Looking at X Rays in the Garden of Eden

Beneath the skin of the Australian landscape known as Kakadu, a huge wealth of uranium awaits. Above that same skin lies wealth of a more intimate sort: paradisiacal scenery, the first touch of human history, and 50 millennia of artistic achievement, rendered on soft, glowing sandstone. Can you see the dilemma here?

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In the remote northern lobe of Australia’s Northern Territory, west of a crocodile-filled river known misleadingly as the East Alligator, lies a landscape of ancient and holy secrets.

It goes by the name Kakadu, a white man’s skrawky approximation of a softer Aboriginal word, Gagudju. History is long, in this place, and one reality is layered atop another. Old meanings rise up through newer surfaces like pentimento in a painted-over painting. The uppermost layer, and arguably the most insubstantial, is the pattern of neat map lines demarcating Kakadu National Park, a political oxymoron reflecting good intentions, contrary purposes, and uneasy compromise arrived at within the past three decades. Those lines encompass 7,600 square miles of territory and more than one pig in a poke. The bottommost layer is a geological basement of granite and gneiss that dates back 2.5 billion years, comprising some of the oldest rock on the planet. In between is a record of ebbing and flowing volcanism, sedimentation, orogeny, erosion, and the awakenings of human imagination and dread.

You can see that awakening given shape in splendiferous rock art. Kakadu is more than a landscape; it’s a gallery of dreams and nightmares. And now recent news from this extraordinary place — news about a mineral lease called Jabiluka — suggests that the nightmares were uncannily prescient.

Slashing out across the Kakadu landscape is a great ribbon of red sandstone cliffs, an escarpment, rising hundreds of feet high and stretching hundreds of miles in a wobbly diagonal, roughly northeast to southwest. This escarpment is the divider between a high, hard eastern shelf, known as the Arnhem Land Plateau, and the seasonally flooded lowlands to the west. Its sheer verticality looms over those lowlands like some awesome wall of religious megaliths left behind by a vanished race of predecessors. Unlike religious megaliths, though, the escarpment offers shelter.

Kakadu is Australia’s Mesopotamia, its Garden of Eden, with the difference being that from this garden Adam and Eve never left. For the past 50,000 years people have lived here, finding habitable caves and niches in the escarpment’s tall shadow, taking food from the wetlands and forests, and (at least for much of that time) painting eerie humanoid figures and decorative animals on the sheltered sandstone walls. Many of those paintings have survived. Executed in red, orange, and yellow ochers and other mineral pigments, they depict some of the great mythic figures of Aboriginal cosmogony, the founding heroes who lived their outsize adventures and appetites during a numinous ancestral prehistory called Garrewakwani, sometimes rendered in English as The Dreaming. There are gracefully spooky images of Almudj, the Rainbow Snake, a preeminent being who delivers freshening rain, fertility, and sometimes punishment; of Algaihgo, Namorrorddo, and other menacing spirits; and of the fey, skinny figures known collectively as Mimi, who dwell among and sometimes inside the rocks themselves. Spookiest of all is Namarrgon, the Lightning Man, bringer of thunderstorms and terror, a skeletal elf encircled by an arc of pure energy. There are fish, kangaroos, long-necked turtles, monitor lizards, and people portrayed in the arresting X-ray style for which Kakadu is famous, their backbones and internal organs showing through carapace, scale, and skin, as though the paintings are a record of ritual dissection. The work left on these walls represents an extraordinary legacy from a lineage of spiritual, imaginative hunter-gatherers. They were people who lived simply and made great art. I suppose that could be taken to mean they were rather less enterprising than philosophic.

Layer has gone atop layer, stratum upon stratum, culture upon landscape, while beneath the sandstone itself lurks something equally stony but more problematic: uranium. Though Kakadu looks sublime on its surface, from its innards it’s radiant with complications.

