"...the air had the rich smell of spring water."
As part of an assignment to document The Nature Conservancy's new program in northern Australia, I headed deep into Arnhem Land, to the Aboriginal ranger settlement inside the Warddekken Indigenous Protected Area. This is a model program in which indigenous rangers are using modern science and traditional knowledge to manage a 1.4- million-hectare protected area. The landscape of rock outcroppings and savannah forest was subtle and secretive to my unknowing eye. That was until the village elder/ecologist, Dean Yibarbuk, provided a peek behind the curtain, revealing the cultural and natural mysteries everywhere in the rock folds.
After hours of exploring rock art, Dean led the Conservancy's Geoff Lipsett-Moore up a small incline to the base of what seemed to be a solid rock wall. Dean pointed to a small crack in the wall, no wider than two people, and he and Geoff disappeared inside. The vines framing the entrance were covered in butterflies, and the air had the rich smell of spring water. The cracked opened to a narrow vertical cave whose walls were covered in iridescent green moss. At the back of the cave, Dean and Geoff knelt by a pool of spring water, so clear that the roots growing into it from the mosses made it look like the beating heart of this place.
Just as Dean and Geoff shared a sip of water, a shaft of brilliant golden light hit the back wall and their hands. It was one of those divine moments, when you see and feel the sacredness of what you’re being shown. I think Dean was even impressed, and I guess Geoff got the welcome he was hoping for too.
Ted Wood's photographs appear in publications worldwide, including Nature Conservancy Magazine, Smithsonian, National Wildlife and Vanity Fair. He's a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers and Aurora Photos. See more of his work at http://www.tedwoodphoto.com.