It’s one of those truisms that nature doesn’t operate in straight lines but if you think about it, that’s not necessarily true. Rocks, in particular, often follow straight lines through stress and fractures. By their nature they form blocks which man then uses to build structures. Take the Great Wall of China, which is built of local stone and marches for miles across and around the hills in China. Today, that mighty structure – where it has not been rebuilt – is a jumble of rocks.
Now look at the picture above.
It’s so easy to imagine a ruined wall. But it’s an eroded hill, exposing the hardest rocks as the worn down material slides down to create the slope.
When you look at pictures like this you begin to understand the essence of the Australian landscape. It’s old. It was old before the dinosaurs – before anything, really. Those rocks in the Nitmiluk gorge don’t contain fossils and I’ll bet these don’t either. These rocks are like the last remains of a long-dead beast, dessicated bones poking up through the ground. The soil here (if such a word is appropriate) is poor, lacking in nutrients. The vegetation is tough and resilient, able to cope with flood, drought and fire. In fact, though the aboriginal people never farmed and were nomadic, they certainly managed the land. They would set fires not long after the wet to burn the dried grasses at a time when the flames would not cause huge conflagrations. That happened in nature, too, fires lit by lightning. The dead vegetation was cleaned away and new growth rose in the ashes, food for kangaroos and other prey animals. And, of course, if you knew where to look, water was available, collected in pools in the great rivers, even if the water only flowed in the wet.
At Nimitluk, our guide told us how the people found crocodile eggs. Fresh water crocs lay eggs on sandy banks, burying them like turtles do, then just leave the eggs until they’re ready to hatch. The youngsters make a noise the females recognise and they come back to help the new crocs out of their eggs. Until then, though, the eggs can be harvested. The time for that is when the yellow flowers appear on the kapok bushes. The aboriginal tribes knew this place, the cycles of life, what they could eat and what they couldn’t. And they never destroyed. They never took all the croc eggs, they never killed all the kangaroos.
I want to finish this with a piece of work created by local aboriginal women. We call them ‘primitive’. But they can make something like this out of grass, and they can survive in this fundamentally hostile land. Their traditional lifestyle is totally different from ours but slowly slowly, we’re beginning to understand, just a little.