ALN logo; link to Arid Lands Newsletter home page No. 50, November/December 2001
The Deserts in Literature, II

Australian Aboriginals' perceptions of their desert homelands
(part 1)

by Richard G. Kimber

"Once more they stroked their whiskers, and floods of water came out of them and spread over the country far and wide, though they were careful not to let the water go out of their sight, as they sat on the hill top. As night came on they drew it all back, setting it free once more in the morning."

"We used to sit there on the ground and look at the Dancing Women mountain. It was so beautiful that we used to cry."

So stated Ada Wade in 1982. Ada was an Arabana-descent woman whose grandmother and mother had been born 600 kilometers south of Alice Springs, but Ada had been conceived, born and lived to early childhood only 100 kilometers east of the Alice in Eastern Arrernte country. As a consequence she had rights and responsibilities in both the Dancing Women country and her Arabana country.

That anywhere in the deserts of Australia could be described as beautiful eluded the perceptions of the first European explorer to approach central Australia. On the 7th September, 1845, Captain Charles Sturt, who had passed over Sturt's Stony Desert (as it became known) as he approached central Australia from the east, recorded:

From the summit of a sandy undulation close upon our right, we saw that the ridges extended north-wards in parallel lines beyond the range of vision, and appeared as if interminable. To the eastward and westward they succeeded each other like the waves of the sea. The sand was of a deep red colour, and a bright narrow line of it marked the top of each ridge, amidst the sickly pink and glaucous coloured vegetation around. [Familiar] as we had been to such, my companion involuntarily uttered an exclamation of amazement when he first glanced his eye over it. 'Good Heavens,' said he, 'did ever man see such country!' Indeed, if it was not so gloomy, it was more difficult than the Stony Desert itself. . . . (Sturt [1849] 1969, 1: 405-406).

Sturt was, in fact, looking towards the northern part of Wangkangurru country and, by setting as close as he could to a direct compass course route in his attempt to reach the geographical center of Australia, was often riding against the grain of the land. The Wangkangurru and other desert peoples, with eons of experience to draw upon, went with the land, pulsing out into the sandhills and other arid parts of their home countries after good rains, retreating to the months-long lasting waters as the short-lived surface waters evaporated, and finally falling back to the permanent waters in times of severe drought. Sturt, in fact, observed and briefly commented on this, but was (understandably enough) largely "working blind."

The Pintupi of the Great Sandy Desert, centered 600 kilometers west of Alice Springs, today refer to each rare key permanent water as "big one kapi (water)", or "dear one kapi" and, as George Yapa Yapa Tjangala commented of the need to move from site to site to make best use of the waters and food supplies, "I never sat down at one place". The Warlpiri of the Tanami Desert, north-west of the Alice, use precisely the same terms as do the Pintupi, but in their own language and, as with other desert peoples prior to living in a limited number of homeland communities in modern houses with taps, always reserved such waters until absolute necessity forced groups to retreat to them. They also reserved the land, flora and fauna all about. Indeed, when a small group of Warlpiri men were visiting a remote Goanna totem center in the western Tanami Desert for the first time in some 35 years, Dinny Tjapaljarri, the senior man, instructed that only fallen trees should be used for firewood, not those standing dead trees which had initially been chosen by the younger middle-aged men because of their proximity to the chosen camp-site. Good firewood is an important resource in country which is otherwise dominated by spiky spinifex grasslands and low shrubs.

Major clumps of shade trees, quite rare in many instances, are always totally protected and are also invariably considered sacred. When Jimmy Wanatjuka Tjungurrayi, a Mayatjarra man from the southern Tanami Desert, was visiting his key Snake totem site, Yipayi, in 1976, he recalled that during the terrible drought of 1925-1934, when many people died, he and his family survived in large part not only because of the soakage water but also because of the shade. He indicated how they had scooped shade hollows beneath the low, dense foliage and, apart from minimal movement from shade-hollow to shade-hollow as the sun traversed the sky, remained resting all day in the fierce heat to conserve water and energy. Hunting and gathering had been restricted to the very early mornings and late afternoons and, as he commented, "We tightened our [hair-string] belts, Tjakamarra." In other words, everyone gradually lost weight, almost starving to death, during this terrible time. However they patiently endured, without complaint, for that is the way of those who have learned to live in, and with, the desert.

So severe was the time that Paddy Tjungurrayi, a southern Warlpiri man, indicated—using a flip of the hand with clawed fingers to show "belly-up"—that even the hardy sand goannas and blue-tongue lizards, staple meat-foods of the vast spinifex lands, had died. His parents had given him the last meat-food caught, and a solitary edible root, and instructed him on the route to walk to the last-hope water which also offered food in the form of goat-meat and damper (bush bread) at a newly established cattle station. Paddy had survived, and when the rains came and he returned to his Yaripilong home-site, he had gathered the scattered dingo-gnawed bones of his parents and buried them. Yaripilong was thus Paddy's "big place," sacred to him because of the presence of the eternally dwelling creator ancestors and the features that they had left all about the mountain; sacred because of the eternal life-force water; and sacred because his ancestors—not just his parents but also members of older generations—were buried in the vicinity. It is so at all of the great totemic centers in the deserts.

