Searching for Songlines – Australia

Finishing on top

My visit to the Northern Territory ended at the Top End. After a week in the empty spaces of the desert, Kakadu National Park seems especially full of life – tall jabirus and fleet-footed jacanas wading in wetlands, black cockatoos and emerald-winged kookaburras raucous in the tropical forests. I went out on to the Yellow Water to observe estuarial crocodiles, fabled as malign man-eaters; but to my eyes, they were proud and peaceful, unspooked by visitors and their clicking cameras. I camped in a comer of the bush with bandicoots and possums scuttling past my tent at night, and snake trails visible in the sand every morning.

In Arnhem Land, the Aboriginal-governed region east of Kakadu NP, l clambered over boulders on a sandstone outcrop above the village of Gunbalanya. For all my moving around and meeting people, it was the first time in two weeks that I found myself alone with a native Australian.


Danger at Sundown: A crocodile patrols the Yellow Waters at Kakadu

Michael was a friendly, nimble 49 year-old, who escorted visitors to see the rock art left by his ancestors – representations of barramundi fish, lizards, turtles, a rainbow serpent that can give or take life depending on its mood, and fairy-like stickmen called Mimi. Most were painted beneath deep overhangs where, shielded from the fierce afternoon sun, they have endured fifty years, five hundred years, even 20,000 years. Some of these daubings might be among the oldest creative expressions on the planet.

When we’d passed through a narrow cleft, the land levelled out. I decided it was time to hit Michael with my now standard big question.

“So, mate, what do you know about songlines?” He lookedback at me. No response. “You know, songlines,” I repeated. “The songs you sing as you name the land around you, and remember your tracks.”

“I don’t know anything about them,” he said. His smile was not of the ironic sort. We walked on. Before long, though, he decided to share a little more information. ‘We sing and dance during the ceremony.” “Can you show me?”

“No,” he laughed. “I cannot let the story out. If I let the story out, they’ll kill me.” Nonetheless, he did a little jig, smiling to let me know: this is as much as I’m telling. His smile was his tjukurpa. It was his way of saying: a white fella can only know so much.

Back at Yellow Water, after a glorious sunset, I met a part-native Australian guide called Ruben Jones, who gave me a tidy, tourist-friendly definition of the songlines.

“They’re a heap of things,” he said. “But essentially they’re how we get from A to B without a map. We sing so that we remember. Everyone remembers things better when they sing. You just have to sing as you go!” He’d love to talk more, he said, but he had a bus to drive.

Getting from A to B wasn’t exactly a ‘World Song”. But it was true, songlines were a heap of things. They could be a practical route map. They could be a journey in a pick-up. They could be title deeds. They could be a travel-writer’s flight of fancy.

Implicit in Ruben’s answer was the notion that every journey is a kind of songline. What about the one that tells of a white fella who soars on a jet-winged jabiru across the ocean, lands at a big red rock, swims in the pools where the rainbow serpent lives, crosses the desert in cheeky machines, and, finally, reaches the land of the boisterous black cockatoo, the cocky kookaburra and the serene crocodile. Thirty years after Chatwin’s inspiring travelogue, it’s a story well worth repeating, should you get the opportunity.

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