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Discover Kakadu's Indigenous Rock Art


In Kakadu National Park, Ubirr is home to one of the most accessible and extraordinary galleries of indigenous rock art, as explored by Lee Atkinson.

Time stands still beneath the stony overhangs on the edge of Arnhem Land Escarpment. Here, where there are six seasons in each year not four, and the rocks are hundreds of millions of years old, the people of Kakadu have been recording their stories on the rock walls at places like Ubirr for more than 50,000 years.

Indigenous rock art turtle ubirr nt
One of the world’s most extraordinary art galleries, Ubirr was home for countless generations of the Bininj/Mungguyj people, who camped and feasted and gathered for ceremonies in the shade of the rocky shelter. The walls read like a menu of what can be found in nearby rivers and billabongs and on the surrounding floodplains that ripple with chest-high spear grass once the summer monsoon storms recede.

Art inspired by nature

Vibrant pictures of barramundi and long-necked turtles, goannas, echidnas, wallabies, waterfowl, yams and mussels –painted in ochre, clay and mineral pigments mixed with blood and fat –cover the walls. There’s even a painting of a thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), which scientists believe has been extinct on the Australian mainland for close to 3,000 years. Many are done in the X-ray style unique to Arnhem Land, showing the internal organs and bones of the animals.
Indigenous rock art ubirr kakady nt
There are also pictures of how the place came to be, of the Rainbow Serpent –Garranga’rreli –who sang the rocks and rivers, plants and animals into existence during the creation time and painted her image on the rock as she passed through Ubirr to remind people of her presence.

The Mimi

The Bininj/Mungguy believe that many of the older paintings were done by spirits known as the Mimi, so slender that they lived in the cracks between the rocks so the wind wouldn’t blow them away.
Indigenous rock art figure ubirr kakadu nt
The Mimi taught the people how to hunt and cook, and also how to paint, and there are several images of the strange stick-like beings on the walls of Ubirr. You’ll have to crane your neck to see them, though, as they are painted high above the ground, way beyond human reach, defying all rational explanation as to how they were created.

The Mabuyu Hunter

Many of the older paintings are obscured by the work of artists that followed, because the most important part of painting is not about the decoration, but the story that it tells. Like the tale of the Mabuyu hunter, another painting thought to be more than 2,000 years old. Mabuyu was a fisherman, and is depicted carrying spears and a bag full of fish. One day, after a successful fishing trip, some greedy people stole his catch and hid the fish, lying to Mabuyu about what they had done.

Mabuyu waited until they fell asleep after feasting on his fish, then rolled a huge rock in front of the entrance to their cave, trapping them inside. Unable to escape, the men who stole the fish –along with their wives and children –all died. When the rangers tell the story, it’s easy to imagine generations of children sitting spellbound as they learned about the consequences of stealing food and telling lies.

Nourlangie & Namarrgon

There’s also much more recent art recording first contact between the traditional owners and the Europeans including an image, thought to be painted in the 1880s, of a “white fella” buffalo hunter, wearing a shirt and boots and with his hands in his trouser pockets, as well several depictions of guns. The last major rock art painting created in Kakadu was less than 35 years ago, in 1986, although the most intensive recent painting period was in the 1960s at Anbangbang rock shelter beneath Nourlangie Rock. Here, Nayombolmi, also known as Barramundi Charlie, painted the story of Namarrgon –lightning man –the creation ancestor responsible for the violent lightning storms that occur every summer.
Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory
Follow the rocky track beyond the galleries of Ubirr up to the lookout over the vast Nadab floodplain –where water buffalo roam, jabiru dance and flocks of fat black and white magpie geese fill the sky –and you may just see some of Namarrgon’s children, the alyurr. Also called Leichhardt’s grasshopper, these bright orange and blue insects visit the park in massive numbers at the end of the year, during the build-up to the tropical summer –the Bininj/Mungguy call it Gunumeleng –and when they call, their father answers with dramatic lightning displays that herald the coming monsoon. 
Whatever time of year you visit, Ubirr is one of Kakadu’s best sunset viewing spots, and you’re guaranteed a sound and light show you’ll never forget. Join APT on the 17 Day Kimberley and Top End to experience the Rock Art trail.