Friday, June 24, 2016

Arnhem Land 2016 Tour - Arafura Swamp

Day 3 - On the road Nhulunbuy to Arafura Swamp

First things first. Greg-the-guide had to go and collect Marjorie from hospital while we had breakfast. She has a really bad bruise below her eye and is a bit ‘woozy’. Still, she was good to go and we set of on the trek to the next Lodge. Basically you head out of town on the one road and keeping in the general direction of Katherine for 300 or more km before turning north again for what felt like about 300 more. We stopped for morning tea a a disused quarry, ate our cardboard-box lunch at a bit of a creek, took afternoon tea somewhere along the road. Our last stop, to stretch our legs and ease our aching backs and spinning heads, was at the Goyder river. One can only imagine this trip before they out this bridge in. And all of that was before we turned off. In all, 9 hours on the road saw us turn up at Murwangi Lodge, built on the old Arafura cattle station and right next to the Arafura swamp. When we say swamp, it's a billabong really, part of the Goyder River system, and in the morning I expected to see a spectacular sunrise and flocks of rare birds.

I did my best to beatify the old quarry we used for our lunch stop. Arnhem Highway, NT

Little creek we stopped t for lunch. Arnhem Highway, NT

The bridge over the Goyer River. Arnhem Highway, NT

We arrived after dark and had a late dinner at 7pm before we all went and headed for our tents. This place was to be the first of our ‘glamping’ accommodation: basically a huge tent built for two, with an ensuite, and made to look like a cabin. All band new and very comfortable, but, we are in the bush and right next to a swamp. Don't even dream of leaving the ‘window’ rolled up, the bities come straight through the mesh they use as a flyscreen and probably the canvas as well. So after double zipping all the windows, you retreated inside and double zipped the door flap behind you. They have thoughtfully provided insect spray so all points of ingress get a dose of that. The bed is very comfortable, the bathroom excellent and the full reverse cycle air-conditioner bliss. Just a shame that you are locked into a darkened canvas box for the duration. 

I lathered myself with insect repellant and went out onto the balcony at 6am to watch the sunrise, which almost didn't happen due to the fog rolling in from the swamp. Oh and did I mention the noise of the birds: screeching and honking and carrying on all night, right up to about 5:30 when they all went quiet. Someone insisted that they were Barking Owls, I of course thought they were all Barking Mad.

Day 4 - Muwangi Lodge aka Arafura Swamp

After breakfast we are split into 2 groups: one goes to the swamp for a boat ride, the others into the back of 4x4s for a safari. I was expecting to see heaps of birdlife on the swamp and a few crocs, but sadly, it was very, very quiet. We had two aboriginal guides with us, Frank who is an elder and Traditional Owner (thats TO, to the locals, of course) of the land and his son, Ricco. They ‘made’ the cruise by giving the talk about the swamp and its flora and fauna and what it traditionally means to him and his family. They did the usual things like pulling up lilies and showing how to eat the seed pods and chew the stalks, how to make a spear out of a reed and raided a crocodile nest to show us an egg, well at least one that they keep there to show the punters. We saw a real crocodile nose 200 metres away, a Sea Eagle and some Jacana. Highlight of the ‘cruise’ was watching a stream of crocodile bubbles come up the swamp toward us, right under the boat and continue up stream as if we were of no interest.
Ancient man meets modern technology. This is Ricco our guide taking movies.  Arafura Swamp NT

Arafura Swamp NT

Ubiquitous water lily.  Arafura Swamp NT

Almost as ubiquitous Sea Eagle.  Arafura Swamp NT

Follow that line of bubbles. That's the croc following us. The bubbles are from the disturbed lilies, not the croc breathing.  Arafura Swamp NT

A battered and well used crocodile egg.  Arafura Swamp NT

Frank and Ricco made a spear each from a reed. The second it's in their  hands, you can just see them out hunting.  Arafura Swamp NT

Ricco, spear in hand and looking like he just belongs right here, which he does.  Arafura Swamp NT
Back at base Frank and Ricco, and Ricco’s baby son Gerald took us for a walk around the station, starting off along the bank of the swamp. Frank told us how the ‘old people’, which literally means his ancestors, lived under the trees, gathered food and fished in the swamp. He said that during the dry, they used to build a sort of rock stepping-stone bridge to access the island in the swamp where they would gather magpie goose eggs. 

The Arafura Station was the scene of one of many atrocities carried out by early settlers against the indigenous people who fought to protect their land. The settlers would assemble a hunting party of stockmen, white and black, and literally go out hunting the local people, shooting every single one they found, men, women and children in an attempt to exterminate the pests.

11 of the 12 'clamping' tents. Murwangi Lodge.  Arafura Swamp NT

Right behind the main building is a Telstra mast providing a single telephone line via microwave link. It is built on the highest point which must be at most 30cm higher than the rest of the place. 

The problem is that when Telstra came in and installed this latest marvel of electronic communications back in the 1980s, they didn't ask anyone where they might like it, and especially where the aboriginal people might think it should go, they just stuck it in behind the house on that little bit of a rise. Or maybe it was put there on purpose.

Either way, if they had asked the remnants of that massacred tribe, they would have been told that after the massacre, all the bodies were rounded up and dumped in a large hole behind the main house and burnt, maybe 50-100 people in one mass grave. The hole was then filled in with a little bit of a mound to allow for  subsidence, and forgotten for 100 years or so. It may not be a traditional sacred site as such, but how would we feel if they built a mall on top of Rookwood cemetery because it was close to the roads or something?

Telstra tower marks the spot of a mass grave from an early massacre of the local tribe. Mwangi Lodge, Arafura Swamp NT
Outback Spirit Tours has promised to have it moved and to have the site marked in a proper and decent fashion.

After lunch, our half of the group went on the safari in the two brand-new purpose built safari type 4x4s. Frank and Ricco were our guides again and we stopped at various placed out on the station to observe termite mounds, tress, bush tucker and bush medicine. At one point we stopped to watch a water buffalo in the distance amusing itself by digging out a ‘wallow’ or large mud puddle into which it will lay and roll around trying to keep cool. We stopped at another wallow, buffalo not present, and they told us how the crocodiles like to visit while the buffalo is away. They sink to the bottom, hidden in the mud and wait. Eventually the buffalo will return and the Snap! lunch taken care of, provided the buffalo doesn't stomp the croc to death first.

Frank giving us the talk about termites and their mounds. Murwangi Lodge, Arafura Swamp NT

Water buffalo way of in the distance, making a 'wallow'. Murwangi Lodge, Arafura Swamp NT

Judy with the worlds tiniest shrimp. Murwangi Lodge, Arafura Swamp NT

This fellow became a bit too curious, especially after Frank and Ricco spent 15 minutes stirring it up! Murwangi Lodge, Arafura Swamp NT
This is also the place where the film 10 Canoes was made. Frank and Ricco were both in it and it delights them to re-enact the scenes and tell us all about their experience. Ricco thinks he may have been 11 or 12 but he's not sure. Frank has no idea how old he is. Calendars and clocks to these people are of little importance, and like the landscape, they are timeless.

After another 3 course gourmet meal we retired to our tents, still a bit bemused as to the destination being a suitable reward for that long and arduous trip in the bus.

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