For those of you who cut geography class, the Commonwealth of Australia is split into six states [New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia] and two territories [the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory or ACT]. Within the Northern Territory, by far the larger of the two territories, lay two of Australia’s most famous tourist destinations, Uluru [also known as Ayers Rock] and the UNESCO-listed Kakadu National Park.
Most famous for its Aboriginal cave paintings, rock carvings and archaeological sites, the Kakadu National Park was created in the late 1970s by the Australian government to preserve the record of the Aboriginal people, who, it is said, have inhabited the region for more than 40,000 years. In addition to the human-related history and archaeology, the park also contains a varied ecology including large land plateaus, rolling hills, flood plains, and tidal flats. The park is also home to a variety of unique and endangered plant life.
I was in the Kakadu in January a few years back. For someone living in the Northern Hemisphere at first glance this sounds delightful – images of chilly nights and crisp cold days while trekking the park. Unfortunately for me the reality of a January in the Northern Territory is quite different. The Kakadu is in the Southern Hemisphere, and it is located smack in the tropics, between 12° and 14° south of the Equator, giving it its monsoon-prone climate. This meant that the days were so hot and humid that I felt like I was in a giant Easy Bake Oven, from which there was no relief. It was among the most oppressive climate moments I can remember.
Every time I came upon a billabong [watering hole], it was inevitably posted with various warnings to stay away for fear of getting eaten by the crocs. Despite the heat, the “cost-benefit analysis” synapses in my brain were functioning, and I quickly surmised that losing a limb would not be worth the momentary relief from the heat. Given that the Kakadu is even home to the saltwater crocodile – a rare and endangered species of croc – I figured it was better to find a Eucalyptus tree to stand under for a moment rather than face one of these creatures to beat the heat.
The heat aside, the Kakadu National Park is among the most important places on earth to bear witness to the daily lives of ancient humans. Among the important sites in the park can be found pigment-preparing workshops dating back 18,000 years, what are considered the remains of the very first humans in Australia [40,000 years ago] and a variety of stone tools that are among the oldest ever found.
Of course it is the cave paintings of Kakadu that rightly get the most fanfare, as they are an incredible sight to see. The cave paintings span Aboriginal history from the twentieth century all the way back 20,000 years [the last paintings were completed in the early 1960s]. The paintings serve as important primary evidence of ancient human interaction with now-extinct animals such as the Tasmanian wolf, as a chronicle of interaction with Europeans over the centuries and as a chronicle of ceremonial rites common to the aboriginal people.
While the cave paintings in the Kakadu are not the oldest on earth [cave paintings found in France may be 35,000 years old according to radiocarbon dating] when you are in front of them their importance begins to hit you. Humans created this art as a chronicle of their lives at a time when there is so little known about human populations it is a world that is the stuff of science fiction. In many cases we can only guess about what the lives of these aboriginal peoples were like. How did they organize into communities? What contact did they have with other human populations? How did they communicate? How did the migration of humans from Africa to Australia really occur?
It is all quite fascinating, and while the average traveler often does not have access to the primary evidence related to ancient humans, the cave paintings in the Kakadu are one place where you can set your eyes on images created by human hands two thousand centuries ago.
For a more in-depth look at specific cave painting sites, check out the Australian government’s page on the Nourlangie and Nanguluwur art sites within the Kakadu National Park.