Part One: Songline – The Jatbula Trail

Definition of Songlines in Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 book “The Songlines”:
“… the labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as ‘Dreaming-tracks’ or ‘Songlines’; to the Aboriginals as the ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law’ … Aboriginal Creation myths tell of the legendary totemic being who wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path – birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes – and so singing the world into existence.”

Adam Williams on the Jatbula Trail

Adam Williams on the Jatbula Trail

Trek Tours Australia advertised the Jatbula Trail as a 6-day 62 km “full pack bushwalking adventure, taking us far away from city life and immersing us into (an) ancient wonderland.” The trail would follow a Jawoyn Songline through the Nitmiluk National Park, following the Arnhem Land Escarpment “through shady monsoon forests, past spectacular waterfalls and their crystal clear swimming pools and… stunning Aboriginal rock art sites… (camping) in some of the most spectacular wilderness country in Australia.”

I can vouch that the trek lived up to its promise in every way.

However I had not anticipated the toughness on a 64-year-old frame of a daily 10 km plus slog with a 17 kg weight backpack in 40° Centigrade heat. On the first day, four of our number dropped out – two after they saw the temperature forecast, another two evacuated after heatstroke climbing the escarpment. Our ten-person group suddenly had become six. As I plodded along the endless paths through indistinguishable eucalyptus and gum tree shrubs or scrambled up rocky outcrops, or over streams – the others already way ahead of me and long out of sight – I sometimes wondered if I was up for it.

Companions on the trail: (top l to r) Lucy, Adam, Stella, Darrell (bottom l to r) Sue Ellen, Michelle, Alan, Kate

Companions on the trail: (top l to r) Lucy, Adam, Stella, Darrell (bottom l to r) Sue Ellen, Michelle, Alan, Kate

Extract from Adam’s journal, 21 Aug 2017 Day Two, Biddlecombe Cascades to Crystal Falls

“ The heat has become formidable. Kate and Stella [our guides] are very aware of the danger, and insist that we put rehydration tablets in our drinking water to replace the lost salt due to excessive sweating. I gather 40° C is unusual for August… Kate came back from a radio call to tell us that two other groups in Arnhem Land had also had members evacuated. Later, when we were swimming off our morning’s walk in a rock pool, a helicopter flew over us seeking a place to land. Kate and Stella went to the Launchpad to find that the three young women whom we had met last night had also given up the trail. The heat was too much for them. My walking companions Michelle, Darrell, Sue Ellen and I watched the chopper from the water. It hovered like a vulture seeking its prey. The joke was whom would it come for next? After my ignominious late arrival at the Crystal Falls campsite, shepherded in by Kate, I felt that I must be considered a candidate….”

I’m afraid I was too stubborn to give up, but more importantly, I was fortunate in my guides and companions. Kate and Stella, eagle-eyed, ever professional and solicitous, were ever encouraging and attentive, and by the end had even injected a bit of camp trail competence into me. My fellow trekkers were never anything but kind and patient. Humour always prevailed. “You’ve done an Adam,” said one of our party to Stella, amid laughter when once she misjudged her seating and took a tumble off a log. They’d got used to my gawky falls by then, sometimes with full pack. Alan Jones, perhaps the most experienced of hikers among us would shake his head in disbelief as he watched me struggling to fold my tent each morning, and tell me, “You’re an accident waiting to happen”– but he always kept a protective eye over me, like a sergeant major with an incorrigible cadet in his platoon. When at the end of the trail I staggered last into the car park at Edith Falls Camp, I was cheered and clapped (I hoped not too ironically!).

I consoled myself during these prickings of my vanity with the thought that it would not have been the ‘pilgrimage’ I was looking for if it had been easy – and, if anything, my exhaustion had put me into a sort of exalted state in which I could appreciate the wonder of what we were experiencing more clearly.

