I have found a patch of dappled shade and a place to sit on this tilted sandstone slab. A few trees, rooted amongst rocks behind me, reach up overhead, breaking up the midday sunlight, shielding me a little from its heat.
Beyond my outstretched legs, across my toes lies a pool of cool water, clear and deep enough that I dived into it on our arrival here. I am far from comfortable, my back against this awkward-angled boulder, but it is my own fault. I was the last out of the water, the last to choose a place. There are no priority seats for the aged here, just penalties for spending too much time soaking up the joys of life.
We are partway through our walk on the south-west part of the Arnhem Land Plateau in northern Australia. We have been by this pool for just over an hour and most of us have finished our lunch. If you are interested I can say that our tomatoes and rye bread lasted well, five days, as we had hoped, so now it’s biscuits, cheese, carrot (developing some black spots), cacciatore and an olive tapenade.
There is little to be done now until the preparation of the evening meal. We shuffle our bodies into positions as comfortable as best we can manage but it’s never quite right. The south-easterly breeze which cooled us as we walked this morning has decayed to infrequent wafts, dying eddies tumbling off the rocks above. Barely discernible on wet skin and too weak to stir a leaf they are invisible until they dip to kiss the face of our pool. The last for the day, these currents of air will soon be completely stilled.
We have taken every opportunity to swim. On our arrival at a waterhole sideways glances are exchanged with walking companions, eye contact that starts the race to drop packs, remove gaiters and boots, and be first in the water. I never bother to undress too far, to remove my cotton shirt or shorts. In the cool water the accumulated sweat and dust these hold will be washed away. Climbing out of the pool refreshed I keep my shirt on to take advantage of the cooling evaporation, an effect that can last up to an hour in this stillness, right until the last traces of moisture have been sucked out by the dry air.
It is time now to sit and leave the afternoon to make its slow, dreamy transformation into evening. I will move to a more comfortable place, take my book, also one of my map sheets so I can scribble down some thoughts on its blank back. Good intentions. Peta started this practice, of using the back of maps. We used to carry a small notebook – remember the paper ones – but we have modified what we carry as the years have whittled down our physical abilities. We shave weight from our loads, going as light as we possibly can now. There is a risk in this. The extra gear we once carried to meet a wider range of eventualities, weather conditions, to provide more comfort perhaps, or as insurance in case of mishap, we now leave behind. Experience partly fills the gap. Simple versatility is the overarching, guiding principle for all that we choose to carry these days. I am surprised just how long it has taken us to reach this point, this state-of-mind, and to enforce it. What you can put in your head you do not need to carry on your back.
On this trip, in this country, there is one glaring exception to our lightweight creed and that is our small liquid-fuel stove. I am admitting to it now before someone else points it out. It is usually in our kit for good rules and good reasons: unacceptable natural fire risk, the courtesy to others of not leaving behind signs of a fire place (at least so their sense of discovery is as it was for us) and a lack of abundant natural fuel, wood that the ecosystem has to spare. Others, these days, might also admit a lack of confidence in getting something warming underway without gas and a piezo spark. You would be surprised. We are carrying a stove now for one reason, and one reason only, so we can make the day’s first cup of tea from our sleeping bags. That’s right, it’s pathetic but as our lives accelerate towards certain weightlessness we reserve the right to snatch a small comfort here and there while they still remain within reach.
This is the end of our walking for today, here at our seventh camp, with three more to follow. Then we will have completed our travels in these parts. This is a perfectly wonderful place to stop, although it is true, you could certainly describe some of our earlier camps as being in more dramatic surroundings.
We are at the lower end of a minor, open gorge. Almost all the sandstone terraces around the creeks and pools up on the plateau have a slope. The eye underestimates the tilt of these bedding planes. The smooth rock deceives and tempts a weary walker. Those who fall prey and set up sleeping quarters on such slabs can find themselves in the early hours either pressed against the bottom wall of their tent – usually no more than a mesh enclosure with built-in floor - or sliding further off their sleeping mat with each new, half-conscious turn from hip to hip. Tonight, we will camp on the level, sandy bank a little downstream.
What else needs to be considered? Behind me, on this eastern side, a sandstone cliff rises some twenty metres. It is sure to keep us in shade at sunrise but there is no need to think ahead about having to dry off dewfall in the morning sun. For the past five nights there has been not a drop of moisture condense on us. Arnhem Land has been in the path of an airstream, a dry airmass circulating up across Australia from the continent’s parched central deserts. Anyway, it’s warm here, well above dewpoint.
