From the Top End


Telling story of country with soul – from ABC


Learning country through our eyes – Dave Johnston
Tue 22 May 12, 17:18pm AEST


It was during an idyllic childhood spent exploring the beaches and caves of remote Australia that Dave Johnston realised he wanted to be an archaeologist. “My father was a lighthouse keeper and we were living on Booby Island in the Torres Strait. One day I came in from exploring caves, probably in my cowboy outfit, and mum said maybe you want to an archaeologist. I went over to our dusty old Encyclopaedia Britannica, read about it, decided that’s what I want to do and I’ve never looked back.” Johnston is one of a small but growing number of Indigenous academics in the field, and he’s found himself occupying a key position in a time when a mining boom is putting pressure on much of Australia’s heritage. He did his Masters in Britain, has worked at the British Museum and on paleo…

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Yin and Yang and a bit of magic in the Australian high country

2012 is the Chinese Year of the Water Dragon.

“In 2012 the Yang Water Dragon Year starts January 23, 2012 and ends February 9, 2013. The energetic high point of the year is the dragon moon, which is from May 20 to June 18 (new moon is May 20, full moon is June 4 and dragon moon is over June 18. June 19 begins the snake moon, which will set up the energy for the following year, 2013, year of the yin water snake.)” (see )

There were a couple of things I did not include when writing the three parts of “Messages from our surroundings” – so I mention them now as a sort of out-take.

One of the first things known about Warumungu life, ethnographically speaking, was collected by the German anthropologist Erhard Eylmann, who passed through Warumungu country (late 1890s) before the better known 1901 visit by Spencer and Gillen.

Eylmann reported, in his 1908 book,  “ the Warumungu belief is a serpent so high it reached far up into the sky.” (Die Eingeborenen der Kolonie Südaustralien. German version online at

Spencer and Gillen followed up this trail and actually visited, under escort from the senior men who were their Warumungu hosts, a waterhole located in the low ranges to the South East of Tennant Creek, which is the home of this fabulous serpent.

While the surrounding countryside is – in some sense – associated with the Wurlurru moiety (Fire), the Kingili side (Water) have very important rights in relation to this special place.

The picture I formed is one which draws on a yin-yang model, so in the core of yang you will  find yin. And, I, suspect, vice versa.

It may not make sense when using Western notions of exclusive ownership of ‘blocks’ of land etc but the wisdom which informs First Peoples Ways as been systematically excluded from our ‘modern’ Western thinking over some thousands of years.

We gain some idea of what the landscape looks like to those who have transcendental values which are actually embedded in the countryside when we imagine what it would be like to be in a region which had a dangerous dragon living in a certain area (hill, or den or whatever).

With a little effort we can regain something of a sense of Being in the world which results from such features and which we lack. My guess is this sense was lacking in all those who make their way on an entirely secular walk to the top of Australia’s highest peak  (in comparison to Koories who treated the tops with respect as abodes of special forces). The significance of the country is measured in eithre imperial or metric units – not those of myth  and metaphor.

Other peoples around the world (e.g. Tibet) also hold peaks in special regard. Not least of all of such people, who still have a sense of awe in relation to their surroundings, would be the ancient Greeks with Mount Olympus being home for many of their gods. And we will come back to ancient Greece in a moment.

While I was writing about Blue Lake I had to continually resist the urge to mention the Ken Russell film “The Lair of the White Worm”. My resistance came from a concern that I might reduce the importance of First Peoples transcendental cosmology by making a trite comparison.

In that film an ancient giant creature, the White Worm, resides down a deep cavernous well.  I happened to be checking out Wikipedia for a crossword solution the other day (Thanks French American capital) and it took me to an entry on the old Anglo-Saxon region known as Mercia.

And there I found  some rich pickings about Worms, Dragons and Giant Serpents – both in what is now England and Europe and links to the East (which is rich in Dragons).

The original book, on which the film was loosely based, was written by Bram Stoker. He located his story in Mercia. And he, in turn, drew on an older story of the Lambton Worm.

What is interesting regarding Mercia(and recall the earlier mention of mythic creatures on Coats of Arms) is the role of the Wyvern:

“The wyvern in Leicester’s crest was derived from that of Thomas of Lancaster, second Lancastrian Earl of Leicester. The seal of Thomas, who was executed in 1327, included a wyvern.[35]

A similar theme was later taken up by Bram Stoker in his 1911 novel, The Lair of the White Worm, which was explicitly set in Mercia (see above). The word “worm”, derived from Old English wyrm, originally referred to a dragon or serpent. “Wyvern” is derived from Old Saxon wivere, also meaning serpent (and etymologically related to viper).

The ultimate source for the symbolism of white dragons in England would appear to be Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fictional History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136), where an incident occurs in the life of Merlin in which a red dragon is seen fighting a white dragon which it overcomes. The red dragon was taken to represent the Welsh and their eventual victory over the Anglo-Saxon invaders, symbolised by the white dragon. However, there is no archaeological or artefactual evidence that the early Anglo-Saxons used a white dragon to represent themselves.


Wikipedia can also provide you with more information on the story of the White Worm, Lambton Worm . book and film (follows link on Mercia entry).

But the link I found most interesting was that on Dragons.