In the predawn hours of May 19, 1998, those complications came into personified focus with the arrest of a quiet, stubborn Aboriginal woman named Yvonne Margarula. The charge against her was trespass. Along with six other people, she had climbed over a fence using a bamboo ladder. There was some irony to the criminal charge, since Yvonne Margarula is by birth and by law the senior traditional owner of the land upon which she had trespassed. But that land is also subject to the Jabiluka mineral lease, held by Energy Resources of Australia Ltd., for extraction of what’s underneath: one of the world’s largest known deposits of uranium ore. ERA is a uranium-mining company that last year did $128 million in sales to electric utilities in Asia, Europe, and North America. Margarula is a leader of the Mirrar Gundjehmi people — about two dozen adults and a passel of children — whose traditional country lies along the west bank of the East Alligator, near the northeast corner of what is now Kakadu. Country itself is a potent concept for Aboriginal clans anciently resident among the West Alligator, South Alligator, and East Alligator Rivers, and to look after Country is a phrase that comes up when these people are pressed to describe, in English, their complicated sense of stewardship duties. Although her late father signed the lease agreement in 1982, Yvonne Margarula reportedly considers it her responsibility to look after Country by preventing Jabiluka from being dug.

The lease is invalid by reason of coercion, she argues, and her argument is not without basis. You have a white-fella piece of paper signed by a black-fella hand, but the black fella was under duress; he was trapped, conquered, merely acceding to a treaty of surrender. What you don’t have, she says, is free and legitimate consent. I’m paraphrasing now from secondhand reports.

I’m paraphrasing because Margarula declines to make herself quotable. She’s a shy person, reticent in English, even slightly mysterious, who holds a central role in this controversy more by inheritance than by voice. Born in the bush, educated in ancient tradition and survival skills, she worked for most of the past dozen years as a laundry employee at one of Kakadu’s tourist hotels. She doesn’t speak often or elaborately in public, nor to the press, nor to the minions of white Australian governance. She has refused, for the past couple years, to meet with representatives of ERA. Her wisdom and her adamantine convictions are conveyed to the world generally through the protective (and manipulative?) people who surround her. She may indeed be a natural leader as courageous as Mandela, as savvy as Gandhi — but if so, it’s hard to confirm. Maybe, on the other hand, she’s only the Wizard of Oz.

From a comfortable distance — say, across an ocean, with facts and perceptions arriving by the Internet — this looks like a simple story. Kakadu National Park, that spectacular assemblage of wetland ecosystem and ancient rock art, is threatened with defilement by a uranium mine. Australian conservationists are appalled, and a protest camp has blossomed in the forest not far from Jabiluka. The World Heritage Committee of UNESCO, which recognizes Kakadu as a World Heritage Site both for its natural and its cultural richness, has sent a group to investigate. The business-oriented government of Prime Minister John Howard has approved the mine project, as expected, and so have all the requisite agencies. Meanwhile, one Aboriginal woman has said no, it must not happen. Wizard or mahatma, she’s facing steep odds. The courts have denied her appeals. Ground has been broken at the Jabiluka site.

And the broader question, the one that extends beyond Australia to an uncomfortable distance, seems clearly framed: Is there any parcel of landscape on Earth so precious that economic imperatives won’t eventually mandate its ruin? Given the inexorable pressures from an inexorably growing human population, is there any national park that won’t be ripped open, in time, to supply us with cheap energy and jobs? If Kakadu isn’t safe, what place is?

That’s how I’d framed it, anyway, until I stepped off the plane.

“The first thing that surprises people, the general public, is that uranium is natural,” said Greg Hall, a mining manager at ERA’s Kakadu offices. It didn’t surprise me, but I let him continue. “Natural uranium is just part of the evolutionary process. It’s part of the world, part of everything we’ve gone through.” Of course one could also assert that, while natural, uranium is the weirdest and most pernicious thing that humankind didn’t invent. But I had come for a briefing, not a debate.

