Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Australia's Top End

Darwin harbor and city
Sometimes, the generosity of strangers blows me away. Rarely has this been truer for me than here in Australia's Top End. I lived just outside Darwin with nature writer Kaye Aldenhoven, meeting many artists and landscapes with her help. It’s hot here! And rainy! Darwin is the lightning capital of the world. So far I’ve survived a cyclone (it passed mostly to the east of us) and near-daily thunderstorms. They are welcome in my mind since they break the humidity and tropical heat, keeping the world green and lush for the Wet.

Crocodile Dreaming painting at Territory Wildlife Park
Together, Kaye and I attended the Emerald Springs Writers’ Retreat. I held a workshop for the class of 14 writers (most of whom are well-established professional writers) on nature writing. We talked about methods for focusing the work on the natural world, and not the direct human experience of it, but never could quite agree on how to do this.

cheeky Sulfur Crested Cockatoo
But, the more pressing question is, is it worthwhile? I hold that it is. For practice, we did a few exercises using objects from indoors and outdoors as prompts, graphed concepts of different spectrums in the environment (i.e. temperature, color, light, size), and plunked ourselves in the buggy, sticky, sweaty outside to Write in Place. Overall, the workshop was a great experience!

Katherine River Gorge
Some of the writers at the workshop were from Katherine. Sharon, a writer/ex-park-ranger drove me the few-hundred-kms south to spend a few days in her town. Katherine was my first real taste of The Outback. Sharon filled the drive with tales all about the sandstone escarpment of Arnhem Land and Katherine Gorge, the black soils around the low-oxygen freshwater sulfur springs, and the last remaining stand of cycads in the region (unusual plants that shared the world with dinosaurs, back when Australia was part of Gondwanaland).

I stayed with Toni Tapp-Coutts, a friendly and vibrant writer whose upcoming memoir shares her story growing up on one of Australia’s most famous cattle stations. Much birding, bicycling, swimming, and hiking was accomplished! And a bit of writing too.

on the Arnhem Highway to Kakadu!
Back up north in Palmerston and Darwin, I joined Kaye on “writing dates” with other writers around town. We took turns suggesting prompts, and wrote whatever came to mind for 10-15 minutes, then share. It’s a strategy I’ll definitely continue. Having the company and dedication and intimacy are great motivators. I also performed at a show called Wild Words, sharing a few of my recent poems.
view from Ubirr

Most recently, I took myself camping in Kakadu National Park. I’ve been dreaming of seeing this UNESCO World Heritage site for a long time. I was one of the few visitors to come in the Wet. Much of the park is inaccessable at this time. The roads literally go meters underwater, linking the many billabongs throughout the wetlands. Some sites remain open. I stayed at Anbinik, a fantastic camp/caravan park in Jabiru. Jabiru is a small town inside the park, very near to the Ranger Uranium Mine. It’s the hub of the many outstations where many Aboriginal people live, consisting of a few small neighborhoods, a gas station, library, school, grocery store, bakery, Kakadu Lodge, crocodile-shaped Crocodile Hotel and that’s it. The next town is about 200km away. I was delighted to be so remote.

I loosed Sugar Mama from her overlong storage in the tent stuff-sack and lived fairly dryly throughout the daily storms. Kaye lent me her car, making transport very easy. And luckily, the one CD left in the car was the perfect soundtrack! (No radio stations.)
Mimi Spirits rock art at Nangawulurr
I spent most of my time in Kakadu around Nourlangie and Ubirr. I took a tour with Guluyambi Tours to see Ubirr. Self-drive access to Ubirr is completely flooded out this time of year. Roman steered our group through the Marenga creek wetland and billabong. He taught us the many uses of paperbark trees, the crunchy-sweet taste of water lily stalks, the dangers of crocodiles, and the incredible hunting capabilities of sea-eagles. Doug guided us through the rock art galleries at Ubirr, though he did so with annoying condescension: “the paintings depict lessons--they didn’t really happen.” I didn't like the condescension.

Barramundi fish rock art at Nangawulurr
The rock art was incredible, and a wealth of stories. It was magical to imagine the painters of 20,000+ years ago reaching the vaulted overhanging ceilings of the rock galleries. It might've been sorcery? Some paintings are said to be living Mimi spirits, who upon teaching the first painters, leapt onto the rock surface themselves to become art.

Despite my disappointment in our very blokey guide, the sites were a feast for the artist and scientist and story-lover in me. Especially at Nourlangie, I struggled to spend enough time gazing at the rock art or the three hundred sixty degree views of the Dreaming.

Lightning Dreaming view in Kakadu National Park
The Stone Country filled the horizon. It is home of Dreaming figures like Namarrgon, the Lightning Man. This land is full of dangerous places and figures whose disturbance could bring calamity. In the middle distance, encompassing the view are the monsoon forests and billabongs, blending water and land. In the foreground: probably flies. You get used to them crawling all over you and learn the futility of swatting them away. All things combined to make you appreciate your smallness.

Wishing you many small moments of wonder,


P.S. More soon from Alice Springs!

P.P.S. More photos below:

swimming hole at Matarenka Springs

Green Tree Frog sexy time

mudracing outside Darwin, a great friday night activity

Gong xi fa cai! Chinese New Year in Darwin.

freshwater Whipray feeding at Territory Wildlife Park 

rock art at Burrunggui, Anbangbang gallery

rock art at Burrunggui, Anbangbang gallery

zoom in on Lightning Dreaming site in Kakadu National Park 

weathered Rainbow Serpent rock art at Ubirr

Sea Eagle in Kakadu National Park

Darwin wharf by night

1 comment:

  1. Wow!!!! Thank you to all the wonderful, welcoming people you met in the "Top End" of Australia! Amazing blog my love!!


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