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Instead, they found what Robert Hughes described in his seminal work The Fatal Shore as “the dead heart”.
And yet, as the millions of visitors will testify, the Outback is not dead, but the beating spiritual heart of Australia.
And if there is a soul animating Australia’s beating spiritual heart it is to be found in the bright, red-hot, dry sands of Kakadu, which by itself attracts 200,000-plus visitors per year.
Here, there is rock art dating back to at least 60,000 years ago – and probably a good deal longer.
Nadab Lookout, Ubirr Rock.
PHOTO CREDIT: SHAANA MCNAUGHT/TOURISM NT
The rock art includes long-extinct mammals, the famed “X-ray” paintings, showing the animals’ innards, right up to the coming of one of the land’s latest wave of colonists – the Europeans, and their guns.
Ubirr in Kakadu’s East Alligator region is one of two popular Aboriginal rock art galleries – though in fact, it’s so much more than a gallery, but a whole series of them.
The main gallery has paintings of the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) which has been extinct in the area for at least 2000 years, as well as the svelte Mimi spirits, who, legend has it – were so fragile they had to dwell within the outcropping’s rocky crags.
The Rainbow Serpent Gallery is the most sacred site at Ubirr. Aboriginal people believe it was visited by the Rainbow Serpent when she crossed Australia’s Top End during the Dreaming while singing the rocks, plants, animals, and people into existence.
If you go, ensure that you take the extra 30-minute moderate climb to Nardab Lookout to enjoy the sunset – and hold your breath as millions of stars embellish the heavens.
The ionic ancient rock art at Nourlangie is equally famous.
Set in red rock cliffs, the Nourlangie rock art also offers spectacular views across the wetlands.
Visitors can take a 1.5km walk that includes the Anbangbang Shelter, which gave cover from the elements for locals who bedecked the walls with their stories and legends.
The sites feature highlights like the amazing Nayombolmi frieze, Dreaming figures and astonishing views from Nawurlandja, the high lookout.
There are more than 5,000 recorded art sites in Kakadu with Nourlangie and Ubirr among the most visited locations in the park.
Aboriginal Food Gallery rock art at Ubirr.
PHOTO CREDIT: TOURISM NT
Kakadu Tourism Communications manager Peter Hook says seeing the rock art is an emotional experience.
“In many cases you really walk away with goosebumps,” says Hook.
“The biggest thing about rock art there is proof of 65,000 years of continuous human habitation. The rock art gives that link to thousands of years of history. Right in front of your eyes. Not in a museum but in situ. And it brings the whole story alive.
“Rock art is really integral to the Kakadu experience. It’s that connection to heritage and culture. Rock art is really integral to the Kakadu experience.”
Hook says seeing the rock art is “an emotional experience”.
“It helps when you have an indigenous guide. They can explain it from their point of view, bringing in all the dreamtime history.
“The story behind it is incredibly complex and when you get that connection you definitely feel like you’re drilling down into this remarkable heritage.”
Hook calls it Crocodile Dundee country – made famous by the 1980s movie starring Paul Hogan.
His perfect day?
“Sunrise on Yellow Water Billabong – there’s a two-hour breakfast cruise – with incredible views of Kakadu and see some of the 260 different bird species and crocodiles up to 4m. If you’re lucky you might see a croc catch something for breakfast.”
“Then a dip in Gunlum plunge pool - the most spectacular natural rock infinity pool in Australia. It has truly incredible views. Then See Ubirr at sunset then have ‘Kakadu on a plate’ at the Mercure Kakadu Crocodile Hotel.
“If you’re going to stay at the Crocodile Hotel – it’s better to eat one than be eaten by one.”