"This gallery was about the teaching of laws, and the punishments exacted when they were broken."
Sab Lord points up at the rock face painted with elongated spirit figures. The warm air smells of vegetation and wood smoke, as it would have 50,000 years ago, when the powerful Mimi spirit figures were daubed using a mixture of fat, charcoal and red ochre.
Lord turns to the lad beside him: "How old are you, Harry?"
"Fourteen," says Harry. "Fifteen soon."
"Well, unfortunately for you, you're at the right age for ceremony. That's when you'd be taken away and taught the lessons of life. The sap from the milkwood tree would be used to glue feathers onto your body and you'd be taught the songline until you were sick of hearing it. And let me tell you, I've had some ceremony" – he makes cutting motions in the air – "and parts of it are not pretty."
I'm hoping our 24-hour safari with Lord will be a chance for my son to learn some life lessons of his own, far from the comfortable suburb he's grown up in. The bushman was born in the Territory. He has a face best described as lived-in, and an impish sense of humour. His knuckles are swollen from youthful brawling. Thomas Sebastian Lord is also one of the most sought-after and highly paid private guides in Australia.
Lord, 58, is of European descent, and his connections with Arnhem Land are like the tributaries of the East Alligator River: exotic and complex, deep in places, sometimes dark. He grew up on his father's 1300-square-kilometre buffalo station. The local Bininj families who worked on the property became his extended Aboriginal kin, and he was more comfortable speaking Gagadju than English. So at 12, the barefoot Territory kid was shocked when his father packed him off to Scots College in Sydney, where he had to wear a boater and blazer.
Lord returned to the station with some education, a love of rugby and a preparedness to continue working the family station. Soon, though, his father sold it to the government – a compulsory acquisition to form part of Kakadu National Park.
Today, some 200,000 people visit the mighty escarpments of Ubirr between April and October to see the wind-smoothed rocks painted with thousands of exquisite "X-ray" figures of barra, turtles and wallaby. Lord remembers when it was just part of the bush. "We weren't much interested in the rock art back then," he confesses, pulling a guilty-boy face (he pulls it a lot). "I sometimes used to come with my Aboriginal grandfather [by kinship]. We'd go fishing together. I remember there used to be a lot of spear points and arrowheads lying around on the floor, but then the mining companies came looking for uranium in the 1970s and they all disappeared."
As the comfortable 4WD traverses 300 kilometres in and around Kakadu, Lord's cultural gear-changes mean we see the country from a range of perspectives: black and white, traditional and contemporary,
natural and pastoral.
natural and pastoral.
Outside the park, on a rough red-dirt track, he stops beside a female buffalo, lowers the window and calls through his cupped hands, imitating the call of a distressed calf. The animal looks up and points its wet nostrils at us, sensing the threat and flattening its horns against its neck.
"I learnt how to bleed a buffalo when I was seven, Harry," he says. "That was my job. My dad would knock a buffalo over with the bull catcher, then I'd jump out the truck and bleed it. We'd have an hour to get it to the abattoir on the station."
He assesses the animal as a meat product for export to Indonesia: "That cow there, she's about seven or eight cartons of meat."
With friends and extended family in remote Aboriginal communities, Lord can navigate routes that might otherwise prove difficult. It's one of the reasons top properties, such as wilderness lodge Bamurru Plains, on the western edge of Kakadu, entrust him to take their guests on private safaris into Arnhem Land.
British politician Boris Johnson was perfectly at home in the otherness of the Northern Territory and was treated to the Aboriginal delicacy of magpie goose, cooked on the campfire at Lord's bush camp (apparently, Johnson especially relished the heart).
Actor Nicolas Cage was happiest hauling huge catfish out of the floodplains of Bamurru, despite his guide telling him Australian catfish taste nothing like American catfish, and that he'd be better angling for barramundi. "He just wanted to catch catfish!" laughs Lord. "Actually, Nicolas Cage was the only person I ever had bitten on my tour." He pulls his guilty-boy face again: "He'd found a snake, and before I could say 'don't touch it!', it had grabbed his finger. I kept thinking of the headline 'Nicolas Cage killed on Lord's safaris'. Good way to become famous – and then go broke." (Cage was fine, though he did learn a lesson after Bamurru's chef obligingly cooked up one of his prized catfish.)