Here we regain a glimpse of former times in Europe, when something like the Dreaming stories found in Australia also survived.

“The English word “dragon” derives from Greek δράκων (drákōn), “dragon, serpent of huge size, water-snake”, which probably comes from the verb δρακεῖν (drakeîn) “to see clearly”.[1]

The source is

It lightly covering these matters we can ponder the role of Rainbow Serpents as part of a global pattern which mapped our cosmos in particular ways. These ways have been sanitised by a secularisation process which removed metaphors from our means of connecting our Being with our cosmic surroundings.

Magic was been taken out of life, and we lead depressingly dull and flattened lives. This flattening is so widespread we believe it is normal – back to the daily grind. No, this is not how life is meant to be – we are dancing forms of energy, fractals of the great whole.

I see that the Year of the Dragon is that of a Black Dragon, said to represent the Chinese people themselves.

How would they interpret the Australian high  country, as seen through First Peoples – Eastern – eyes?

Hark, what is that distance rumbling from deep in the earth. A re-awakening?

What are those indigenous ceremonies connected with Place?

In lieu of Merlin, in the Australian context and with their ceremonies at special places, we have senior indigenous men who act collectively as Wizards stuggling to ensure cosmic balance.

Moon dance 4 June anyone?

Messages from our surroundings – Mt Kosciuszko trip Easter 2012 Final


A.W. Howitt, an ethnographer from the late 1800s, was familiar with this south-eastern part of Australia (and elsewhere). He wrote “The Native Tribes of South-East Australia”  (1904)  republished n 1996 by the Aboriginal Studies Press Canberra A.C.T.)

Howitt wrote:

“It may be laid down as a general rule that all Australian tribes are divided into two moieties, which intermarry, but each of which is forbidden to marry within itself.


 The division of the people of the tribe into two classes is the foundation from which the whole social organisation of the native tribes of Australia has developed.

 In two tribes very far apart from each other, not only in geographical position but in customs, there are analogous legends purporting to explain how this division of the tribe came about.


 These legends have no historical authority, but are good evidence of the belief of these aborigines that this universal basis of their social system was brought about by intention, and according to one of the legends had a supernatural sanction.” (Howitt pp 88-89)

Howitt has sketched out how each social formation had its own ‘mythic charter’, and we have had a glimpse of how this operated in the high country with the division between the Fire side and the Water side, with people from both sides of the ranges coming together, in their respective moiety groupings, at either Lake Cootapatamba (Eagle, origin of Fire) or Blue Lake (Crow, Snake? Water).

I think we can add that Lake Cootapatamba is ‘high’ just as Blue Lake is (relatively speaking) ‘low’. In an indigenous cosmos, these matters can be of real importance.

While Lake Cootapatamba is explicitly identified as the Great Eagles nest – aerie – I am not so sure about Blue Lake. My hunch is that it may be the lair of a Great Serpent – or (more accurately) Great Rainbow Serpents.

Picture – Blue Lake, Google maps.

The association of Rainbow Serpents and water is well documented in anthropological literature.  These fabulous creatures are closely connected with the shaping of creation in First Peoples cosmologies and ongoing world views.

The late Claude Levi-Strauss had some interesting things about Great Birds and Giant Snakes in Native American cosmology.

Having started from a particular South American myth, about a bird-nester who is stranded in a tree, and having taken his reader on a wide-ranging and trail-blazing exploration (over several dense volumes) of the features of an indigenous American noosphere, Levi-Strauss, eventually provides a useful summary of a fundamental feature:

“In the four volumes of Mythologiques I have shown that, in America, what is at stake in this struggle between the people Above and the people Below is cooking fire.” (Levi-Strauss The Jealous Potter  1988:11)

He mentions “… the notion of a cosmic battle between the Thunder Birds and the chthonian Snakes, in which pottery is the stake (or one of the stakes) …” (1988:32)

Chthonian? Dwelling below the surface of the earth/underworld. Blue Lake would make for a good chthonian opening – a place from on low for the emergence of a giant snake of the kind associated with Rainbow Serpents.

“The connection between pottery and jealousy is directly or indirectly linked to the cosmic struggle between the Great Birds, the powers Above, and the Snakes, the powers Below. This connection is a fundamental feature of Amerindian thought.” (1988:33)

Placing concerns about pottery and jealously to one side the notion of a cosmic struggle over the domestication of fire between these great creatures represents a powerful image of a key event in the emergence of humanity – the possession of fire.

Picture from

To see some more images of Great Birds battling Great Snakes see…0.0.XptHxmTOunA&biw=768&bih=928&sei=J9OpT7fdMYaSiAeE29T8BA#q=eagle+snake&hl=en&gbv=2&tbm=isch&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.,cf.osb&fp=1&biw=1024&bih=615

Questions of jealousy would certainly provide a rich area to be explored in Dreaming stories – jealousy and solutions to jealousy. One of the main themes in many Dreaming stories is the refusal to share – and the life-forming consequences which flow from that refusal. How jealousy relates to notions of reciprocity I have yet to explore.

In terms of a form of life acquiring a cultural item, is difficult to imagine a more important event than the acquisition of fire. In mythology, the acquisition of fire can represent the acquisition of culture itself.

And in some First Peoples Dreaming stories, fire is acquired by one side of life and given to the other side, perhaps in return for their water-making services as rain-makers.

