In the footsteps of Bill Neidjie and the Bunitj Clan

Imagine sitting in a shelter, a large natural rock cave 30 meters above ground. Look out over the floodplains and you have a timeless uninterrupted panoramic view. No roads, no power lines, no people. Look down and on the rock you sit on are grind holes from thousands of years of grinding paint and food. Turn around and study the rock walls close up. Aboriginal art in several styles from up to 40 to 60 thousand years old grace the walls. No signs, no fences, no people. No sounds. Just you and the power of Hawk Dreaming; country of the Bunitj clan in Kakadu National Park.

Then the sun rises. The world awakens. Sounds of the wildlife of Hawk Dreaming fills your ears. I feel almost embarrassed to mix in the loud shutter sound from my camera. Sounds like a gun in this natural soundscape. There is nothing to distract you; nothing to remind you that the year is 2008. It might as well be 10,000 years ago and you really expect a family from the Bunitj clan to be there as you sit in their home and their shelter and watch the sun rise.

080920-IMG_7913

I have blogged about Big Bill Neidjie and Hawk Dreaming before and first visited this magical place in 2007. I wanted to return this year and further explore and photograph this area as I cannot image a more special and powerful sacred place in all of Australia. Nowhere else will you find a place with amazing floodplain landscapes and one of the highest concentrations of aboriginal art sites in Australia. Certainly no place with access to as there are probably more places like this in Arnhem Land but they are totally off-limits. Hawk Dreaming has it all.

I hired a private charter for 3 days (from now on this is the only way I’ll go on tours!) from the only company allowed to bring people into Hawk Dreaming – the super good Aussie Adventures. Les Thorne – known as “the white aboriginal” to his friends for his deep love and knowledge of aboriginal culture and history – was my brilliant guide and teacher. My aim was to shoot landscapes at Hawk Dreaming and see and learn as much as I could about the aboriginal art and history. I am extremely fascinated by and feel connected to aboriginal culture though I only know just a tiny bit about the incredible 60,000 years of history.

The 3 days were absolute magic and spectacular. With my own guide, teacher, mate and 4WD I got all the landscapes I wanted with 2 sunrises and 2 sunsets at Hawk Dreaming. I got to see the roughly 15-20 art sites that we were allowed to go to and Les kindly shared his deep knowledge. A personal highlight for me was sitting in Bill Neidjie’s cave where he lived from 1975 when the land was finally given back to the Bunitj people – Bill played a huge part in this – almost up to his death in 2002. In Bill’s cave you will see rock art and that is 10,20,30 thousands years old – and rock art that is perhaps 20 years old! Bill’s children and grandchildren would paint rock art and paint things they learned in school in the Oenpelli community such as the British alphabet and an image of Sydney Harbour Bridge! A strong and powerful place; an experience burned in my memory forever.

Adding to the magic; I was actually sort of on assignment. Every commercial photo from Hawk Dreaming has to be approved by Jonathon Neidjie, Bill’s son and the current custodian of Hawk Dreaming. Of course no art shots can be sold; not that I would ever do that anyway – that is not my art to sell! Les got me in touch with Dwane Baker, manager from the Djabulukgu Association, at the Bowali Visitor Center in Kakadu. Dwane had Jonathon on the phone and I showed a few of my shots from Hawk Dreaming last year (fortunate I had these in my bag). Dwane seemed to really like them and quickly asked if I would supply them with copies of the landscape files I shot and also help shoot and document the art sites? If so I could shoot and sell all the landscapes I wanted. They really wanted some landscape shots from Hawk Dreaming and also the art documented and I was more than happy to agree; I get my landscapes and I help Dwane, Jonathan Neidjie and Hawk Dreaming. Making a small contribution that way is an honour. Thanks to Dwane and Jonathon for all the help and setting up an agreement so smoothly and quickly in 15 minutes, something that I know from Les can usually take a long time. Very much appreciated, I know I was very very lucky and fortunate. Must be my amazing photography skills and country boy charm :D

So I was on a mission and shot photos from dawn till dusk. Landscapes and art sites, rock climbed with tripod etc. to get pristine shots of the art sites for Dwane and Jonathan. I had a fantastic time; absolutely loved it! I have enough photos (the two featured here are quick and dirty previews) and stories from Hawk Dreaming to last a year so stay tuned on this blog.

