In astronomy, distance equals time--the farther we peer into space, the deeper we see into the past. As I watch the ocher rays of a setting sun add meaty color to skeletal figures painted eons ago on a giant rock called Ubirr, it occurs to me that geography can work that way, too. If I were to locate my house on a globe and spin the sphere round to the antipodal point, my finger would hover close to Kakadu National Park, a primeval jumble of wetlands, cliffs and forests punctuated by huge boulders that bear some of the oldest and most impressive Aboriginal artworks known. A journey of more than 24 hours at jet speed brought me only to Darwin, still a half-day's drive from the World Heritage Area in the remote Australian outback.
As I head east from Darwin, signs of civilization evaporate. The FM radio stations fade out, then the AM, until the radio offers just static. Near the park entrance, enormous termite mounds rise from the grasslands. Some, just a few paces off the road, stand six meters high. It is July--the dry midwinter--so the nests are mostly quiet now, but come wet season the mounds will erupt, spewing black clouds of winged insects.
This article was originally published with the title In the Land of the Dreamtime.