Wildlife’s key cultural role
WORDS MONIQUE CECCATO
Wildlife’s key cultural role
WORDS MONIQUE CECCATO
Large crocodiles hold a special significance to Aboriginal peoples.
For thousands of years, Australia’s Aboriginal peoples have had a complex, interdependent and respectful relationship with all aspects of Country, including wildlife. To the Traditional Custodians, animals are more than just a food source, they are an inseparable part of the Creation story.
The level of respect for animals runs so deep in Aboriginal cultures that many species are considered equally as important as humans. This has ensured that not only are Aboriginal hunting practices sustainable, but that key species are protected by a kinship system that assigns clan members with animal Totems. Local Kakadu man and Yellow Water Cruise guide Dennis Miller’s Totem is a snake, assigned to him by an Elder from his Murrumbal clan. Despite certain species of snake and other reptiles making up a large portion of his mob’s staple diet, the assignment means he has a lifelong obligation to protect his Totem. ‘I don’t eat snakes, and I have to try and protect snakes,’ Dennis says.
Kakadu Tourism's Yellow Water Cruise guide Dennis Miller.
Watching a massive crocodile slide into Yellow Water Billabong is a thrill.
"We treat animals the same as humans, so they hold the same kind of level as us Bininj people. They hold power."
Kakadu Tourism's sunset and sunrise cruises provide opportunities to spot different wildlife.
The waterways are rich with bird and animal life.
It’s not surprising that snakes are significant to the Bininj, the Traditional Custodians of Kakadu and West Arnhem Land. ‘The Rainbow Serpent is a Dreaming story; it created our rivers, gorges, streams, and creeks. It lives at the end of a really deep billabong, not in Yellow Waters, but behind the lodge,’ Dennis says.
The Rainbow Serpent is said to be responsible for creating the water courses.
The giver of life through its association with water, the landscape-creating serpent – known as Bolung or Almudj in Kakadu, and Ngalyod in West Arnhem Land – is highly revered in Aboriginal cultures. It features heavily in ancient rock paintings across Australia and continues to be used in modern Aboriginal artworks. ‘Snakes are in all their artwork up here,’ says Sab Lord, an experienced Top End tour guide and son of the pioneering buffalo hunter John Lord. Sab runs small private tours in Kakadu and Gumbalanya (West Arnhem Land), collaborating closely with the Gunwinggu people.
You will see wildlife's importance highlighted at rock art sites during a Lords Kakadu and Arhem Land Safari.
Of course, wildlife is a vital food source for Aboriginal peoples who have successfully lived off the land for thousands of years. On Gunwinggu Country, magpie goose is frequently on the menu. ‘It’s their favourite food where I am,’ Sab says. The birds are hunted around Wurrkeng (the cold season, from June to August) when they feed on water chestnuts. It gives the lean meat – similar to kangaroo, only finer in texture – a rich, yet delicate, flavour.
Magpie geese are a regular food source.
Something that he’s not yet tried, but has had offered to him many times by the more coastal clans of West Arnhem Land, is dugong. Dugong is considered prized meat in those parts, along with turtle and, less often, emu. On Gunditjmara Country, in Victoria’s south-west, the most prolific source of protein was eel. ‘In Warrnambool, the eels made their way up the river, then they made their way to the Hopkins Falls,’ explains Paul Wright, a Gunditjmara/Kirrae Wuurong man and cultural development manager at Tower Hill’s Worn Gundidj.
‘They went so far up that they made their way to a place called Lake Bolac.’ The eel migration not only sustained the local Gundijtmara people for more than 65,000 years, but also formed the basis of their trade.
Stunning views from Von Gerrard's Lookout at Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve.
‘Smoked eel was one of our staple diets as well as our main trade, Paul says. ‘We’d take the eel through the gills, wedge it inside a hollow tree, then make the fire down below and let them smoke away for a few days. We traded them from Victoria into South Australia and the Central Deserts.’
Tower Hill is home to the oldest aquaculture system in the world, a series of channels and weirs created in the volcanic rock that the Gundijimara people used to collect eels.
Colonisation upset the natural balance of the land and the eel population dwindled. Despite the Fisheries and Wildlife Department’s best efforts to reinvigorate the waterways and surrounding land in the 60s, the species never repopulated. Now, all that’s left is the legacy, living on in the land and the stories passed on by Paul and his clan.
Gundijtmara people's strong connection to the land and wildlife continues.
Emus, koalas and kangaroos are just some of the animals that call the wildlife reserve home.
There are plenty more yarns from where these came. Learn more about Aboriginal peoples' relationships with native Australian animals on these bespoke tours.
Yellow Water Cruise with Kakadu Tourism
You'll find Yellow Water Billabong at the end of Jim Jim Creek in Kakadu National Park. Kakadu Tourism, which is 100 per cent Aboriginal-owned and operated, has exclusive use of the waterway and runs year-round cruises guided by Murrumbul man Dennis Miller. Over the course of a 90 or 120-minute cruise, learn about the local history and Songlines, play Spot the Croc, and marvel at soaring eagles searching for prey.
Lords Kakadu & Arnhemland Safaris
See first-hand how wildlife Totems are used in the artwork of the Kunwinjku people during a visit to the Injalak Arts and Crafts Centre. As part of your tour of Kakadu and Arnhem Land, you’ll have the opportunity to visit the not-for-profit, Aboriginal-owned social enterprise, meet the artists and hear the stories behind their art.
Image: Tourism NT/Felix Baker
Worn Gundidj @ Tower Hill
Two hours at Tower Hill seems barely enough time to skim the surface of the Gunditjmara people's rich culture, but Paul Wright manages to fit in a lot of insights into Indigenous cultures and practices as he guides you through the wildlife reserve. You will learn about the 6,000-year-old art of eel herding and sample the best of the earth’s bounty as you tour the largest dormant volcano in Victoria, home to many of the region’s shy animals.