David Attenborough’s accounts of his famous ‘Quests’ have been immensely popular. His latest book is as compelling as any, rich in anecdote, extremely readable, and about a wild, remote and beautiful land, little known even to Australians themselves. The Northern Territory of Australia is vast- although it is no more than one-sixth of Australia, it is six times the size of the British Isles. Yet it has a total population of a mere 37,000. The Tropic of Capricorn runs close to its southern boundary across a desert of naked rock peaks and ochre-red sands. Its northern coasts, a thousand miles away, are rimmed with mangrove swamps and desolate valleys haunted by wallabies, cockatoos and huge flocks of water birds. On his four-months’ journey through this desolate and fascinating country David Attenborough spent much of his time observing these and many other creatures that make this part of Australia such an intriguing place for a naturalist- birds that collect white snail-shells and quartz crystals as though they were jewels and build a special arena in which to display them; lizards that run on their hind legs like miniature dinosaurs and have a great flap of skin around the neck which can be erected like an Elizabethan ruff; immense herds of buffalo which, first imported to the Territory over a century ago as beasts of burden, have now run wild and multiplied to become the most dangerous creatures in the bush through which they roam. The author’s descriptions of these animals make fascinating reading, but so also do his accounts of the diverse people he met: a man who paints his body with human blood and is preparing to vote in government elections; a solitary gold prospector who, after thirty years of fruitless search in the scorching desert, believes that to find gold would be a disaster; an artist living in a bark shelter with a few possessions other than a knife and a loin-cloth, whose paintings sell for high prices in cities two thousand miles away. David Attenborough writes vividly and wittily about these encounters, as well as describing such subjects as the ancient rock-paintings he examined that show men and women, hunting scenes and animals, all in startling symbolic design, which in many cases parallel the first drawings mankind ever made in the prehistoric caves of Europe; a secret tribal ceremony he witnessed that brings those taking part into communion with the gods of Dreamtime; and how the aborigines survive in the empty desert which, in spite of its apparent barrenness, provides them with all they need.
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