This contrasts vividly with the blander narrative of modern Western science which regards the mastery of fire as something which is gained by an undifferentiated ‘humanity’ and simply a sort of ‘property’ of all.

Unlike the modern Western ways of thinking about life – which operate without social differentiations of the moiety type – fire (for First Peoples) is obtained by one moiety and exchanged with the other moiety in return for other services, such as Rain-making.

This pattern is in keeping with a wisdom in which everything has its place, and its place is never everywhere. Never ‘all over the place’. Life is conceptualised along complementary opposite lines, and only in this way forms a complete totality. (Compare the human brain, which has two hemispheres to form a complete whole.)

The linguist C.G. von Brandenstein (1982:103) speculated that fire, in First Peoples cosmologies, could refer to cooking fire on the one hand and to the highly destructive bush-fires (which shaped the world at the beginning) on the other .

Spencer and Gillen  (1904) recorded a Warumungu story which recounts how two Hawks (‘mates’) brought fire to earth, and it escaped with destructive consequences (one Hawk-mate so badly burnt that he died), shaping much of the country in the process. Signs of its former presence can still be read in the country by indigenous lawmen – much in the same way geologists may read features of country in terms of events associated with the passing of great periods of time.

The domestication of fire in Australia must mention the role of using fire to shape country on a seasonal basis by way of fire-stick farming. Country was regularly burnt in a relatively controlled way to fashion the country-side.

Bill Gammage  mentions that this must have greatly reduced the threat of extremely hot fire and destructive fires.

The massive bush-fires of recent times in Australia have taken place in the absence of these regular burn-offs of fuel load. No government department can match the resources formerly provide by the many, many many groups of First Peoples across Australia who walked country everyday with a firestick at hand.

The arrival of fire is a key event in the grand drama of our form of life – the acquisition of fire – and, by extension, culture.  Eagles fly high in the sky – close to the sun – and can play this Dreaming narrative role of mediating between high and low, bringing fire from the sun (maybe) down to earth.

My understanding of this process has two parts. Firstly, I have long been convinced that – wherever it was that fire was originally obtained by our kind during the period modern anthropologists call the Palaeolithic  – that it was followed by great destruction.

This is not an original thought of mine but something suggested by some aspects of First Peoples’ Dreaming stories and commented on by others..

The terrestrial arrival of fire in Warumungu Wirnkarra (Dreaming) stories immediately results in the death of one of two Hawk ‘mates’ who brought it to earth – and then set off a vast bush-fire which fashioned the landscape.

One of the other features of Warumungu higher life, and I personally knew the men responsible for maintaining this law at Warapunji (Fire-Hill) country, was that the great conflagration threatened to break out again if the law was not properly obeyed and the proper practices followed. They took pains to ensure the proper law was followed, and were greatly concerned when prospectors travelled around indiscriminately chipping at rocks in special places.

My ‘working hypothesis’ is that, firstly, the domestication of fire originally resulted in great destruction and that, secondly, as a result of this we learnt that fire must be properly handled if it is to be used as a means of maintaining life balance. This great responsibility is bestowed upon members of one half of Warumungu society.

I have found, over the years, that most people (many modern anthropologists included) have little understanding of that ‘Paleolithic’ period. Old or new stone tools are not a relevant marker.  I prefer to think of it as a time when life was reproduced in keeping with an eternal life-design.

Life in that time – at least that part of it leading up to the changes which mark a neolithic transformation – was both settled and connected over vast distances by a commonality of culture.

All manner of problems – such as the extension of our killing powers  by way of weapons – had been solved the hard way, though lived experience.

Lethal powers vis-à-vis other forms of life were subject to restrictions, and homicidal lethal powers had also be channelled into less destructive arrangements. ‘Praxis’ is the word that comes to mind for this process. And the lessons learnt were incorporated into lived practices. By such  means we construct our cosmos.

In short, our form of life had learnt from the great gifts life had bestowed upon us – firstly, by experiencing what goes wrong thet are unchecked and, secondly, how to turn them to our advantage in terms of maintaining our privileged place in the overall scheme of things.

This results in a mode of Being in relation to creation which is afar cry from modern notions of progress, getting ahead etc.

Prior to the ‘neolithic’ transformation, problems caused by the acquisition of new technologies had been long solved, and meaningful ways of life – based on life as eternally recycling soul energy – were in place globally. These solutions made use of a system of complementary opposition which denied allowing power to concentrate in the hands of any one group.

Fire and water provide two of the key ingredients for an enriched existence. The Masters of Fire can never be the Masters of Water – and vice versa. One moiety can never dominate the other. Both are necessary for a full life, And life must be continually be brought into balance by a dynamic interplay of opposing forces.
The Warumungu men I worked with in Central Australia – the Wurlurru men with their Fire Dreaming – had complex counterbalancing relationships with Kingile men of the Water Dreaming side of life. Only taken together could life be seen as complete.

I visited the adjoining Rain-makers several times and, with the late Ken Maddock, was fortunate to see an important Rain-making ceremony located far away from the modern world and, it seemed to me at the time, in a completely different world.

