Grab a cuppa, gather round your electronic device and make yourself comfortable. You’re about to be told a true story from the Top End.
It all started on a hot afternoon…
Driving into Gungural campground in Kakadu National Park we were stoked to find that we had it all to ourselves. Beauty, we could take our pick of camp spots.
Five minutes on, an older couple set up their big caravan across the car park.
Seconds later a family with four kids pulled in, unhitched their van and set off in their 4WD to explore the nearby gorge.
I said to Drew, “Bugger, we’re not alone after all. At least they’ve kept their distance and we can still have a quite night around the camp fire.”
We sat atop the picnic table at our site sipping water and considered walking to the nearby lookout for happy hour.
Before we could pack up our picnic rug and bottle of wine, a crackling sound cut through the air; the unmistakable sound of fire.
But at that stage all we noticed was grey smoke billowing into the blue sky.
It seems we didn’t look close enough. Can you see the flames?
Where there’s smoke there’s fire…
In previous weeks across the Northern Territory we’d seen a few patch fires smoldering roadside. We learnt that Aboriginal people have been burning country like this for tens of thousands of years as a way to fulfill their cultural obligation to look after and clean up the land.
Huge benefits are gained from this, and nowadays conservation managers across the Top End use traditional patch burning in the dry season to repair country, prevent wildfires and encourage biodiversity.
The smoke down the road soon turned to fire heading towards camp so we hitched up the van and drove into the middle of the car park.
Strangers become friends…
It didn’t take long for our neighbours to become allies as the four of us assessed the risk. We decided it wouldn’t be wise to drive out, much better to stay and watch the fire dissipate.
We then combined our muscle power to push the young families caravan up the hill into safe territory.
An hour later the families 4WD sped down the fire paved road on their return to camp. The Dad said he was certain their belongings would have been reduced to ashes.
The young families van before we moved it.
By 7pm we were drinking tea and wine with our newly made friends, telling travel stories and bonding over the afternoon’s turn of events as we watched the fire dwindle.
We agreed that the fire had come a little to close for comfort, especially for the older couple as their family had lost their home on Black Saturday.
The moral of the story is…
Throughout this experience we met some interesting people, learnt about their lives and witnessed the kindness of strangers.
But we also learned a bit about the land and realities of the lives of those who call this land home.
While us ‘city slickers’ felt threatened by the fire, in this part of Australia fire is necessary and actually part of a bigger plan to promote new growth that will provide many benefits for the months to come.
This process may not be important for tourists like us who are just passing through, but will be essential to the survival of those around to experience the harsh conditions of the wet season.
Bill Neidjie of Bunidj Clan explains the role of fire in Indigenous culture:
“This earth, I never damage. I look after. Fire is nothing, just clean up. When you burn, new grass coming up. That means good animal soon, might be goanna, possum, wallaby. Burn him off, new grass coming up, new life all over.”
As for us, we were granted a quiet night around the ‘camp fire’ after all.
Although not exactly what we had anticipated, at least now we’ve collected a good story to tell and understand a little bit more about this great country we call home. The End.