A story of immense achievement


Don and Koopah


Jim at sacred fish hole of Thutirla Pula story

This short ABC news report – Twin celebrations for Wangkangurru Yarluyandi people, features Elders talking of their Native Title Claim success. I take my hat off to them for this success story; the years of hard work and the suffering that has gone into achieving this moment. Don Rowlands and Jim Crombie, who feature in the report, both helped develop the Grounded exhibition and I am so delighted to see them here relating the good news. Having had the honour of spending time with them, I know how much heart and soul has gone into getting to this point.

For those new to the blog, the Grounded exhibition, a commission by Glasgow Life for Festival 2014 XX Commonwealth Games, is now open at An Lanntair Art Gallery in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, from 13 September to 11 October, a partner event at Hebtember Festival.

The Grounded residency diary entries and photographs begin here in Scotland and then in Australia here. The book that accompanied the exhibition can be found at Exhibition explanatory book

You can also link to information about the exhibition at these links: Introductory panel in English and Introductory panel in Gaelic.

Three audiovisuals that were part of Grounded, and the promotional audiovisual, can be watched here

Educational workshops run at An Lanntair Gallery in conjunction with Grounded can be viewed here and here.

Joe’s educational video of me talking about the exhibition can be viewed here.

The introductory page for the blog can be found here. Feedback on the Glasgow Festival 2014, XX Commonwealth Games exhibition can be linked to here. Photos of the Glasgow opening event are here. Glasgow workshops, talks and exhibition details are here. And the Digital Resources pages of the blog for further information are here and here.

An interview about my work with journalist Jim Gilchrist is on the Struileag website which can be linked to here. And a response to the Alice Springs jail post by Professor Smith can be found here. A BBC Radio Scotland interview can be found here. A review by Dr Kate Robinson can be found here. And you can listen to a cut down recording of “In Conversation: Connecting through Culture” at this Vimeo link. (16 mins.) (One of our afternoon events at Glasgow Festival 2014 showing). Or listen to some music from one of our Glasgow afternoon events here.

My artist biography can be linked to here and here and my personal website is here

Some other sites that link to Grounded can be found here

Funder acknowledgements can be viewed here



Day 36, Returning to a transformed Wirrari (Birdsville)


Simpson Desert

2 September 2013

We are back in Wirrari (Birdsville), returned from our camping expedition to the claypan. And the town has transformed.

The time has come for me to fly again, just a couple of days before the Birdsville Races. This is a time when the town explodes from a population of 150 to 7,000. The oval, once pinned alone under a heavy blue sky, is now dancing with saddleries, pizza stalls and multiple foods; a bonanza after the lonely vegetable or two in the store. A boxing ring, caravans and trailers sit expectantly in the space. And people fill the pavements, milling in the shade of the old Birdsville Hotel, stubbies in hand. Large 4WDs have descended on this small town, lined like scruffy soldiers from the trenches in the angled parking spaces of the once wide and empty streets.

I am leaving all this, however, to head to Alice Springs and Arrarnta country. There is no straightforward route across the desert, try though I did, to find one. So I am returning to Brisbane and flying to Alice from there. See you next in Alice Springs.

Day 34, Npapa-npandaka in Munga-Thirri (the Simpson Desert)


Npapa-npandaka at Munga-Thirri

30 August 2013

I’ve seen my last banana! It came with me from Longreach and now it is sadly eaten. I head down to the small general store, attached to the garage, walking the wide, wide empty streets to get there, under a sweating blue sky. A breeze is beginning to pick up and the sand and dust is flicking into my cheeks and eyes.

There is no shortage of frozen meat for sale at the store, packed and stacked happily together, but the couple of vegetables are looking rather lost and lonely. I snap them up.

Heading from here across the gaping green oval, pinned as it is beneath burning blue, I pop into the Wirrarri visitor centre. Wirrarri is the Wangkangurru name for Birdsville. I wonder why this name was not on the sign as I entered town? It is the first I have seen or heard of it.

This morning I am meeting with Jim at Don’s office. I pick up a couple of pies from the bakery next door, choosing from the famous kangaroo and camel selection, then find relief in the cool conditioned air of Don’s office.

Jim hobbles in, his tall beat-up felt Akubra, with its yellow and red twine wrapped around the base of the crown, like a signature marking his entry. We have a lovely long chat. I have many beautiful recordings of Jim to share.

In the late afternoon I jump in the 4WD with Don and he drives me out to Npapa-npandaka (Big Red), the largest sand dune in Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert). Munga-Thirri is the largest sand dune desert in the world.

We speed over the corrugations in the compacted dust, gibber cobbling the flats to right and left. I notice how the angle of the sun affects the colour of the gibber. To our right it is a deep shimmering russet, but to our left it appears almost black as we head west into the sun.

Don suddenly pulls over onto the gibber and drives me across country in a landscape that for the untrained eye appears to be merely a repetition of itself. But he is navigating me to a special place; two circles of stones sit side by side on the plain, where red pebbles have been carefully arranged on the ground centuries ago. They could be for Corroboree, or for message sticks. It is hard to know for sure all these years later, with the history largely banned from the telling.