Hall was a bright and cordial fortyish fellow in a polo shirt. On his grease board he drew me a diagram to explain the geological history of the Alligator Rivers region: how uranium had been released from the deep basement rocks due to pressure and heat, how uranium-bearing fluids had migrated upward along fault structures, how the uranium had finally become concentrated into rocky lodes upon contact with carbonates and schists near the escarpment. That’s why, at more than one point in the area, there exists what Hall called “an economic deposit.” Although Jabiluka is the one around which controversy presently swirls, another deposit known as Koongarra lies untapped nearby. And still another, comprising several ore bodies aggregately labeled Ranger, has been mined since 1980. The Ranger mine, with its own milling and packing operation, occupies an inholding not far south of Jabiluka, beside a waterway known as Magela Creek, and the room where I sat with Greg Hall was part of that Ranger compound. Surely, it occurred to me, Kakadu must be the world’s only national park that’s a major exporter of uranium.

How much of Australia’s electricity comes from nuclear generation? I asked Hall.

“None,” he said.

Australia burns coal, oil, and gas. The uranium oxide produced from Jabiluka will go where the Ranger product goes — abroad, to fuel reactors in the world’s nuclear-electrified countries, of which the most deeply committed are France, Japan, Finland, Sweden, Taiwan, South Korea, Chile, and Belgium. Some uranium from Ranger has also come to electric utilities in the United States. But the mine tailings from Jabiluka, with their remnant radioactivity, will stay at Kakadu.

The Jabiluka lease encompasses 18,000 acres of rolling hills, swales, sandstone outcrops, and forest, of which only about 400 acres will be visibly disturbed. A mine portal will lead toward underground shafts; nearby will be ore-grinding and chemical extraction facilities (including an acid plant), an ore stockpile, support buildings, and pits to hold tailings. Two crucial questions about the tailings remain unresolved. First, how will that 21 million tons of powdery radioactive slag be permanently dealt with after the mine is played out? Will it be left in pits at the surface, and perhaps capped with a layer of clay, water, or rock? Will it be mixed with cement to form a pasty gunk and squirted back into the underground shafts from which it came? Second, how long will the tailings remain dangerous? A standard estimate is 1,000 years, and by the code of practice governing Australian uranium mining (the U.S. and Canadian codes are similar), that’s how long a tailings-containment structure should last. But within the full diversity of expert opinion on the abiding menace of tailings, 1,000 years appears optimistic. On the wary side, estimates range from 200,000 years into the billions. The short-term danger derives from radium, radon gas, and the highly radioactive decay products of radon, which can cause lethal havoc to living tissues exposed at close range. The long-term danger comes from the continual, incremental resupply of short-term danger by slow decay of the isotopes thorium 230 and uranium 234, with their respective half-lives of 76,000 and 245,000 years. Though the milling and extraction process gets 95 percent of the uranium, it leaves behind 85 percent of the radioactivity, largely in the form of other hot elements.

According to ERA’s figures, the Jabiluka mine will yield about 99,000 tons of uranium in the course of its 30-year run, and will leave about 21 million tons of tailings. Although uranium ore is relatively innocuous when left buried as natural rock, it’s far less innocuous when mined and milled. Things happen. Wind carries dust. Tailings pits sometimes leak. Tailings dams sometimes break. Exceptionally soggy monsoon seasons cause pits and dams to overflow into creeks and floodplains.

At the atomic level things happen too. Thorium 230 becomes radium 226. This occurs by spontaneous decay with the emission of one alpha particle and one gamma ray. Radium 226 goes to radon 222, again by shedding an alpha and a gamma. Radon 222, a heavy gas that will flow downhill, goes to polonium 218 when one alpha pops out of the nucleus. The insidious thing about radon gas is that it has a very short half-life, only 3.8 days, meaning that it releases its radioactivity within the scope of a modest number of human breaths; and from there the decay cycle proceeds even faster. Polonium 218 goes to lead 214, lead 214 to bismuth 214, bismuth 214 to polonium 214, and then that goes to lead 210, all within minutes, amid a crackle of alphas and betas and gammas. These latter isotopes are what used to be called, before gender sensitivity reached nuclear physics, “radon daughters.” Nowadays, radon progeny. If you inhale a few wisps of the radon itself, long before you start coughing you’ll have taken a serious hit. Your lungs will be lit up like the swim bladder in an X-ray fish.

