Tag Archives: mark lang

Ubirr and Nourlangie Rock

“People need to come here and relax, sit on country, feel the spirits of this country and go home and feel the same way.”
– Natasha Nadji, Bunidj clan

One of my favourite spots in Australia to sit, relax and feel the spirit of the country is on top of Ubirr Rock looking out over the Nadab floodplains and taking in the 360 degree view. The feeling is exactly what Natasha Nadji, granddaughter of Bill Neidjie, is talking about. The landscape and view is breathtaking and the cultural heritage and history is humbling and incredible. I truly feel the spirit of the Gagudju country as I look out over this landscape. I feel a strange connection to Ubirr, 4 visits can attest to that. I actually feel home.

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Ubirr Rock Panorama
© Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Kakadu National Park in Northern Territory, the Top End of Australia, is listed not once but twice as a UNESCO’s World Heritage site. Kakadu – or Gagudju as Kakadu is a European spelling error of Gagudju – is listed not only for natural but also for cultural values. I have written at lengths about Hawk Dreaming, a closed off non public site. In this post I will focus on two of the main public sites – Ubirr and Nourlangie (another spelling error, should be Nawurlandja).

Gagudju Country

Bill Neidjie - copyright Mark Lang - www.marklangscapes.com

The Gagudju country will tell you the story of at least 25,000 years of occupation meaning at least 250 generations of Australians have lived and died here. 250 generations is a number so great it is hard to conceive and is why I balk when people say Australia is a young nation with no history. Oldest land in the world; oldest still living culture. Gagudju people had already been trading with the Macassans sailing over from Indonesia, but European contact in the late 1800’s proved catastrophic to 25,000 years of culture. From several thousands living here the number was already down to probably less than 100 in the 1920’s. Today, none of the old Gagudju people remain. Bill Neidjie, see photo kindly provided by Mark Lang, lived for about a year at Ubirr when he was very young and he was the last of the original Gagudju. Fortunately Kakadu National Park starting in 1979 was handed back to aboriginal management and ownership so a new generation of Gagudju can grow up and learn Gagudju law on their land.

As you sit on top of Ubirr reflect on this and the fact that this is no museum. The landscape isn’t constructed. Ubirr has several major rock art shelters with some very impressive and important drawings and they weren’t brought here for an exhibit. This is real; this is a home. People lived here for 25,000 years and it’s still almost untouched by civilisation.

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Nourlangie Rock Panorama
© Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Almost untouched. Almost. There are paved roads. There are fences, signs, tourists, tour guides and rangers. There are opening hours for the sites. 8am to sunset. You won’t exactly have the place to yourself. Ubirr and Nourlangie being the two main sites of Kakadu are easily accessible with paved roads and car parks for coach busses so they get very busy in the middle of the day. It is a good thing as many people will come, experience and learn; but it can be a bit hard to ignore the crowd and truly feel at one with the country. Arrive very early or very late in the day to avoid the crowd. Also; the tour guides pointing out where a few scenes from Crocodile Dundee were shot should be banned! There are more important stories about Ubirr. For true untouched Kakadu you have to go to Hawk Dreaming. At Ubirr you have to work harder to take it in and ignore the people.

The rock art at Ubirr and Nourlangie is incredibly impressive. I am spoiled though having visited every accessible cave in Hawk Dreaming and experiencing amazing rock art up close and personal with just me and a guide, no crowds, no fences and completely untouched. I long for more when I view the art at Ubirr and Nourlangie standing on a boardwalk, behind a rail. You can’t sit in the cave and dream yourself tens of thousands of years back. You view from a distance in the company of tourists. Ubirr and Nourlangie are still incredible and do catch some of the aboriginal ranger talks, they’re fantastic. I’m just completely spoiled having had Hawk Dreaming all for myself twice. My dream is to someday be allowed off-limits access to Ubirr and be allowed to stay after sunset. Watching the moon light up the flood plains from the top of Ubirr must be true magic.

