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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 College.

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 ngalkuningi.

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.
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:
'Ngurakutuna wipuwani wipuwani tjarpaku.'
'I (Ngintaka) am travelling towards my camp sweeping my tail from side to side.'
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 thrashing tail.

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

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