Investigating Australia’s Top End Outback
Published: March 2009
By Shane Mitchell
A look at the Top End outback, a landscape that’s remote and mysterious even for most natives, and the setting for Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming epic, <em>Australia</em>.
Even the crows sound different out here. Sitting in front of the Warmun Roadhouse in Warmun, Western Australia, I note how their strangled clacking has a higher timbre and a more staccato rhythm than that of their larger cousins back in my hemisphere. The cry of these birds, clustered in the gray gum trees that shade this dusty pit stop on the Great Northern Highway, triggers memories of a year I once spent in Fremantle, another town on the outback’s verge. It was a rough little seaport in a region that Australians, who perennially apologize for their remove from society, call the “back of beyond.” The real bush—with its sore-throated birds, blackened stumps, and searing light—wasn’t far from my door. I could head there on a fast horse, riding fence lines until the animal was lathered in foamy sweat and my face was caked with sand. All this time later, I figure my familiarity with the outlying realm’s cadences has prepared me for an even stranger landscape of ocher escarpments and Aboriginal Dreamings. Little did I know.
The stretch of northern Australia known colloquially as the Top End covers more than a half-million square miles within the neighboring states of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, between the pearl-farming town of Broome on the Indian Ocean and the subtropical Cape York Peninsula. It encompasses some of the world’s least populated but most climatically diverse regions—saltwater estuaries, arid savanna, hidden thermal springs, and impassable peaks. Film director Baz Luhrmann, who was raised in rural New South Wales, recently spent more than a month in the Top End (as well as time in Sydney) shooting Australia, a pre–World War II epic set on the cattle ranches of the outback, starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. (It is slated to open in the United States on November 26.) Luhrmann used the landscape to reveal an Australia most people have never seen. “This is an untouched frontier with a rare abundance of nothingness,” Luhrmann says. “You have your Wild West. We have the Wild North.”
Luhrmann chose to rough it on the range during filming. “I decided that instead of traveling to the location and back every day, why don’t I just camp there?” he says. “I didn’t leave for the whole five weeks. This is what I had come looking for, to be forced by the power and scale of the landscape to be still, to be in the moment. There was a unique magic in this place on the edge of the world.”
The crows eventually settle as dusk fades. I finish a cup of bitter black tea and watch the people hovering by the roadhouse’s gas pumps: blond German girls in a battered Wicked rental camper, two Aboriginal drovers in Akubra hats, “truckies” clutching hypercaffeinated sodas. This roadhouse, like many of its kind along the Top End’s barren highways, is a gathering point where travelers can stop for insulated souvenir beer cozies, basic bed-and-shower facilities, and carb-heavy fried dinners. (Whoever invented Chiko spring rolls should be boiled in his own vat of grease.) I’m waiting for Nora Saliba, the Sydney-based casting director who managed the 50 or so indigenous extras on Luhrmann’s film and who continues to be welcomed into their communities, where some of the world’s most ancient narrative traditions still flourish. Aboriginal mythology has been sustained by an unbroken line of storytellers, generation after generation, since the Stone Age. No oral history quite like it exists in the era of YouTube and Amazon Kindle electronic books. Saliba has agreed to a trek around the Top End, which makes entrée to this closed world possible for me.
Teeth clamped on her cigarette, Saliba pulls up in her four-wheel-drive. “Get in, Shane-o,” she yells over the rumble of a passing road train, those supersized trucks that haul supplies between Aussie outposts. Tonight we are meeting the singer and celebrated artist Peggy Patrick, an Aboriginal elder. Patrick also instructs young girls in joonba, or ceremonial performances. Saliba spins out of the lot and drives to a nearby cluster of concrete ranch dwellings and trailers belonging to the Gidja people, who are considered the East Kimberley region’s traditional owners, or “TO’s.” She stops at a lot where several women are surrounded by children chasing a soccer ball. As some of the women rake a clearing under a paperbark tree, Patrick, tall and wiry with a gaunt face, asks me in pidgin English to sit next to her on the bare ground, close to a fire that’s staving off mosquitoes and the evening chill.
