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Investigating Australia’s Top End Outback

James Fisher A raised safari bungalow at the Bamurru Plains bush camp, in northern Australia.

Photo: James Fisher

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.

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