In that world, people seek to respectfully communicate with  greater cosmic minds – and do not seek to attempt to dominate life. Respectful relating is a means by which life’s important messages flow. The men I was with on that occasion were seeking to encourage rain on the country of another group of men, not for themselves.

It is interesting to observe that when Anglo-Australia is in the grip of severe drought, and all the prayers have been said,  and the crisis depends, people turn to the indigenous Rain-makers as a sort of last-resort.

One of the duties of the Rain-makers was to prevent the return of a great deluge and flood. In this their duties counterbalanced those of the Fire Men (to prevent the great conflagration).

To restore balance to life on this planet at this time, according to such ancient wisdom, we need the return of the Masters of Water – until such times as both sides are brought back into proper balance.

Can we say that present events (from the industrial revolution)  Eagle-hawks won out over the Crow people with the ‘expansion’ of Indo-European practices, then it is to the enabling of the Crow people that we must turn for global healing purposes.

It is ironic, given the site for the  arrival of fire in this part of Australia, that we now encounter an aspect of life’s mismanagement in the snow fields of Australia, where the prognosis for the presence of snow  itself in the future has been called into question by those who attribute a (late- neolithic) human agency in global warming.

As a small example, ski lodges faced with renewing 50 year leases may now need to think long and hard about just how much skiing will be going on during those 5 decades.

And, taking a wider picture, how does that possible loss of snow fit in with the role of snow as  being a slow release source of so many rivers? Along with the abused Snowy, both the Murray and the Murrumbidgee rise in these ranges.  If there is no snow, will the rains simply run off the ranges as they fall, sending water down the rivers in the wrong seasons?

The last two centuries have seen industrial fires consuming fossil fuels at rates previously impossible. There have been no brakes on this one-sided form of activity. Too much power in too few hands. No restraints, no constraints – no means of saying, we have done enough and should not overshoot the mark.

Rather, some bizarre notion of ‘growth’ dominates the market-based values being spun out daily.  One anthropologist – Sir Edmund Leach – called this a “runaway world.”

It is maturity, not more adolescent growth, we require.

And the Ways of Australia’s First Peoples contain a wisdom which can assist us – the great uninitiated peoples of Australia – to a coming of age.

The  pattern of Australian bushfires suggests that these too have been far hotter than would have been the case when regular small fires were made by First Peoples on a daily and seasonal basis. In place of a well-tempered cosmos, a wild and chaotic mess. The build up of litter loads on the forest floor – and in choked and now scrubby former grasslands – is regarded (by some modern eyes) as ‘habitat’.

So when it comes to a cosmic drama – we can read an opening chapter in the Dreaming story attached to Lake Cootapatamba – but the ongoing drama is to be found in very latest developments in our unfolding creation around us.

The counterbalancing forces to those of excessive use of fire are missing from this picture.

Clearly, acknowledging the place of First Peoples – and their practices – in the Australian high country is a crucial step in the healing process.

I have not made a proper study of First Peoples Ways in South-East Australia, and these days it would be better to look to them for guidance on such matters. But there is something of a glimpse to be gained from non-indigenous sources who, in many cases, actually recorded information from indigenous peoples in the first instance.

I have done a little of that here drawing on my limited knowledge of such matters to be see a cultural landscape – and what is missing from this iconic Australian landscape.

But there is a danger that what was recorded in the past was only ever a small and perhaps misunderstood part of a much larger and dynamic picture. For instance, a contemporary map of indigenous groups shows a good part of this area of the Australian Alps as being Ngarigo country and not Wolgal.

Howitt himself recorded his opinion that Wolgal ‘tribe’ had almost been extinct.  Those opposing recognition of traditional owners may invoke such things in part of their attempt to retain privilege in their own hands.

Then we read:

“Koch has found that ‘unique items of vocabulary combine with the distinctive pronoun forms to support the idea that [Ngarigu, the Canberra language, Wolgal, and the Omeo language] were dialects of the same language, …”  (I Clark – reference at end)

So it is wise to allow the real experts – surviving First Peoples – to instruct us in contemporary realities.  It is the height of Western cultural arrogance to believe that First Peoples Ways cannot reassemble themselves (in keeping with an ancient orthodoxy) from the fragments resulting from the savage impacts of a brutal form of colonisation.

Maybe in the future, when the rights of traditional owners to the area presently known as the Kosciuszko National Park have been recognised, there will be in a fair-dinkum Southern Hemisphere festive – the first full moon after the spring equinox, or even the summer solstice – where we, who respect such matters, may be invited to this special place in the Australian high  country for an annual pilgrimage and staging of the ceremonies of the Great Eagle and the Great Snakes?


More reading ——————————————————

(reference to H. Koch forthcoming “Aboriginal languages and social groups in the Canberra region: interpreting the historical documentation.”  provided by Ian D Clark in “Dhudhuroa and Yaithmathang languages and social groups in north-east Victoria – a reconstruction.” See

Also , Michael Young, Ellen and Debby Mundy, The Aboriginal People of the Monaro, NSW NPWS, Canberra, 2000.

Messages from our surroundings – Mount Kosciuszko Easter 2012 Part Two

Messages from our surroundings – Part Two

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn

As we shall see, Doyle and Flannery provided us with a view from one side of the great divide in country which is only regarded as complete when there are two sides making up a whole.