I’ll end with my ongoing relationship with mosquitoes. Me and Mossies. We go way back. I donated quite a few liters of blood to the mossie community in the Kimberleys and continued my contribution in Hawk Dreaming to the fantazillion of mossies that call the East Alligator river (brilliant name you white folks; there are no alligators in Australia!) at Hawk Dreaming home. Standing by the river at dawn ready for sunrise and a wall, an armada of mossies attack me and Les. I empty a full can of toxic and highly flammable but effective Bushman mossie repellant on my body and clothes. Had I still been smoking and lit a ciggy I would have exploded, I was that saturated in chemicals. The repellant helps some. Little bit cheeky them mossies though. Climb under my shirt and get fresh blood! Les escapes to the Landcruiser leaving my blood as the only food source. So as you watch this sunrise shot from Sunday morning; know that I payed for it in blood!

Hawk Dreaming Sunrise 21-sep-08

Hawk Dreaming. home of the Bunitj clan.
I will return.
Feels little bit like your country is now a part of me!

 

Bill Neidjie

Rock stays, Earth stays.
I die and put my bones in cave or earth.
Soon my bones become earth, all the same.
My spirit has gone back to my country, my mother.
This story is important.
It won’t change, it is law.
It is like this earth, it won’t move.
Ground and rock, he can’t move.
Cave, he never move.
No-one can shift that cave, because it dream.
It story.
It law.
This law, this country,this people,
no matter what people,
red, yellow, black or white,
the blood is the same.
Lingo little bit different,
but no matter.

Country, you in other place.
But the same feeling.
Blood, bone, all the same.
This story,
this is true story.
My people
all dead.
We only got few left.
That’s all, not many.
We getting too old.
Young people.
I don’t know if they can hang onto this story.
But, now you know this story,
and you’ll be coming to earth.
You’ll be part of earth when you die.
You responsible now.
You got to go with us.
To earth.
Might be you can hang on.
Hang on to this story.
To this earth.
You got children,
grandson.
Might be your grandson will get this story,
keep going,
hang on like I done.

m>- Bill Neidjie

18 comments on “In the footsteps of Bill Neidjie and the Bunitj Clan

  1. Flemming,
    I have been checking out your blog for a while now but this is my first post here.. I love the second shot you have here from Hawk Dreaming….. A beautiful scene from a beautiful place…… Keep up the awesome work on this country of ours mate….
    Rod

  2. Hello from Costa Rica Flemming, this is my first post too. This last entry really got to me :-). BTW I don't shoot landscapes, but your work has inspired me to get out of the studio.

    Congrats on all the excellent pics!
    Sebastián

  3. Rod, thanks very much for your comment! Feel free to comment all you like; I always love to get comments. Hawk Dreaming is amazing, glad you liked my post!

    Sebastian, welcome to you as well and thanks for your commet! Comment all you want mate, love comments! Glad I inspired you to get outdoors once in a while :D

    Gudrun, thanks and yeah it is such a magical place, ya gotta wangle Kings into getting you a tour there! Bill's stories are incredible, you have to read his books!

  4. Awesome entry, Flemming. Drop dead gorgeous photos, especially the second one. The blood payment was definitely worth it.

    I'm really glad you have been honoured with the opportunity to be part of the documentation project. I agree it is a high honour but in your case, a well deserved one. Only a person who loves a place with as much passion as you do can capture it's true spirit in a photo.

  5. Thanks very much Tyger! Really happy you like the post as this post and this place means so much to me.

    I think, I hope anyway, that my love for this area shows in my photos and I am very happy and honoured to help them with getting shots!

  6. I think it's possible to see when a photographer really connects with his subject — and the beauty of your images reflect your connectedness to the region. As you might imagine, I loved the post.

    And for future reference, put two tablespoons of cider vinegar in a glass of water, drink it, and the mozzies will largely stay away for about 24 hours. (You can't do this for more than a few days in a row, however, or your stomach starts objecting. So save it for the worst places.)

    Glad your trip is turning out to be so amazing.

  7. Thank you so much Cynthia! And I agree, passion shows in art, sometimes you create art sometimes you just capture good images.

    Thanks for the mossie advice, I would be surprised if that work on the ferocius Hawk Dreaming mossies but ya never know. Will give it a go next time!

  8. Thanks very much Stephen. Many more shots from Hawk Dreaming to come.
    Hawk Dreaming was a fitting finale and my last location. Am now relaxing a few days in Sydney, shooting a bit, but mainly relaxing after the many days of bush camping and early rises. Back in Copenhagen next week and to work on the thousands of raw files!

  9. It sounds like you have had a fantastic trip Flem ! I look forward to seeing more of your photographic and descriptive impressions of your experiences.
    I think it's great how much you love our country – I know that I can never get enough of it and all it's diversity.

    cheers,
    tone :)

  10. Thanks heaps Tone ! Trip has been up and down with many problems in the Kimberleys but with fantastic days here and there and Hawk Dreaming was a finale that won't be beaten.

    Yeah I do love it to bits; I can't really describe it. Just put me in the middle of absolutely nowhere in the outback and I feel like I've returned to my place of birth, my country!

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