Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 30, 2015

Old Man’s Story, the last thoughts of Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie (2015), by Bill Neidjie as told to Mark Lang

ilw 2015
Indigenous readers please be aware that this page contains the names of deceased persons.


It isn’t hard to think of friends who would love this book…

Old Man's StoryOld Man’s Story is, as the sub-title suggests, the thoughts of Bill Neidjie, the last remaining speaker of the Gagadju language.  But the wise words of this impressive old man are also accompanied by stunning photographs of Kakadu, and I imagine that for those who’ve been there, this book would be a wonderful memory to have.  (And unless you’re a professional photographer like Lang is, your snaps are probably …um… not quite so spectacular!)

The book begins with an introduction that tells the story of how his book came to be.  Mark Lang, a professional photographer, gave up house and home to travel round Australia but before long, he knew that something was missing…:

…[I] reached a point where I felt that I had seen a lot of the place, and yet still had not got to know the place.  My relationship with this amazing land was rather like a passing friendship; just as the acquaintance was deepening it was time to go, to move on, back to the road again.  In my heart, there was a growing awareness of the immense spirit of the land, and with that came a realisation that the country would not reveal its secrets to me easily.  Perhaps I might learn more if I could just learn to be still and dwell awhile. (p. xiii)

This introduction tells how Lang’s first attempt to build an indigenous relationship failed, but that Old Man Bill took him under his wing.  Lang is intensely conscious of this privilege, and very aware that Bill had reached a tipping point in his responsibilities to his land and his culture because he was the last speaker of his language and he felt the necessity to break with tradition and tell his stories in print.  His own words about how the young ones aren’t interested or can’t be trusted to fulfil the ancient responsibilities, are poignant indeed:

I went there one time to look, teach children
Teach my son Aborigine life, teach him how to look after
How to look after yourself, and kids
He alright, sometime he go look.
Sometime he don’t like.  (p.7)

What you realise as you read through these pages, is that what Bill means by this ‘looking after’ is that looking after their country is essential to looking after oneself and one’s family.  These responsibilities are mutual.

And what is gone cannot be replaced or resurrected:

We used to camp here.
Sometimes ceremony here.
They used to have ceremony, old people.
They used to make plenty fire, good corroboree.

Nobody doing it now.
No more tree, no more growing.
They clean up.  (p. 8)

The First Story and Back to the Dry chapters bookend the book and correspond to the chapters called Dry Season and Wet Season.  Each section contains breathtaking photos which Lang has made available as a slideshow on his website  so you can see my favourite, ‘Moon shining through woolybutt trees’ – you will know it as soon as you see it.

(Does it sound dorky to say that I would love to have these images as a screensaver on our big TV in the sitting room?  It’s not as if we watch TV on it (except for *blush* Game of Thrones), and it would be lovely to watch these magnificent landscapes crolling slowly past me as I potter about.)

Like many old men, Bill has firm ideas about educating the young.  There was no mollycoddling when it was time for him to learn to hunt, but things are different now:

All that.
That way I explained, but young, they don’t get it.
New generation no good, nobody listen.
Old generation better. (p. 26)

But the tragedy now is that the break in traditions and respect for ancient ways has created irreparable damage.  Bill’s life story – as told in his own words in this book – shows that he was not an old curmudgeon who rejected all forms of change – he was an adaptable, resilient person, well able to marry new ways with the old.  He thought, for example, that although he was born in the bush, it was better for babies to be born in hospitals.  But his lament is that there is no one to follow him in ways that keep traditions alive as well.  He is worried about the pernicious effects of money…

This is a book to read slowly, and to mull over.  The verse layout of Old Bill’s story has a slow and graceful rhythm, but for those like me who have little familiarity with Aboriginal English, it takes time to find the flow.  And sometimes the meaning is opaque for a while, only becoming clearer after a page or so, with guidance from Lang’s narrative.

