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 2)

by Richard G. Kimber

"Lherre Mpwarntwe, that old Todd River. He is a back-bone, lying there. His head is up in that head-water country. This is his body, right here in Alice Springs. The river is his back-bone, and that good soil on both sides, that is his back muscles, that is his flanks. "

[Return to Part 1 of this article]

When such floods ran sufficiently for the waterholes to be filled and for all life to burgeon, as they did in 1889 and 1920, they became places of plenty. Thus, in the terrible drought year, 1929, when hundreds of starving people left their home countries to migrate—sometimes hundreds of kilometers and, as Dinny Tjapaljarri put it, "like perishing bullocks to a water-trough"—into the sanctuary of Hermannsburg Mission, it was not the drought but the good times that were recalled. As Geza Roheim, who was a visitor there for most of the year, recorded, two women's memories were of the river which runs beside Hermannsburg—the Larapinta, as the Finke (the Centre's largest river) is called by the Western Arrernte people.

Memories of swimming are always related to plentiful rain and flooded rivers, which means abundance in the desert. Most of Urkalarkiraka's conversations with me centred about the time in her childhood when there had been heavy rains. There were many waterholes in which she could swim. And how many ducks! What a quantity of eggs! She even saw a tree full of wild oranges, which is an event in a life centred around the food quest.

Ilpaltalaka, in speaking about her childhood, told of the seeds she ate when she was wandering about with her mother and her grandmother. She gave me a detailed account of how fish were caught with porcupine [prickly] grass, and how once, when they had already caught many fish, they also found witchetty grubs. (Roheim 1974, 35).

As earlier mentioned, such good times allowed gatherings for the great ceremonies, and the men sang "ilpindja" (love magic) songs. Tnyerika, who in 1929 was, as Roheim recorded, "the chief authority among the southern Aranda on tradition and beliefs" (Roheim 1974, 169), gave an Emu "ilpindja" which illustrates the layered structure of Arrernte -- and other desert peoples' -- poetry, which is also applicable to their songs and much of their story-telling. A small section of the "ilpindja," in which the emu is the cock bird with an anthropomorphic nature, has been translated by Roheim as follows:

He puts on his white head ring.
He puts on his white head ring.
He puts on the shining head ring.
The head ring shining blue like the sky.
He puts on the head ring.
The old man of the Emu totem puts on his belt.
He puts ceremonial marks on his forehead.
He ties the bandicoot tails to his belt.
And when the belt is ready, he puts it on.
He covers his body with the shining red ochre.
And when he is decorated, he stays very still in one place.
His body is shining red and he stays very still, sitting down.
With the red ochre shining on his body, he stays very still sitting down.
(Roheim 1974, 170).

If all of the preceding touches on the encyclopedic knowledge that desert Aborigines have of their lands, that they also have a deep-seated association with the eternal creative totemic ancestors who fashioned the land was first clearly recognized by outsiders only a century ago. Mounted Constable Ernest Cowle of the Central Australian police, writing to Professor Baldwin Spencer on 28th May, 1900, commented:

I believe that every water hole, Spring, Plain, Hill, Big Tree, Big Rock, Gutters and every pecu1iar or striking feature in the Country, not even leaving out Sandhills, without any exception whatsoever is connected with some tradition and that, if one had the right blacks at that place, they could account for its presence there . . . . (Mulvaney et al. 2000, 140).

One year later, traveling east of Tennant Creek (500 kilometers north of Alice Springs), this statement was well-illustrated to the Professor and his companion Frank Gillen, the latter a legendary post-master of Alice Springs who was the first outsider to become deeply interested in central Australian desert Aborigines' cultures. Spencer recorded the following brief account.

We had been very much interested in the Wollunqua [Snake] ceremonies, and were anxious to see for ourselves the snake's home . . . and the sacred spots around it, so we proposed to the old men of the totem group that they should take us there. They readily fell in with our suggestion, and . . . we started off from Tennant Creek in company with a small party of about a dozen of the older men, including the two chief men of the totem group.

