Woven Into Country
Beyond the billabong, the sun is mimicking the sneaky reptile as it surreptitiously disappears beyond the horizon. The moon, almost at its fullest, rises behind us, casting a pastel glow upon the quartz scattered through the red earth.
Mosquitoes nip at every inch of skin, and the air, once thick with heat and humidity, has evolved into a cool blanket. Twelve women, still strangers, scatter over the rock, their faces crammed behind cameras and phone screens as they snap the moments they’ll come to remember as their first meeting with the sacred and wondrous country of Kakadu.
I’m here for a six-day women’s-only experience with Kakadu Cultural Tours, journeying through Australia’s largest national park while learning traditional weaving techniques. Christie Littlejohn is our guide, led by Anita Nayinggul of the Manilikarr clan.
Over the next few days, as we forage, strip, dye and weave the materials for baskets, our experience will intertwine with cultural lessons, visits to sacred sites, and life stories from Anita. This first sunset is just the beginning of the intricate puzzle I will piece together during my time here as I embark on an apprenticeship of sorts, learning the traditional arts, crafts and ways of life from Manilikarr and Bunitj women.
On our way to Hawk Dreaming Wilderness Lodge, our base camp for the week, Christie sits behind the wheel of the truck, loudly reciting local facts as we pass through the vibrant living landscape of Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve. An Australasian darter (also known as a snakebird) sits atop a boulder catching the wind in its dampened feathers after a morning of fishing in the surrounding wetlands. Crocodiles (ginga in the local languages) lurk unseen in nearby ponds and reeds.
“I’m not going to let you out to walk,” Christie yells through the speaker, “there are a few crocs here at the moment, so we can’t walk through.” This would be her first warning of many over the week, and one I am more than happy to heed.
Our truck noisily speeds through the controversial mining town of Jabiru. Christie points out a few distinctive features of Kakadu’s unique ecosystem, which includes savannah woodlands, southern hills and ridges, stone country, tidal flats and coast, the wetlands, and the outliers. She tells us Kakadu, the largest national park in Australia at almost 20,000 square kilometres, has been home to more than 19 Traditional Owner clan groups for more than 65,000 years.
The gate to a rutted-out dirt track steers people away, with a sign that boldly reads: Do Not Enter – Private Land. Equally, it acts as a signpost suggesting we are heading in the right direction. When we pull up to Hawk Dreaming Wilderness Lodge it instantly feels like home.
Lush grass – its vivid green contrasting the red dirt and yellowing shrubs – surrounds the main pavilion. To the right, sand palm and pandanus trees scatter between tall speargrass. In the distance, along a stone path that leads from a huge firepit, 12 canvas tents peek above the landscape, each offering comfortable twin-share bedding and private facilities.
It’s peaceful here, and I quickly become accustomed to the early mornings, the sun triggering the dawn birdsong. There’s also the occasional thump of fruit and nuts from the nearby trees dropping to the bark-blanketed ground.
We first meet Anita at the Ubirr Border Store, sitting at a table with her two daughters, Raphealia and Delane, and niece Rachel. At first, the women are quiet and reserved, but despite the language barrier of broken English and my faulty attempt to speak Kunwinjku, our relationship quickly blossoms into a friendship that will make the memories of this trip far greater than I could have imagined.
Christie interrupts the meet-and-greet, asking us to jump back on the bus as we head toward Ubirr, where we’ll forage for materials to make natural dyes and pull pandanus leaves to strip down for weaving. “Yo gumuck,” Anita exclaims. We learn this is Kunwinjku for “Yes, okay”, and it will become standard vocabulary in our daily exchange.
At Ubirr, Anita and the other women show us how to pluck pandanus without damaging the plant, as well as explaining what berries can create colour and what ones to avoid. We dig roots from deep within the earth for brown dye, and crush seeds from the kapok fruit for a vibrant yellow. As we gather our supplies the women also teach us about other uses for plants. I’m amazed to learn pods from the wattle tree, when mixed with water, create a foamy soap-like substance that can be used for washing the body. There are leaves that can be crushed and rubbed over the skin to help keep the bugs away.
