A Voyage in Time to Arnhem Land
In October 2006, I had the pleasure of sailing on the Orion, a 100-passenger luxury cruise ship, on its inaugural ten-day voyage from Darwin, along Australia’s rugged north-central coastline, through the Torres Strait, down the eastern coast to Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef, and finally to Cairns. This “Art of Ancient Arnhem Land” cruise was so successful that Orion was nominated for several tourism awards based on the accolades received for this unique sailing adventure. Orion will also offer a similar itinerary in October 2007. If you are interested, you’ll find more information at www.orioncruises.com.au.
Three of us from the U.S. who are involved in Aboriginal art were invited as special guests of Orion. The other passengers were all Aussies, and the excellent crew was mostly Filipino, with a delightful British captain. The ship itself is beautifully-appointed, with luxurious staterooms, an elegant dining room as well as comfortable decks for dining and lounging, and a well-equipped theatre for the outstanding lectures by top naturalists and Aboriginal art and culture experts who traveled with us.
The ten days were filled with visits to Aboriginal communities and art centers, hikes into the “stone country” to see ancient rock art, dating from as long as 50,000 years ago, as well as more recent cave drawings of ships and explorers that commemorate “first contact” or the first time that Aboriginal people encountered outsiders. This country is sparsely inhabited but rich with ancestral sacred sites, which the Aboriginal people respect and protect from incursion by outsiders. There are also numerous ceremonial places that celebrate the ancient beings Aboriginal people believe created the earth and everything under, on, and above it. The Aboriginal owners of the land were extraordinarily gracious to us, inviting us to places seldom if ever seen by visitors.
At Yirrkala, the Aboriginal elders welcomed us for a day experiencing their culture. When we arrived, they “smoked” us, fanning the air around each of us with burning eucalyptus branches, while they chanted. They painted our faces with traditional designs, danced and sang, and showed us elements of men’s and women’s ceremonies, as well as how they weave baskets, throw spears, and grind ochres for painting. The artists of Arnhem Land create some of the most exciting contemporary art in the world. Whether you are interested in paintings on canvas or bark, works on paper, carvings, woven objects, textiles, or even didgeridoos, you can find incredible examples at the various communities and art centers of Arnhem Land.
It is impossible to describe this fascinating part of Australia in a few brief paragraphs, but if you visit, you will find a birder’s paradise where you can watch sea eagles soar and the giant broglas and jabirus feed, remote places where saltwater and freshwater crocodiles swim and sun on the banks of streams, dense hardwood forests and mystical fields of giant prehistoric cycads.
You might also be lucky as we were to see sea turtles swimming just offshore in the crystal-clear water, or a pod of graceful pink dolphins frolicking in the light of a full moon. Our last stop before Cairns was Lizard Island, so-named because of the 5-foot-long sand goannas which roam freely throughout the exclusive resort of the same name. Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef, just a few yards from the shore of Lizard Island, we found an extraordinary array of colorful corals and an enormous colony of giant clams, which were almost extinct before Australian and other marine biologists began growing and “replanting” them here.
To visit most Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land, you will need permission
from the native owners. The larger villages are accessible by light aircraft;
some are even serviced by regular commercial flights. You can also travel
by four-wheel drive vehicle during the dry season, but the communities
are often cut off by land for months at a time during the “wet.” In
the past, my husband David Lowe, and I have visited these remote areas
via private plane to visit with the Aboriginal people and acquire art
for the gallery. I’ll be returning there in a few weeks, again
by small plane, to re-stock our inventory of art from Arnhem Land. Each
time we visit this remote, ruggedly-beautiful region, we are struck by
how extraordinary it is. The remarkable journey on the Orion confirmed
our fondest memories of Arnhem Land and Lizard Island, and introduced
us to a new way of seeing ancient and contemporary Aboriginal art!
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Tel: 713.880.1541 Fax: 713.862.8364