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Feeling Australia’s ancient heartbeat

by Catherine Marshall

A moment of solitude in the Gulf of Carpentaria reveals Australia’s ancient heartbeat – and a crocodile named Nike


I’m sitting on a beach named Lonely, and dawn begins to break. The sun rises behind me, for though set along the empty sweeps of north-eastern Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria in East Arnhem Land, Lonely is tucked inside a bay hooking inwards from the gulf and faces the broad sweep of land that lies to the west.

I’ve left my camera behind. The sky is the softest pink, the clouds dusted with the first hint of morning; it is not possible to capture this day’s beauty on film.

So I take a photograph with my eyes instead. I scan the curve of white, powder-soft sand punctuated at one end by a collection of boulders – deliberately, artfully placed, it seems, and with bright fig trees curling out from them – and at the other, far end, by a finger of land covered with scrub painted pale green by the morning light. In between are palm trees standing proud against the warm breeze, though their fellows – felled by so many cyclones that have blown in from the east – lie crumpled and desolate beside them.

On a boulder close by a crow bellows his mournful morning repose – a deep, resonant croak that sails out into the bay and rings in my ears. His eyes are tiny yellow marbles set into a stony black face.

The breeze has dimpled this water – a mirror just yesterday – and the night has leeched it of all colour. It is a pale sheet that’s been crumpled through night, but when the sun shows its face it will draw out the brilliant colour from this bay: so many shades of blue, the white seabed visible through clear skeins of water.

Lonely Beach in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Lonely Beach is connected by a small isthmus to a rocky outcrop in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Photo by Catherine Marshall.


In a blot of sunlight now spilling onto the beach, the seagulls fuss, pecking at their feathers, darting at the water, coming back to rest. They know to be wary of the creature that is out there, the shadow that lurks beneath the surface just metres from the beach. This is the saltwater crocodile that has lived at Lonely for fifteen years at least. He is always here, even when you think he isn’t. You will scan the water and be certain he has swum away, but then he will appear as if to reassure you, the water’s surface disrupted by his beautiful, terrifying shape: the head with its protruding eyes and armour scales; the serrations of the spine and the endless, sinuous tail; the jaws and the teeth which, though not visible, you know are set deep into them.

Lonely Beach is not really lonely; it is the centrepiece of Bawaka, homeland of a Yolngu clan. When Olympic star athlete Cathy Freeman visited the people of Bawaka some years ago, she encountered the croc while running along Lonely Beach, and named him Nike. It’s here that the women of Bawaka hold crying ceremonies at dawn, calling out to everything that lies within site of this beach – the water, the crows, the trees, Nike himself – and to the ancestors now gone. Lonely is soaked with tears of longing; its ancient heartbeat hums beneath my feet.

Crying ceremony Gulf of Carpentaria.

The Yolngu women of Bawaka on the Gulf of Carpentaria hold an early morning crying ceremony. Photo by Catherine Marshall

But the present pulls me from contemplation: coconuts have been planted in a rim all along this beach, demarcating the place beyond which you must not venture, for though saltwater crocodiles move relatively slowly on land, they emerge from the water at high speed and in a flash will snatch their prey and drag it into this deep and beautiful bay.

The sun has risen now above the tamarinds and casuarinas and gums that spread out in a coastal forest behind me. Nike stretches out on the water’s surface, ready to catch its warming rays; and Lonely – still cool from last night – glows with morning joy. TTW

Catherine Marshall was a guest of Lirrwi Tourism and Qantas.

See also

The secrets of the trees, seen through Raymond Timbery’s eyes
Preserving the world’s oldest living culture
Good vibes with didjeridus, the voice of Aboriginal Australia
Getting in touch with Australia’s First People
Bush tucker hits the high streets of Orange NSW

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