He was big, big and noticeable, a tree among bushes.  They called him Big Bill. Fellow Aboriginals looked up to him, and so did whitefellas, for he was the chief tribal elder of the Bunitj clan which looked after the land in and around Kakadu National Park, the world-famous conservation he had helped create. His language was Gagadju, which slipped into English as Kakadu.

Over the years I got to know him in connection with my Company’s mineral exploration activities. We got on well, but I reached the point where I wanted to get to know him better, to learn about his views on life, for he was renowned for his knowledge of Aboriginal culture. A book had been written about him called The Kakadu Man. He was one of the few Gagadju men who knew the secret stories of the Dreamtime and the songs only the initiated were allowed to sing.

I drove over to his house at Cannon Hill, a couple of hours’ away from our mining camp to ask him if he would be willing to go camping with me. No telephone intervened. I half expected a refusal. Maybe it was a bit much to expect.

Hearing my Landcruiser approach he came out of his house, one of three wooden huts built over earthen floors, hidden among stringybark trees loved by birds. His wide face, normally quite fierce at rest, suddenly changed, breaking into a smile like the lively sun when it bursts through storm clouds. I often observed this transformation in Aboriginal people.

For a while, we talked about the weather, what some mutual acquaintances were doing, nothing of consequence. Long pauses separated what we were saying, an Aboriginal manner that I always thought was a polite way of avoiding feelings of pressure. At last, I felt it was time to bring up the point of my visit. I had no idea what his reaction would be.

To my relief, he seemed pleased to hear a whitefella show interest in his culture, one who was not an academic keen on analysis that could seem condescending. Not to be rushed, he spoke of going into the bush in a few weeks time.

A month later I went back to Cannon Hill with supplies – tents, blankets, food, cooking grill, but no alcohol, for Big Bill didn’t drink. It was the Gurrung season of August to September, at the end of the Dry when the winds carry warmth and burgeoning clouds warn of the hot storms due in the Wet season. Smoke plumes, from the age-old Aboriginal practice of burning off, smudge the horizon and add eucalyptus aroma to the air.

With Big Bill navigating, we drove through what Aboriginals call the Stone Country, a thick reddish mantle of Lower Proterozoic sandstone, weather- sculpted into shapes magnificent in their beauty and variety. There, over millennia, the people have painted on rock walls what they saw and imagined of life. No roads interrupted the wide flood plain we crossed, nor the slightest human trace interrupted the tranquillity of the land.

We passed into the Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve, entry is forbidden to white people without permission. We stopped at a billabong deep in Big Bill’s country, not far from Indjuwanydjuwa, a large roundish rock on top of a slightly bigger one, standing isolated in a small red lily lagoon. Looking vaguely like a titanic human figure, it’s sacred, for it’s the spirit that created all that exists in this region.

The land here is ancient, so old it’s beyond the emotional comprehension of time. Change, except in the ceaseless cycle of the seasons, appears forbidden. The unbroken linkage with the past gives it a majesty unable to be measured. It’s a place where the Dreamtime connects with the present in a portal to the sublime.

We gathered some wood and lit a fire.  As the sun dropped behind the escarpment, a red blaze in the backlight for a moment and then dark, we cooked a couple of steaks on the grill. While we ate our meal I noticed two red dots on the billabong eerily gliding over the obsidian-black surface. Big Bill said it was a salt-water crocodile, the ferocious variety that claims human lives each year, and the totem of his clan.

He explained how rapport with the crocodile informs his life and composes a moral reciprocity, a mutual compassion. He must protect the crocodile and in return, it warns him of danger and gives premonitions of what lies ahead. In his mind, two worlds exist that together form the universe, the physical and the spiritual. The totem is the symbol of the bond that connects them. It’s part of his identity, allowing him to be accepted in the physical world and pass into the spirit realm at will. The red dots vanished, like embers suddenly trodden on.

In a minute or two, he mumbled, “Somebody coming.” I heard nothing; the birds had gone to their nests and there was no wind, only antique silence. We continued our conversation and he didn’t mention it again.

Half an hour later, I heard the faint sound of an internal combustion engine. The vehicle got fairly close to us but passed without our seeing it. Big Bill said it belonged to Aboriginal people. I asked him how he had sensed it so soon. He smiled and lit another cigarette in the chain.

With cigarette drooping, he leaned over to stoke the fire with a stick and asked, “You like the bush?” The answer was easy.

He said, “You like it. I like it. That means your feeling and my feeling will spread out tonight. City house, no can look at stars. Here, you feel in yourself better. In a house, you get blocked, have no feeling. In the bush you listen, feel dingo from far away. Somebody coming, you feel him before he comes. In the bush, your feeling spread out.”

As the moon came up, drawing strange and slowly changing shadow- shapes on the ancient land, he told me many things, wise things, in his broken English and gravelly voice. He spoke of how the Creator Spirit dreamed everything into existence, each one by one, and passed on the creative power to his creations, how the upturned rock sitting wryly on top of the escarpment near my Company’s camp is Gulyambi’s raft, which the great patriarch built in the Dreamtime to save his family in the Big Flood, how the rocks and everything in the land has a spirit that links all together in a living unity, how the people are at one with the animals, barramundi, crocodiles, goannas, and everything else in the land, how the Law is changeless, how the Rainbow serpent vents its anger when the Law is disobeyed, and much more.

“You got to look after country”, he said, “walk around and have a look. Good for country. If don’t look after country, rock, soil, everything, Earth say, ‘He don’t like me’. Give country life. He knows you are there. If you look after country, country like you will be with you all the time.”

There’s no need to act upon the land physically to give it benefit, as we in the contemporary world are prone to do, although Big Bill’s people do burn off to stimulate new growth. What is ultimately required is for the person’s mind to act upon the land by being there and connecting with it on the spiritual plane, a mind educated by awareness, a mindfulness given substance by past and present teachings.

The mindful action creates a union between the person and the spirit of the land. Hearing him speak of this, it seemed to me he was expressing an early form of mysticism, the way of thinking so important to religions over the centuries. If so, it could be the earliest still in existence, given the longevity of Aboriginal culture.

As he explained his ancestral truth I saw contentment in his face, a well- being so deep and peaceful that it demonstrated he possessed an identity and a unity with something other than himself that gave meaning to his life. I have seen such faces in churches and other places of worship.

Then the subject changed. He began to speak about returning to the earth, like trees and all living things and about his spirit remaining in the cave close to Indjuwanydjuwa, where he expects his bones will rest.

His thoughts turned to sadness as he reflected on the disappearance of his culture, of young people turning away from traditional life and failing to learn the lore A deep melancholy settled on him like fading eyesight as he spoke of his race losing its story, for without a story his people will disappear like a rainbow when the moist air dries. I saw a small patch of wetness glisten on his strong, wide face in the fire’s uncertain light, and understood.

Big Bill’s spirit has gone back to his country now, his mother as he would say. With it passed the last speaker of the Gagadju language, but one who has freely given his memory to those who survive.


Tony Grey