Learning from the Land
Ngalya pitja ngayuku ngura nyakuntjikitja. Manta
nyangatja milmilpatjara! Ngayuku kamiku tjamuku ngura iritinguru.
Pitjaya! Pina ala, kuru ala, kututu alatjara!
Come and see my country. This land is sacred! This has been my
grandmother's and grandfather's country from a long time ago.
Come with open ears, open eyes and an open heart.
This is the invitation of Nganyinytja,
a tribal elder, initiate of the Elder's Law of the Pitjantjatjara
Aboriginal people of Central Australia. She and her extended family
welcome visitors who genuinely want to learn about a way of life
that has enabled these people to live in harmony with this desert
country for thousands of years.
Nganyinytja and her husband, Ilyatjari, have developed a cross-cultural
tour in conjunction with Desert Tracks, a small tour business
in Ayers Rock (Uluru). Desert Tracks provides the 4WD vehicles,
camping equipment and guides to convey visitors the 300kms from
Ayers rock to Angatja. This is Nganyinytja's homeland community
on her traditional lands south of Ulura Kata Tjuta National Park.
The Adventure Begins
Our group leaves from Ayers Rock in air-conditioned 4WD vehicles.
The first day is spent driving. There is a bitumen highway from
Ayers Rock Resort for the first 100 kilimetres. We leave this
highway after Mt Connor and follow dirt roads for the next 200
kilometres. These take us through cattle station country, then
into the Pitjantjatjara Freehold Title Lands. Permits are needed
from this point. Apart from the majestic bluff of Mt Connor the
scenery has been ochre, red sand hills covered with low scrub
and spinifex. Soon we approach the blue Musgrave Ranges. Stands
of mulga trees and Desert Oaks become more common.
Once through these hills we stop and gaze across the undulating
plain to the Mann Range, in which nestles our destination, Angatja.
As the sun turns the evening sky gold, we arrive at Angatja. We
are warmly greeted by our hosts Nganyinytja and Ilyatjari. They
show us where to camp and explain how a traditional camp would
be organised. The sleeping areas are segregated into single men's
and single women's sleeping areas. Married couples find their
own space. Beds are individual swags or bedrolls, consisting of
a mattress and sleeping bag encased in a cocoon of canvas that
wraps under and over the person. Desert nights can be very cold,
frost is not unusual in June and July, so swags need to be warm.
The swags are then positioned inside a windbreak around a central
fire. Desert people live close to fire at all times, it cooks
their food, provides warmth and lights the dark. Fire is precious
and is always tended well.
Western visitors need to adjust to a new pace of life. Sitting
in the sand or red dust around campfires, enjoying the communal
cooking, storytelling and cups of tea. There is no fixed schedule.
The Aboriginal people decide when and where to gather food, and
this varies according to the season. Nganyinytja sets the pace
and teaches in her way. People are encouraged to learn by observation
and imitation, using all their senses, not just asking questions.
We spend from three to five days at Angatja attending Nganyinytja's
The Learning Begins
Food gathering forms a major part of daily activity for Pitjantjatjara
people. The desert environment is not an easy place to survive
in, it requires great skill and knowledge. The men and women have
divided this task, they each hunt and gather the foods most accessible
to them. Women are restricted by their responsibilities for young
children while the men can range further and faster in search
of large game. Tour visitors are usually separated into male and
female groups to hunt and gather traditional bush foods. Nganyinytja
teaches women's Law related to the gathering and preparation of
these foods. Women were responsible for the collection of most
of the food that formed the staple diet. They gathered large quantities
of edible grass seeds, which were winnowed and then ground into
flour. A woman's flat, portable grinding stone and the smaller
rounded grinder were as important to her as a man's spear and
spearthrower were to his hunting. Areas that were frequently visited,
often near water, had permanent smooth depressions on suitable
large rocks. These have been made by women grinding flour there
for thousands of years.
Vegetable foods commonly gathered include wild tomatoes and onions;
wild fruits including figs, plums, coconuts and quandongs. Honey
from flowering grevilleas and honey ants provides the only source
of sweetness in their diet. Women also hunt smaller game like
lizards, witchetty grubs and rabbits.
Ilyatjari takes the men off to hunt kangaroo, emu and rock wallaby.
Nowadays, this hunting involves the use of Toyotas and guns. The
traditional skills of tracking, sharp eyesight and a steady aim
are still important.
The method of killing and cooking the kangaroo is prescribed by
Law. The kangaroo was the creation ancestor who travelled through
Angatja and around Australia giving different languages to each
group of Aboriginal people.
The group as a whole also participates in the making of artefacts
carved from local wood, the telling of major creation stories
of this region and the singing and dancing of traditional song
cycles. Visitors are encouraged to join in where appropriate.
Our time with Njanyinytja and her family is full, we all have
much to learn and much to share. It is the Pitjantjatjara sense
of humour and thorough enjoyment of life that makes living and
learning with them so much fun. Beryl Blake, a tour participant,
remembers her first meeting with Nganyinytja:
"I could have listened to her for hours, she
had such grace and dignity and a strong pride in her people's
traditions. Nganyinytja spoke with a soft serious voice which
would break suddenly into a sparkling smile as she shared a
joke with us. Any feelings of reserve on our part quickly dissipated."