On the far side of the pool a wooded gully descends to the rock slabs at its edge. Allosyncarpia, woolly butts and northern salmon gums add some shade there. The allosyncarpia ternata are a real surprise to me, not in that they grow here - they grow nowhere else - but that they are a big tree with a classic, spreading form that reminds me of an oak or beech, quite at odds with all the other, mostly spindly eucalypts, corymbia and wattles up this way. From where I sit I can also see half a dozen silky grevillea with their distinctive bright orange flowers. They are in full bloom now across the plateau.
At the cliff base to my left a ramping ledge, barely wide enough to sidestep along, leads to an upper pool, one that is shallower than our swimming-hole. We will draw our drinking water there. The head-height waterfall between the pools has ceased to work. What remains of the last wet's cascading torrent is a trickle, a seep emerging from a fissure partway down the dark-stained face of the rock. Maybe the leak will continue like this until the next monsoon, or it may dry up completely. This afternoon the water, glittering in the sunlight, chases its every-changing-self down a stepped path, now clinging to an inclined crack in the rock then down a face, and so on, eventually to the pool surface below. Such a small thing is one piece of the whole picture of delight, the reward for the effort one makes to reach these places. The power of nature to capture our imagination is immense. Only the best of human creativity in music and art comes close and if you insist on maintaining an argument against me here I simply say that you need to get out more.
It is almost mid-July and, although this may be the coolest season in northern Australia, waterholes like ours are the perennial junctions on the routes of travel taken across this country, whatever the season. In this trackless wilderness it must all be done on foot. The sandstone skylines of Kakadu, untraceable in their complexity, certainly capture the traveller’s eye but the easiest lines to move along lie across the plains, sandy outwashes between the rocky outcrops. The open woodlands on this gently sloping ground between the towering ridges have been subject to dry season fire for millennia. They are mostly clear of matted under-storey that could slow a walker. The tall grasses that rapidly emerge and flourish following the wet, if not recently burnt, are in any case easy enough to push through. Here and there we must steady to scramble down across a watercourse, a channel concealed by scrub, a gutter really, draining wet season downpours across these flats to the bigger creeks. These lead then to the escarpment edge where they plunge more than a hundred metres, freefall into dark pools. From our vantage points high on the plateau rim these pools appear bottomless. In this dry season they drain out slowly, the water percolating along rocky riverbeds, through sand and out to the coastal plain.
It’s not the terrain but the green tree ants that cause the real delays to our walking progress. Doomed we are, unable to see all their nests before it is too late. How do they pull the leaves together across impossible spans to make their nests? We brush against them or go too close. Once the second or third of our line has passed by, the ants are primed ready to make leaps to the bodies of the followers, and in such numbers that, once attached, we are soon brought to a standstill. We throw off our loads and partially undress to rid ourselves of them. They invade sleeves, collars and the legs of our shorts in an instant. Fortunately, the sting of their bite does not compare to that of a bull ant for example, and neither does it seem to develop into anything serious.
Traversing this gentler ground towards a distant creek we adopt a strategy of ‘aiming off’ to ensure we make certain intersection with its course rather than risk missing it with a glancing line. The creek may be the one that leads us into our lunch stop or campsite pool. Waterfalls are popular destinations. In places on the way the woodland is dense enough that we can’t always see the surrounding hilltops. Along the creeks the going is varied: sometimes we boulder-hop down a dry bed, at others we stride out along rock terraces or push along scrubby banks, mindful of snakes. If a pool is confined between rock walls we must climb above these low cliffs to make progress. As the day heats up the appeal of the water becomes irresistible. We can avoid the scrambles by taking to the water, side-stroking along, shunting our floating backpacks ahead of us. Here the water temperature does not test you like that in the pools of the deeply-shaded gorges of central Australia. Up here there is no frantic exclamation of icy breathlessness, more like long sighs of blessed, gentle, cooling relief.
We walk as early in the day as possible, to avoid the midday heat more than from any real desire to move along onto new ground after an overnight camp. Then again, one can’t deny that the exploration that attends travel here is exhilarating. Yet, in the silver, pre-dawn light the air is cool and filled with birdsong. It is easy just lie there under the mesh, listening, dozing, sometimes briefly conscious enough to notice a star or planet fading out against the brightening sky. It can be much more than an hour after first light before the sun reaches down to our pool-side camps. Once it strikes directly the message of dawn is no longer ambiguous. It is now past the time to have begun the preparations to get moving.