My first chance to hear Yvonne Margarula, though I didn’t foresee it then, turned out also to be my last. She was leading a large party of visitors through the forest on the Jabiluka lease site. This was not an act of pointed trespass but merely a “culture walk,” an outing offered by way of thanks and farewell to the hundreds of protestors who had lived for weeks in the camp nearby, serving as foot soldiers in her fight against ERA. That fight — or at least the latest battle — now seemed lost. A blockade of sorts had been attempted, there had been hundreds of arrests, press stories had reached Sydney and Melbourne and even overseas, and the protestors (many of whom were young and adorned with the usual share of lip rings and dreadlocks and tie-dyed shirts, though some middle-aged professionals and elderly matrons were among them too) had achieved, if nothing else, a high sense of purposeful bonding and righteousness. ERA, with help from the local and territorial police, had pushed unrelentingly forward, and work on the mine tunnel had begun back in June. Now it was October, with the wet season imminent. Monsoon rains would turn the dry forest green and sumpy, raise all the rivers, creeks, and billabongs, bring waterfalls crashing down off the plateau, and transform Kakadu below the escarpment into a single great wetland. The protest camp would soon be abandoned to wallabies and mud. Before the campaigners went back to their jobs or their schools or their other diversions and campaigns, they were being granted this audience with Margarula.

She was a small woman, barely five feet tall, with a dark round face, a wide easy smile, and a full corona of black hair just touched with gray. She walked slowly and spoke quietly. People leaned in to hear. Crowd control and courtesies of a more stentorian sort were performed by a handful of functionaries from the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation, the legal entity established several years ago to represent Margarula’s clan. Each of the Gundjehmistas was a light-skinned Aboriginal woman wearing a T-shirt with a stop jabiluka logo on the front and, on the back, a statement attributed to Yvonne Margarula: “We will fight to protect our country, and that is a fact of life.” Margarula herself wore a green-and-white print dress. Reaching a sandstone wall graced with rock paintings, she pointed to one figure done in red and orange. Here’s a Mimi spirit, she said. I scuttled closer with my notebook, hoping to catch a clarion quote.

When I was young, she said, my family came through and camped here during the Wet. March or April. Going to visit my uncle and aunt. We would make beds of paperbark. Long ago. My father used to hunt the crocodile, she said, and brushed her finger at a crocodile image on the wall. We’d eat them, roasted with bark, she said. Again this is all paraphrase. Clarion quotes weren’t her style, and the exact words didn’t hold shape long enough for me to scribble them.

Later we gathered up into a natural amphitheater of sandstone boulders and heard a thank-you speech from one of the functionaries. Your presence here at the blockade camp has been invaluable, this woman said. The campaign has been a hard road, she said, and at times we’ve all felt like roadkill. But your effort has been recognized, and is much appreciated by us. Now have a good look at the landscape around you, she said. Take it all in. This is Mirrar country. Remember it well. Remember it until you’re asked to come back again, with your shovels … to fill in the unfinished tunnel. After the cheers to that died, she added, “By the way, you’re all arrestable,” drawing a burst of laughter. It was a good piece of oratory.

And then the functionary stepped aside for Margarula, whose speech in total was: “I’m happy to see you all. Thank you for coming.”

There are thousands of art sites throughout Kakadu, of which many are still held secret by the Aboriginal clans and kept strictly off-limits to tourists. Among the sites that an outsider may visit, the most impressive are two great sandstone massifs known as Ubirr and Nourlangie Rock. Ubirr is notable for its abundance of work in the X-ray style — lunker barramundi and catfish that seem filleted open, see-through wallabies and turtles, even humans with their internal anatomy laid naked. All the X-ray figures at Ubirr and elsewhere represent relatively modern paintings (that is, done within the last 8,000 years), and many are superimposed upon older images in earlier, less clever styles. The whole X-ray convention seems an uncanny coincidence, if not an act of artistic clairvoyance, in this landscape now known to be radiation-riddled. But even the older images include a few chilling intimations of that prescient, primordial dread I mentioned earlier.