Learning the Law - Tjukurpa
Central to Aboriginal understanding of the Land is the Tjukurpa
- this includes the Creation Stories and the Law. It imbues all
their activities with spiritual significance. There is Tjukurpa
related to their daily hunting and gathering; their dance, song
and stories; their painting, carving and making of utensils and
weapons. The Creation Beings who fashioned the Land gave the people
this Tjukurpa. It is continuously renewed by Aboriginal
people's telling of the stories, singing the song cycles and performing
the ceremonies. The Tjukurpa is alive and a vital part
of the people and their Land today.
We are told the Tjukurpa of the Ngintaka Man, the giant
perentie lizard-man. He travelled from his home near the Western
Australia border to the camp of another lizard tribe, near Oodnadatta,
in search of a special grindstone.
Nganyinytja briefly outlines the story:
"Ngintaka Tjukurpa alatji - paluru ngura parari
nyinangi tjiwa wiya, paluru tjiwa kurakuratjara nyinangi munu
paluru mai wakati rungkaningi, munu rungkara uninypa uninymankula
We travel in the bus along the trail of the Ngintaka between Angatja
and Tjanmatapiti. As we twist along the dirt track, the Aboriginal
women sing this song:
This is the story of the Perentie Man - he was living in
a distant place without a grindstone, he only had a very poor
quality grindstone and he was trying to grind the seed from
wild pigweed, and he was having to eat these rough seedcakes.
Munu paluru kulinu: 'Ay, tjiwa kutjupa ruulmananyi, ruultjinga
rungkani ngura parari.' Munu kulira paluru mapalku anu ngura
kutjupakutu. Munu paluru ankula nyangu, tjiwa palunya. Munu
mantjinu, munu kutitlura ngalya-katingu.
And he thought: 'Ah, someone is grinding, there is the sound
of grinding coming from a long way away.' And having heard he
quickly travelled to that other place. And he travelled and
travelled and then he saw that other grindstone. And he took
it, he stole it and carried it back to his camp. As the Ngintaka
travelled he created many landforms in the Musgrave and Mann
Ranges and he vomited up many different kinds of grass seeds
and vegetable food as he went.
'Ngurakutuna wipuwani wipuwani tjarpaku.'
The bus swings from side to side following the winding road. The
singing and the motion transport the travellers to the Dreamtime.
One feels like a small mite on the back of that gigantic lizard's
'I (Ngintaka) am travelling towards my camp sweeping my tail
from side to side.'
One visitor, Anne-Marie Cousteau, said of this experience:
'You begin to understand, very deeply within yourself,
what the Aborigines mean by the "Dreamtime" - the
time when those fantastic beings walked the Earth. As you listen
to the stories, you begin to realize the Dreamtime is still
today. We saw the Aborigines rub the rocks out in the bush so
that the Dreamtime would stay with them.'
The rocks that she saw rubbed, are at the spot where Ngintaka
man vomited up the 'parka-parka' (mistletoe berries). He left
his skin there on the rocks so that people would remember what
he had done for them. There is a line of several rocks with distinctive
circular indentations on them that look exactly like perentie
skin markings. These have not been drawn by people. The Pitjantjatjara
say it is Tjukurpa puliringu - the creation spirit has
become stone. The Ngintaka man chose to become stone or other
landforms at places where he stopped on hs travels.
We are taken and shown some of these sacred places so that we
may, kulira wanatjaku tjukurpa - follow the Dreaming and
learn. We are taught verses of the song cycles and the dances
that correspond to Ngintaka's actions at these places.
The rocks at the place of the parka-parka vomit, are rubbed prior
to rain to ensure the abundance of these edible berries. These
increase ceremonies are part of the way Aboriginal people care
for the Land. They put energy back into the animals and plants
of their environment, they actively recreate the food sources
necessary for their survival.
The Ngintaka story and the specific song stanzas and dances that
are taught at Angatja are not secret sacred information. Nganyinytja
and her family have consulted the wider Pitjantjajara and Yankunytjatjara
community and made sure that all the information they teach is
public. Visitors may then pass on what they have learnt to the
rest of Australian and the world community.
Farewell to Angatja
As the time comes for us to go we are reluctant to leave this
warm Aboriginal family. Nganyinytja opens her heart to all who
come, they become part of her extended family. She smiles widely
and says this now stretches around the world. People of widely
different cultures, languages, religions and ages come together
and rejoice in their common humanity. This aspect of her work
is very important to Nganyinytja. She believes that world peace
can be achieved on the basis of greater cross-cultural understanding.
It is hard to say goodbye, but the friendship shared is lasting.
Ulurua National Park
We complete our tour with a celebratory dinner and hotel accommodation
at the Ayers Rock Resort. Apart from their spectacular beauty
these areas are part of the traditional hunting grounds of the
Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people. Nganyinytja walked
here from Angatja as a child and knows where the water sources
are and the supplies of food necessary for such a journey. Her
people are custodians for song cycles that cross this country.
The base of Uluru is alive with evidence of the Creation Beings
and we can follow the paths of two main stories there. Uluru and
Katatjuta (Ayers Rock and the Olgas) are seen with deeper understanding
by people who have just experienced Angatja's Bush College. The
Aboriginal spiritual significance is alive and meaningful
yOni now blogging at cliterallyspeaking.blogspot.com
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