Photographing Ubirr and Nourlangie

Ubirr and Nourlangie can be as frustrating as they are fascinating. It takes a long time to get to know these places and create great images, Ubirr and Nourlangie will really test your skills for composition and shooting photos in difficult light. These are huge chaotic areas of savannah floodplains and rocks and won’t easily present some simplicity for you. It’s made even harder by the many closed off sections, the crowds, the opening hours. I still only have a few shots that I’m reasonably happy with and still; they’re not really art more like good stock images. Ubirr especially keeps kicking my behind every time I visit. Few photographers have mastered Ubirr and Kakadu. Mark Lang is at the top of my list, having spent 3 years here in the company of Bill Neidjie, his work truly captures Kakadu and is what I strive for.

I have presented two stitched panoramas above which are my favourites from Ubirr and Nourlangie. The Ubirr panorama is not from the top of the rocks, but at the beginning of the climb looking North towards Cannon Hill in Arnhem Land. The afternoon light is still harsh but has warmed a bit and creates shadows compared to midday light. I lucked out and had a few clouds, most days in the dry season have none but this was late September and the buildup season was starting. I used an ND grad filter on the sky to bring out the colour. The Nourlangie Panorama is from the gun-warddehwardde lookout and is the spot for a good shot of Burrungui, the upper part of the rock. Again; lucked out with some nice clouds and it’s early enough in the day to still have light on the rock. Later in the day this is all in shade.

Actually; I’ll dig out a nice old 1998 slide and present this as well. This is in January of 1998 in the wet season. It shows how green Kakadu gets in the wet and how dramatic the thunderstorms are. Also shows how I was just beginning to learn photography – and usually did bulls-eye compositions! I want to experience Kakadu in the wet again and re-capture dramas like these:

Ubirr in the wet season

Photography tips for Ubirr and Nourlangie:

  • The dry and the wet are two different worlds here as you can see. I recommend doing both, I want to experience more of the wet myself. The wet has amazing dramatic weather, everything is green, less people, but everything may be completely closed off and the humidity is unbelievable. The dry has clear dry days, but more people and less dramatic light. Try April or May just after the wet, or September or October just before the wet. Avoid June, July and August if you can.
  • As great as it is sitting on top of Ubirr, it’s hard to shoot anything worthwhile from the top. Everything is below you and the horizon so the image becomes very flat and distant. Climb down and get closer to subjects so you can compose with some foreground and middle ground.
  • Beat the crowd, get there very early or late afternoon! In the middle of the day you’ll be fighting tour crowds for position.
  • Ubirr is great in the late afternoon, enabling you to shoot north and east getting all the main subjects in the frame.
  • Nourlangie, the gun-warddehwardde lookout is only good before about 11am. Get there at 8am if possible. There are some great lookouts a short distance from Nourlangie like Nawurlandja and Mirrai which are great for sunrise and sunsets; I want to explore these some day.
  • Ubirr and Nourlangie open around 8am so sunrises are not possible. They are open till sunset but be aware the rangers kick you out as soon as the sun hits the horizon. They don’t want people falling off Ubirr in the darkness of course, but this means no dusk light for us photographers. I have never stayed at Ubirr for sunset. I had planned to, back in September 08 but being by myself at Hawk Dreaming with all the time in the world including dusk light and with no people proved too great a temptation!
    As you stand on the Hawk Dreaming savannah at sunset you can actually see Ubirr in the horizon and all the flashes going off on compact cameras set to automatic mode!
  • Check reflections off the rocks, they can burn out if you’re not careful as they’re usually the brightest part of a scene. Perhaps underexpose by about a 1/3 stop.
  • Watch your step at Ubirr! Don’t look through the viewfinder and walk as you’re likely to fall off or at least break an ankle.
  • Do visit the Warradjan Aboriginal Culture Centre as it is brilliant. Spend a few hours there and you will learn so much about Kakadu and aboriginal culture. Knowing a place also means connecting to the place resulting in a better experience and better images!

Last but not least, experience!

“If you respect the land then you will feel the land. Your experience will be one that you cannot get anywhere else in the world”.
– Brian Baruwei, Wurrkbarbar Clan

Hawk Dreaming and Big Bill Neidjie

I have been preparing this story for some time. It’s a story of great importance to me. It’s a story of great meaning to me. It’s the story of one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited and the story of an amazing person. Maybe that’s why it has taken me forever to write this. I’m not much of a writer anyway so I have been staring at the blank screen many times without ever typing a single word on this story. I never seemed to get started, couldn’t find the perfect words and afraid to use my own ordinary words for this extraordinary story.