Like others resting at the summit before continuing back down, I ate my sandwiches for lunch and looked out over the country to the west, north, east, south.  Some people made sure they got a shot of themselves at the highest point in Australia – one man climbing on the small stone marker-cairn to make himself higher.

Fascinating to think that First Peoples had come to meet up here in summer from both sides of the Great Dividing Range (but not exactly right here to the summit, as I soon learnt).

How did they manage travelling through the snake-rich scrubby countryside? With fire-sticks and a  patchwork of mosaic burning  would be my bet. I think the vegetation would have looked entirely different in summer two centuries ago.

Weeks later, I downloaded a library copy Bill Gammage’s 2011 book “The Biggest Estate on Earth” which looks at the role of First Peoples and fire in managing Australia ecosystems. Gammage is not referring to the imaginary estate of King George III of Great Britain.

In the book Bill Gammage provides, from documentary sources, a glimpse of the role of fire in shaping many parts of Australia and includes a little on the Australian Alps. His documentary sources make it clear that there was a great deal of burning off being done here in the 1840s, leaving no food for an explorer’s bullocks.  We have little idea how this country looks when it is properly managed.

There is a solid core of writers on this topic of fire in Australia, including Latz and Pyne. It is about time this information was well and truly incorporated into mainstream Australian thinking.

My own summary is this – fire plays a key role in a well-tempered cosmos, not merely a tool for environmental management. When First Peoples are prevented from their fire-based practices, life is reproduced in wild ways. First Peoples manage ecosystems as part of what one anthropologist, Ken Maddock, called ‘cosmic maintenance ceremonies’ .

The whole of life was subject to ceremonial rituals aimed at producing this well-tempered cosmos, and they were not restricted to those assoiciated with fire. Rain-making is another well-known example.


While on the summit of Mount Kosciuszko i took particular interest in trying to work out where Blue Lake was, as I had looked down (from Little Twynam) into this during a previous “Easter” trip while visiting Illawong Lodge on the Guthega side of the ranges, further along the Snowy River.

Some of the ranges seemed to meld into one another to my untutored eye and it was not clear which low summit was which. I used my good map and compass to find the distinctive Little Mount Twynam, and knew Blue Lake lay beneath that.

Picture – looking towards Mount Twynam and Blue Lake from near Mount Kosciuszko 2012.

There is quite a dramatic difference between Lake Cootapatamba and Blue Lake. The former, while a tarn, is relatively high in relation to the surrounding area, while Blue Lake is (relatively speaking) situated deep down in the ground. I had looked way down into it on a previous trip.

Picture – above Blue Lake (an edge of which is just visible far below) on Little Twynam on a previous trip. Mount Kosciuszko in distance?

There is a continuation of the Australian Alps walking track from Mount Kosciuszko which returned to Charlotte Pass via Blue Lake, and while it added another 3 km to the walk (and some of them up and down) I was tempted to try it rather than re-joining the throng and returning the way I came. More people had joined the walk in from Charlotte Pass as well.

Although sorely tempted, my gut-instincts were to return to Rawson’s Pass and head on back to the Snowy River headwaters for my cup of tea. Which is what I did – and I was soon very pleased that I had made that choice.

When I arrived back at the signboard relating how the Eagle Maliyan had brought fire to South-East Australia I was truly surprised to find, on turning around, that the rest of the story was told on signboards on the back of rocks which I had not seen the first time.

They told the story about the Water-side of life. In an area where rivers arise, it should not be surprising to learn how this area is of great significance for Rainmakers. They too (representing their halves of their respective residential groups) met up from both sides of the ranges, and camped at Blue Lake. (I wonder what it’s indigenous name is?)

By Warumungu reckoning, my ‘skin’ group is  Japaljari and aligned with the Wurlurru fire side of life. My wife is Nakamara and is aligned with the Kinglili water side of life.

Aha! To go to Blue Lake I should go with Kingili people.


The information provided about the Rain-making side of life included an indigenous artist’s interpretation of how a Great Snake was stretched across part of the ranges. The body of the Great Snake was fashioned from features of the landscape.  I hesitate to say how long it was but it must have been a good kilometre – maybe more.

Great Snakes and Great Eagles – now here was some food for thought.

Once, driving through the mysterious Devils Marble, in the Northern Territory, I rounded a bend and came upon an enormous Wedgetail eagle trying to get airborne as it carried an enormous dead snake. The snake had been run over. What a sight! The eagle only managing to rise above the ground.

What an image is formed if the snake is alive, and fighting! I shall touch on this again shortly, but here it is more important to do justice to the two divisions (moieties) of indigenous groups.

Howitt provides some information about the two moieties in this part of the Australian Alps – but it is the distinction between Eaglehawk and Crow (not Snake) which features.