On one wall at Ubirr, for instance, is a gangly stick figure of red ocher in the Mimi style, its stem-thin arms and spine tortured by large nodules. A park service plaque nearby reads: “A HEALTH WARNING. The bones of this person have been swollen by Miyamiya, a sickness you can contract if you disturb the stones of a sacred site downstream near the East Alligator River.” Such sites, the plaque adds, are not only sacred but extremely dangerous if disturbed. And at Nourlangie Rock there’s a riveting visual homage to Namarrgon, Lightning Man, who presides over his own sacrosanct place, a set of three tall cliffs known as Namarrgon Djadjan, or Lightning Dreaming. If you pass by the portrait of Namarrgon in an undercut alcove at Nourlangie, and then follow a trail northeastward until it begins to climb, within a few minutes you’ll come to a low lookout. From there, gazing southeast toward the distant escarpment, you’ll see the pillarlike cliffs of Namarrgon Djadjan. Disturb this abode of Lightning Man, warns another plaque, and dire trouble will result for everyone.

The plaque omits one interesting fact that can only be gleaned from a good map: Directly between your lookout and Namarrgon Djadjan is the Koongarra mineral lease, third of Kakadu’s big three, with its lode of so-far-undisturbed uranium. Lightning Man stands guard.

Having witnessed Margarula’s taciturnity before a crowd of white people, I could imagine her distaste for interviews, and I knew she’d be indisposed to any airy journalistic Q&A about uranium mining or regulatory squabbles. That’s not what I want anyway, I told her functionaries. Let’s don’t even call it an interview, I said, let’s call it a conversation. What I want is to ask a few questions about her family, her upbringing, her connection to the landscape we saw at Jabiluka. She’s unavailable today, they told me. No, not tomorrow either. Each day for a week I heard the same.

Meanwhile I learned what I could from ERA, from other Aboriginal people, from the rock art by gazing at it and the landscape by walking through it, from scuttlebutt over the rail of a local bar, and from the historical record. The historical sources were far too abundant for a mere week’s cramming, but even a hasty browsing gave me a sense of all the conflicts built into Kakadu National Park from the get-go.

The problem at the soul of Kakadu is that it reflects a devil’s deal meant to satisfy three irreconcilable interests. Conservationists had wanted a national park to protect the Alligator Rivers region, with its rich wetlands and its amazing art. Aboriginal people had wanted legal tenure and real control over land that had once been solely theirs. Mining companies had wanted access to what their exploratory research had identified as one of the world’s great Easter-egg gardens of uranium. Each of those three parties had felt entitled (by law, by traditional tenure, by scientific and humanitarian logic), and no one, in the upshot, was denied. This realization — that there had been three spoons in the soup since before Kakadu became Kakadu — was my first signal that, contrary to preconceptions formed from a comfortable distance, the broader question damn well wasn’t clearly framed. The broader question of what it all meant for the world, like the narrow question of whether to dig at Jabiluka, was a rat’s nest of political, scientific, historical, and ethical ambiguity.

The issue of land rights dates back into the mid-19th century, when the European invasion was in its early stage. A German explorer named Ludwig Leichhardt traversed the Alligator Rivers region in 1845, the first white man to do so, and he reported finding the native people numerous and friendly. Soon after him came cattlemen, gold prospectors, and buffalo shooters (the shooters to prey upon Asian water buffalo, which had been introduced and gone abundantly feral on the soggy Alligator Rivers floodplains). The landscape was difficult, but not so difficult that these tough opportunists weren’t beginning to elbow Aboriginal people aside. As early as 1892, the territorial administration designated small patches of land near the West Alligator as Aboriginal reserves — a first attempt at cooping the traditional proprietors into ghettos. The far bigger Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve, stretching eastward from the East Alligator, was declared in 1931. A white man named Dr. Cecil Cook, nominally Chief Protector of Aborigines, conferred his “protection” about the same time; a large Arnhem reserve, Cook hoped, would allow Aborigines to keep their distance from the corrosive attractions of white settlements and Christian missions. His concern about cultural corrosion was percipient, but a reserve east of the East Alligator was no consolation to clans — such as the Mirrar — whose homelands lay west of that river.

