Arnhemland Safari Camp
The Tasmanian tiger disappeared from the Top End thousands of years ago, but you can see one painted on the rock walls of western Arnhem Land, just a couple of kilometres from Davidsons Arnhemland Safari Camp, the centrepiece of a 700-square-kilometre reserve in western Arnhem Land leased from the traditional owners.
The standard introduction to the wildlife at Mount Borradaile is the late afternoon champagne cruise on Cooper Creek. On my first outing, as we motor through the paperbarks, a white-breasted sea eagle swooshes overhead with a catfish still wriggling in its claws. eagles regard us with regal disdain. In a space of about two kilometres we pass half a dozen big salties, warming themselves on the muddy banks or on rock ledges that ramp into the water. Mid year is prime time for crocodile viewing, when the weather is cooler and the animals spend more time on the banks, absorbing heat from the sun.
Sensational as the birds, the crocs and the natural environment are, they pale by comparison with the rock art of Mont Borradaile. The greatest concentration of artworks is located in an area known as “Major Art”, a big sandstone platform honeycombed with grottoes and caves. Several styles of art are represented, from primitive stick figures to vastly detailed “X-ray” paintings that show the internal organs of fish, kangaroos and humans. Some show contact with gaff-rigged trading ships from Makassar, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
It is this richness and diversity of Aboriginal heritage that most differentiates Mount Borradaile from the visitor experience at Kakadu.
Davidsons Arnhemland safari camp consists of a couple of dozen cabins surrounding a central dining and leisure pavilion. Propped on stilts, the steel-framed cabins are spacious and equipped with fans, proper bathrooms and solar hot water. Above waist level there’s nothing but insect screen between you and the great outdoors, but the cabins are widely spaced and only the local wallabies watch.
The impresario behind Mount Borradaile is Max Davidson, a one-time buffalo hunter and safari guide who spent much of his adult life knocking about in sweaty and remote parts of the Top End.
Max now employs Aboriginal guides, and this brings another dimension to the experience. My guide for much of my time at Mount Borradaile is John Ryan, originally from Gove, at the other end of Arnhem Land, now resident in Millingimbi. It’s John who guides me through Major Art, deciphering the iconography of mimi spirits, file snakes, dugongs, barramundi and long-neck turtles. At head height, picked out in faded red ochre, is an alien figure with spiked hair flaring from its head, painted upside down. “Maybe first time, seeing this one,” says John. What I think he means is that I might be the first non-Aborigine to ever set eyes on this painting, and just that possibility is enough to take me into a Dreamtime all of my own.