When we arrive at Npapa-npandaka, I simply want to run. It is as though the wind that has picked up the sand and laid it grain by grain on top of itself, to reach a magnificent 40 meters in height, is picking me up with it and swirling me round in the beauty of the place.

A large lake sits, becalmed, at the bottom of the dune. Spindly old trees rise from milky-blue; the lake which we skirted to reach the climb up the dune.

From the top I can see how the dunes sweep out to the desert, stretching ahead in parallel, north to south ridges, the scrubby vegetation between each dune holding them in place. Npapa-npandaka ripples in perfectly delicate patterns across its huge bulk, every now and then a spinifex plant stamping a full stop in the regularity of the wind’s latest design. At the top, the ridge is razor sharp, a soft shadow of sand blowing consistently across the edge.

I am delighted by the heat radiating upwards, the soft grainy texture, the sweet wild smells, and most of all by the colour, shifting and sighing with the lowering of the sun in the sky until the sand finally sets alight in a blazing red.

(I have put some links to sites about Munga-Thirri and the gibber on the Australian Digital Resources page of the blog)

Day 31, Across the Sturt Stony Desert to Birdsville


Waddi Trees

26 August 2013

I am on the edge of the Simpson Desert, Munga-Thirri National Park. Munga-Thirri means Big Sand Hill.

For this stage of the journey I was kindly offered a lift; there are not many other ways to get the 700km from Longreach to Birdsville.

We drive in a straight red line, past silver grass plains and on through the carpets of rusty round gibber, a great, red-desert pavement of pebbles locked in the clay. The sun beats relentlessly down from an empty bucket of blue.

We have crossed the Sturt Stony Desert when Birdsville, on the traditional land of the Wangkangurru-Yarluyandi people, appears through a dusty flat haze. With its population of only 150 people in such an expanse of space, the roads spread themselves comfortably wide. And with no need to hold in their breath, the roads flop on the landscape in the heat. The houses spread themselves with arms out-flung, saying, ”Look – we have all this room. We hardly know what to do with ourselves!” Such is the grid of four spread-eagled streets; a baker, a hotel, a visitor centre and a caravan park that make up Birdsville.

I am here to meet with Don Rowlands and Lynn, his wife, and Koopah, the beautiful, faithful, little brown dog who is to come everywhere with us; Koopah after the Kallakoopah River.

Don is Wangkangurru Elder and National Park Ranger for Munga-Thirri (the Simpson Desert), and I found him in my research, through ABC radio interviews he had done, talking of the importance of culture and land, and the sharing of this knowledge.

I am staying in a traditional style caravan in his yard, and as he shows me to the corner of the yard, an enormous welcome awaits me; a big sign saying “Parrott Hilton”. How welcome it makes me feel! And how much like Don it is, I am to discover, with his wry humour and his warmth. The town water comes from the Artesian Basin and my caravan sits under one of the water-cooling towers. What a very desert Australia scene my new home is.

Everything out here is continuously covered in a soft mat of fine red dust, picked up by the hot desert winds and scattered unceremoniously on every surface. Tinfoil taped over the caravan window struggles to keep it out. I am here in the hottest September on record with temperatures hovering around 40 degrees and there isn’t much shade. I feel my brain adjusting and clicking down gears for what is going to be for me a very hot week.

I have to shift my whole being into the new time zone. There isn’t much hurry for anything out here. One thing drifts into another under the dripping blue sun. In contradiction, there is always the quiet voice at the back of my head urging me on to complete the work that needs to be done. I must balance the two opposing forces and blend them somewhere into a delicious sweet soup.

Don takes me, on my first afternoon, for a tour of the area. It is a well thought out introduction to Wangkangurru traditional culture. We go to see the Waddi trees, part of the Wangkangurru Thutirla Pula (Two Boys Dreaming) Creation Story. What beautiful old trees they are, thin and bent, brushed over with soft-hanging needles that drip a warm gold-green in the setting sun.

Thutirla Pula Creation story, consists of a series of connected stories about two boys who travelled across the desert from west to east.

The two boys stayed a night at the Waddi trees. When they woke up in the morning they saw tall men all around. The boys were being challenged for passing through someone else’s country. As I sit under the tree, looking up and listening to Don’s story, I can see clearly the man in the tree, arms outstretched.

Creation stories such as Thutirla Pula serve to map routes for navigation across the country. The stories also helped the Aboriginal people find the water wells and survive in the desert. They provided wisdom and a sense of place. Many of the stories cross language groups and also follow trade routes.

Waddis are a rare and ancient desert tree, found in only three locations in Australia. All the stands are on the fringes of the Simpson Desert, separated by hundreds of kilometers.

The timber is so hard it damages axes and saws. Waddi wood has Aboriginal totemic significance, and was used by local groups to transport fire.

(Links to further information on Waddi trees, Munga-Thirri National Park, Thutirla Pula Dreaming and the Sturt Stony Desert have been uploaded to the Australia Digital Resources page of this blog)