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Aboriginal rock art at Nourlangie, Kakadu

Kakadu National Park: The ‘Soul of Australia' has Some of the Oldest Rock Art in the World


Kakadu National Park is a protected area in the Northern Territory of Australia and is a tourist attraction known for its dramatic landscape, Aboriginal rock art, as well as abundant wildlife. The park covers a vast area extending nearly 12,000 square miles with many waterfalls and was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List for both its cultural and natural values. Recent archaeological findings have revealed the lives of early Aboriginal Australians in Kakadu potentially as early as 65,000 years ago.

Approximately half the land in Kakadu is Aboriginal land leased to the National Parks and is jointly managed by Aboriginal traditional owners and the Australian Government. About 500 Aboriginal people live in the park, many of them descendants of various groups from the Kakadu area with longstanding affiliation.

Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu National Park (Malone, N / CC BY-SA 1.0)

Jim Jim Falls, Kakadu National Park (Malone, N / CC BY-SA 1.0)

The park is located within the Alligator Rivers Region of the Northern Territory. Although there are no alligators in the area, Phillip Parker King, an English navigator who named the three rivers, misidentified the large numbers of crocodiles.

The First Explorers and Traders

The first people to visit and have sustained contact with Aboriginal people in northern Australia were the Macassans from Sulawesi who travelled to northern Australia to harvest sea cucumber, turtle shell and pearls to trade in their homeland.

The British attempted settlements on the northern Australian coast in the early nineteenth century as they were determined to secure territory before the French or Dutch, but their settlements were all subsequently abandoned due to lack of water and fresh food, sickness and isolation.

Aboriginal people have occupied the Kakadu area for at least 50,000 years and Kakadu National Park has some of the best examples of Aboriginal rock art in Australia which depicts the area's social, cultural and natural history.

There are more than 5,000 recorded art sites with Nourlangie and Ubirr among the most visited locations in the park.

A hiker looks over Kakadu National Park. Source: Photography by APD / Fotolia

A hiker looks over Kakadu National Park. Source: Photography by APD / Fotolia

Paintings of The Tasmanian Tiger, Extinct Over 2000 Years Ago

Ubirr is a rocky outcrops on the edge of the Nadab floodplain where there are several natural shelters protecting Aboriginal rock paintings, some of which are many thousands of years old. Food would have been abundant and this is reflected in much of the rock art here. The art depicts creation ancestors, as well as animals from the area such as fish, turtles, possums, and wallabies.

The rocks at Ubirr have been painted since 40,000 BC. Most paintings were created about 2000 years ago while some date up to modern times. There are three main galleries of art where national park rangers give talks.

Rock art all over the world is made for various reasons: to ensure successful hunts, honor the prey, depict religious ceremonies, or to teach youngsters about their ancestors. Often the meanings have been lost, but they all served a symbolic purpose which was usually to inform or warn others.

Rock art at Ubirr (CC BY 2.0)

Rock art at Ubirr (CC BY 2.0)

The main gallery is perhaps the most photographed with its paintings of white men, the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) which has been extinct in the area for 2000 years, and the willowy Mimi spirits which were painted so high up that the locals say the Mimi brought the rock down and painted the pictures themselves before replacing them.

The Rainbow Serpent Gallery is the most sacred site at Ubirr as the Aboriginal people believe it was visited by the Rainbow Serpent when she crossed the top end of Australia, during the ‘Dreaming’ while singing the rocks, plants, animals, and people into existence.

Burrunggui, (also called Nourlangie Rock and Burrunguy), is located in an outlying formation of the Arnhem Land Escarpment. There are a number of shelters amongst this large outcrop which contain several paintings that deal with creation ancestors and some that represent the Aboriginal Dreaming. Many paintings in the Burrungui area also depict European items and animals.  

Mimi spirits at Nourlangie Rock (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Mimi spirits at Nourlangie Rock (CC BY-SA 2.0)

X-ray paintings are naturalistic depictions of animals that show the internal organs and other anatomical features. One such painting created by Najombolmi, a renowned artist who lived from 1895 to 1967 and created around 604 paintings at 46 sites in Arnhem Land, depicts anthropomorphic figures of ancestral beings such as ‘lightning man’, painted in this style using blue, that’s said to have come from pigment Europeans put in washing to keep clothes white.

Najombolmi also painted at Nangawulurr Shelter, located on the northern side of Burrungui, which features many styles of Aboriginal rock art that appear in other sites around the region in one area. It includes hand prints, Mimi figures in ceremonial dress, ancestral beings, x-ray animals and dolphin-like creatures depicted in red ochre. It also features a sailing ship, which may relate to the early European buffalo hunters. Unfortunately due to the fame of the site for its amazing rock art, in the early 1970s tourists destroyed some features and even stole Aboriginal ancestral remains.

There are several accommodation options available near the Kakadu National park, mostly found in the town of Jabiru, as well as a range of services to cater to visitor's needs. Many of the park's sites are accessible by standard two wheel drive vehicles, but some areas require four wheel drive vehicles.  Aside from sharing their art, Aboriginal guides enjoy teaching visitors about the daily aspects of their culture on a park tour. Some tours explore the spectacular bush environment, searching for traditional foods and medicines, while others cruise rivers and billabongs.

Top image: Aboriginal rock art at Nourlangie, Kakadu          Source: EcoView / Fotolia

By Michelle Freson


Kakadu National Park. Northern Territory Government.

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2007. Kakadu and Arnhem Land. Wayback machine

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Hutchinson, M. 2018. Kakadu National Park: A Treasure Trove of Aboriginal Rock Art. World safaris

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Michelle Freson is a professional writer and editor and has spent many hundreds of wonderful hours working with and learning from fiction writers based all over the globe.

Born in July, 1971, Michelle has long since stopped working out her... Read More

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