Ubirr and the East Alligator River

Friday, Aug 07, 2009 at 00:00


“Look - do you think he’s dead?” The bloated and massive crocodile listed slightly to one side. Our Cultural Cruise tour guide edged the boat in closer and there was still no movement. The passengers guessing dead and alive were at first an even split. “Dead” I said, whereas my husband didn’t agree. We were on the East Alligator River heading upstream from Ubirr.

Ubirr is a small settlement near the East Alligator River with the small Border Store being the centre of business in the settlement. Here we booked the Guluyambi Cultural Cruise for the next morning and the young lady in the shop assured us we would see plenty of big crocodiles.

Cahill’s Crossing is a rock lined concrete causeway across the tidal river and is the access road to go to Oenpelli and further into northern Arnhem Land. It is approximately ninety kilometres from the river mouth and is subject to tidal influences.

Crocodiles were cruising the murky waters and disappeared from sight as they dropped below the surface. Despite warning signs, fishermen stood on the crossing and children played on the rocks at the edge, with fishing parents seeming oblivious to what the children were doing or to the crocodiles lurking close by them.

The tidal surge could be seen coming around in the bend of the river, and it wasn’t long before crocodiles were crossing the road in the shallow water to line up at the upstream side to await a feed of barramundi which were also soon crossing the causeway. A splash was all that could be seen as the crocodiles snatched the fish.

East Alligator River Guluyambi Cultural Cruise. Guluyambi means paperbark raft in the Gundjeihmi language. A lady greeted us and she was to be our knowledgeable guide for the morning. We certainly saw crocodiles – many four to five metre crocodiles lay low along the river banks. The young ladies from France were really excited as the only one who spoke English translated the commentary enthusiastically.

Our guide pointed out one crocodile to us, looking very bloated and listing to on side. Was it dead or wasn’t it? The bloating and the angle indicated to me that it was dead, and the opinions of the other passengers were divided. Edging the boat in a little closer than she should, we were within a distance that would normally alarm a crocodile into flight. This one remained motionless as our guide debated that it may have eaten a wallaby and be sleeping the big meal off, or may have indeed been dead. At close range, there was not a flicker of movement or sign of life, so we stayed on watching, with more passengers agreeing with those of us who thought it dead. After quite some minutes, this huge crocodile suddenly woke up and rapidly swum into the murky depths of the river. It certainly had fooled me.

We stopped on the Arnhem Land side of the river where our hostess explained pandanus weaving, dyeing and showed us various types of spears. The bright orange fruit of the pandanus can be eaten, but we were warned that it gives a sore mouth and throat.

Our guide described the many uses for paperbark. The bark is wrapped around a wet pandanus stalk to create a torch or a fire lighter. For cooking the bark is used to wrap food, such as a whole fish in for baking. Paperbark can be used as a cup or a basin, or as plates (with no washing up needed). It can be used as a mattress or blanket, and has insect repellent properties. Water can be found in nodules of bark on the trees.

The hibiscus tree drops its flowers into the river. The flowers are yellow in the morning, and to eat them will make you very sick. In the afternoon they turn orange-red and drop off, and to eat them will make you better.

This short river trip was packed with interest and we saw lots of large crocodiles.

Ubirr Rock (Obiri)

At Ubirr Rock there is a wealth of Aboriginal Rock paintings, with some of the painting being high on the rock faces, including the Mimi style. These slender red figures are the oldest paintings here, and are so old that they are said to pre-date the Aborigines and were painted by tiny Mimi spirits using blood. These aspects are similar to the Bradshaw paintings of the Kimberley, said to have been painting by birds using their wing tips dipped in their own blood. The ones viewed at Ubirr are not as complex nor as old as the Bradshaw slender and elegant elaborately adorned people seen in the Kimberley, and some of these at Ubirr may be later ‘Mimi copies’ made at a later date by Aborigines.

The Rainbow Serpent is one of the most powerful creation ancestors. There are many names and stories associated with the serpent across Australia, all of which show the significance and power of this mystical being within Aboriginal cultures.

Most of the paintings at Ubirr Rock are of the X-Ray style and usually of food such as fish and turtles. These are probably from around 1,500 years old to more recent, and are lower down under the sandstone overhands, including on the ceilings. Another painting depicts a white man wearing boots, and is probably from the 1800s.

Of zoological interest is a painting of a Thylacine which is high on the rock face. The Thylacine was once found on the mainland, but has been extinct for somewhere between two and three thousand years.

After exploring the many galleries, it is time to move high onto the pinnacle Ubirr Rock, overlooking the verdant green Nadab floodplain to the north. To watch the sunset from this pinnacle is a highlight for many visitors to Ubirr.

Read more detail about this trip and see all the photos in our 2009 Travelogues

Red desert dreaming

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