artists: writers, painters, songwriters, filmmakers (think Jedda and Crocodile Dundee for a start) and so on. And there is a rich and fascinating indigenous culture to learn about.

Jedda Rock

Jedda Rock, Nitmiluk National Park, taken from a helicopter

We didn’t really spend much time tracking white culture in the area, as I have in my other “literary road” posts, so I will just mention Charles Chauvel’s film, Jedda. Jedda (1955) is notable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was the first Australian film shot in colour. But, more significantly, it was the first to use indigenous actors in leading roles – and to confront some of the implications of white colonisation on indigenous Australians. It was shot on location in the Northern Territory, with the final tragic scene being shot at what is now called Jedda Rock at Nitmiluk. However, that footage was lost in a plane crash, and the scene was re-shot in rather different landscape – the Blue Mountains just west of Sydney! As a retired film archivist, it was special to me to see this rock.

Indigenous culture

Sign re Jarwoyn Rock Art in Nitmiluk

There are stories here ...

We took as many opportunities as we could to learn more about indigenous culture, as there are far fewer prospects for doing so down south.

The best way for short-term tourists like us to do this is to join tours, particularly those which have indigenous guides – and so this is what we did. The most interesting of these tours were:

Through these, we added to our slowly growing knowledge of how indigenous people relate to country and of their food and cultural practices. We dug for yams, threw spears and ate green ants. It was all good!

As KevinfromCanada wrote in one of his posts, indigenous people tend to have a strong oral story-telling tradition, and this is the case with indigenous Australians. No only did we hear some of their creation stories – and saw rock art depicting these stories – but we also heard more recent life stories, some humorous, and some not so. This story-telling reminded me of a rather infectious book recently reviewed at Musings of a Literary Dilettante, Every secret thing by new Australian indigenous writer, Marie Munkara. I have dipped into it, as it’s currently next to my bed, and it reads like an orally told story. Anyhow, it was a real privilege to have these stories shared with us.

… and in conclusion

Crocodile in the Katherine River

...but he can smile at you!

This was our second trip up north and won’t be our last. I could ramble on more about sites seen and lessons learnt but I’d rather leave you wanting… And so, because you know I like a bit of nonsense, I will finish here with the following, rather apposite words for the Top End:

Never smile at a crocodile!
No, you can’t get friendly with a crocodile;
Don’t be taken in by his welcome grin;
He’s imagining how well you’d fit within his skin!
Never smile at a crocodile!
(Words by Jack Lawrence)

31 thoughts on “On the literary (cultural) road, in the Top End

  1. Thank you for this! I always enjoy learning something about the persons behind bookish thoughts… Cheers, Kevin

  2. Thanks muchly Kevin. When I first started writing this blog, I pondered about whether to sully its bookish purity with wider thoughts but decided that I’d enjoy writing about other things every now and then. It’s great to hear that this doesn’t put off some of my visitors.

  3. Musings: We did. We’ve been to Broome once, Central Australia twice (wrote about our last trip there on the blog last year) and to the Top End twice. There are Aussie places we haven’t been to yet – such as the Flinders Ranges (other than a very brief detour en route back from the Alice) and SW Western Australia – so we really should go to those places BUT we love these northern and central climes! I’m glad I’ve whetted your appetite.

    Lisa: It was rather, though we’ve had some lovely sunny days here and, being retired, I don’t have to venture out in the cold mornings. BUT I do like it a bit warmer.

  4. If you limit your blog to just one topic, yeah I know there’s a purist element here, it can constrain other things you may wish to write about. That’s why I have two blogs, Cat Politics for general whatever, and Eye Candy for books.

    By the way, Clare Dudman has left a comment for you on Cat Pol, if you haven’t already read it.

    • Thanks Anne…I think I’ll keep doing what I’m doing if only because I don’t think I can manage more than I am already doing! Thanks re the comment advice – I hadn’t known because I don’t think OpenId commenters can receive follow-up notifications. Or am I wrong about that? I’m still trying to understand how all these different platforms work, particularly in regard to subscribing, following comments etc.

  5. No you can’t get friendly with a crocodile /Don’t be taken in by his welcome grin / He’s imagining how well you’ll fit within his skin!

    (You can’t quote any song from a Disney/musical production and not know it’s going to be like a red flag to a bull for me.)

    Lovely encapsulation of your trip… and reminds me that I really do want to explore this country of ours at some point, and not merely run off overseas all the time!

  6. What a nice trip! Thanks for sharing about it. Were the ants you ate really green? And were they alive and wiggling? Like the crocdile poem. It seems familiar; I think I may have come across it somewhere before.

    • They were – little green bodies. Our photos weren’t great but this link shows them well: http://tinyurl.com/22o48kx They are often used medicinally 0 for headaches I think and clearing the nose. They bite. Our guide just grabbed a bunch of them from a leaf, quickly rubbed them together before they could bite, and then held out her hand for us to take some – which most of us did. Of all the bushfood we tried – including the yams, as well as waterlily shoot and heart of palm – they were one of the strongest in flavour. Rosella (the flower not the bird!) petals also had a strongish flavour too.

