A Special Place: Ubirr – Formerly Known As Obiri

My husband’s profession as an exploration geologist has taken us to many places around Australia, USA and several S.Amercian countries that travellers and tourists pay good money to experience.

In 1975, I and our children (one 4yo one 7months) accompanied Mike to a tent camp at a very remote dot on the map of Australia’s Northern Territory, Bora Springs, where for several months we lived with his team of field assistants, geophysicists, drillers and a cook. It was one of several exploration teams exploring for uranium in that region during an exploration boom for that mineral.

In the northern part of the Australian continent, also known as The Top End, the months of May through October are known collectively as The Dry, because while the monsoon rains are in the northern hemisphere, watering the Asian continent north of the Equator, so no rain falls in the Top End. During The Dry people whose jobs take them out into that country, including explorationists, work 7 or at least 6.5 days a week through those middle months of the year until the Wet arrives. What little time people take off they spend it out in the bush somewhere much closer than the Big Smoke, in this case Darwin, which was a difficult 5-6 hours’ drive away. We had some wonderful picnic days at water holes, lagoons and river crossings in the area, in places that no one in their right mind would swim these days because of the serious and ever present danger of being taken by a crocodile.

Up until it was outlawed in 1971, crocodile hunting had brought the saltwater crocodile population close to extinction, by which time fewer than 3000 estimated to exist in the wild across The Top End. As we were there only a few years after croc hunting had stopped, the crocs were very small and we were never in danger, probably. But today, every year several people are attacked and taken by crocs all across northern Australia, several of them tourists who don’t realise the dangers. Besides BBQ and swimming picnic days, we often went on group expeditions to local scenic attractions such as Rum Jungle, Edith Falls and Obiri Rock, all of which are located in what has since been gazetted as Kakadu National Park.

Formerly known as Obiri, the name of this important Aboriginal spiritual and ceremonial cultural site has reverted to its original, Ubirr, pronounced ‘ub-ee-ah’ . The huge impression our 1975 visit made on me has remained, and while working on a series of Memory Quilts in the early 90s I created one that attempted to capture the feeling of awe I felt there.

Image by Martin Kraft (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MK-06997_Ubirr_rock_art.jpg), “MK-06997 Ubirr rock art”, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode

There are many wonderful images in this link of the Obiri rock outcrop which rises out of the Alligator Rivers flood plains, so that all around us was a sea of green stretching away to the coast and the Timor Sea beyond. Massive rock overhangs shelter the walls on which Aboriginal people had painted and maintained rock art over many centuries. Wiki mentions some of the art has been dated back to 40,000 BCE, but apparently most paintings are from around 2000 BCE and are carefully maintained to this day. It was my first experience of such an ancient, pre-historic place, where a rock face carried a record of human activity, cultural expressions and probably included survival information. We were with someone who was able to tell us about some of the figures and patterns there, and those pictures spoke to us of the people who had been coming to this place for a very long time.

Unfortunately this poor quality scan of the slide is all I have at the moment of the full view of this wall quilt, “Obiri” 1994, 50cm x 70cm. (Photographed against black background)
To make up for that poor full view shot, here’s the detail image. The lines, shapes and colours reflect my memories of Obiri / Ubirr; and the gold stitch represents the precious value of this and similar sites to all mankind.

“Obiri” was selected into Quilt National 95 and is owned by a private Australian collector.

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One Response to “A Special Place: Ubirr – Formerly Known As Obiri”

  1. Franchi Rosenfeld says:

    Amazing historical story, photos and the quilt!

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