Northwest Australia: How the emu got to the heavens

Photo: Ingo Hübner
The isolated and often pristine north is a mighty backdrop for a unique trip into the world of the Aborigines.
The fire smoke ceremony is to banish bad spirits which sometimes stick on your heels when you visit a cave. | Photo: Ingo Hübner
The fire smoke ceremony is to banish bad spirits which sometimes stick on your heels when you visit a cave. | Photo: Ingo Hübner

And there we are, beneath the most majestic twinkling starry sky which brings us down on our knees making us feel truly humble. The milky way is not only a fluffy whiff of stars but a manifestation of eternity. A night at Cape Leveque, a tiny spot far out in the northwest of Western Australia, with a lot of nowhere all around. Slowly, the moon sinks into the sea, an orange glowing crescent lying on its back. For some strange reason, nobody else can understand, Bundy can not or does not want to watch this spectacle. He turns his back to the sea.

He is missing out! “Is it over?” he asks carefully. We nod quietly. So he directs the beam of light from his torch to the centre of the milky way and traces the Southern Cross. “On the left, you see a black area that tapers off to the bottom.” He points his torch to the send, bends down and draws the head, a long neck and finally the body. Moving his torch back to the sky he asks: “Can you see it? The emu.” The endless black shadows between the star dust slowly come together to reval a gigantic picture of an emu in the sky. “My grandfather’s dream-time totem,” says Brandy, in a tone of voice that makes this statement seem like he has just revealed a secret. He cannot say anything more. How the emu got to the heavens, what a personal story Bundy’s family connects with this symbol. It is a story only handed down to his family, and only they can experience and access it. That is how dreamtime is – a spiritual world and a way of seeing the things behind things whose meaning and messages are only accessible to a few family members privy to them.

It is your own fault if you do not go for a swim here – a unique Aussie experience. | Photo: Ingo Hübner
It is your own fault if you do not go for a swim here – a unique Aussie experience. | Photo: Ingo Hübner

During the day, Bundy was a bit more talkative about his culture, at least about the everyday culture of the Saltwater People – the general term referring to the clans who live along the northwest coast. Their everyday culture mainly addresses the need for survival. “The land tells you what to do, and you only need to listen,” is the motto of his little workshop. When this tree has orange blossom, it is the start of the hunting season, when the other tree has yellow blossom, whales will be passing by, and other colours of blossom indicate the beginning of the rain season. The most important feature of the trees is that you can make a fire with them and that will help turn rather resistive wood into straight spears. A woman does not need a spear, her task is to dig for edible roots or similar things in the sand. The men go fishing with the spears in the ocean. Our attempts as beginners lead to pathetic results, and Bundy cannot help but sneer a bit.

Cool Bundy is a powerful cultural mediator. | Photo: Ingo Hübner
Cool Bundy is a powerful cultural mediator. | Photo: Ingo Hübner

A stone’s throw away lies Freshwater Cove which we reach by helicopter. A little camp by the sea. Robinson Crusoe feeling in the middle of the kingdom of Wandjina: three siblings that helped with the creation of the world and are responsible for clouds, rain and floods in the Aborigines' cosmos of faith. We get to see one of the creatures which, with their big eyes and their strange heads, resemble aliens straight out of a UFO. It is on a cave-like rock overhang. Wayne took us to the site from camp. A place where his ancestors had found shelter in distant memory. A bit creepy those Wandjina. Especially because they do not have a mouth. Wayne has a logical explanation which makes total sense to him: If they had one, the land would be flooded, as water would shoot out like crazy. Then he tells a long story about how the Wandjina were on bad terms with each other and how the conflict amongst them ended on a nearby beach, the so called Stone Warrior Beach. That is where dreamtime in our universe hit home hard and left visible traces. Next morning, lost in reverie and lost for words, we walk around the monumental proof of the mythical battle in the shape of thousands of petrified warriors.

Ancient rock drawings

Such a tasty breakfast – absolutely no need to “Get me out of here!”. | Photo: Ingo Hübner
Such a tasty breakfast – absolutely no need to “Get me out of here!”. | Photo: Ingo Hübner

Two days later in the Northern Territory, Kakadu National Park. World Cultural and Natural Heritage. After seeking some advice, we experience an earthly highlight and take a super refreshing dip in one of the numerous natural rock pools. The pool of Maguk is fed by a little waterfall and framed by crannied rock walls and limp palm trees tired from the heat. A kind of primeval paradise where you tear off your clothes and jump into the water, wishing the moment could last forever. Especially the rock galleries are famous in the park. They are home to old drawings on the Nourlangie and Ubirr rocks which date back several thousand years. Everything at the location is loaded with meaning, interwoven by dreamtime which does not characterise a timeframe in the past but which is continual for the Aborigines – which means it also affects the present.

Injalak Hill – only accessible with a special permit – rises behind the Aborginal community of Gunbalanya like a rock wall. Whispering quietly, our guide Thommo leads us to the gallery of his ancestors on the Injalak Hill. That's probably his sign of respect for the dead. Sometimes, however, the mood of the country overwhelms him. “Aaaaaaaaah, beautiful,” he sighs. When we reach the mountain’s crest, we stop in front of a rock overhang which is so exuberantly painted with numerous animals that it easily outclasses Nourlangie and Ubirr.

Nature in Kakadu NP can be really impressive. | Photo: Ingo Hübner
Nature in Kakadu NP can be really impressive. | Photo: Ingo Hübner

Thommo grins mischievously when he notices our looks of total astonishment adding, as a sideline, that there are another ten galleries of such kind on Injalak Hill. We walk through a giant complex open-air museum, amble through narrow outcrops where tiny bats cling to the black rocks, pass below mighty overhangs which once offered shelter to extended families, and past giant stone marbles cobbled together. And everywhere there are drawings, some of which are up to 8,000 years old. Somewhere in this maze, Thommo points to an earth-coloured, human-like creature on a high wall. “Mimi Spirits,” he whispers. Those used to be humans who wanted to be bad ghosts. At night, they would sing, and it would be beautiful! “But never come here, they will hurt you with their spears and that will make you sick for a long, painful time.” And with that, Thommo grins mischievously once again.

GM Info


Getting there

You can fly comfortably to Perth with Etihad Airways, To get quickly to the northwest, take another plane to Broome. Alternatively, fly straight to Darwin in the Northern Territory.

Aboriginal experiences and accommodation

The website offers a good overview of indigenous tours and agents in Western Australia.

At Cape Leveque, Bundy’s Cultural Tours provide you with an insight into local culture:

Camp Kooljaman is good for an overnight stay:

Wandjina Tours offer multiple-day stays at Freshwater Cove:

At Kakadu National Park in Northern Territory you can stay the night in a tent in the middle of the park:

Guides (and information about permits for the visit) at Injalak Hill:

General travel information

About Western Australia:

About Northern Territory:


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