Well I suppose I will never pen the perfect words nor shoot the perfect picture. All I have are my words; my pictures. So here goes. The story of the Hawk Dreaming area in Kakadu National Park and of indigenous Australian Big Bill Neidjie, Gagudju Man.

Hawk Dreaming in Kakadu National Park

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Hawk Dreaming Wetland at Sunset Panorama
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Hawk Dreaming is a small closed off  area inside Kakadu National Park in Australia and no other landscape and place has had the impact Hawk Dreaming has had on me. This sacred place is truly magical for me and I was lucky enough to get to experience it on my own tour – just me and the great Andy from Aussie Adventures. That really allowed me to take it all in without the distractions of other people – just the way I like it, just me and the landscape.

Hawk Dreaming map Hawk Dreaming is a closed off area and there’s only one way to visit – on tour with Aussie Adventures, the only company allowed to go into Hawk Dreaming. I’ve already written about how I got my very own tour of Hawk Dreaming in August 2007, click here to read it. Perhaps you have visited Ubirr Rock in Kakadu National Park? If you stand on top of Ubirr Rock and look North you are looking at Hawk Dreaming! Click the map on the right to see large size, click here for Google maps link.

My Hawk Dreaming

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Hawk Dreaming & East Alligator River
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

I spend 3 days in this magical sacred land and I tried to savour every single second and take it all in – and shoot heaps of photos at the same time. What makes Hawk Dreaming so special is that it’s just you and the timeless landscape. It’s the complete opposite of Ubirr Rock. Ubirr is very impressive landscape and great aboriginal art, but it’s loaded with tourists, there are paved roads, the art is fenced off meaning you can’t get close etc. All of this is of course necessary to preserve and protect the art and the land but it does take away from the experience with all those people, signs, paths, roads, fences etc. I am constantly reminded of reality and can’t really connect to the landscape the way I would like. It is ‘touched’ landscape.

Hawk Dreaming is almost completely untouched. When you drive around Hawk Dreaming, when you visit the caves and see the art everything is pristine and untouched. No people, no paved roads, no signs, no fences. You are right there and there’s no filter between you and 60,000 years of history! It’s a humbling and spectacular experience. Hawk Dreaming truly is the crown jewel of Kakadu National Park. The following panorama is a wide view over Hawk Dreaming, the East Alligator river and Cannon rock. Ok, there is a small path made by the Aussie Adventure 4wds but besides that everything is completely timeless, untouched and authentic landscape. For me it’s like travelling back in time to thousands of years ago. The smoke in the air is from bush fires but even that is authentic. No bloody powerlines or paved roads ruining my view here:

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

View from Cave in Hawk Dreaming Panorama
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

As you can see Hawk Dreaming is also one of the places in Kakadu where you get more open savannah country (naturally there are a lot of trees in Kakadu) and this allows for longer open views of the landscape and the sunset as well. This particular Hawk Dreaming sunset is actually looking due South straight at Ubirr Rock:

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Pandanus Palm & Termite Mounds
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

No other place, no other landscape has ever had that great an impact on me. Yes I love Uluru and Kata Tjuta in the Red Centre very much but there are too many people and taken as a whole experience I would say that Hawk Dreaming has had the most impact on me on my 6 trips (so far) to Australia . This is partly because Hawk Dreaming is just magical and carries at least 25,000 years of history and partly because I had the whole place to myself so I could really take in the place and forget about the outside world. Like I told Michael and Alicia at the bush camp, all I needed was an internet connection and I could easily live and work there for the entire dry season!

Aboriginal art in Hawk Dreaming

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

The cave I showed you the view from is just one of the many caves in Hawk Dreaming with  aboriginal rock art. As I mentioned before, Hawk Dreaming is very special in that you get to climb the rocks to get to the caves and then study the art right up close and personal. The shot on the right is from the same cave as the panorama view above, the cave wall and art is a few meters behind me. The shot clearly shows you no fences, no signs, no people so you can really study the art up close and discover how very impressive it actually is.