The sun beats down, and it doesn’t take us long to realise just how much work goes into weaving. The daluk (women) make the exercise look effortless, while my body has already started to ache from fatigue.
Fitness woes aside, the collection of materials requires a toughness I can’t seem to muster. Pandanus leaves may look harmless, but their spikes add to the challenge, sending me back to a time in my childhood when I picked up a cactus with my bare hand. I quickly give up on the harvest in exchange for story time with Anita, who guides us through a private tour of Ubirr.
She shares lessons from the Dreamtime, and tales from her youth.
“My dad used to sit here and tell stories to my children,” she tells us as we walk through the ancient landscape of caves and rock faces painted with art that dates back 20,000 years.
When we’ve collected multiple hessian bags of leaves, we head back to camp where we spend the rest of the afternoon stripping them. It takes me three hours to get my first separation; by the end of the evening, I’ve managed to strip 10 leaves compared to Anita’s full bag.
It’s not until the next day, as we wander through Manngarre Rainforest and into a sacred women’s-only site where Anita shares tales from her childhood, that I start to understand the relationship between the Traditional Owners and the land itself. People don’t just coexist; the land and connection to country come before all else. Preservation of language and history is the reason this is one of the longest surviving cultures in the world. Out here, Anita explains, community is everything – there is no word for ‘mine’, just ‘I am’, she tells me.
Manngarre seems worlds away from other parts of Kakadu, with bats hanging from branches of overgrown tropical trees, and the East Alligator River flowing only a few metres away – just far enough to keep us safe from the prying eyes of crocodiles.
“Slowly I would crawl on the ground, very quietly,” Anita starts, telling the story of how she would try to catch bush fowl as a kid. “But they see you coming... I run to chase them, but the small bird is too quick.” She’s animated, demonstrating the crawling action.
As grateful as I am for the weaving lessons back at camp, I’m equally pleased to take a break from my slow creation of a disfigured micro-basket to explore the broader parts of Kakadu. On a Guluyambi Cultural Cruise, steered by Anita’s son Hilton, we travel to the other side of the East Alligator River. Here, the landscape changes and the red earth of the western banks transforms into the soft white sands of Arnhem Land.
Over the next 24 hours, the women continue to spin their evolving woven masterpieces and tell their stories while guiding us through cultural tours of rock art at Jacobs Hand and ceremonial sites like the Seven Spears, and welcoming us into Gunbalanya and Injalak Arts and Crafts.
Back at camp, as the red earth dusts the soles of my feet, the fire crackles and my photographic memory captures the laughter, serenity and friendship into a minute-by-minute album, I feel a sense of ease.
The moon is just hours away from shining at its fullest, adding a white light to the yellow glow of the fire that forms the centrepiece of our circle. The warmth of the day has receded with the sun, replaced by a coolness that calls for attire more akin to life down south. Our hands rub together over the flames, and mosquitoes attack what little skin is left uncovered. Chatter drifts from inside the communal living area, where fellow travellers opt for shelter from the biting bugs. But, as is usually the case when I travel, I am far more interested in keeping my feet connected to the earth.
It’s at this moment I realise my yearning to learn from Australia’s Traditional Owners goes well beyond my respect for the country I call home. Out here, life is driven by nature and all it offers us. Storytelling is more than just an art form. Kinship goes well beyond the bounds of blood, and traditions teach us more than just how to create. They also keep us connected to those that walked before us.
The tour begins in Darwin, where guests are collected for transfer to Hawk Dreaming Wilderness Lodge, about a four-hour drive away.
There are more than 130 authentic guided tourism offerings available around Australia, both in cities and the bush, as part of Tourism Australia’s Discover Aboriginal Experiences portfolio. You can download the brochure from the Tourism Australia website.
The Kakadu West Arnhem weaving tour is run by Diverse Travel in partnership with Kakadu Cultural Tours, which is owned and operated by the Djabulukgu Association representing the Traditional Owners of Northern Kakadu and parts of West Arnhem Land. Next departures for this six-day tour, which starts at AU$2,160 a person, are 23 May and 22 August 2021. There are a variety of other tour options, including cultural cruises on the East Alligator River and day tours to Arnhem Land.