Lord isn't afraid to get his hands dirty on tour. In a buzzing copse of ironwoods, we come across a dazed kookaburra. Lord fans the bird's wings like a deck of cards to check for broken bones before shifting it into the shade to recover. At a peaceful billabong, he explains how croc numbers have soared since the arrival of cane toads: "The toads are killing the goannas, the goannas aren't eating the croc eggs, and that's had a huge impact on croc numbers."
We stop beside a flank of burning bushland, so close that we can feel the heat on our faces. "Blackfellas would've lit it," says Lord. "They walk through, burning as they go. Y'see the kites coming down? They'll have a great time cleaning up everything that's coming out of the fire…" Then, with a licence that possibly comes with the kinship scars on his back, Lord continues the work of the native people, putting a match to bush on the other side of the road.
He wants to take us to Oenpelli, an Aboriginal community reached via a water crossing on the East Alligator River. The slow river is fat with rains and Lord eyes it with caution. He chats in language with some young men from the community, their vehicle similarly poised at the crossing, before suggesting we might have to change plans. As we retreat, he explains the young men's lineage and relatives in the Stone Country.
"You know, Harry, in Aboriginal culture, I've seen dramatic and traumatic changes. All the people I grew up with have died. It's upsetting. I keep a record of people who pass away in Arnhem Land, and I can tell you the average age is 47."
Frequently, Lord points to places where people he's known have lived. Rod Ansell was a neighbouring croc hunter who found some fame after Paul Hogan based his screen character, Mick Dundee, on his exploits; Ansell died in a shootout with police. Lord's black grandmother died three years ago; as a young woman, she'd been sold to a gold prospector. And when his quixotic father bought the vast property in 1959, he cleared an airstrip by hand; he and his workers laboured wearing only their hats so the swarms of green ants couldn't infest any clothing.
They're characters who've shaped the landscape, shaped the identity of the Territory and shaped Sab Lord. The scenery is sublime, but the richness of his insights makes it more akin to Conan Doyle's lost world, and my son is wide-eyed.
At Lord's camp – in the centre of Kakadu and not far from the village-style retreat of Cooinda Lodge – we sit around a roaring firepit on which the bushman cooks thick, juicy steaks. The permanent bush camp is just that – a cleared bit of bush where up to 12 people can stay in a private place of canvas and shade cloth. It's a long way from the designer spaces of Bamurru Plains – there's a shared ablution block, for starters – but that's part of its appeal. Industry titans and European countesses have happily guzzled bottles of vintage Champagne here, presumably giddy with the foreignness of such prosaic accommodation. Moreover, the privileges come in unexpected forms: when dingoes strike up a late-night lament some 50 metres away, the haunting sound is as thrilling as it is chilling.
The highlight of the trip is a visit to Gunlom Falls. It takes us 15 minutes to clamber up a steep rocky staircase to the top of the falls, an oasis of pools and eucalypts suspended 100 metres over the plains. The waters are cool and lit upon by dragonflies. We peer over the ledge, watching the black waters shatter into white daggers in the hot Territory air.
The feeling of removal from reality is extraordinary, made more so by Lord's stories. They increasingly feel like an Australian form of magical realism, spun by Gabriel García Márquez in a battered Akubra.
"When we were little kids," he says, "Darwin was a bush town of 15,000. To get there from the station took us a day and a half. One time, Mum took me and my brother to visit the dentist. She sent us inside but we came out screaming – 'arrrrghhhhh!' – and she asked, 'What's the matter, what's the matter?' We said: 'Bad spirits! Bad spirits!'"
We blink in expectation.
"It was the air-conditioning," he says. "We'd never experienced cold before."
Good guides offer a window through which travellers can admire place and appreciate the connections of nature, culture and history. Lord offers the same, only his window opens fully, so Harry and I can smell the sweat and feel the sacrifice, the very otherness of life in Australia's northern frontiers.
After we finish soaking in the pool, Lord has to clamber back down the rocky path to the valley floor. "I've got to go prepare some lunch," he says, "so you blokes might as well stay up here a bit longer. Harry, you reckon you can find the track and lead the way back down?"
"I can, Sab," says Harry.
The bushman isn't patronising when he asks the question, and nods when he hears the answer. "Good lad," he says. It's important for a young man to find his way on less familiar paths.
Three-day outback tours with Sab Lord's company, Lords Kakadu & Arnhemland Safaris, cost from $8519 twin share. This includes road transfers from Darwin, permits for Arnhem Land and two nights at Lord's bush camp with meals and drinks. Longer itineraries can be tailored to include overnight stays at the wilderness lodge Bamurru Plains. lords-safaris.com, bamurruplains.com