The Diyari, whose home-lands are 600 kilometers south-east of Alice Springs, on the eastern flank of Lake Eyre (Australia's largest salt lake), also know well the skies during times of drought. The normally clear blue skies take on a pale blue-white glare as the shade temperatures—in a land where there is often little shade—reach 50 degrees Centigrade and more. They refer to severe drought-time as the time when "Pariwilpa Mokarina Warai"—"The Heavens have turned to Bone." As Reverend J.G. Reuther, who recorded this expression while living in their country from 1888-1906, also noted, "pitaru" is the Diyari word for both drought and desert. He explains:

pitaru (n[oun], m[asculine] = 'drought; a dry spell (or) season; desert.'
This word is derived from pidana (= 'to pound') and -ru from ngurunguru (= 'strong; always') and means: 'constantly to pound.'

In dry seasons animals are lean, so that there is no [or little] meat to eat. There are no seeds and 'grass' types either. Therefore, the following types of seed (which are very hard and require to be pounded) are gathered, viz: ngardu, kalju, kalumba, and malkatandra. Consequently everybody is pounding [seed] at a time like this. Hence the name." (Reuther 1981, IV, 19, word 2767).

Clearly, with some two-thirds of Australia classified as desert in world terms, water is the crucial element which allows use of the lands by the various groups of traditional Aboriginal owners. This point is wonderfully underlined by the fact that when, in July-August 1873, W.C. Gosse became the first European explorer to visit what is now Australia's best-known Aboriginal site, Uluru (Ayers Rock), he reported of an exchange between himself and three Yankantjatjarra men: "All I could make out from them was that they called water 'carpee'." (Gosse [1874] 1973, 11). It was to be another fourteen years before the place-name Uluru was recorded by any outsider!

As might be expected, among the most important sites in any desert country are the Rain totem sites, at least some of which are situated in areas which attract lightning and, through being in the line of the rain-bearing winds and as a result of their elevation, cause rain-clouds to mass and rain to fall. Any man who has been conceived or born at or near such a location, especially if his ancestors have also been conceived or born there, is considered to be imbued with the eternally present life-force essences of the Rain ancestors. As a consequence, if he is respectful of the older generation of rain men, learns all of the rain-songs and other sacred associations with the sites that he can from them, and becomes an avid reader of all of the signs of humidity and cloud formations, he is considered to have special powers that enable him to create rain. An excellent abbreviated account of just such an old man, Imbarkwa Tungalla of the "Kaitish" people of Barrow Creek (300 kilometers north of Alice Springs), was recorded a century ago.

This . . . rain-man told us the history of his old [mythological] ancestor . . . . He arose in the form of a little . . . [boy], of course at a waterhole. At first, like very young . . . [children] nowadays, he was reddish, but as he lay out in the sunshine he turned black. By some means he split into two, so that then there was an elder and a younger brother. Gradually they grew into big men and then started off on their wanderings, the full account of which, with the most minute details, occupied the whole of one afternoon in the relating. At the end of their journey, however, they mounted a hill—one of those . . . not far from . . . Barrow Creek—sat down and gravely stroked their whiskers, out of which two euros ([hill] kangaroos) came. That is why the rain-men now wear a euro tooth as an ornament, hanging down over their ears, for henceforth the euros were the friends and mates of the rain-men. At last they died on the hill top, but before this they cut off their whiskers, from which the clouds sprang and then went up into the sky. From the clouds the rainbow arose, and now it is the latter which is always trying to prevent the rain from falling. These and many other things the old rain-man told us, entering into the most minute details with keen relish. (Spencer and Gillen 1912, 11:323-324).

The converse, that it is believed that rain can be stopped by appealing to the rain-man or by appealing to the environment if the deluge is excessive, is also true. In 1976 two great Warlpiri rain-men and Jimmy Wanatjuka Tjungurrayi, in his special role as the rain-men's assistant, stood out in a raging storm and used boomerangs and exhortations to cause the lightning, thunder and rain to pass overhead, and fragment into smaller clouds. And in 1983 Arthur Patuta Tjapananga shouted into a small fissure, down which water was flowing, exhorting the great Rain Snake to swallow the rain; then he and his Pintupi companions sang the "drying-out" songs for hours; and finally they stacked resinous spinifex tussocks in a large pile and, setting fire to it, exhorted the warmth of the fire to bring about a drying out of the sky.

Implicit in certain of the preceding is that there are different kinds of habitat in the different Australian deserts, and that people sometimes identified themselves in terms of the broad range of such habitats. They might say they were people of the puli (hills) or, as was recorded during Missionary Johannes Flierl's travels in Diyari country in the drought of the mid-1880's:

[In] the west near the South Australian border a few thin boys were looking for yams in the sand. They introduced themselves in Wonkungurru . . . 'Antas mulujulku!' (We both are sandhillers!) (Stevens 1994, 108).