For the first two days our way lay across very uninteresting plain country covered with poor scrub, with here and there a low range of hills. Every prominent feature of any kind was associated with some tradition of their past. A range five miles away from Tennant Creek had arisen to mark the path traversed by the great ancestor of the Pittongu (bat) totem. Several miles further on, a solitary, upstanding column of rock represented an opossum man who rested here during his travels, looked about the country, and left spirit children behind him when he journeyed on. A low range of remarkable, white quartzite hills indicated a large number of white-ant eggs, thrown down here by some women called Munga-Munga who belonged to the yam totem. They were sent away to the east from a place close to Tennant Creek by the ancestor of the black-snake totem, carrying their yams with them. These were . . . [sacred objects], and they deposited them . . . along with the spirits associated with them, at various places as they traveled on towards and across the country of the Worgaia tribe: indeed one of the old Worgaia men with us was the reincarnation of one of these yam spirits.

As we rode slowly along, the natives keeping pace with us on foot, the old men were continually talking about the natural features associated in their traditions with various totemic ancestors, and pointing out to us every feature that interested them.

On the second night we camped by a waterhole where an old crow ancestor once lived and where there are now plenty of crow spirit children. On the third day we traveled along by the side of a dry creek and passed the spot where two hawk ancestors first made fire by rubbing sticks together, two fine gum trees on the banks now representing the place where they did this. A few miles further on we came to a waterhole, by the side of which a moon man met a bandicoot woman. They were so long talking together that the fire, made by the hawks, crept upon them before they could get out of the way and burnt the woman, who was, however, restored to life by the moon man, with whom she then went up into the sky.

We were gradually approaching the . . . Range, and late in the afternoon of the third day skirted its base, and, following up a valley leading into the hills, camped, just after sunset, by the side of a picturesque waterhole called Wiarminni. We were now, so to speak, in the very midst of Mungai—that is, spots once inhabited by the old ancestors, and now full of spirit children. These old ancestors showed a commendable fondness for walking about in a few picturesque spots that their country contained, and seem to have selected these rock ranges as their central home. All around us the waterholes, gorges and rocky crags were peopled with spirit individuals, left behind by one or other of the totemic ancestors—Wollunqua, Pittongu (bat), Wongana (crow), wild dog [dingo], emu, bandicoot, fish and kangaroo—whose lines of travel in the mystic past times, called the Wingara, formed a regular network over the whole country-side. At night as we lay on the ground by the side of our camp fire, with the natives—all of them elders of the tribe —talking about what had happened in the far past times, we realised more fully perhaps than we had ever done before what these old traditions meant to them, and could almost believe, with them, that the ancestral spirits were actually wandering around us, as we fell asleep, surrounded by the very trees, rocks and waterholes in which they lived. (Spencer and Gillen 1912, 11:408-411).

The majority of the waterholes in the range were visitable by men, women and children but, as once was the case with the great Caterpillar ancestors' waterholes at Heavitree Gap (the southern entrance to Alice Springs) and Emily Gap (12 kilometers east of the Alice), and still is the situation with numbers of the other great spiritual waters throughout the deserts, the most significant are considered so powerful in their totemic spirituality that only initiated men can visit them. Even then, the correct route and correct protocol has strictly to be followed during the approach. Although each site has special features which result in variant approaches in the year 2001 just as was the case a century ago, an excellent illustration of the reverence for a site was recorded by Frank Gillen on August 28th, 1901.

When within sight of the great waterhole at Thapaurla the blacks cautioned us not to mention the snake's name but to speak of it only as the snake otherwise it might become angry and issue forth and destroy us. We assured them that we had the greatest respect for the snake and indeed we have and we were most careful not to disobey their injunction.

Thapaurla and Kadjingarra [the two main rock-hole waters] are Thama, that is, Tabu to women and if any woman ventured to go there she would be tracked up and killed.