The idea of a national park arose separately and then, in the push-pull of politics, became connected. Park proposals made in the mid-1960s had died for lack of support. The idea was revived, in the early 70s, by a commission appointed to study something else — the issue of Aboriginal land rights. The chief commissioner, Justice A. E. Woodward from the Northern Territory’s high court, wrote almost offhandedly: “It may be that a scheme of Aboriginal title, combined with National Park status and joint management, would prove acceptable to all interests.” In 1976 a landmark law, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, granted title for some areas to the traditional Aboriginal owners and established procedures for securing other title claims. Still there was no national park, not until the advice from that one panel of white men converged with the advice from another.

This second panel, formally known as the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, was appointed to ponder what by then had become a fierce national controversy — whether or not uranium should be mined in Australia. In particular, should it be mined from the Ranger lease along the East Alligator River? The chief commissioner was Justice Russell Walter Fox, of the federal Supreme Court, and the resulting document became known as the Fox Report. Justice Fox and his colleagues listened to 303 witnesses, including many Aboriginal people, and amassed 13,000 pages of transcript. They emerged from this exercise wary of uranium mining, its long-term impacts, and its ramifications (including nuclear weaponry) but not, finally, opposed. As for the Ranger lease, they suggested a compound arrangement addressing land rights and conservation concerns along with mining.

The Fox Report embodied four salient recommendations: 1) that the Ranger mine be allowed to proceed; 2) that a national park be established in the same region; 3) that land rights be granted to Aboriginal owners, again in the same region, for claims filed under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act; and 4) that other uranium leases in the region (such as Jabiluka and Koongarra) be mined “sequentially at appropriate intervals,” whatever that might mean. Although the Fox Report was an advisory document, not a law, it has carried great force in Australian history.

In 1978, an Aboriginal council leased Kakadu lands to the Director of National Parks and Wildlife for use as a national park. The 100-year lease stipulated several conditions: that local people be trained and employed as park workers, consulted in its management, and allowed to continue living traditionally in its backcountry; and that park interpretative programs promote understanding of Aboriginal culture. The park became law in three geographic stages. Stage One, declared in 1979, was a jagged-shaped parcel encompassing the escarpment, a chunk of lowland forest, a wedge of the East Alligator floodplain, and the artistic riches of Ubirr and Nourlangie. The mineral leases at Ranger, Jabiluka, and Koongarra were explicitly excluded. Stage Two, declared in 1984, added more forest and floodplain in the north, thereby enclosing Ranger and Jabiluka within the park perimeter. Stage Three, in 1987, connected more lowland, escarpment, and plateau along the south. By then, uranium mining and milling were long since under way at Ranger.

This dry thumbnail history omits much political wrangling, among which just one question is crucial here. Under what circumstances of free assent, coercion, or alcoholic despondency did Yvonne Margarula’s father, a Mirrar leader named Toby Gangale, sign the lease granting mineral rights at Jabiluka? “After a process of meeting after meeting — described often as ‘being humbugged’ — traditional owners consented to the Jabiluka mine in June 1982,” according to a Web site release from the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation. Toby Gangale, by this account, was too ill to sit during the final meeting. Disgusted by what he’d seen done to the land at Ranger, discouraged by the false promises about health care and employment for his people, spiraling into his cups, he lost heart. The endless coaxing and argument by white men, who came with corporate and government powers behind them, seemed ineluctable. “His despair at the desecration of his Country and the unrelenting pressure to permit yet more development drove Toby Gangale to drink and he died young in 1989.” So said another release.

That sounded plausible, but was it fair to the man’s memory? These unsigned releases were written in a stiff functionary voice whose veracity I had no way to judge. Had Toby Gangale in truth become a dispirited drunk, not responsible for his actions, or had he made a sober choice? I wanted to hear it from his daughter.

