Day 1 Saturday 27th May, 2017
Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir and I were picked up from the hotel for our 4 -hour bus ride to Nitmiluk National Park and boat journey into Katherine Gorge.
The bus driver’s commentary was informative and jovial yet cringe-worthy as his commentary reflected the classic one- sided version of Australia’s colonial and settler history; a narrative that unconsciously leaves out our First People’s history and experience. At times I reached over and touched Aunty Fay’s arm and whispered, “I’m so sorry Fay.” Embarrassed about the drivers ignorance and lack of sensitivity, Fay rolled her eyes, as if it happens all the time and this is nothing new. The driver’s voice continued to boom over the speakers and no matter how much we pushed our ear plugs ever deeper into our skulls and wedged our ears inside our blow- up pillows, there was no reprieve. The bus journey reached a fever pitched crescendo when the driver spontaneously inspired the whole bus to break into a sing-a-long to, “Walzing Matilda.”
Many of my Aboriginal mates will nod their heads in understanding. Others perhaps think, “What’s the problem?” Journeying through Australia with a Boon Wurrung Elder as my companion, I am now sensitized to an experience I was once numb to. The song is a cultural icon representing Australia’s Settler identity and history; the song brings happy memories of gatherings with family and at school. How sad that so many of our Aussie cultural icons came at the great cost of those who lost their culture altogether after the British chose to colonise Australia.
Aboriginal people were not permitted to sing or speak their languages or practise their culture. Our settler society hoped that Aboriginal peoples’ cultural story would simply die out from non-use, and like an atrophied limp, would one day drop off altogether, and in its place a white functional arm would grow. It is not the bus driver’s fault that he is not representative of or sensitive to both sides of Australia’s history. Past governing systems colluded in perpetuating this one-sided European narrative and our education systems were products of policies that sought assimilation rather than a celebration of cultural diversity.
Eventually the bus doors opened and we could escape, stepping onto the traditional land of the Jawoyn Peoples, whose Country makes up a not insignificant part of their 50,000 square kilometres that stretch from the regional town of Katherine to the southern part of Kakadu National Parkand and south-west Arnhem.
The stunning Katherine Gorge is made up of a network of thirteen gorges carved by billion year-old sandstone pillars towering over the water. Their living tangible presence instantly silences the mind. The rock face resembles the faces of great living Ancestors whose ochre toned markings are weathered by time and the dramatic rise and fall of a great body of water that surges through the network at the beginning and end of one of two seasons in the Top End, wet or dry.
The 1989 First land claim for the Nitmiluk National Park area has meant that the Jawoyn people are formally recognised as the traditional owners of this great region and the economic benefits now flow back to their communities and they are able to access and care for their Country and pass on their traditional cultural knowledge to future generations.
The Gorge cruise was an incredibly humbling experience and we both felt very grateful for being allowed to visit this significant site. As we left Nitmiluk the Jarwoyn tour guide, said, “Boo Boo” which in Jawoyn language means, “See ya later.” Not… “see you” which is a final goodbye.