Njanjma Rangers Interpretive Program at Ubirr Rock in Kakadu National Park

“Now I’m going to tell you about the Turtle and Echidna... one of the first stories I learnt when I was a young boy”. Tyrone Garnarradj, age 24, has the group of Kakadu visitors hanging off his every word.

The Njanjma Rangers had only been guiding tourists around the Ubirr Rock art site for two weeks and were performing like seasoned veterans. Head guide, Manbiyarra Nayinggul adds another angle to the story whenever Tyrone draws breath, and even Tyrone’s younger brother Bernard puts in his two bob’s worth as the dreamtime legend reached its climax.

A new initiative of the Djabulukgu Association who represents the Bininj (Aboriginal) traditional owners of northern Kakadu, the Njanjma Rangers have been getting rave reviews for their fresh interpretation of the East Alligator River region.

The Ubirr Rock interpretation program is part of a bigger picture, an initiative where traditional owners look after country, people and places; with a strong emphasis on Aboriginal guides being trained in all facets of tourism including first aid, presentation and delivery at their newly formed ‘On Country Academy’.

Njanjma Coordinator Trent Wilkinson, a Balanda (European descent) man who has worked with the Kunwinjku people of Western Arnhem Land for over ten years, says the program is welcomed, albeit long overdue. “For a long time there’s been a heavy reliance on Balanda guides to interpret Kakadu’s World Heritage area, but now the traditional owners of Ubirr have stepped up and taken on the daily task of guiding visitors around the occupation site, and interpreting both the ancient and contemporary paintings which adorn the rock shelters where Bininj people lived for thousands of years.”

Both educative and entertaining, the Njanjma Rangers deliver their presentation in a mix of English and Kunwinjku gunwok, one of the Aboriginal languages common place in Kakadu. As they walk through the tropical savannah woodland the guides interpret a variety of flora, pointing out what plants they use to strip for basket weaving, food and medicinal use, even knocking up a home-made paint brush on the spot!

Visitor Surveys conducted by Kakadu National Park have far exceeded early expectation, with patrons often describing their tour as ‘awesome... a humbling experience’, and ‘engaging and exciting.’

Trent Wilkinson adds, “the reviews so far are encouraging, with most respondents having a deeper respect and understanding of Bininj culture, and while the young guys are very close and working well together, we’re still mindful that up until now some of the team have had little to do with the tourism industry at the front end of visitor services, so we’re still taking baby steps and training the young men coming through and introducing new subject material into the presentations as confidence grows.”

So far the Njanjma Rangers comprise a pool of twenty men who rotate between Ubirr Rock and the Guluyambi boat cruise, which they also operate on the adjacent East Alligator River. Next month it’s the ladies turn to shine when they commence their “Twined Together” program, where visitors can sit down and take part in traditional basket weaving activities at the nearby Border Store.

Nearing the end of the two hour presentation, Manbiyarra leads the group through the rock shelters and art galleries right to the very top of Ubirr – where the Alligator floodplain meets the Arnhem escarpment; as his group take in the magnificent 360 view he simply says “This was my family’s home for thousands of years, we’ve still got to look after this place, so I’ll still be here when you come back and visit us next time... I thank you very much for listening to our story.”

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