Day 43, Exploring the desert

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Goanna tracks in the desert

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Dunnart tracks in the desert

21 September 2013

It is Saturday and I have agreed with some others to set out in the big truck to do some exploring. My residency time is fast drawing to a close. We clamber in, pulling ourselves up into the high vehicle, and rumble onto the dusty roads, stretching into the open space out of town.

Napatika (Ewaninga) is a place of rock carvings, set back from the road to Maryvale, about 30km from Alice Springs. It is a very important men’s place. The large red rocks are covered in abstract designs; concentric circles, wavy lines and animal tracks, their abstract nature designed to conceal their meaning from uninitiated members of the group.

Each symbol is linked to the locality, representing waterholes, campsites or meetings. These carvings are symbols of the Altyerre (laws of the Arrernte Culture and Creation Time) and the Senior Arrernte Custodians say the meanings are too sacred and dangerous to reveal to those not initiated in Aboriginal Law.

One of the Altyerre events recorded is the Rain Dreaming. This is one of a number of sites on the path of Rain Dreaming that starts near Hermannsburg over 100 km away and travels onwards east and north to Queensland. The songs, art and ceremonies link the people with their neighbours. The stories are passed on to the young Arrernte men at their initiation ceremonies.

We sit at these rocks, at the edge of a large circular clay pan which, when it does rain, must spill with water and metamorphose the landscape with plant growth, birds and animals.

We loiter and laze and chat, listen to the birds and bend close to the wild flowers before getting back in the big truck and exploring further along the road.

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Day 41, Anthwerrke (Emily Gap), Eastern MacDonnells

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Anthwerrke, Eastern MacDonnells

18 September 2013

I have a very special morning today, meeting with Mark Inkamala and Baydon, two senior lawmen of Western Arrarnta country.

There is much they are unable to tell me of storylines related to their clan, as it is sacred information held only within the clan, but I am very grateful for what they do share.

In the same way, the basement of the Strehlow Museum where Mark now works relates to secret men’s business and ceremony. I am told that up until recently Aboriginal women would not enter even the upstairs of the museum. Much of the collection can only be accessed by the Traditional Aboriginal Custodians.

Some communities in the Northern Territory cannot be visited without a permit. And moving around the community must be done with the guidance of a cultural advisor to prevent accidental entry to sacred or men only sites.

Today Mark and Baydon accompany me out to Anthwerrke (Emily Gap) in the Eastern MacDonnells, Eastern Arrernte country. This site can be visited by the public, though at one time that would not have been possible.

Anthwerrke is the sacred site of Caterpillar Dreaming. Red ochre lined paintings, drawn onto the rocks, mark the significance and the story of this place. It is where the three caterpillar beings of Mparntwe (Alice Springs) originated, the ancestral beings for the Alice Springs area, from whom Aboriginal people conceived in Alice Springs consider themselves descended. The geographical features of the surrounding landscape were formed by the caterpillars as they travelled out from here to the edge of the Simpson Desert.

The sandy riverbed of the red-rock gorge bakes in the sun, cliff edges sharply delineated against a vivid blue sky. White-barked gums grow in the dry, where water must rush in a flood. It is a place of vivid red and white and blue with smatterings of olive green.

Standing on the naked riverbed, in the silence of the gorge, it feels like I can sink a little further into the ground. As the warmth of the sand moves upwards through the soles of my feet my body relaxes.

No-one speaks. The air is thick with silence, like some communal sigh from the watchful painting on the rock walls. The chaos of Alice Springs is miles away. That feeling I always have in Alice of being displaced from where I thought I was, and having no sense of where I am going, has simply vanished. Here we can feel grounded. Here it is as though the rocks are waiting patiently for some line of connection to past and future to re-gather its strength and for the chaos to settle to peace.

(A link to an article about The Dreaming is now up on the Australia Digital Resources page of the blog)