Keeping in mind that all Western notions of bounded indigenous groups needs to be taken with a reserved judgement rather than gospel, Howitt also wrote:

“The Wolgal lived on the tablelands of the highest of the Australian Alps, and in the country falling from them to the north. The boundaries of their country commenced at Kauwambat near the Pilot Mountain, following the Indi River to Walleregang, thence to the starting point , Kauwambat, by Tumberumba, Tumut, Queenbean, Cooma, and the Great Dividing Range.”  “Kauwambat means “woman” in the Wolgal speech.” (Howitt 1996:78)

“… the Wolgal, who extended over the great alpine ranges in which the Murray and the Murrumbidgee rise. This tribe … had in 1870 become almost extinct, there being only a few individuals left, one of whom had been the bard or singer of the people and had, when I knew him, attached himself to the Ngarigo. The Wolgal class system is as follows:


  Classes Totems
 Malian Eagle-hawk … Banda kanagrooNuron emuEbai hawkMari dingoWutherin flying-squirrelBellit-bellit lyre-birdNatjanajan bat
 Umbe Crow … Megindang wombatMaralang brown snakeBiringal a star (? Venus)Wandeli spiny ant-eaterTchuteba rabbit-rat

The Ngarigo had the Wolgal on the north, the Ya-itma-thang on the north-west, the Kurnai on the west and south-west, and the Yuin or Coast Murring to the south-east. The Ngarigo in fact occupied the Manero tableland.”

Ngarigo Tribe

Classes Totems
Merung Eagle-hawk Bellet-bellet lyre-bridNadjatajan batBulemba flying-squirrelMundarung tuanMumung black-snakeMulan or Munja a fishBut-the-wark the mopoke

Kauunga black opossum

Waat red wallaby

Yukembruk Crow Bra-ar-gar a small hawkTchuteba rabbit-ratBaua flying-squirrel next in size to       bulembaBurru kangarooBerribong emuBudaluk lace-lizardKuriur native companion

Kauar spiny ant-eater

Ulunbau sleeping lizard

All the above is from Howitt.  John Mathew, another earlier ethnographer, thought that the wide-spread presence of the Eaglehawk and Crow distinction may have been evidence of a battle which took place between two distinct ‘races’ of men for the possession of Australia, with the more powerful Eaglehawk race overcome the Crows:

“The struggle for supremacy began in the north and its last smouldering embers died out in Victoria, where traces of the once fierce fire have been left as clear recognisable as the Victorian evidence of a former volcanic period, and a not inappropriate name, for the south-east of Australia at least, would be The Land of the Eaglehawk and The Crow.”  (John Mathew  1899 “Eaglehawk and Crow, A study of the Australian Aborigines– emphasis added BR)

Interesting to note that the two bearers of the present Commonwealth of Australia Coat of Arms appear in the Crow moiety for the Ngarigo and the Eagle-hawk moiety for the Wolgal. A  Coat of Arms to represent these two groups may be better supported by Eaglehawk and Crow.

It would probably need to be adapted to match other localities, where sometimes White Cockatoos may replace Eagles (and so on).

To those who protest about the addition of existential dimensions into such forms of representation, these are an improvement on those well known English creatures which graced earlier Anglo-Australian forms – the Unicorn and Lion!

The NPWS emblem which features only a Lyre Bird (and in these cases, only the Eagle-hawk moiety) is also a one-sided form of representation long overdue for counterbalancing in keeping with the wisdom of the First Peoples life placed in the position of custodian of this country.

The simple point which I seek to make in all of this is that there is another world – a true Australian cosmos – which lies just beyond the naturalist view of Australia, and is waiting for interested people to learn about.

How do Crows compare with Eagles – for Dreaming story purposes? I had heard crows when I was camped at the upper part of Island Bend. A very noisy group of them, obviously part of a rookery somewhere – it sounded to me – down in the valley and close to the river. Without seeking to guess at the importance of the Eagle-Crow distinction for First Peoples, the Eagle seems to be a solitary bird which, silently, flies high in the sky seeking larger living prey while crows are noisy social birds – I am not sure what they eat, but I imagine they are seek smaller prey and scavenge.

But the picture is far from simple. ‘Totems’ across Australia do not fit with a simple predetermined template. For example, while there is a good correlation between Moon and Man versus Sun and Woman in First Peoples Dreaming stories, there are a few exceptions to that pattern as well.

There is an important Crow Dreaming in Warumungu country, but it seemed to me to be associated with the same group (Wurlurru) which gave fire to the other part of humanity. Mathew even cites a case where the origin of fire is associated with Crow, so it may be pointless trying to obtain (or force material into) a ‘one size fits all’ template across Australia.

We would benefit from more instruction in these matters from the relevant First Peoples.

The linguist Von Brandestein complied summaries of many different characteristics (and ‘personalities’?) of  ‘totem’ groups in his 1982 book –  quick, slow, intelligent, dull etc. I have not made a study of this aspect of his work.  Gammage states that the Eaglehawk Crow relationship is that of hunters and gatherers. I am not sure how he arrives at that correlation.

There would be a comparison to be made between those who consume food raw and those who consume food transformed by fire.  This may be the ultimate Great Divide for humanity.

Warumungu people, in whose country the town of Tennant Creek is located, were formerly famous for their grand performances – and in their story of the arrival of fire, the other part of humanity (Kingili) was cold and people were clustered together ‘all the same damp sugar’ (according to the 1901 notes of Spencer and Gillen) before the arrival of fire (from Wurlurru). Spencer and Gillen document a ceremony associated with the giving of fire from Wurlurru to Kingli in their 1904 book. Kingili are cold and huddled together in their prior condition. They remain the Masters of Water, Rainmakers.