On approaching the great waterhole in which the Walunkwa [snake] is believed to dwell the old men sang out, 'Rest quietly. We are of your Mungai (totem) and your countrymen' and one of the young men who is of the Kingilli moiety said, 'I am Kingilli, rest quietly or I will take your water away.' The latter threat was said playfully of course. We were much impressed with the reverence shown by the natives who accompanied us and I must confess that to a certain extent I shared in their feelings. (Gillen 1968, 245-246)

As might be expected, the ceremonies for such a site are of a very secret and sacred nature. T.G.H. Strehlow quotes his old Northern Arrernte informant Gura, "the ceremonial chief of the gura bandicoot totemic centre of Ilbalindja," as follows:

The old men took me apart from the other young men of my own age at an early date. They showed me many gura ceremonies which they withheld from the other members of the bandicoot clan because they were too young. I remember their teachings well. I often . . . [helped in a sacred way with] the ceremonies. I dutifully paid large meat-offerings for the instruction that I had received. Some of the ceremonies were too secret to be shown even to ordinary men of the bandicoot clan: only the oldest men of the clan and the born chief were allowed to witness them. None of the gura men of the present generation have seen them. My elders kept on repeating these ceremonies time and again in my presence: they were afraid that I might forget them. No other man of my own age was allowed to see them. Had I forgotten them, no one else would now remember them. Our old men have been dead for many years past, and our ceremonies have not been performed at Ilbalindja for a long time. They told me that after their death I should pass these ceremonies on only to proved men of their own age, when I felt that I was getting old and weak, and that my memory was beginning to fail me. I was to pledge these men to the same secrecy. (Strehlow 1970, 115).

Although such detailed knowledge as Gura had has largely been lost Australia-wide, many of the desert peoples retain the finest detail of a wide range of aspects. However, there are also descriptions of country that can only derive from a strongly traditional perspective. Thus a century after Spencer and Gillen recorded their accounts, and almost seventy years after Strehlow recorded old Gura, Wenten Rubuntja, a senior Arrernte man of great knowledge and wisdom, talked about the Todd River of Alice Springs in the following terms.

Lherre Mpwarntwe, that old Todd River. He is a back-bone, lying there. His head is up in that head-water country. This is his body, right here in Alice Springs. The river is his back-bone, and that good soil on both sides, that is his back muscles, that is his flanks. His legs stretch down past Heavitree Gap [the southern entrance to Alice Springs] to Ooraminna [a rock-hole 35 kilometers south]. Down that way. That is the good country. That is all the Yeperenye Caterpillar Dreaming [totem] country. Everyone can live here now. We can all get along. Be friends, be happy, working together. Lhere Mpwarntwe —that is what we call him, all the Arrernte people. That is the Todd River now, like his back-bone.

Such a brief overview allows but a scratching at the surface of understandings. It is appropriate, though, to conclude with words that were written for the Yeperenye Federation Festival, "Coming Together As One", which was held in Alice Springs on 8-9th September, 2001. Australia became a Federation of States and Territories in 1901 and, shamefully for Australia's history, Aborigines were initially written out of the Constitution because they were believed doomed to rapid extinction. They had no formal citizenship rights until the mid-1960's, no land-rights until 1976, and no Native Title rights until the 1990's. While throughout the year 2001 there have been numerous celebratory events for all Australians, this magnificent festival was the major contribution by the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and the near-north Torres Strait Islanders. It certainly proved that they had survived, despite all of the problems of the last two centuries. Representatives of all of the Aboriginal nations came together in thousands, in the largest gathering of Aboriginal peoples ever recorded, and other Australians were welcome to share in the spectacle of the wonderful dancing, moving "coming together" ceremony, and concert. The Arrernte people of Alice Springs demonstrated their sense of history, wisdom and generosity in their "Welcome From The Arrernte People."

This is a special place called Mpwarntwe.

Apmere nhenhe kenhe arrinte Mpwarntwe.

This is the land of the Yeperenye Dreaming and a special site used for meetings and gatherings by the traditional Arrernte people long before the town of Alice Springs was built.

Apmere nhenhele aneme atywerrente akgerre anthume. Arrernte mape apmere nhenhele apurte irremele anetyarte.

