The heat has already started to build by the time Ryan Sage rattles up to the lodge in the little white bus that is to take us into the heart of the Dreamtime, the ancient faith system of Aboriginal Australians.
It is not yet 8 in the morning, but Sage has already turned on the bus’s air conditioning, insurance against the scorching journey to come. Soon enough, he tells the passengers in his soft drawl, we’ll be glad for any cool air we can find.
I believe him. We are in Kakadu National Park, smack in the middle of the top lip of Australia. The equator is above us, the Tropic of Capricorn is below, and we are driving under a pitiless blue sky just a few dozen kilometres from the Indian Ocean.
Off in the distance, sunlight shimmers in the still waters of a billabong (a dead-end offshoot of a river), and beside the road, paperbark trees shed their skin. Blood-red termite mounds taller than me sprout like cathedral spires. Radioactive uranium ore lurks under the ruddy soil. Lethal saltwater crocodiles — “salties” — loll wherever there’s water. Kangaroos and their smaller cousins, wallaroos and wallabies, bound through the bush.
And hiding in the shaded underhangings of the ancient sandstone escarpment that juts across the landscape is one of the most extensive outdoor art galleries in the world: Kakadu’s rock paintings, both sacred and mundane. Kakadu alone features more than 5,000 documented sites of rock art, each containing multiple images, sometimes hundreds to a rock face, layered one on top of the other. Twice as many sites are thought to be tucked away in Kakadu’s hills, many locations known only to Indigenous Australians.
The rock paintings are much more than art. To Indigenous Australians, who arrived on this continent 65,000 years ago, some of the paintings depict ancestral beings that created the reality we see around us, manifestations of an Aboriginal faith system known in English as the Dreamtime or the Dreaming. The oldest painting still in existence, a charcoal design found just a few kilometres from where our bus is travelling, was drawn 28,000 years ago. Stonehenge, by comparison, began taking shape about 5,000 years ago. This means the Dreamtime is one of the oldest known religions.
But the rock art is not just the dusty archive of a primeval religion. It is part of an enigmatic, sophisticated animist faith that lives on. To many Aboriginal Australians, the stories the art tells are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. And that makes Australia’s rock paintings the text of the longest continuously practised religion on Earth.
When Indigenous Australians (a term that includes Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders in the northeast) first came to this continent, at least three other humanoid cousins were still walking the Earth: Neanderthals, Denisovans and Homo floresiensis, also known as “the hobbits” for their short stature. Arriving in Australia, just about where Kakadu is now, was the final leg for one branch of the great human diaspora from Africa, a chancy experiment in survival. Yet, despite the difficulties of a new life here, it seems that creating this origin story was a first order of business. The question that bedevils me is why.
Maybe that’s why I have yearned to see Kakadu’s cache of rock art for as long as I can remember. Deep down, I’m hoping it will reveal what drives us to understand how the universe came to be. But maybe I’m also trying to figure out where I fit into the story of the universe. In my worst moments, I fear that the paintings will find me unworthy to read their secret code.
Ryan Sage has stopped at the Ubirr border store to pick up the
last of the nine passengers who are joining today’s trek. I sidle out of
the bus to look around and hit a wall of heat.
It’s dawning on
me that I have badly miscalculated how hard it will be to see the rock
paintings. Kakadu is a World Heritage Site. I had expected plentiful
stores, hotels and transportation, a range of tour opportunities, hiking
trails and informative signage at scores of sites. I had envisioned a
red-soiled, subtropical Banff National Park. Not so. Kakadu is nearly
two million hectares and, like most of the top end of the Australian
continent, is a sparsely populated wilderness with limited facilities.
Greyhound buses run to Kakadu only a few times a week. My “lodge” is
really a campground outside the main town of Jabiru (pronounced
Jab-ber-OO) with cabins and banks of high-ceilinged, bunker-style rooms
(running water not included) for those without tents or caravans. The
biffy is communal.
Only a small fraction of the paintings are
available for public viewing. You have to know where they are, and you
have to get permission to see most of them. Even then, not everyone is
allowed to hear the stories the art is telling. Like the art, there are
layers to the stories. Sometimes, there’s a public story, then another
told to Indigenous Australians and then yet another told only to select
Indigenous Australians who have the right to hear it. In these circles
of knowledge, I am at the outermost orbit.
I had wanted to see
something a bit off the beaten track. When I asked park officials about
guided tours, they pointed me to Sage and the white bus.
he has all nine of us gathered at the border store, he looks us over. We
are a young German couple with their two children, a couple from
Sydney, a couple from Darwin (capital of the Northern Territory, a few
hours’ drive away) and me. Smiling, he says that we are fit enough to
see some of the harder-to-get-to rock paintings. To do that, we must
cross the border from Kakadu into the even more remote Arnhem Land next
door. Arnhem Land is owned by Indigenous Australians and is off-limits
to outsiders unless they have permits. We can go because Sage’s company
is owned by Indigenous Australians on whose lands the art lives, giving
us permits by proxy.
