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 32, Culture under Pressure

Jim at the fish hole where the Serpent, Kunmurri, from Thutirla Pula story lives


28 August 2013

This morning we have spent time in the relative cool of Don’s National Parks office; and been catapulted from here to a high-speed car chase.

A call comes in about some cars suspected of filling up for their desert journey without registering and purchasing desert passes. We move at a pace I am no longer accustomed to, dropping everything and jumping into the 4WD, ripping around the corner to the garage where we give chase to five 4WDs. I am handed the notepad and paper to take down the registration numbers, but as one after another vehicle is without a number plate, we overtake the convoy, bouncing along on the wrong side of the corrugated road, the speedometer clicking up and up.

Don gets onto the 2-way radio to listen into their conversations and I start to feel I am in some surreal television drama, shaken abruptly out of the sleepy Birdsville day. The decision in the end is that they are not heading for Munga-Thirri, and we pull off the road and head back to town.

Don takes me to meet Jim Crombie this afternoon, another Elder of the Wangkangurru. Jim shuffles out from the shade of his carport to lean on the open window of Don’s 4WD; his tall Akubra high on his head, beaten and twisted, caked in dust; a sign of a well loved hat. A short conversation in language takes place and Jim comes around the vehicle to climb in. At this stage I still don’t know where we are going or what we are doing. I just know we are “Going on a Journey”.

The journey takes us to the gibber plain and some sand dunes where Jim grew up. There is a line of gibber marked out on the plain. “It is where our ancestors played”, Jim tells me. “The stones were put like this by Aboriginal people. We need to protect them from the diggers.” He tells me how he played in the sand dunes, and of the foods he gathered from the dunes; of sleeping round the fire under the stars; and I can picture the little boy when he talks of not listening to the old people and their stories, just wanting to run off and be free. “I was born at the fish hole where the Serpent, Kunmurri, from Thutirla Pula story lives. It is a special place”, he says, “I was born in the story”.

We go to the fish hole later this afternoon; just Jim and me, shuddering across the sand tracks in his old brown Holden, his dingo-looking dog (mudla) panting in the back seat. His father’s totem was the dingo, he says, and I cast a glance at the dog at his side. He worries about the tree where he was born being washed away where the banks of the river are receding with each flood. He worries at the people who camp in this sacred spot to fish, quite unaware of where they are.

The day is not quite over and I have one last surprise in store. Don has organized a helicopter ride for me with a local pilot.

We sweep up into the late afternoon air and around the town, giving me a good idea of how Birdsville sits in the red sea of gibber. It is distressing to see so many dirt roads graded through the plain just outside town; dirty brown scars. I suppose, like the moorlands of The Outer Hebrides, it might be seen by a stranger as a great expanse of nothing. How very far from the truth this is!

This evening over dinner with Don and Lyn, I feel a mixture of gratitude for the generosity and sharing, sadness at the stories of loss, and exhaustion for myself and for everyone here.

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)