Setting off early on Monday morning for the final leg of the Dulux Study Tour, we were greeted by Neville from Offroad Dreaming who ushered us aboard his minibus. Neville, also known as Nifty, narrated our journey for the next two days in Kakadu, regaling us with stories about the history and culture of the Top End.
After an hour on the road, we detoured briefly into the Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve – an expansive wetland that, during the 1950s, had been slated as a rice-growing area. As we stepped out of the bus and onto the causeway, Nifty reminded us not to venture too close to the edge – the crocs won’t hesitate to get you! Today the site attracts a diverse range of wildlife and migratory waterbirds. We spotted Jacana birds, who use their impossibly large feet to saunter across the lilies. Hopping back on board the bus we headed for the next stop, a jumping crocodile boat tour on the Adelaide River. The hour-long cruise took us upstream, where our guide fed the saltwater crocs, rewarding those that had ventured out to the boat in anticipation of a feed.
With limbs still intact, we headed to the Bowali Visitor Centre at Jabiru. Throughout the drive, Nifty told us about the cultural practices of the local Aboriginal people, one of which is the systematic burning of the landscape. During our time in the NT, we spotted a lot of this kind of burning, which is ‘cool’ and slow-moving due to the native vegetation that is burned through. As well as regenerating the landscape, the practice is known as ‘cleaning Country’ as it provides clear grounds to move through and creates prime hunting territory.
At the Bowali Visitor Centre (designed by Glenn Murcutt and Troppo Architects in 1993) we explored the architecture and the local market stalls. The expansive roof featuring Murcutt’s iconic arc/rolled roof ridge created reprieve from the heat and contained a number of spaces, enclosed by rammed earth, for exhibitions and various programs. While we were there, many of us questioned the meaning of the ochre lines scoring the exterior. Upon returning to the bus, Nifty explained the markings were part of the First Nations community’s ‘sorry business’ ceremonies and protocols. When a clan member passes away there is a smoking ceremony and ochre is marked by hand on the places the person has been. This became a reminder throughout our visit of the important ongoing cultural practices of Kakadu.
We checked into our accommodation for the night at The Crocodile Hotel, designed by John Wilkins, 1998. An interpretation of a totem that represents the giant crocodile Ginga, a spirit ancestor of the Gaagudju people, the playful idea behind the building was a delight after visiting plenty of more serious architecture! After a dip in the pool, we journeyed to the Nawurlandja Lookout for sunset. As the sun set behind us, the cliffs of Arnhem Land were illuminated with red. We took it all in and laid back for what was one of the highlights of the trip.
The next morning, we headed north to Cahills Crossing at the East Alligator River. Here we joined the Guluyambi Cultural Cruise where our guide, also named Neville, spoke about the significance of the place and shared knowledge of ancient Indigenous practices. Neville, a linguist at Charles Darwin University, who shared insight and knowledge of the place was inspiring. He told us stories about tragedy in the river, lessons about plants and their use, and demonstrated using the woomera and spear – which everyone found very impressive! It was such a valuable experience and we all left feeling great respect for the place and culture.
Our last stop in Kakadu was the Ubirr rock art site. Estimated to have been continuously painted since 40,000 BCE, there are paintings on the rocks that are 2000 years old. The rock art has been dated, interestingly, through the carbon dating of the Mud-dauber Wasp nests built on top of the paintings. Mimi spirits are painted on the rock and are perhaps some of the most unique and eye-catching pieces visible – the spirits are part of the Aboriginal folklore of Arnhem Land and are said to have taught traditional owners many things, including how to paint. Among the rocky outcrops we also spotted a painting of a Tasmanian Tiger painting which attests to the age and ongoing occupation of the site. We left Kakadu feeling graced with knowledge and in awe of the beauty of the place – thanks in great part to our wonderful guide Nifty.
Our trip concluded with one final visit themed around the architecture of Beni Burnett, who was appointed the Commonwealth Principal Architect for the Northern Territory in 1937 and came to the NT via China, Singapore and Japan. Burnett is responsible for introducing a number of innovative, climate-appropriate building types to Darwin pre-WW2.
One of the dwellings we visited was the Carr Residence, an example of the “Type-S” design developed by Burnett. Constructed in 1941, this project expressed a clear lineage from South-East Asian design principles and an understanding of local materials and construction techniques. The sensitive conservation of the building, by David Brudgman Architects, allows us to read the original design intent clearly, which is extremely well adapted to Darwin’s tropical climate.
Following a whirlwind tour of the Myilly Point Heritage Precinct, we made our way to Darwin International Airport, buzzing from a hectic 12-day calendar that will likely fuel ideas and conversation for many years to come. We were joined on the Tour by our Dulux Hosts, Alison Mahoney, Peter Wood and Cameron O’Brien, who generously supported us throughout the trip and demonstrated a real passion for encouraging emerging architects, a trait which we’re sure translates to the profession as a whole. The Dulux Study Tour couldn’t have happened without the generous support of our Australian Institute of Architects representatives, Mai Huynh and Abbey Czudek. After a long, COVID-extended wait, the Australian Dulux Study Tour concluded, having made a significant impression on us all. Whether it be through networking with local practices in our respective states, conversing with other participants about projects and practices or telling the restaurant staff on the final night of the trip that it was someone’s birthday, in a light-heated prank gone right, we hope the connection created between us all will continue as we return to the milieu of everyday practice.
Keith Westbrook and Sam McQueeney.