“To live off the country, you got to learn to listen with your eyes,” says Gleeson, a young indigenous local, who I meet on the banks of the East Alligator River — so called because the first white men here mistakenly took saltwater crocodiles to be alligators.
The connection between local Aboriginal people and the land here around Kakadu National Park is an extraordinary thing. There are thousands of recorded rock art sites— mainly in natural shelters overhung by outcrops — and the paintings they hold are in some cases more than 10,000 years old.
Daubed in red ochre, animal blood and other natural pigments, the pictures give an account of traditional life and beliefs during the many millennia before Europeans arrived, bringing guns, horses, alcohol and all manner of other unheard-of things. The rock art shows lizards and marsupials, hunters and boomerangs, magpie geese and mythical beings.
Darwin was first established as a European settlement in 1869. Kakadu, now Unesco-listed, was declared a national park only in the late 1970s. But the park’s traditional landowners have inhabited this area for anywhere between 20,000 and 60,000 years. It has been called the oldest living culture on Earth.
“You got to look for signs of fish, signs of bush food, signs of weather changing,” says Gleeson. Close by, two men are dangling lines for barramundi at the water’s edge, a short distance from where I later see a pair of large crocodiles.
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