This country is complex and it is easy to lose ones place in the big picture. Is this creek mapped? Is the rock surface we have just moved onto the one we think it is, depicted in the dark grey stipple on the map - so dark it obscures the weak brown of the contour lines behind? Or is this a minor rock surface the cartographer cast into the bin labelled map clutter, not worthy of depiction? The sudden change from dark green to light green on the map, from closed to open woodland, isn’t so easy to pinpoint at ground level either. The transition there is always more vague. Was that last rest stop five, or was it ten minutes? How long have we been on this bearing? Are we covering one, two or three kilometres an hour? One must keep track.
I find it impossible not to be distracted by what surrounds me. So much is fascinating and with camera hanging near-at-hand, easily unclipped from my shoulder harness, I have often found myself falling behind the rest of the group, losing touch. The scrub is dense enough that the others can move on out-of-sight in seconds. Fortunately, our walk is anything but a race, my companions are patient and appear happy to pause until they can catch sight of me on the move again. I will share my photographs when I get home.
Just how did the wind and rain achieve these haphazardly-stacked, pancake-weathered sandstone formations? They are just extraordinary, like nowhere else. Yet it is not the geology but rather the staggering diversity of the vegetation that makes it impossible for me to come to any ready sense-of-place here. One minute it is comfortably déjà vu – parts of the bush are like patches of the Darling Range for example, vegetation assemblages that betray poor and shallow soils. Then I see something out-of-place, that just doesn’t fit. A tall palm will do the trick. The shades of green, the shapes of the leaves and even the forms of the plant stems and tree trunks in this place range beyond experience, sometimes even beyond imagination. Maybe it is the combination of forms rather than any individual one. Is this temperate woodland or tropical rainforest? Both, and something else, it would seem.
I must also comment on the lack of wildlife up here on the plateau. I have been surprised. With no winter at these tropical latitudes and with temperatures that don’t plummet overnight to life-numbing levels (as they do further south), the reptiles have little excuse to lay low. Yet we have seen only one or two snakes and a few of just a handful of small lizard species. There are plenty of birds but at ground level few wallabies and no large lizards. In the light of our headlamps we have maybe seen the eyes of a single freshwater crocodile, but that was uncertain. I was up on the West Kimberley plateau three decades ago and all this sort of wildlife was common, every day. The only explanation can be the cane toad. It has been an absolute curse, yet another stupid, ‘we have the answer’ mistake by men who think a simple solution can exist for a complex problem, who threw caution and doubt out the window, wanting just to be seen just to be doing something.
Likewise, but happily, we have not come across other humans since our small party headed out on foot from the vehicles that brought us to the closest point of road access. That was more than a week ago and back down near the base of the escarpment, salt-water crocodile territory. I should point out that walking parties here are regulated by a strict process and permit system with routes and schedules managed to avoid chance encounters and camps in the same place, at the same time. Whatever the case, alone or not, I am usually comfortable travelling on foot miles from conventional assistance in country such as this.
There is something different going on here. In this top end country I sense a strange loneliness, something I haven’t felt before, in this place that is so different to the rest of Australia. I am sure it’s not about distance but I am not sure what that leaves for an explanation.
This land has been, for more than 50,000 years, an integral part of the ancient culture of the Australian Aboriginal. Signs are everywhere. The other place I have experienced a similar intensity-of-presence (but not the strangeness) is the Kimberley. In many of the larger rock overhangs that our wanderings lead us past we see Aboriginal rock art. The trained and observant eye will find much more besides. There are places here so sacred to Aboriginal culture that some of them, just a few, we have been asked to avoid, to walk around. As each day passes - and I don’t know about the others in our party - I can’t avoid a deepening feeling of respect for a people who have obviously lived in harmony here with country for countless, countless generations. We certainly do not come with that ability. With help we could probably gain some food finding skills soon enough but that would barely be the beginning of a permanent relationship. We depend entirely on what we carry on our backs and that makes me feel not so much a visitor, more an intruder, a person in a place where I can not belong. And, in the long run, life must be much more than just about survival. For most people, in most places, personal happiness involves a strong component of deep affinity for the place where they have chosen to live. Well, it does for me, and I don’t mean just where most of us lock ourselves away, in house and garden, suburban park or shopping centre.