In myths from other places, New Guinea for example, there is a device used which compares earlier states of Being in terms of what they lack (in comparison with the present cultural gifts). These stories may say that, in former times, people ate stones! Or, more commonly, rotten wood. This sets up a comparison between then and now – now we use fire to cook or food and enjoy a wide range of good foods etc.

Levi-Strauss found that in American myths, the origin of cooking fire – the domestication of fire – is associated with a cosmic struggle between Great Birds and the Snakes.


The information on the signs at Rawson Pass also mentioned that First Peoples did not usually go to the summits of mountains, as these are special places and to be treated with respect.  The sign asked visitors to respect this. I wonder how I would have responded if I had seen this on the way up. (I have not climbed Uluru for these reasons.)  Only Europeans argue about who was ‘first to stand’ on the top of Australia!

In contrast to the man I saw on the summit, scaling the stone cairn to make himself higher than any other terrestrial feature in Australia at the moment, First Peoples must have had – and probably still do have – an understanding of our relative importance in the scheme of things.

The places in which ancestral forces reside are reserved for special treatment.

By contract, modern landscapes are marked by an absence of supernatural forces. That special part of us has been dulled and deadened. Edward Said, in ‘Culture and Imperialism’ had some relevant things to say about how Western people think that can travel across other people’s country without restrictions.

I looked at the many rock formations with more appreciative eyes from there on. I have been taken to such rock formations when I researched land claims in Central Australia, I know how special these places can be. In the absence of actual information about their significance, one is left with a ‘feeling’. There is a cluster of rocks near Perisher which always remind me of the very important  Devil’s Pebbles and Devil’s Marbles near Tennant Creek.


From Rawson Pass, feeling that my education had taken a real step forward in an unexpected way, I walked down towards the Seaman Hut which I had not looked inside on the way up.

On a previous “Easter” trip to Illawong I had almost walked onto a very large Copperhead snake, which (I later deduced) was making good use of the warmth of the track – as a break in the low scrub – by flattening itself out and lying on the earth warmed by the sun. Others in the same party mentioned they had seen snakes as well, so I formed the view that these low scrubby mountain areas are something of a snakes paradise in the warmer months.

While I had kept my eyes open on the walk to Mount Kosciuszko for snakes the fact that the track is clear and wide enough for vehicles made me relaxed. So I was surprised, as I neared Seaman’s Hut again, to be looking down and noticing that I had just walked over the top of a small snake, which was curled back upon itself. I gave a jump and stopped to look at it.

At first I thought it may have been run over by a mountain biker – there were plenty of these and the rushed down the track from time to time. But then I realised it was not injured and merely curled back to gain extra striking power had it chosen to ward off this clumsy giant who had disturbed its basking in the sun. I gave it a prod with my walking pole and it raced off, at speed, down a drain on the side of the track.

I took a keen interest in the side of the track from then on. I regretted prodding the small snake with the pole when I could have taken a picture with my phone camera. After stopping to check out the interior of the SeamanHut – there are not many such shelters if you are caught out on these tops at any time of the year – i soon saw another small snake at the side of the track and, this time, got a picture.

Picture – only a little fella – but …

This snake was also, it seemed to me, looking for a space in the sun in the thinner vegetation beside the track. Yikes, was the place crawling with them? A good burning off would help if walking through this country.

I continued on to the Snowy where others were resting and talking. I boiled the billy, enjoyed a snack and a mug of tea, refilled my water-bottle with cool tea and walked on the last leg to Charlotte Pass.

The ranges with their dead white trees stretched far away in the distance. I felt a little tired by now. There was also the sense of a great absence – where were the First Peoples for this country? How were the survivors faring?

The last kilometre, where the track finally has some trees for shade, seemed the longest. A good walk – all I could have asked for in most respects. Nearing Charlotte Pass I looked down in the valley to where the other track to Blue Lake crosses the Snowy.  That trip will have to wait for another time, with the right people for company.


Here I must add some important information about the contemporary traditional owners which I found by way of google search on return home.

There is a healing process underway which may result in some contemporary developments and initiatives to enable those of us who wish to learn more about the original cultural landscape.


“To support this, the Australian Alps National Parks sponsored a gathering of Aboriginal traditional owners, that is, Aboriginal people with traditional connections to the Alps, at Dinner Plain in 2005. Dinner Plain was one of the places where Aboriginal people gathered for talks in the days before European settlement.

At this meeting the traditional owners present, proposed that the Australian Alps First Peoples develop an agreement amongst themselves so that they can establish ways for this group to work more effectively together as one group.

Some of their other recommendations included:

• recognition from land management agencies that Traditional Owners are the only legitimate Indigenous speakers for Country;

• identification of area of crown land in the Alps as an area for traditional owners to meet and continue traditions, practices and customs;

• establishment of an Australian Alps First Peoples Keeping Place;

• access for Traditional Owners to cultural resources, for example, fishing, hunting, collecting and gathering rights without a license;

• provision by land management agencies for adequate financial resources to ensure equity of involvement of traditional owners in all aspects and levels of land and waterways management;


• increased employment opportunities for traditional owners through the support of land management agencies.”

It irks me that, given a wonderful opportunity to inform a large audience about these important matters on national television, we got more self-indulgent tom-foolery from Flannery and Doyle, and thereby missed a real opportunity for promoting genuine recognition of the place of First Peoples in Australian life – and a chance to promote a degree of cultural partnership and some healing reconciliation.