Arrernte elders and the traditional owners connected to the Yeperenye Dreaming are traditionally the landlords (Kwetengurles), and the traditional owners (Apereke-atweye) of this land are the Kngwarrayes and the Peltharre people.

Apmere nhenhe arele atyakeke areaye apele Ayeparenya/ Utnerrenge artyetyeke artweye mape Kngwarraye ante Peltharre mape.

We acknowledge and recognise that all elders and their people from everywhere have spiritual connections and stories in their country.

Anwerne iterlanreme apmere arrepenhe arenye mape kenhe atywerrenge akgerre-kerte antime.

We invite you to come and join us in celebrating this great event, the Yeperenye Federation Festival, as we share each other's culture, spiritual relationship, family kinships and law through song, dance, art and music, a celebration of our ongoing existence.

Apetyaye anwerne akangemele arrkene apurte anetyeke alte therreke anthepe irretyeke/ urntetyeke/ alyeletyeke/ intertiletyeke Yeperenye Federation Festival nhenhe ikwere.

(Arrernte People 2001).


The author wishes to acknowledge the following central Australian and Western Desert Aborigines, without whose help, friendship and comments over the years he could not have written this article:

Ada Wade
George Yapa Yapa Tjangala
Dinny Tjapaljarri
Jimmy Wanatjuka Tjungurrayi
Paddy Tjungurrayi
Arthur Patutu Tjapananga
Pinta Pinta (Butterfly) Tjapananga
Wenten Rubuntja


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Arrernte People. 2001. Welcome from the Arrernte People. In Yeperenye Federation Festival 2001. Alice Springs: Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association; Darwin: National Council of the Centenary of Federation.

Berndt, R.M., ed. 1970. Australian Aboriginal anthropology. Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press.

Gillen, R.S. 1968. Gillen's diary--The camp jottings of F.J. Gillen on the Spencer and Gillen Expedition across Australia 1901-1902. Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia.

Gosse, W.C. [1874] 1973. W.C. Gosse's Explorations, 1873. Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia.

Kimber, R.G. Notebooks and journals, 1970-2001. (Unpublished).

Mulvaney, J., A Petch and H. Morphy. 2000. From the frontier: Outback letters to Baldwin Spencer. St. Leonards: Allen & Unwin.

Reuther, J.G. 1981. The Diari. Tr. P.A. Scherer. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Roheim, Geza. 1974. Children of the desert. The western tribes of Central Australia. Ed. W. Muensterberger. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Spencer, B. and F.J. Gillen. 1912. Across Australia. Vol. 11. London: MacMillan and Co., Ltd.

Stevens, C. 1994. White man's dreaming: Killalpaninna Mission 1866-1915. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Strehlow, T.G.H. 1950. An Australian viewpoint. Melbourne: The Hawthorn Press; 1950.

_____. 1970. Geography and the totemic landscape in Central Australia: A functional study. In Australian Aboriginal Anthropology, ed. R.M. Berndt, 92-140. Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press.

Sturt, C. [1849] 1969. Narrative of an expedition into Central Australia. Vol. 1. New York: Greenwood Press.


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Author information

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R. G. (Dick) Kimber has lived in Alice Springs since January, 1970. He has been privileged to travel widely in the deserts of Australia with many of the traditional Aboriginal owners. During his time in central Australia he has worked as a secondary and tertiary teacher, but for most of the last 20 years has been a writer-historian. He was the first Sacred Sites officer appointed in the Northern Territory (1974); was senior Papunya Tula Artists Coordinator from May 1976-May 1978; and has worked on behalf of various Aboriginal groups to assist in presentation of their land claims and Native Title claims.

Additional web resources

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Yeperenye Federation Festival official web site
This site contains much interesting information about the social and cultural background of the Arrernte people, who hosted the Yeperenye Federation Festival alluded to in this article.

The Mparntwe Project, Larapinta Primary School
The Aboriginal students of Larapinta Primary School have written these pages that tell stories concerning the creation of Alice Springs, or Mparntwe.

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
AIATSIS is an independent Commonwealth Government statutory authority devoted to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies. It is Australia's premier institution for information about the cultures and lifestyles of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


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