The border is the East Alligator River.
Tidal, it is navigable by Cahills Crossing, a narrow concrete causeway,
but only when the tide is low. After that, the causeway floods, washing
vehicles into the water. Four were swept away last year alone, Sage
It’s not just the flooding that makes Cahills Crossing
one of the most dangerous roads in Australia. Throngs of massive and
hungry crocodiles — not alligators, as the river’s name suggests — lie
submerged, eyes just above the surface of the water. A few months ago,
one killed a man who tried to walk across when the tide was high. A
memorial bundle of flowers still hangs nearby. Sage informs us that a
few weeks ago, a saltie propelled itself out of the water and just
missed decapitating a woman who was netting a fish out of the water.
has timed our journey precisely. The tide is rising, but the water is
still low enough for us to drive through. On my left is a truck, upside
down in the river. On my right, crocodiles. Sage estimates the largest
of them is four-and-a-half metres long.
It’s a relief to get to
the other side, into the forbidden Arnhem Land. The rock paintings we
are about to see were made available to tourists’ eyes only a year ago.
Perhaps 300 people a year get to see them, Sage tells us. I am conscious
that we are among the chosen.
X-ray paintings of barramundi (Asian sea bass) at Kakadu National Park. Photo by Universal Images Group North America LLC/DeAgostini/Alamy Stock Photo
Mimih, or spirit figures, at the Nanguluwur site in Kakadu National Park. The figure on the left with four arms is Algaihgo, the fire woman, one of the ancestors who created the world. Photo by age fotostock/Alamy Stock Photo
A painting of a kangaroo at Kakadu National Park. Photo by hbieser/Pixabay
Nabulwinjbulwinj, an evil spirit who eats females after striking them with a yam, painted at the Anbangbang rock shelter in Kakadu National Park. Photo by hbieser/Pixabay
Mimih, or spirits, painted at the Anbangbang gallery in Kakadu National Park. Photo by Thomas Jundt/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0
My need to see the rock paintings has
become more urgent over the past two years. I have been immersed in the
science of the universe’s origins, researching and writing a book about
the Earth’s magnetic field. In fact, I’m finishing the final edit of
the manuscript during this trip to Australia. My research has drawn me
to some of the top universities in North America and Europe and through
the 3,000-year arc of human scientific inquiry. It has taken me from the
kinetic inner workings of the atom to the wild contortions of our
planet’s molten core to the radioactive violence of outer space. I have
travelled, metaphorically, from the distant beginnings of the universe
into the Earth’s perilous future.
Of all those topics, the one
that has fastened itself the most tenaciously to me is quantum field
theory, physicists’ most up-to-date explanation of everything we see
around us. It is the universe’s origin story, written in math. It has
been difficult to grasp and, frankly, I’ve had a few false starts. In
fact, when I began the book, I didn’t even know I needed to understand
quantum field theory. But the more I immersed myself in explaining where
magnetism comes from, the more I realized I needed the help of
theoretical physicists. Their work is the most abstract of any
scientists’ I’ve met. It is the most deeply imaginative. I have come to
think of theoretical physicists as the poets of science.
to describe the reality they see so clearly is fraught with
possibilities for error. Basic scientific facts I learned in high school
are no longer facts. Matter is made up only of the elements of the
periodic table, like carbon, hydrogen and oxygen? No. The most basic
parts of the atom are protons, neutrons and electrons? No.
as the theoretical physicist Sean Carroll of the California Institute
of Technology explained to me, the stuff of the universe is fields. Not
elements. Not atoms. By fields, he and other physicists mean fluid-like
substances that ripple and fluctuate in waves or lines. Sometimes the
fields get tied up into little bundles of energy to make particles like
protons and neutrons, which form the nucleus of atoms.
to think that protons, neutrons and electrons were the basic building
blocks of atoms. But it turns out that protons and neutrons are
themselves made up of even smaller particles called quarks. We used to
think that electrons moved about the nucleus of atoms in fixed orbits.
They don’t; they move about the nucleus in orbitals, which are
three-dimensional, mathematical expressions of where they probably are.
You see what I mean about the level of abstraction.
line for us mortals in this difficult-to-grasp science is that the stuff
we see around us — my arm, my desk, the computer I’m writing on, the
red cardinal perched on the garage roof in my backyard, the planet, the
sun and the stars — is made up of fields, waving through the universe.
The fields are connected. So in a completely literal sense, we are all
connected to each other because we are part of the same fields. We are
connected to every stone, every creature, every cloud, every galaxy. And
not just connected. We are the same stuff.