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

The X-ray art (like the big Barramundi fish where you can see the bones etc) is very detailed and have beautiful drawn fine lines (and on rock mind you, not smooth paper). At Hawk Dreaming I had time – and the whole place to myself! – so I could really take it in and let the place and the art sink in. It does truly boggle the mind to sit there and think that people have lived here for at least 25,000 years. The pigments in the paintings have been dated by scientist to be at least 18,000 years old. It saddens me deeply to think how fast Europeans with no understanding of these people wiped out 65,000 years of indigenous history of living of the land and protecting the land. The first humans arrived in Australia as long as 65,000 years ago and aboriginals have lived in Kakadu for at least 25,000 years. That’s 250 centuries. Took less than 1 century for that to be completely changed after Captain Cook and his so-called ‘discovery’ of a country where humans had already lived for tens of thousands of years. Europeans arriving in Australia was inevitable but at least we could have acknowledged the indigenous people of Australia and tried to co-exist instead of declaring it Terra Nullis – uninhabited, which translated to “up for grabs!”. Which brings me to a very important part of the Hawk Dreaming story, a very important person.

Big Bill Neidjie, Gagudju Man

Big Bill is a legend and unique among the Aboriginal people for many reasons – and he grew up in Hawk Dreaming! Here’s Big Bill, as photographed by Australian photographer Mark Lang, click to see large.

Bill Neidjie

Big Bill Neidjie at Hawk Dreaming
Copyright Mark Lang

A big thank you to Australian Photographer Mark Lang for sending me this striking photo of Big Bill and letting me use it on this blog. Please check out Mark’s beautiful photography – some of it from Hawk Dreaming – at www.marklangscapes.com. Mark has spent 3 years with Big Bill at Hawk Dreaming and is currently working on a book. Mark’s gorgeous shots from Kakadu and Hawk Dreaming are also featured in the Gagudju Man book about Big Bill, more about that later.

Bill Neidjie was one of the driving forces behind creating the Kakadu National Park in order to protect and manage his land for years to come making sure that indigenous Australians govern the national park. Big Bill has been awarded the Order of Australia for his services to conservation. Bill himself returned to live in Hawk Dreaming area in 1979 and is buried at Hawk Dreaming – and one of the caves in Hawk Dreaming has a drawing of Bill’s hand as a child. Jonathan Nadji, Bill’s son now lives in Hawk Dreaming and carries on Bill’s work of protecting the sacred land. Big Bill is also a legend for arranging and attending his own wake! You can read a bit more here on wikipedia and there’s a great article about him here including the wake story – but you should really let Bill tell it himself by buying his book!

Gagudju Man book cover Big Bill felt that something should be written down about the way aborigine used to live, the history should be documented for generations to come so the book Kakadu Man was born. It was re-issued last year as “Gagudju Man” and you can find it on bookshops in Australia or order it online here. It is incredibly fascinating to read Bill’s stories about growing up in Kakadu, aboriginal law, how the white man changed their life and the book also features gorgeous photos from Mark Lang – see the cover photo on the right. It is a fantastic book and must buy if you have the slightest interest in this or have visited Kakadu National Park!

Photographing Hawk Dreaming

I shot hundreds of shots during my short stay at Hawk Dreaming trying to take it all especially in the very short golden hour of the tropical Northern Territory. The sun light is unbelievably bright during the day and you only have a very short time of soft warm light and then it’s pitch black – so work fast! I feel I got some good shots at Hawk Dreaming but I could spend months here shooting, I definitely only scratched the surface during my 3 days there and hope to return and shoot some more.

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Cannon Rock at Sunset
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Click to see large size on my gallery! Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

Hawk Dreaming Savannah landscape
Copyright Flemming Bo Jensen Photography

More shots from Hawk Dreaming in my Kakadu Gallery.

Epilogue

If you made it this far despite my feeble writing skills then I’m very impressed! Hopefully I was able to tell you this story and convey how special Hawk Dreaming is without boring you to tears or you falling asleep on the keyboard. There really is so much more to tell but this post is long enough already and I’m not a good enough writer to truly express how I feel about Hawk Dreaming anyway. I’ll end by saying that if you are in the Northern Territory then you really should go to Hawk Dreaming! It will stay with you forever!