In the Aboriginal Dreamtime origin myths, totemic ancestors traveled the nascent landscape, scattering a trail of musical notes that are also geological markers. Trees, rocks, creeks, patches of desert, whole mountain ranges, and diminutive dust storms are part of “songlines” that serve as both a map and a moral compass. Every creature is connected to a specific aspect of this sacred geography by a “Dreaming” story and “skin name,” or bloodline. In a culture that has sustained a spoken-word tradition for millennia, passing these tales down through the generations intact is critical. I watch as Patrick’s granddaughters paint white dots around one another’s eyes. While she barks instructions, they giggle, swing bunches of eucalyptus leaves, poke each other. Patrick’s friend Phyllis Thomas keeps time with carved rhythm sticks, and the girls commence their joonba, but they’re self-conscious and step awkwardly. Patrick, gray hair wild, employs a universal form of emotional blackmail: walking away in disgust, declaring that she will quit teaching. “Useless, these kids.” It works. Coaxing Patrick back to sing, the girls sway and step properly. Finally excused, they run off into the dark.
Then Patrick and Thomas start singing the Barramundi Dreaming. It tells the ngarranggarni, or Dreamtime story, of an ancestor barramundi fish that swims through a nearby mountain range while being chased by clanswomen with woven spinifex-grass nets. Squeezing through the nets and a fissure in the rock, the fish scrapes off its sparkling scales. (The world’s largest pink diamond mine is in Barramundi Gap, right up the highway from Warmun.) As they chant, Patrick’s raw alto soars, wavers, cracks with laughter. When the music stops, I ask how long she has been singing these same notes. “Since I was a kid,” she says. At this point, it’s late and the women are ready to retire. As I rise, Patrick points emphatically at me and says, “Tonight, you dream.” I’m too exhausted to take her seriously as I head back to the roadhouse.
The next morning, we pick up an elder named Shirley Drill for the bumpy drive into Purnululu National Park. (In Gidja, purnululu means sandstone.) This UNESCO World Heritage site encompasses the Bungle Bungle Range, 20 million–year-old striped rock formations that resemble giant beehives. It’s also the country of Drill’s Dreaming story, and she can grant us permission to enter restricted Aboriginal areas. Along with two of her granddaughters, Drill climbs into Saliba’s car. Phyllis Thomas and her sister Nora decide to ride along. We jolt over dry creek beds, then splash through wet ones. Orange bluffs rise in front of us, and beyond the point where tour buses are permitted, we pull off the main road into a valley overgrown with low bush eucalyptus. The peaceful dale is sheltered by limestone outcroppings. The older women, who’ve been complaining about the rough trip, settle on the porch of an abandoned house. Drill waves her work-roughened hands at the surrounding hills, saying, “My great-great-great-grandmother is buried up there.” She then wanders over to a ghost gum to gather bark. Saliba speaks to me quietly: “Do you see the change in them?They can be themselves here. It’s like coming home.”
The children start sneezing. Drill decides there must be bees nearby, because these girls belong to the Sugarbag Dreaming, which means they are hypersensitive to the presence of wild honey. A foraging expedition begins, but since I’m allergic to bee stings, the Thomas sisters take me instead to Echidna Gorge, one of several narrow canyons that cut through the Bungle Bungle. As we progress deeper into a fracture between the massifs, cool air swirls along the shielding stone walls, and Phyllis points out black streaks where water gushes downward during the wet season, between November and March. In the gloom, I lean against the towering, immovable rock. Suddenly I’m spooked by striped yellow bees, which swarm around my white linen shirt. They ignore the Thomases.
Turning back, we race against the twilight, a swoop of scarlet dividing the descending indigo sky and shadowed escarpment. Phyllis Thomas reveals she is an ocher painter. (The typical Aboriginal art palette is based on the natural tinctures available regionally, such as ground ocher and white clay.) Top End artists are considered some of Australia’s most creative; Rover Thomas, Phyllis’s uncle, exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1990. Aboriginal art, once strictly ceremonial, has skyrocketed in value during recent decades. These days, the finest works are abstract interpretations of Dreaming landscapes that often resemble Pointillist satellite maps. It takes a rare talent to be able to conceptualize a perspective from above without having been airborne, but these are artists uniquely attuned to their environment.
North of Warmun, in the mining and cattle town of Kununurra, Saliba and I head for the Waringarri Aboriginal Arts studio. “These painters are spiritually based,” she explains. “They can’t just paint anything. They can only tell a story related to themselves.” In the studio, a white-haired woman named Mignonette Carlton is seated in front of a primed canvas. She usually interprets sites significant to her Dreaming around Majalindy Valley. Another artist, Daisy Bitting, looks solemnly at a water-damaged painting that needs retouching. Two tourists walk over from the adjacent gallery and, without asking, videotape the scene. Bitting and Carlton ignore them.