Mick Alderson is a fit 50-year-old man with graying hair and wire-frame glasses. One of the steadiest and most respected Aboriginal figures in Kakadu, he serves on the park’s board of management (as does Yvonne Margarula) and as chairman of the Gagudju Association, a representative body that receives mine royalties from ERA and invests them in commercial enterprises on behalf of the local Aboriginal people. He also holds a job on the park staff. Back in the early years he worked closely with Toby Gangale, and still speaks respectfully of him. Smoking a hand-rolled cigarette on the veranda of the ranger station where I found him, beneath a gentle ceiling fan, Alderson talked judiciously of Aboriginal politics, money management, land rights, the disappearance of Aboriginal languages, the oppressive buildup in humidity and heat just before the breaking rains of the monsoon, and all the other factors that make Kakadu prickly.

What if uranium had never been discovered here? I asked.

“The park wouldn’t have been set up,” he said. Or it might have been set up differently, without the underlying acknowledgment of Aboriginal ownership. “We wouldn’t have had the land back.” There’s no denying that Aboriginal people have benefited from the mining, he said — in health care, material conveniences, various ways. But the chief benefit, to his mind, derived from that peculiar three-way deal over the land itself: “At the moment, we know we own it. By white-fella law.”

Sure, uranium produces some negative impacts, he added. But if you want to gauge really negative impacts, consider the damage done by Christian missionaries. Mick himself had been sent away at the age of 10 to a mission school on an island off the coast, where grim priests stripped students naked and tried to beat the Aboriginality out of them with a sewing-machine belt.

Victor Cooper, another member of the park’s board of management who helped direct a social impact study of the Ranger mine, is a slight man behind a dour frown. He consented reluctantly to speak with me, and chose his words carefully, but from him I heard something similar. Their study suggested that the relationship between ERA and Aboriginal people at Kakadu has not been good, he said. Too many promises, too much disappointment, in terms of substantive long-term benefit. But if you’re concerned about health impacts, never mind uranium and its tailings. Never mind polonium 218. Look instead, as the study did, at the damage done to the Aboriginal community by alcohol.

Elsewhere I heard further variants of the same theme: Don’t demonize uranium while overlooking the other forms of toxin. Consider tourism. Consider booze. Consider religious imperialism. Consider the losses of sovereignty, freedom, privacy, spirituality, remoteness, linguistic diversity, culture. Consider all the ways in which Kakadu National Park has been laid down upon a human-occupied landscape, like one painting superimposed on another.

After nine days, I drove down to Darwin, on the coast. At the Northern Territory Library, a civic cathedral near the waterfront, I found a copy of the Fox Report, its two volumes bound in institutional mustard-yellow paperback and titled Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry. The second volume dated from May 1977, back when the notion of Aboriginal land rights was a fresh promise made against a history of oppression and theft, and when the Jabiluka mine was just a dream in the mind of a smooth-talking young fellow named Tony Grey, whose company later sold its lease to ERA. On page nine, in a section headed “Aboriginal attitude,” I noticed a passage in which the commissioners had let fly some bold but saddening candor.

The evidence put before them, they said, showed that the traditional owners were opposed to uranium mining at Ranger or anywhere else in the region. But those owners seem to feel, the commission observed, that nothing they say or do is likely to matter — that nothing will stop the white man. Justice Fox and his colleagues regretted that all talk of leases, land rights, consultation, and self-determination had been perceived by the local people as sham. This passage was followed, oddly, by one conceding that perception to be correct. “We have given careful attention to all that has been put before us by them or on their behalf. In the end, we form the conclusion that their opposition should not be allowed to prevail.” Too bad about the piteous Aboriginals, but we’ll need to trample them beneath our manifest destiny again.

Five years after the Fox recommendations were accepted as national wisdom, Toby Gangale signed the Jabiluka lease. You tell me whether his act was a free choice.

My other stop in Darwin was at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, which held a certain celebrated piece that I wanted to see. A large painting by a Yindjibarndi-speaking artist named Jody Broun, it had won first prize in the year’s national competition for Aboriginal art. The title was “White Fellas Come to Talk ‘Bout Land.”

