An ancient land of fire and rust, weathered by time. A place where millions of feuding termite kingdoms carpet the savannah, desperately their raising towering fortresses from the iron orange sands beneath. Where karrkanj firebirds glide effortlessly over hilltops and eucalyptus canopies, catching disoriented prey inside the glassy haze of bush smoke. A place where mornings are marked by a cacophony of cockatoos and kookaburras, and the night by bickering choruses of tree frogs and crickets. Welcome to Arnhem Land, an ecosystem like no other.
Tucked away in the top end of the Northern Territory in Australia, one of the least inhabited areas of the planet, lies Arnhem Land. Formed from a patchwork of indigenous-owned lands, it is one of the largest areas in the country maintaining a majority aboriginal population. Home to dozens of languages and distinct communities that are thought to represent the oldest continuously living cultures in the world, here you can find storytelling traditions that stretch back 50,000 years and the oldest stone axes that have ever been discovered.
It is also in Arnhem Land that the concept of fire is completely flipped on its head. Instead of being a destroyer, wildfires are seen as a natural force for maintenance and creation. With some part of the land almost always burning, fire is such a constant presence that plants have evolved many adaptations for living with wildfires, such as eucalyptus plants that use the heat of fire to open protective seed shells for dispersal. Allowed to burn without interference, these low-level fires help level the playing field for competing vegetation, provide foraging opportunities for birds and other animals, and continuously remove excess fuel from the environment that would otherwise build up, triggering unnaturally big and bad wildfires such as the ones seen further south. For thousands of years aboriginal Australians have lived with this knowledge and often burned the land intentionally. It's function may originally have been for hunting, but now rangers are being employed to regularly burn off land during cold seasons.
Today, communities have been working to take power back from the national government to manage their land again. This has resulted in the creation of several Indigenous Protected Areas, granting these communities special powers and rights. When entering these areas, even Australian citizens are required to apply for permits.
Materials in this video were recorded in the Mimal Indigenous Protected Area (IPA), located at the geographic centre of Arnhem Land, where I stayed for six weeks on a bird ecology research trip during the winter. I am infinitely grateful to experience such a unique ecosystem and community, and I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians, landowners and managers of Mimal IPA, and to thank them for allowing me to stay and work with their community and on their land. If you are interested in Mimal and what an IPA is, please check out their website here: https://www.mimal.org.au/about-us.