A word about the method used to record this story, because this type of telling another person’s story can be controversial.  Bill Neidjie was an old man when he told these stories, and he was extremely frail.  Over a period of months, Lang would pick him up in his truck, with the wheelchair on the roof rack, and drive Bill out to the places where he belonged where they would settle for as long as the old man was up for it.  Lang recorded everything, and transcribed it word-for-word, subsequently reading it back to Bill to check that it was an accurate reflection of what was said.   Out of respect for the traditional belief that the name and image of a deceased person not be used, Lang also discussed this issue with Bill before he died, and ensured that he had permission to use these stories as he has.  (It was Bill’s idea, he says, that a document be signed to that effect).   In the editing process some repetitions were removed and the sequence of some parts were moved around for better flow.  I don’t know what anthropologists would make of this technique, but it seems to me to have captured the thoughts of the subject with authenticity.  The only thing that made me wonder a bit about the editing was that Bill uses the word ‘Aborigines’ or ‘Aboriginal people’ where I would have expected him as an Elder to use the name of his own people.  But perhaps he was generalising rather than being specific…

Old Man’s Story challenges us as Australians to think about whether there could be a better way.

This earth, important this one.
Earth, we got to go to.
No matter who he is, or colour,
Our mother, this one.
World, or anybody, no matter who colour.  (p.64)

Stories, he says are good for you, and he hopes that the words of this book will spread.  That cover photo, says Lang, expresses Bill’s hope and determination that we will look after his story.

Georgia Delaney also reviewed it for Readings and there’s an interview with Mark Lang here.

Bill Neidjie was an Elder of the Kakadu (Gaagudju) people in the Northern Territory and the last remaining speaker of the Gaagudju language.

Author: Bill Neidjie, with Mark Lang
Photography by Mark Land
Title: Old Man’s Story, the last thoughts of Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2015
ISBN: 9781922059949 (also available as an eBook)
Review copy courtesy of Scott Eathorne at Quikmark Media


Fishpond: Old Man’s Story: The Last Thoughts of Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie



  1. Sounds wonderful – I have requested it from the library. The Red Chief by Ion Idriess was apparently taken word for word from a document written by an Aboriginal man and is a fascinating description of the Gunn-e-darr tribe. Have you read it Lisa?


    • No, that sounds like another one to add to my reading list:)


      • I listened to it on an audio book.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That sounds interesting. How did they do the narration, with two speakers or just one?


          • It was read by James Condon.


  2. Ah, I just looked him up on goodreads, and I’ve added it to my wishlist. Maybe I can get it from the library, I find audio books hard to buy (hardly anybody has a good range) and they’re quite expensive.
    PS Got it! I’ve just reserved it.


    • I borrowed mine via BorrowBox from Boroondarra library.


      • Sorry, I obviously didn’t read your comment through to the end. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


  3. On my first trip to Kakadu, we did an indigenous guided tour into Arnhemland and one of the main stories I remember was about Big Bill Neidje. Fascinating man. We were pointed out where he was initially ‘buried’ (thought I don’t think buried is quite the word) and where his bones were to be moved some years after his death in the local tradition. I remember too being told that Neidje was adaptable as you say and that he did not forbid use of his name and images after his death. I think some people forget that indigenous people’s traditions change like ours BUT that we have to be led by them in this and not assume that what one person or one group says or does goes for everyone. The more life stories we here the more we will understand.

    I was looking forward to visiting Arnhemland again on our third trip to Kakadu in July to hear more about Neidje but it wasn’t to be. I was also looking forward to climbing (more like an uphill walk I need to say) Ubirr Rock again, which we did on our first trip but not our second. Those slide show photos are beautiful. You’re not dorky at all Lisa!


    • Sue, it was you I thought of as soon as I opened this book. Do you think you will be able to get back there at some time in the future?


      • I’d like to … there was one main thing that we haven’t see yet – first time no time, second time was too early in the season (mid June as I recollect) and crocs were still about, so this time we were going! Harrumph. I’m talking JimJim and Twin Falls. So, we’ll see.


  4. […] of Elcho Island Dr M. Yunupingu, and Gurumul Yunupingu, and Lisa at ANZLL has just reviewed Old Man’s Story, a photographic biography of a man from the Kakadu region. Though we must bear in mind that […]


  5. I agree Lisa, this book would make a lovely present. It relates the importance of family, stories, tradition, nature and the world, and has beautiful photos.


    • A perfect marriage of words and images.


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