That humans and the relentless weathering of this land have co-existed here for an expanse of time so great I find hard to relate to. As one of the descendants of the recent British colonial occupiers of this continent, a simple matter of fact, I am part of a culture with no such depth of history in this country, no back story. Elsewhere this does not seem to present me with a problem, in other wild country, places I have sought out and visited in recent years, well, over much of the course of my life in fact. In those I have been cautious, yes, but also comfortable, happy that I am well on the way to coming to terms with them, with the idea that spending more time there will lead to my acceptance. Have I come here too late in my life? Is my cup so full of other places that there is room for no more? I don’t think so.
I grew up on the Indian Ocean, in the south-west corner of Australia. I know that hinterland, the woodlands and forests, the streams and rivers, the rocky outcrops, heathland, and then the headlands and beaches, all like my own hands. These are places full of memories, with the traces of six generations of my own family, the fine structure of a settled life. This is not to deny those who came before, far from it. In celebrating nature there is also celebration of those who have lived in it for so long with a level of impact dwarfed by that of our own settlement.
No one expects to feel at home amongst the rock and ice of the tall mountains or the vastness of the high arctic, for example, although these are certainly places that can make the human spirit sing. My dislocation here in the far north of Australia is not that sort of ‘unable to belong’, exclusion by isolation and apparent sterility combined. Arnhem Land is immediately rich and fascinating, yet I still feel deficient, more so for being aware of the intrinsic comfort Aboriginals find in their relationship with country, depend on in fact, and their belief that their ancestors are present all around, in the very land itself. Perhaps I am just the time-traveller who suddenly finds himself in a strange world with its signs of a different culture and that is all I see. How can I bridge this gap? At least I believe that just being out here, like this, on foot, is where any attempt must start.
The afternoon has now run its course into evening. This land changes shape at nightfall. Other thoughts arise. These are cloudless days. The evening air is still. The last of the daylight, as if from a dying candle, contracts smoothly down below the western skyline. The purple twilight deepens to black and the land around closes in until only the faces at our cooking fire remain. Above, careless to our ground level entrapment, the night sky expands away to what I have come to recognise as my best relationship with infinity. Land and sky now meet only on the still surface of our pool where the reflected starlight exists just as far as its dark, rocky edge, and no further.
The southern night sky is truly brilliant, more so in this remote wilderness. It is a trick of this clarity that the dimmer, lesser magnitude stars seem hardly less luminous than the brightest. We have finished the evening meal, the fire has burnt down and now there is time to look up. The Milky Way extends below Scorpio and off beyond the Southern Cross, perfectly clear in its definition. Venus and Jupiter lie together low in the west, sinking side-by-side behind the even deeper black of the barely visible tree-top silhouette. Mars is up there drifting past the zenith and Saturn seems hooked on one of Scorpio's pincers.
Paradoxically, in this untouchable canopy lies a comfort I can’t find during the daylight hours here. Perhaps others also feel this, I don’t know, but I came to it early in my life. On hot summer nights at the beach I would lie on my back, on the sand, side-by-side with my family and my father would point out the constellations and name the stars. So familiar with the southern sky did I become that, ever since, when I look up I feel a virtual connection to others that I know have the same view but may be far away, family or friends. Is it possible for this feeling to also connect me to the traditional inhabitants of this country? I think so. This could be the scaffolding for that bridge.
And I wonder. With relentless development and change almost everywhere, if not outright ripping-up then certainly the cultivating of the places we all played in as children, with the destruction of forests I first truly discovered in my passage to adulthood, this view is one that can’t easily be taken away - unless you have been imprisoned in a life in the human anthills of big cities under layers of smog and pollution. Wilderness is a powerful agent for me and, in this I am sure that I am not alone. Coming to terms with its intrinsic value has also brought me to an understanding of the destitution and hopelessness of people who have become separated from their land.
On this night and under a sky so deep, the antiquity of this country seems doubly beyond measure. The starlight we see is ancient, grown so old from its long journey it defies contemporary relevance. But then so too does the pigment that flowed off the brush tools in the hands of this land’s earliest inhabitants, those whose rock art we have passed by today. Unlike the stars however, that pigment is here at our fingertips, in front of us, done by our own kind.
And so to sleep. Tonight it seems to come, not from contentment with what we know and can explain, rather from needing to prepare for the discomforts and unanswered questions that will give us purpose when life begins again in the morning.