1 September 2013
I am sitting out on my front deck today when a train of camels pulls into Don’s yard. I have never before been so close to these magnificently smug looking creatures, with their tight soft baby-curls and fluttering eyelashes. They have walked proudly with their owner, the 1,600 km from Gympie on the east coast.
There are also feral camels these days in the desert, a relic of their import from India in the 19th century for transport and construction, and I sometimes see them wandering into town.
It is strange how things happen, but as I pat and coo over these beasts, little do I know that I am to have a second less friendly encounter this night – with a herd of wild camels. Never before – then twice in one day – the Camel Star must be rising in Taurus!
Don and Lyn have promised to take me camping in the desert and tonight is the night. Koopah the dog of course is coming too, always faithfully by Don’s side, or waiting – a small, silent friend. He leaps up into the front seat, his little ears perked expectantly.
We pack up the 4WD with their swags and my little purple (snow!) tent, pots and pans and water, all the paraphernalia. Not just this though. Don is carefully wrapping the Wangkangurru artifacts that he treasures, so that I can photograph them out on the sands and the clay pan, in their natural environment.
We are also going looking for some directional stones that he has earmarked for future investigation after spotting them from the air. Directional stones, like the circles we explored en route to Npapa-npandaka, and when we were out on the gibber plains with Jim, are similarly stones that were re-arranged in the clay hundreds of years ago, to point the next group walking through in the right direction.
We, all four of us, (Koopah on our laps or under our legs) squeeze into the two front seats, holding tight to each other or to the dashboard as we drive off road, bouncing over dunes with a great rev of power to carry our heavy load up the sandy hills, searching for Don’s anticipated location. After many miles, we stop driving for a while and search further on foot, Lyn taking off – a streaking silhouette, towards the horizon. I stick close by Don as I am not so certain I could find my way back to anyone out here; one eye looking out for directional stones, one firmly on Don
It is Lyn who spots them first. We hear her excited call across the plain. One after another we come upon lines and circles set into the clay. It is an awe-inspiring moment. Perhaps we are the first to walk this way since they were last in use.
Our timing is perfect as dusk is on the horizon, so we find a spot on the clay pan, like a dog circling its tail to lie down, and set up camp. Don and Lyn build a fire and set out their swags. I move further out onto the clay pan with my little tent.
After dinner around the fire, we have been settled in our sleeping bags for about an hour when we first hear the roar. I lie with my muscles tensing to see if it comes again. And there it is. Almost in my ear, it sounds; a mighty, bellowing bark echoing through the vast, empty vessel of a chilly desert night.
The next sound is, on one level, a bit more comforting, and on another level even more disturbing. Lyn’s voice calls out, “Don, is Judy alright?” I am first to hastily reply. “What’s that!?”, I call across the empty clay pan. And suddenly there is Don’s voice, urgent in its tone; gone is the soft slow humour it usually holds. “Judy, come over here!”
I need no encouragement and try with great difficulty to pull on trousers and t-shirt in the dark and leap out of my tent. Getting my legs and arms caught in sleeves and sheet, grappling with the ridiculously small zip, stumbling out of the low 2-person tent as the bellow echoes across the clay pan again. I know – I should have camped by the fire! Tell me I am daft!
The roar again, shattering the still night into black ice-shards, splintering the clay pan. It is a bull camel I am told. Lyn says a herd stampeded across the clay pan shortly before I awoke. Lucky I wasn’t in their path – or was I? Did they artfully dodge my small tent in the dark?
As the sun rises on a new and innocent day, we lay out Don’s beautiful, precious artifacts on the clay and the gibber. This is the treasures he has brought:
A stone axe head hewn from volcanic rock; some koondi – throwing sticks of rough hard wood; kira – a boomerang; nganpa – a grinding stone; kutji – a spear; illyawunta – a stone knife. But most magnificent of all, Don brings out the emu feather slippers of the Minparru.
In Australian Aboriginal culture the Minparru (medicine man) was at the centre of community life. He was the link to the Creation time and he maintained contact between past and present. He not only healed people but might also accompany the Kurdaitcha in the dispensing of justice, (including killing people), for wrongdoing.
The shoes of woven yarri plant, pasted over with emu feathers, were worn on such occasions. The shoes are still regarded as highly sacred and secret by some Aboriginal Language Groups. However in Wangkangurru country Don felt it appropriate to share the shoes in the interests of preserving a memory of Culture.
They lie in my hand as light as air, soft as a cloud, smelling of feather. I carry them to the sand dune, in awe of the honour that I have been offered in holding these. I place them gently on the glowing sand, with the pink light of dawn rising, and photograph them there, whispering a silent prayer to them as I work. The air is completely still, fresh and cool from the night, the first lizards scuttling out into the sun. It is a moment etched on me forever. Thank you so much Don.
(There are some links on the Australia Digital Resources Page of the blog to more information about the Minparru)