Extract from Adam’s journal, 22 Aug 2017 Day Three, Crystal Falls to Seventeen Mile Falls

“The night sky overwhelms me. With only a sliver of a moon, there is nothing to hide the grandeur of the stars. For the first time ever in my life I have become familiar with the Milky Way. It is thrilling to see so clearly the two channels leading away from the little peninsula of Cygnus. After a dinner by candlelight on rocks by the river, we made our way back to our camp site, which today is not shaded by trees, and Stella pointed out the Aboriginal Dreaming sign of the Emu, delineating the gigantic bird that stretches its body over the Milky Way, its beak by the Southern Cross, its long neck passing Alpha Centauri, its folded wings stretched over Scorpius and its legs stretching way down beyond Sagittarius. Not so used to the night sky from its southern perspective, it is delightful to make out the constellations that I know in the north, particularly when each morning, waking pre-dawn, Orion is right above my head. What joy to have it so stark and clear, without the pollution of light and visible from my sleeping bag! All I have to do to own the sky is put on my glasses and look up through the mosquito net.”

Tents at Sandy Pool Camp

Tents at Sandy Pool Camp

Extract from Adam’s journal, 24 Aug 2017 Day Four, 17 Mile Camp to Sandy Pool Camp

Nature has been displaying itself in its every form, from grand spectacle of cliffs and horizons to the equally spectacular creations of termites. While most of our walk has been through woodland or wild meadow, we are in fact skirting the edge of a huge escarpment, so are occasionally surprised by unrestricted views of uninhabited bush land stretching hundreds of miles below us. When yesterday we posed on rocks in front of magnificent cliffs, ribboned with white cascades, we felt tiny in such vastness. It was as if we were being given an object lesson of human insignificance.

 

This is in contrast to the intricate wonder of the microcosmic world, which Stella and Kate, both keen naturalists, unfailingly point out to us. Every tiny flower seems to have a story, and every tree a function in Aborigine life and lore. As days go on the blank forest becomes more distinguishable, and alive. Each plant, each tree, each insect, each bird has a complementary role to play in some complicated dance. This is no wilderness or desert. Life, like water, is moving unseen around us. There are times when I am stopped in my tracks, enchanted. Once, just off the path, we came upon a nest of a bower bird, named so because the nest was shaped like a bridal arch, meticulously furnished with sticks and leaves, the ground around it shining with neatly placed white pebbles, each one picked for its beauty and carried here in its beak, the object of all this persistence and ingenuity to make a beautiful home, in order to entice a mate.

 

Bower bird’s nest

Bower bird’s nest

They say that Songlines are journeys marked by destinations. The music and rhythm within the song is a map describing the paths between sacred waypoints. At its simplest level that means water sources because they are the source of life. The great beauty of the Jatbula Trail lies in the waypoints, each one a natural temple. This may not be a standard pilgrim’s route, but there is no denying that in local folklore this is a sacred way.

 

Crossing the river under the shade of bats

Crossing the river under the shade of bats

Looking back, there was something mythical even about the starting point of the journey on our first day at Nitmiluk. Leaving our car, we gathered in a clearing to pack up our rucksacks for the trek. In the hot noon sun it seemed surprisingly shady. Looking up I saw why. Hanging on every branch of every tree, like departed souls or shadowy omens from another world, thick clusters of papery black fruit bats were observing us, occasionally screeching, or dropping off to circle over our heads before returning to their perches. A small motorboat was waiting to ferry us across the narrow crocodile-infested river that led to the starting point of the trail. Startled by the apparitions of the bats, I suddenly had a vision of the River Styx, and boarding the boat I half expected a bearded Charon would demand a coin from each of us before poling us off to the Underworld – but I needn’t have worried. Reality returned in a blaze of sunlight as the boatman, a handsome Jawoyn in a green uniform gunned the engine and, grinning cheerfully, welcomed us to his tribal territory.”