An art critic, I suppose, might call Broun’s style naive, in some not-unflattering sense of that word; the sensibility behind the style is anything but, no matter how you define naivete. The painting shows a circle of Aboriginal people seated on the ground and amid them two white men in neckties and hats. All the figures are faceless. Dogs and black-skinned children loll distractedly among the black-skinned adults. The white man at center stands with his hand out, as though making an elaborate, specious point. The people listen patiently but they seem to have heard it before. The ground beneath them is bare, curved at the horizon into a world all itself, and red like Kakadu sandstone.

Back in the park, my remaining few days were spent talking with a naturalist about lizards, with a scientist about uranium tailings, and with a boozy mining official about all manner of relevant local gossip. The mining official, a round-faced Scottish expat with a long history of Kakadu schmoozing and a certain roguish charm, insisted that Toby Gangale was not a defeated drunk when he signed the Jabiluka lease. That phase of Toby’s life, said the Scotsman, came later. Follow the money trail that leads from ERA to the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation, said the Scotsman, and then compare that against Gundjehmi’s righteous posturing. This was bar talk, of course, and made me only more keen to hear Margarula’s side. I called again and still again at the Gundjehmi office, a little tin building with an awning in front and a brusque sign on its back door saying NO ENTRY / NO SMOKING / NO MINE. Again and still again I was told: no Yvonne. So I hiked among the rocks. I revisited the portrait of Lightning Man. I watched white cockatoos flocking nervously at sunset in the gum trees. There were black cockatoos too, but those were rarer, and more calm.

On my last try I found Margarula at the office, lingering there after a consultation. She seemed to recognize, with a glance, that I was the American journalist who’d been asking for her so persistently, and then she withdrew behind a door. Hoorah, I thought, finally. Patience pays off. But after a few minutes I heard the gatekeeper’s voice, offering the same phony regret I’d heard for two weeks. “Bad news, David. Too many meetings.”

Say what?

“Too many meetings this week. Yvonne can’t see you.”

I was startled. I gaped. After all the temporizing, all the runaround, I hadn’t expected quite such a clumsy no. And I couldn’t comprehend what made them so foolish. Didn’t they know I had come here with high sympathy for the Mirrar and low sympathy for multinational merchants of uranium? Didn’t they know that I wanted to hear Yvonne’s plain, heartfelt words so I could balance them against the other side’s slick assurances? Were the functionaries worried that I’d interrogate her rudely? Were they scared that I’d fix on that question of where the Gundjehmi Aboriginal Corporation gets its money? Were they annoyed that I had declined to sign the ridiculous press-relations agreement — promising censorship power and a share of all publishing revenue to the Gundjehmi Corp — that they had foisted on gullible semipro journalists at the protest camp? Had their grapevine alerted them that I was welcoming all voices, including the Scotsman’s? This final turndown was infuriating but, as I realized quickly, in its blatancy it was also intriguing. What’s the real reason, I asked, for keeping me away from Yvonne?

“Beg pardon?” said the gatekeeper. “That’s all I have.”

I was convinced they were hiding something. But was it something that existed, or the negative fact of something that didn’t — namely, Yvonne Margarula as portrayed by the Gundjehmi apparatus? Was she really a forceful, implacable leader arisen from simple origins, as we’d all been told? Or was she an illusion, a political construct shaped and promoted by someone else, upon no basis except her compelling face, her trusting and malleable nature, her loathing for alcohol and its ravages, and her birth status within the Mirrar clan? Was she a noble lie?

Weighted with that ugly suspicion, I left Kakadu. After a few days of mulling and some more bar talk, I still felt confused. There existed a simple alternative to the Wizard-of-Oz explanation, I recognized. Maybe Yvonne Margarula was indeed what she seemed. Given all she’d been through, all she was going through, maybe no courtesies and no excuses were owed. Maybe this Aboriginal woman just didn’t care that I’d crossed an ocean to meet her, nor that I might tell her story to a large American audience. Maybe, from her point of view, I was just another white fella come to talk ’bout land.