They also identified country in much finer detail, as the following few illustrations from Pintupi travels indicate. "Good kangaroo country" is very gently rolling sandy loam with a light covering of mulga trees and grasses favored by kangaroos; "good goanna country" is sandy spinifex-covered plain, with old-growth spinifex burnt two years previously, followed by excellent rains which had promoted new-growth spinifex and a flourishing of a vast array of termites, beetles and smaller lizards, many of them food for the sand goannas; "rubbish country" is that which is extremely arid and bare of water and almost all forms of life; "bird-water country" is boulder-strewn land on which rain has recently fallen, but in which the only water catchments are very small hollows on or amongst the boulders which allow Zebra Finches and other small birds a drink, but are neither long-lasting nor easily accessible by humans; and "emu country" is that favored by traveling flocks of emus, not only in cooler weather but particularly in hot weather, when they regularly need to walk in to waters to drink. Although periodic droughts of severe intensity, lasting two to ten years, occur on average only once every thirty years or so, the desert Aborigines of Australia have learned to live with them over the millennia. However, they have also learned to maximize use of their country and resources during the good times. These good times are, in fact, as with most peoples on earth, those times which are recalled with greatest happiness, for they allow the hunting and gathering of the choicest and widest range of foods; visits to totemic sites of great significance that have been cut off during the droughts; meetings between groups so that the different products of the different parts of the country can be given in gift-exchange, and marriages arranged; gatherings for ceremonies; and additionally in the present day, visits by groups from community to community by motor vehicle in friendly social gatherings, and for the young women to play in basketball or softball games, the young men to play in Australian Rules football matches, all ages perhaps to attend church services, and younger people to enjoy local Aboriginal rock bands.

When rains come to break a drought the people instantly spread out over the country, following lines of waterholes to the shallow and short-lived claypan waters that are to be found in the swales between the sandhills. As Pinta Pinta (Butterfly) Tjapananga, a Pintupi man from the Great Sandy Desert 500 kilometers west of Alice Springs, put it, "We spread out, Tjakamarra, like kilykilykarri." "Kilykilykarri" is one of the Pintupi words for budgerigars and, as with people after rains, these chattering bright green and yellow flock-birds spread out over vast areas of the deserts, where seeding plants provide plentiful food. Pinta Pinta smiled as he accompanied his remark by throwing his fanned hands forward, as though they were flocks of budgerigars breaking into smaller groups. These small, brightly colored birds, whirring down to water to drink and chatter and splash, are—along with flocks of Zebra Finches—likened to the gatherings of children for their own game-playing, learning of ceremonies and general interactions.

During such travels the old-growth spinifex is fired, particularly in the vicinity of hills (productive food areas) but also along traveling routes, in the favored country about a rock-hole and more generally for a wide variety of hunting and signaling purposes. This is often described as "cleaning up country," sometimes simply to make traveling easier, but also to promote the growth of certain favored plants, protect other sites including clumps of sacred trees, and promote grass-growth that attracts kangaroos and other animals so that they can be more readily hunted. As one old Warlpiri man explained: "Good fire. Good country."

Although there are no permanent rivers in central Australia, when heavy rains fall in the head-waters of the MacDonnell Ranges, in which Alice Springs is centrally located, the various long-dry rivers and creeks may run for as short a time as a day, or very occasionally for months. And, as may be imagined, such dramatic events are enshrined in ancient song-verses. For instance, the mythical rain ancestor Kantjia, of Kaporilya near Hermannsburg Mission, is described in a Western Arrernte song as at home in a rain-drenched landscape.

Among the rippling waters he sits without a move,—
It is Kantjia himself who is sitting without a move.

Moveless like a boulder he is sitting;
His hair bedewed with rain he is sitting.

On the fissured rock-plates he is sitting;
On rock-plates welling with water he is sitting.

Bedrizzled with rain he sits without a move;
Among the rippling waters he sits without a move.

Bedrizzled with rain, a reddish glow overspreads him;
Among the rippling waters a reddish glow overspreads him.

The sky is clouded with water-moss;
The sky sends down scattered showers.

Over the rock-plates the flow is echoing,—
Over the rock-plates green with moss.

'Moss-covered one,
Spread forth your waters!'

'Come, moss-covered one,
Pour forth your waters!'

'Come, foam-crests,
Come, spread over the waters!'

'Come, drifting twigs,
Come, spread over the waters!'

Over the sun-darkened river sands calls the voice of the thunder,
the voice of the thunder;
From billowing storm-clouds calls the voice of the thunder, the
voice of the thunder.

The first storm-showers,—
The first storm showers are falling here and there, are falling
here and there.

The first storm-showers,—
The first storm showers are pouring down in torrents, are pour-
ing down in torrents.

A flash of lightning
Shivers trees in pieces.

A flash of lightning
Shocks and terrifies.

Overflowing its banks into side-channels
The flood rolls down its waves.

(Strehlow 1950, 20-21).

[Go to Part 2 of this article]


bar denoting end of article text

About the Arid Lands Newsletter

Link to ALN home page Link to index page for back web issues Link to index page for pre-web issue archive Link to this issue's table of contents