By the end of the walk, exertion and life in the open had done its work. I felt sturdier both mentally and physically, imagination freshened by natural beauty and spirit inspired by good fellowship. I had not lost the feeling however that there had been more than one occasion on the journey, when stumbling suddenly on landscape more than usually ethereal, or in that exhausted state when consciousness melds with dream, and senses with the metaphysical, I had touched something numinous. This revealed itself in the hundreds if not thousands of years old Jawoyn Rock Paintings we occasionally came across en route – not so much in the quality of the art (I knew that the Kimberley rock paintings would be on a different scale of artistry) but in their location.

Extract from Adam’s journal 21 August 2017, Day Two Biddlecombe Cascades to Crystal Falls

“The paintings under the eaves of rock with their ‘X-Ray’ figures of people, kangaroos and monsters were charming. What struck me more though was the sheer beauty of the monumental rock hill, shaded at its base by palm trees. It had the sanctity of a church. We could clamber over its stones and peer into its crevices and each painted shape or handprint seemed like an icon or a stained glass window. I noticed in my companions’ expressions as they gazed up in wonder the same sense of awe that I was certainly feeling.”

Jawoyn Rock Art Temple

Jawoyn Rock Art Temple

Extract from Adam’s journal 22 August 2017, Day Three Crystal Falls to Seventeen Mile Falls

“Halfway through the morning we descended into a hidden valley called The Amphitheatre, and here we found a veritable cathedral. There had been no clear sign of anything different in the foliage that we had been passing through – gum, eucalyptus, more eucalyptus. Its entrance was hidden, but suddenly Kate told us to dump our packs and descend down and over the rocky ledge below. There followed a rough clamber over large stones, into what seemed like a dense jungle. Suddenly we saw a figure of a comical ogre-like half-man, painted pink against the yellow sandstone, gesturing us deep into the dark gorge. As we descended, it was through galleries of paintings that ringed the narrow valley. Clearly this was a holy place, a Jawoyn Delphi. We crouched by the stream that gurgled along its floor, talking quietly, reverent of these natural cloisters.”

We did not need paintings, however, to appreciate the mystery. Over time came the realization that the whole trail had merged into a pattern into which we tiny stragglers walking its ill-defined paths were elements of a bigger picture in which earth, sky, water, forest and wildlife were all connected. Unlike my previous pilgrimages, there were no shrines to gods or kami, there was little identifiably shaman. The sense of all pervading spirit was more abstract, a part of Nature, it WAS Nature, and by some mysterious process, we seemed to be one with it.

Adam Williams - Jawoyn Rock Art Temple

Adam Williams – Jawoyn Rock Art Temple

Extract from Adam’s journal, 25 August 2017, Day Six Sweetwater Pool to Leilyn (Edith Falls)

“It was only a four hour walk from our camp to Edith Falls, but it was still difficult in places, a hard climb over jagged rocks as we left camp at 7 am. After that, in the cool of the morning, I managed to keep pace for a while, but the “meadow land” we were passing through had no shade and by the time we came to the halfway rest stop at a place called Long Pond, I was exhausted and as usual came limping in at the rear, while the others were already sunning themselves at a most beautiful rock pool. I found a place in the rocks and collapsed. In a moment I had relaxed into a sort of tired trance. The water cascading over the small falls, and indeed over my tired head and shoulders, was soporific, the deep reds and browns of the rocks beautiful. I suddenly felt that everything was “just right”. If I were to “sing” a place of beauty into existence after a hard walk through a parched desert, I imagined I would conjure something much the same. The sounds and the colours, of water, wind and bird, were all in concert, and linked to the country that had come before. For a precious few moments I found myself being absorbed into Dreamtime, or what I thought might be Dreamtime. I sensed a unity and a meaning, almost a portal to a parallel world that seemed to vibrate through me like electricity.”

The Long Pond, after immersion

The Long Pond, after immersion

At the time it felt like a spiritual experience, not unlike the sort of mysterious raptures and epiphanies which mediaeval pilgrims were prone to describe during their pilgrimages. It seems a little imbecile now as I write this, far removed by time and distance, with the smog of a big city outside my window, but I can’t deny that for five or ten minutes, I felt that I understood, was indeed privileged to be part of, The Song.

To be continued…

Leave a Comment

*