Not only that, but
what we see is only a tiny bit of what’s actually there. Invisible
forces fill up what scientists used to think of as empty space. Empty
space — even a vacuum — is full of fields that are constantly on the
One way I began to describe it to myself was through a
simple experiment. A bar magnet has a north pole and a south pole. If
you take two magnets and try to put two norths or two souths together,
the magnetic field between them pushes them apart. That is tangible
evidence of the invisible, inescapable fields that surround us. When you
play with those magnets, you are playing with the universe.
had muddled through all this for my book, but I was still having trouble
explaining the timeline of how these fields came to be. So I emailed
Carroll and asked: “At what point in the birth of the universe did the
fields and particles show up?” It seemed a logical question. He wrote
back: “The fields and particles didn’t show up. They were always there.
Fields are what the universe is made of.”
My world shifted.
And for some reason, that sent me straight to Kakadu.
We are climbing in the heat. Sage,
in his navy blue shorts, long-sleeved safari shirt and wide-brimmed
bush hat, is leading the charge. Just as he didn’t mention Cahills
Crossing until we were on it, he has cannily not told us how far we have
to climb. Instead, he has distributed among us some of the
paraphernalia for our eventual tea time — cookies, cups, Thermoses, a
tablecloth — and has set off, carrying the biggest load of supplies
The sandstone, laid down about 1.6 billion years ago,
makes natural steps. As you look up, it’s like seeing stacks of vast
reddish plates reaching into the cloudless blue sky. Gnarled nests of
roots, fired by the heat into brittle bones, grab at our ankles.
pass a curved line of carefully placed small sandstone rocks. Sage says
that not even the local Indigenous Australians, or traditional owners
as they’re sometimes called, know why these are here. It’s hard to
discern a pattern, except that the stones are running somewhere, maybe
pointing to something. I can’t help thinking about field lines, physics.
Much of the surrounding sandstone is stained black from the buildup of
algae over the eons. But underneath the line of small rocks, there’s no
black, and that means the rocks have been here undisturbed for a long
time. We are looking at antiquity, Sage tells us.
climbing in the direction the stones are pointing, around a corner, and
then Sage stops short. He points into the distance. It’s a male black
wallaroo — larger than a wallaby but smaller than an average kangaroo.
It’s believed that fewer than 10,000 adult black wallaroos still
survive; the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which
tracks threatened species, puts them at “near threatened.” They live
only in Kakadu and the western part of Arnhem Land.
stark shadows the sun casts on the cliffs, this wallaroo is nearly
indiscernible at first, but gradually it comes into focus. Big-footed,
it hops leisurely from one rock shelf to another, long tail curved
behind it as a counterweight, stopping to graze in the cool of the
shadows. It’s a favourite meat of local Indigenous Australians, and Sage
swears us to secrecy. If we tell anyone we saw it up here, they’ll send
a hunting party.
After that, it’s up yet more thigh-crunching
sandstone steps and around another corner, and then we see, right there
in front of us, a magnificent gallery of rock paintings, tucked away in
the shade of a shelter in the cliff. It’s as if some of the reddish
sandstone plates had fallen out to make a gash a little taller than we
are, narrowing to a tiny wedge at the back. We head for it gratefully, a
small respite from the sun.
Every surface is densely covered
with pigment. Layers on top of layers. Most depict animals drawn in such
precise detail that they could be used in wildlife textbooks. There are
lots of barramundi, a staple fish of this region, with their
characteristic upturned bottom lips, painted in white pipeclay over red
ochre. These are the colours of the earth, fixed with blood or sap or
egg yolks, soaked into the stone. You can see inside the fish to their
skeletal structure, as if with X-ray vision. There’s an enormous
crocodile crawling over the underside of the shelter’s ceiling, and
other fish in orange and yellow.
It’s hard to take everything
in, harder still to know what each animal is. Sage, whose late
grandmother was an Indigenous Australian and who has long been a student
of rock paintings, says he can name every species he sees. But to me,
the overwhelming sensation is not the individual creatures or the
meaning of each one but the riot of life and colour.
see the negative of a left hand, fingers splayed, outlined in white
against the ochre, and I’m staggered by the image playing out in my
head. Someone, hundreds or perhaps thousands of years ago, put a hand
there, blew white paint at it and left this mark. How did Indigenous
Australians learn to survive in these harsh landscapes, much less paint
their faith on the rocks?
Around the corner, in a shelter so
cramped only a few of us can view it at a time, is a starkly different
image. It is a dark line of tiny mimih, or spirit figures, according to
Northern Territory’s Aboriginal Australians.
These mimih are —
all too obviously — male. They wear headdresses and are throwing spears
and boomerangs, gathered along a curving line of dots, much like the
ones we saw when we began to climb. The frieze has been carbon dated to
at least 9,500 years ago.
Aboriginal Australians here believe
that the mimih still live in the cracks of the rocks. Fragile, they
emerge only on still days for fear the winds will snap their necks.
Aboriginal Australians also believe that mimih did these self-portraits
and thus taught humans how to paint. And it’s the act of painting,
rather than the images themselves, that carries metaphysical and
spiritual weight, Sage explains. Rock art is a byproduct of the faith.