Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

18 August 2009

A Cautionary Tale from Kakadu

Beware! Danger lurks in any unfamiliar environment. A seemingly harmless excursion very nearly turned into a matter of survival when I decided to walk alone to photograph some aboriginal rock drawings in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory. This is an extract from my diary…

Friday 26th: I drove from Jabiru to Nanguluwar on the northern side of Nourlangie to visit the Angbangbang rock art gallery. As usual, the car park designated for the tourist attraction was in full sun and at an indecent distance from the rock; 1.7 km to be precise. This was all very well for the sake of ecology, conservation or whatever other reason apart from bloody-mindedness that might be put forward but it takes no account of the elderly, the infirm or even your average tour-bus tourist. Australian National Parks are, I’m sure, deliberately designed for back-packers - tramping types in tight shorts and ankle boots - in fact anybody who resembles the park staff themselves.

As I left the car, having drunk a large amount of water but unwilling to load myself up with any more impedimenta than necessary beyond cameras and tripod, I was amazed at the force of the heat; the hottest yet experienced and exacerbated by airlessness. A short distance along the path I met a forlorn party trailed by a drooping, fat woman who looked extremely distressed. She was staggering, her pinkly blotched flesh slimy with perspiration, hair hanging lank and wet below a felt hat that sat, sweat-stained on the back of her head. She looked at me with the desperate-to-be-beatified eyes of a martyr, ecstatic in suffering, and I smiled encouragingly, whispering: ‘You’re almost there.’

Having seen her, I felt fit and able to undertake any challenge. The walk was easy for the first twenty minutes until the path broke up, ill-defined on harsh, boulder-littered ground among trees. I started to ascend around and over rocks which had fallen from the bluffs, and very soon I was pouring sweat, my pulse thumping fast in my head.

The rock gallery was along a cliff face typically protected by an overhang. There was even less air here and I found breathing an effort as I started to photograph the paintings. They were beautiful and included friezes of ‘x-ray’ fishes and turtles done, apparently quite recently, by ‘Barramundi Charlie’ and ‘Old Nym’ two of the last great rock artists of the region. There was a remarkable illustration of a sailing vessel, evidence of the impact of European and Indonesian intrusions between 1880 and 1950; a leaping figure known as Nabulwinjbulwinj (who kills and eats women) and a weird thing like a stick of celery with legs called ‘Algaiho’ - the ‘Fire Woman’, one of the first people to create the world, who planted shrubs in the woodlands and used their smouldering flowers to carry fire. ‘Algaiho’, it was said, hunted opossums with the help of her pack of dingos and she is still feared by the people of Arnhem Land - where her spirit yet lives - because she kills and burns people. So much primitive fear.

I think Algaiho was at work on me. I was conscious, and only just, of so much sweat pouring off me that my clothing was soaked and when picking up lenses and film from my camera bag which lay on the ground I was having to stand to one side to avoid a constant stream of droplets falling on to the equipment. As I finished the last photograph my vision began to blur, I felt faint and apprehensive. I was alone, losing body fluids fast, and beginning to stumble. As quickly as I could, hoping that I hadn’t left anything behind, I packed up and scrambled, tottering, away from the brooding cliff. I remember taking huge gulps of breath and trying to gather saliva in my mouth. All of a sudden a round trip of just over three kilometres seemed like a day’s march…

I made it, of course, but it taught me lessons: carry water, don’t go alone, don’t overburden yourself. I sat in the oven-like car and drank warm water as I bathed my forehead in the slowly cooling air from the air-conditioning grille. Then after a long time of reflection, frowning and blinking to clear my vision I drove, slowly and carefully back to The Crocodile Hotel at Jabiru to shower and change my clothes.
Perhaps it was worth it to get the photographs but what a fool I’d been; and thank God it hadn’t been a five kilometre walk!’

From diary notes: ‘Kakadu and Beyond’




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By Don Donovan

About Me

My photo

Don Donovan: Biography

I was born on 20 January 1933, nine days before Hitler came to power in Germany, I grew up in south London. Although evacuated during the phoney war and the quieter times I lived in and out of air raid shelters during the blitz and experienced both V1 and V2 attacks on London. Left grammar school in 1948 aged 15 substantially undereducated. I wanted to go to art school but because of family ‘poverty’ joined a commercial art studio in the West End. I was, thereafter, variously a messenger boy, commercial artist and typographer. I was in the Royal Air Force from 1951 to 1953 when the only useful thing I did was to take part in King George VI’s funeral parade.

In 1955 I married Patricia O’Donnell, a RADA graduate, at that time playing opposite Derek Nimmo, they were juvenile leads in a touring repertory company. He went on to great success because he had a funny voice.

We came to New Zealand in 1960 where I worked in advertising. At length I became managing director of one of the companies of whose holding company (the largest domestic advertising complex in New Zealand) I was also a proprietor and shareholder. I left the industry in 1990 when my company was bought out by American interests. My timing was brilliant, at that point my first book had been published and the next was on its way.

We have two daughters and four grand-children.

Now, apart from writing, I function as a self-educated grumpy old man.

Books & Writings

‘New Zealand Odyssey’, with Euan Sarginson, Heinemann-Reed, 1989.

‘One Man’s Heart Attack’, New House, 1990. (A special edition of this book was purchased by CIBA-Geigy for distribution to NZ doctors).

‘Open 7 Days’, Random Century, October 1991.

‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’ by Saint Publishing in 1995 followed by:
‘New Zealand House & Cottage’ in 1997. (Saint Publishing have also published calendars for the years 1994 to 2004 using my watercolour illustrations).

‘The Wastings’, my first novel was published in July 1999 by Hazard Press. Although an international subject it had very limited distribution, only in New Zealand, and the rights have reverted to me. (Colin Dexter read 'The Wastings' and wrote to me: 'I enjoyed and admired "The Wastings"... a beautifully written work... a splendid debut in crime fiction... More please!'.)

Also the texts of photographic books:
‘Colourful New Zealand’
‘New Zealand in Colour’
‘Top of the South’
‘Above Auckland’
‘Hauraki Gulf Destinations’
‘Bay of Plenty’
and a compilation of photographs and quotations titled ‘Anzac Memories’ 2004 all published by New Holland.

My written and illustrated book, ‘Country Churches of New Zealand’ was published in October 2002 by New Holland, who also published ‘Rural New Zealand’ 2004 (photographs and text), and a series of four humorous books of photographs and quotations in 2004 and 2005 titled ‘Woolly Wisdom’, ‘Chewing the Cud’, ‘Fowl Play’, and ‘Pig Tales’. My most recent book was published in August 2006 by New Holland, titled ‘Political Animals’.

Over the years I have written for NZ Herald, Heritage Magazine, Next Magazine and various local and overseas travel and general interest media.