Beyond Kununurra lie the East Kimberley plains, fenced in by sprawling cattle stations. We traverse a parched salt flat fronting the Cockburn Range, hook onto Gibb River Road, then ford the Pentecost River. A cluster of boabs and a new stone wall indicate the entrance to Home Valley Station. Held in trust for the Balanggarra and Ngarinyin peoples by the Indigenous Land Corporation, which fosters sustainable partnerships for native title landholders, this 615,000-acre parcel is managed by a stockman named Nick Bradley. He grew up at Carlton Hill Station, where Luhrmann shot key location scenes for Australia. Bradley shows me around the campgrounds and livestock paddocks, discussing the station’s Aboriginal education mission. “I’m not out here to play cattle king,” he says. “We have a training program for the locals that gives them skills and pays them to learn on the job. Some have never had that.”
Nick’s brother, Richard, unexpectedly flings open the car door and jumps into the backseat. When Richard hears I’m eager to get back on a horse, we saddle up for a ride in the scrub. A thrill-seeking jackeroo who wears custom-made Spanish riding boots, Richard can cling to a bucking horse—at least, until the saddle bunches forward and he’s thrown to the ground. Since my Tony Lama boots keep slipping out of the steel stirrups and I have no desire to eat eucalyptus, I keep my mount at a safe trot. When we finally dust off the trail, I meet Nick and Richard’s mother, Susan Bradley. (Luhrmann says locals call her “Queen of the Kimberley.” He consulted her about outback life at Carlton Hill.) She directs a campaign to protect the isolated northwest Kimberley, a wild region lacking much modern infrastructure, from industrial development. Not only is the Top End rich in minerals, it has untapped reserves of uranium ore and natural gas, some of them temptingly sited on Aboriginal land trusts. “This is a powerful country of great extremes,” she says. “Some things should not be for sale. I have lived in the Kimberley for 40 years and hate to think my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will not be able to camp out under the stars in unpolluted river gorges.”
At last, I see a willy willy. It blows across our path on Gibb River Road when Saliba and I start the long trek eastward toward Darwin. Shirley Drill, who belongs to the Willy Willy Dreaming, mentioned it during our visit days ago in Purnululu. Perhaps it’s her parting gift. These harmless twists of wind puff up randomly; as the dust storm dances ahead of the car, I watch leaves whirl upward in a column before they drop onto the spinifex plain.
It takes a day to drive to the Mary River floodplain, three hours beyond Darwin, on the doorstep of Kakadu National Park. We gratefully unpack at Bamurru Plains, an eco-conscious bush camp that occupies a stretch of Swim Creek Station. The earth-toned lodge has a collection of modern Aboriginal art, a communal dining table, and an open bar of coveted Australian vintages. That night, I eat kangaroo shepherd’s pie by kerosene lamp. After my first hot shower in many days, I collapse onto a soft platform bed, as wallabies hop around in the brush outside.
At dawn, Bamurru Plains manager John O’Shea takes me out on the river in a Tornado airboat. A former Australian army commando, he wears a .357 Magnum strapped to his belt as defense against crocodile attacks. When I ask how good his aim is, he just smiles. We drift through clumps of blooming pink sacred lotus. Magpie geese and long-legged jabiru hunt for breakfast among rushes. O’Shea steers toward the opposite shoreline, and nudges the flat-bottomed boat between acacias growing in a backwater clogged with algae. Our only croc sighting is a coy pair of ridged eyes; however, a foot-long barramundi churns to the surface and, just as quickly, disappears again.
After two thankfully uneventful nights on the Mary River, Saliba and I finally leave the Top End. By the road, halfway to Darwin, we pass a small nature marker. The sign depicts a frilled-neck lizard, its spiny orange ruff extended in full display. A jolt of recognition leaves me unnerved. This creature inhabits savanna woodlands across northern Australia, and for Aborigines it’s a powerful totemic rainmaker, bringing both emotional storms and cleansing. I’ve seen this lizard only once before—after the Warmun joonba, glittering gemlike in the absolute darkness of a dream that Peggy Patrick predicted for me. When I confess this to Saliba, she doesn’t even blink. “Mate, they let you in for a second,” she says. “They’re in your heart, and you are in theirs.”
