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 43, Exploring the desert


Goanna tracks in the desert


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.

Day 37, Arriving in Mparntwe (Alice Springs)


Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert)

12 September 2013

There is no direct route from Brisbane to Alice Springs, so I fly first the 1,700 km north to Cairns and from there, 2,400km southwest to Alice in the Northern Territory.

From Cairns, we fly over the tight wool-curls of rainforest canopy; gazing down on hills that fold like draped green curtains dropping to aqua-green sea. Across the range, as we rumble west, colour fades to dryness and the gentle swelling of the land flattens out to plains.

I want to record the pilot announcing our approach into Alice and so the helpful hostie asks the pilot for some advance warning of the announcement.  Advice comes back that the pilot is Scottish. From Dundee she says. I have to let him know I am from Broughty Ferry (a former fishing village, and suburb of Dundee). Before I get my reply, I know that he is going to be from Broughty Ferry too. I have an immediate, irrational feeling of safety up there above the clouds in this metal box; an illogical feeling that I am connected and therefor in ridiculously safe hands.

Mparntwe (Alice Springs) sits on the western side of the Simpson Desert, in the Northern Territory, separated from Wirrari (Birdsville) on the eastern side by 1,100km of desert.

We fly slowly downwards over the rugged red of the MacDonnell Ranges and the final stage of my residencies begins.

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 35, Camping on the claypan; an encounter with feral camels; and a very special sharing


Australian Aboriginal stone circles

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)

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)