      As for the Crocodile poem. According to Wikipedia the tune for the poem was used in Disney’s Peter Pan, but not the words. I’ve known it for as long as I can remember but from where is lost in the mists of time!

    • Your wish is my command Guy – but I’ll have to go there first! Actually, somewhere in my paper hoard I have a movie map of Australia. It’s pretty old now – perhaps mid-90s – but it would cover a lot so I could do On the movie road posts, eh? As I recollect, Hanging Rock is in Victoria but I think the house used for the school was in South Australia.

      • Hanging Rock is at Mt Macedon in central Victoria. I’ve visited it several times, the most recent being on a cold, misty day where the rock tors were enveloped with ghostlike-fog streamers and it was very, very atmospheric.

  7. I can’t wait wait wait til we return to Down Under. Two weeks in Sydney (while I had to work in Chatswood) was a tease and it was a brutal tease but enough for me to fall in love not just with the infamous city but with all of the Aussies, starting with my most gracious friends who were the best hosts……That was in 2005! Next time, it’ll be about exploring (although I have to admit that even frogs and lizards can somewhat “terrify” me so this whole wildlife of reptile family would be an issue for me……!) 😉
    Hope you thoroughly enjoyed the rest of your vacation!

  8. Tony: Yes, but a long time ago. It was shot in several places including central Australia and the Top End.

    Farnoosh: Ah, I’d been meaning to ask you about Australia because I gathered from a few things you’ve said that you might have been here. Chatswood, eh? My very first job when I was a student was in the shoe section of a Chatswood department store, and first place we lived in Sydney was only a suburb or two away. (By the time I worked there, though, we’d moved several suburbs north). You can do a lot of travelling here without seeing much in the way of reptiles, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that, despite what Bill Bryson says. And, it goes without saying that I’d love to see you if you ever came again.

    • You are on my list of course – I will look up any and all my Aussie friends before we venture out there. Yes we only visited Sydney, Chatswood and Cronulla…(and your friendly neighbors, the Kiwis :))! Gosh I wonder if I should write about Australia from my travel journals……I so miss it. Here’s to seeing you someday!

      • Hey Farnoosh, I used to live right near Cronulla when I was a teenager at a place called Gymea (which is an Eora Aboriginal word meaning giant lily, pronounced Guy-meer).

        I’m blown away that you visited Cronulla! Most tourists never hear about Sydney’s largest and most beautiful beach.

    • You checked the links? Yes, they were great. We did an Arnhemland tour last time (individuals must get permission to go into Arnhem land) so it was good to follow up with more indigenous-related tours this time.

  9. Gummie: what a great idea for a map. And that brings me to two more of my favourite Australian films: The immortal… Welcome to Woop Woop and Around the World in 8o Ways.

  10. As a Territorian, I love your post! Although I’m biased towards Central Australia, Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) is one of the most incredible places on Earth.

    More importantly, the park is jointly managed by the Jawoyn Aboriginal people and the NT Parks and Wildlife Service. Nitmiluk is probably the WORLD’s best example of joint (co-) management. I am qualified to say this as joint management is what my PhD was about. I’ve spent more than a decade studying this practice.

    The reason that Nitmiluk is so successful is because of the strength of the Jawoyn Association – the amazing and talented Aboriginal people who run the association- and the commitment of the whitefella ranger staff at Nitmiluk. The Jawoyn Association has been used as a model of successful Indigenous organisation for other Aboriginal organisations all over Australia.

    I would also like to scream, shout and get out there in NEON that everything you’ve read or heard about the Territory is probably cliche and wrong.

    Forget the crocs, the buffalos, and outback cowboys. Try fantastic Asian cuisine in Darwin, experience deep and vast friendliness in Alice Springs (along with fabulous eateries), and come to the desert in winter to see stars like diamonds on black velvet.

    If you’re a writer or artist you WILL be inspired.

    • LOL Amanda … I think you should give up anthropology and take up tourism development! I do agree with you re the territory. The crocs and “ocker” places like the Humpty Doo pub are “fun” but there’s so much more to the NT. We’ve been there 3 times now and will be back – to see new places and revisit old places. Landscape, food, people, and culture in general – it’s all good!

      And, thanks so much for that info re joint management at Nitmiluk. I must say that it did feel very together and we were impressed by much of what we experienced there. It feels like they’ve taken their time to get things right.

      • You have to come and visit us… we’ll go camping in swags in special, sacred places. We’ll have a red wine (or white) round the campfire.

        And yes. I love Central Australia. I love the Territory. Even after 10 years here, I sometimes have to pinch myself and say: “Am I REALLY living in the NT?”

  11. Pingback: Indigenous Australian stories – and digital technologies « Whispering Gums

  12. Thanks Amanda … I can easily understand why you love Central Australia. We’ll be back. (We lived in SW California for 3 years and loved to visit the deserts of California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Texas etc. Wonderful places too).

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