While Baz Luhrmann’s Australia is set mainly in the Top End, Sydney makes an important appearance. Strickland House, a white-pillared Italianate manse on Rose Bay, is the setting for a poignant ballroom scene. It’s also located on a trail through Hermitage Foreshore Scenic Walk, a spot frequented by lead actor Hugh Jackman, who makes good use of his native city’s numerous parks. Here, Jackman’s hometown favorites.
This patchwork of urban green spaces protects most of the city’s foreshore and islands. Hermitage Foreshore Walk, a mile-long trail, reveals vest-pocket beaches, hidden coves, and rock outcroppings along Rose Bay in Woollahra. “Australians need space,” Jackman says during a hike along this casuarina-shaded path. “You can breathe here. It’s not claustrophobic. Who wants to be shut off from views like these?” environment.nsw.gov.au.
Home to the Woollahra Sailing Club, this eastern harborfront is packed on weekends with sailing yachts, outrigger canoes, and kayaks. “Kayaking is one of my favorite things to do in this bay,” Jackman says. “From October to May, you can be out paddling on the harbor within minutes.” Rentals: sydneyharbourkayaks.com.au.
Bronte Walk is a coastal trail that begins at Ben Buckler Point, on the northern end of Bondi Bay, and winds south for two miles along sandstone cliffs and white-sand beaches, ending at Waverley Cemetery. Don’t miss the Aboriginal rock carvings, such as the shark and whale south of Mackenzies Point. Jackman’s Saturday-morning routine starts with a dawn swim on Bondi Beach, followed by a run along Bronte Walk and breakfast in a café on Campbell Parade. “And I’m back home by 7:30, when the kids get up,” he says. waverley.nsw.gov.au.
Seaplanes make dramatic landings right in front of this restaurant, a modern glass-and-steel space on the eastern harbor foreshore in Rose Bay. (Rose Bay was the original site of Australia’s first international airport, where Qantas’s PBY Catalina-class flying boats landed during the 1930’s.) Jackman loves the fresh-shucked Sydney rock oysters and the seared tuna loin with chorizo, soft fried quail’s egg, baby beans, and salsa verde. Lyne Park, Rose Bay; 61-2/9371-0555; catalinarosebay.com.au; dinner for two $140.
Established in 1827, this natural history and environmental sciences museum is a favorite for family outings. Jackman’s eight-year-old son, Oscar, is a budding anthropologist. The institution also has an excellent indigenous Australian collection. 6 College St.; 61-2/9320-6000; austmus.gov.au.
When to Go
During the wet season, from November to March, temperatures can reach 100 degrees. April through October is the cooler dry season.
How to Get There
Qantas and V Australia (starting in 2009) fly nonstop from Los Angeles to Sydney. Qantas and Virgin Blue fly from Sydney to Darwin. Airnorth flies from Darwin to Kununurra. In Kununurra, Budget (61-8/9168-2033; budget.com.au) rents four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Rock-art tours and extended camping expeditions with Gidja guides to the remote Mitchell Plateau, in North Kimberley. 61-8/9161-1145; wundargoodie.com.au; from $275 per person per day.
Where to Stay
Swim Creek Station, N. Territory; 61-2/9571-6399; bamurruplains.com; doubles from $1,370.
Tent cabins, en-suite baths, and an open-air dining room. Closed during the wet season. Bellburn Creek, Purnululu National Park, W. Australia; 61-8/9168-7051 or 61-3/9277-8444; kimberleywilderness.com.au; doubles from $340.
Great Value Gibb River Rd., East Kimberley, W. Australia; 61-8/9161-4322; homevalley.com.au; doubles from $155.
Great Value Recently updated hotel in a gateway town to the East Kimberley outback. 20 Victoria Hwy., Kununurra, W. Australia; 61-8/9166-5600; thekimberleygrande.com.au; doubles from $160.
Modern gallery representing top Western Australia artists, including Peggy Patrick and Phyllis Thomas. Wedge Dr., Wyndham, W. Australia; 61-8/9161-1500; jirrawunarts.com.
Studio with work by Mignonette Carlton and Daisy Bitting. 16 Speargrass Rd., Kununurra, W. Australia; 61-8/9168-2212; waringarriarts.com.au.
For More Information
Tourism Australia (310/695-3200; www.australia.com)