His beard was tangled, wild like it had a life of its own, with large streaks of grey. On his feet, he wore a pair of sandals that looked as old as his beard. He wore a khaki shirt, sweat-stained. He had been cleaning the boat in the morning heat. The annual ‘Build Up’ had come early. Kakadu had opened the door to the tropical sauna they call summer and no-one escaped. ‘Grey Beard’ didn’t introduce himself as he walked down the ramp that sat just a metre above the muddy waters of the Aligator River. He walked past a small fire, inspected it, where a billy sat. He seemed grumpy. Maybe he needed his morning cuppa before pulling on his ‘this human is approachable’ cap. Was this our captain? If it was, then “Oh shit”. I headed to the river to spot crocodiles. I counted 20.
I’d signed up for a Cultural Tour, a boat cruise in eastern Kakadu. Another chance for me to learn more about the peoples who inhabited this region for tens of thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. A few minutes later Grey Beard sat down on a bench in a nearby shelter, clipboard in hand that he’d retrieved from a gleaming white 4WD near the boat. He had a mug of tea in his other hand. “Who’s here?” he yells to everybody, and nobody, across the car park. We trundle up to the shelter from the river. He begins ticking off names for the 9am tour that we’d all signed up for. As he ticks off the last name, a truck pulls up. A door opens and a young man gets out. He’s thin, wiry, and shy. His slim build was drowning beneath a dark shirt and his black hair had launched an escape bid from under a clean brown cap. “Here’s your captain,” Grey Beard exclaims over the clipboard. “5-stories Hilton,” he said, as he laughed, loudly.
He pulled out his phone, scrolled for a few seconds then held it up and quickly showed us a picture of a building. Covering one wall and several floors was a mural of a young indigenous man, slim and bare-chested. “Oh I saw that last week,” said one of the other guests, “It’s part of the annual street art festival in Darwin”. I connected the dots. “That’s our captain?” I asked. Grey Beard, laughed again “5-stories Hilton”.
We boarded a long, narrow boat, with its canvas awning to keep the sun out and a short aluminium railing around the edge – perhaps to keep the crocodiles out. We cast off into a river thick, green and sluggish, as our captain tells us his full name, softly. I have no hope of repeating it. It was a mouthful. “People call me Hilton.” He tells us that he also has a ‘skin name’, a name that defines his mob, his clan, and who he can or cannot marry – something the royal families of Europe could have learned from.
Quietly, in halting English (his second language), he told us about his clan who are blue-tongue lizard dreaming. They can hunt wallaby, barramundi, crocs and turtle but not blue tongue lizards – their sacred totem. Hilton Garnarradj showed us the land of the Manilakarr Clan, his mother’s country.
He painted a picture for us of the river and creatures that inhabit it – crocs, snakes, fish, turtles – and the seven seasons that his people recognise. Seasons for them are not just about calendar dates, but when trees and shrubs bear fruit, when animals breed, when the storms come, and the fires, and when creeks and waterholes fill with fresh water. He told us about the land that surrounded us: Kakadu (the National Park) to the west and Arnhem Land (tribal areas) to the east.
Different mobs (tribes) and languages criss-cross the country east and west of the Aligator River, and many indigenous people still hunt for bush tucker. They still rely on tracks in the sand, sounds of the bush and the signals of nature: not Google Maps, a weather app nor a mobile signal. Hilton pointed out rock art, told us about hunting for ochre to colour rocks and skin. He showed us how to spear fish with hibiscus wood (it floats), how to spear wallaby with ironbark (a very hard wood).
In his own quiet way, he held a door open for a few hours to a different world, a different way of seeing the land and understanding its original caretakers. They had survived for countless millennia in a place that is still wild, isolated and dangerous. After two hours, we disembarked, learning one more thing, a word: “Bawbaw”, thanks.
A week later, after sweating my way through Kakadu, I arrived in Darwin – Australia’s most northerly capital. I picked up a map from Tourist Information. The Darwin Street Art Festival map led me up and down quiet city streets where three years of Street Art were on display. Amongst the vibrant colours, indigenous themes and designs that covered walls, corners, angles and street furniture I saw a familiar face. If you had a north facing top floor suite at the Hilton Hotel two blocks away- you probably could have seen the bare-chested and elegant figure of a Bininj – an aboriginal man. Looking down on me from nine stories up, not five – I counted them – was Hilton. The same wild black hair and slim figure, but with a very ripped torso: it turns out that our Kakadu boat captain was also damn good Aussie Rules player.
The mural was painted during the 2018 festival. I read that the artist CTO was trying to explore how indigenous peoples have been forced to adapt to the changing world around them. And that they have a greater connection and broader understanding of the world and its many dimensions than Europeans gave them credit for. Hilton had certainly adapted. He’d bridged two worlds: a Bininj man, proud of his country and his mob’s ancient traditions, he could also speak several languages; as a young tour guide, he showed white fellas around his country, he was a gun ruck rover (very versatile position) for his local Aussie Rules club and he was a street art model who’s image towered above the streets of Darwin.
This was a Hilton model who commanded attention, quietly and humbly, from nine stories up.