Two major features of the cultural landscape at in the high country of the Australian Alps are associated with the nest of the Great Eaglehawk, who brought Fire to this part of Australia, and a deep lair of what may be a supernatural serpent, representing another and important part of life – that of Snow and Water – the Rainmakers.

Such is the creation we find ourselves in.

(Part Three to follow.)

Messages from our surroundings – Mount Kosciuszko Easter 2012 Part One

Messages from our surroundings – Mount Kosciuszko, Easter 2012.

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn

There is a present day view of Australian life much richer than that provided  by Tim Flannery and John Doyle during their trip to Mount Kosciuszko for their recent  ABC1 television show “Two on the Great Divide”.

Life is much richer than the trivialised discussion about which the non-indigenous explorers first reached these high places.

In their blokey way they related some aspects of contemporary life to the ‘birth of modern Australia’ – but they left out something far more substantial – and which is of major importance for life in this part of the world .

I know this because, a few weeks before the ABC put their program to air, I too had walked to Mount Kosciuszko – and had a real and unexpected learning experience. I was surprised when they left this aspect of the walk out of their account of their ascent to the apex of their travels on the Great Dividing Range.

Report from an “Easter” trip to Mount Kosciuszko, 2012.

During what passes as “Easter” in the Southern Hemisphere, I recently took a very pleasant day-trip walking from Charlottes Pass to Mount Kosciuszko (and return) in the Australian Alps – 18kms in all. A bit of stretch but along an easy track – it was formerly a dirt road and now closed to all but official vehicles.

Other members of my family were over at a working bee at the Illawong hut in the Guthega valley. Participation in the Illawong Easter working bee is a part of the process of seeking membership at Illawong. As I don’t ski (more of a plodder) I was drawn to act on an impulse gained a few years back – to walk to Mount Kosciuszko.

I had camped alone at the upper part of Island Bend at a site near the former airstrip  – a grassy place where kangaroos came to eat. The grass where I camped had been freshly mown by the NPWS for the coming Easter campers.

After a night of high winds blasting the tree tops and tent walls, I was up with the dawn (brrr – chilly)  for a bit of breakfast and  then to drive via Perisher to Charlottes Pass and to the start of the Moumt Kosciuszko walking track.

Picture – “Er. Excuse me mate is this table taken?” Campsite at upper level of Island Bend, the grass freshly mown by NPWS for Easter campers – and where the kangaroos come for some green pick (as they may have once done when areas were cleared in the  now bush clad ranges amidst by indigenous mosaic burning).


I can’t say I had any specific reason for being drawn to make this walk – but it definitely ‘spoke’ to me. I did not expect it to tie in with my vague general interest in how First Peoples related to this high alpine country.

I had started early (for me) as I knew the road from Perisher to Charlottes Pass was to be closed to vehicles later in the morning for a fun-run as part of a Back to Perisher event.  I was at the start of the walking track at 8 a.m..

Having checked the walk at the Cooma visitors centre on the way to the Kosciuszko National Park I knew that there were not many proper parking spaces and to park by the edge of the road. Even at 8 a.m.. there was already a good number of cars parked in this way. Some may have been taking the Blue Lake walk, which also sets off from here.

The author – at start of Illawong track, Guthega.

There were a few others making the walk to Mount Kosciuszko from Charlotte Pass as I set off – a slow, steady trickle –  but there was plenty of space between us to allow for silently communing with the surroundings as I walked along. This was not due to last. A sort of secular pilgrimage to the mountain-top lay ahead

I use the expression “what passes as Easter” since this former ‘pagan’ Northern Hemisphere festival is calculated as being the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox, and here we were in Autumn.

How can we connect our forms of representation to our actual surroundings when we are denied the wider contextual cues from the seasons etc?

There was a very chilly wind as I set off. And a few days after I did this walk the first snow of the season fell – with 5 cm of snow covering much of the area. Rites of Spring? Hardly. There are many things which are back-to-front in the land of Oz, and this misplaced Easter is merely one of them.

But Saturday 7 April 2012 was a sunny day in this part of Australia, the big gale winds overnight  had eased to a steady chill wind, and no rain was predicted. Indeed, sunburn was one of my main concerns and I had made good use of sunscreen at the car before setting out.

My other concern was having enough fluid for the walk, as water is relatively heavy to carry – and i was travelling as light as possible.  A small backpack, with some extra warm gear, map, compass, water bottle and eats. I knew my water-bottle was not enough for the 6 hour trip

My solution to this was to also carry a small gas burner and a lightweight billy in my day-pack, with the hope of finding some water somewhere along the way to make a cup of tea and refill my water-bottle. Wood fires are not permitted in this part of the Kosciuszko National Park.

The many lower ranges are covered with the ghostly forests –  white skeletal trunks of dead snow-gums destroyed by a recent great bush-fire – and these provide a mute reminder of the  dangers of fire out of control.

A 1840s account (provided in Bill Gammage’s book, “The Biggest Estate on Earth” )  also mentions this feature  – dead trees – in the region, so the history of bushfire may be more complex than simple mismanagement by the present administration.

To get a better fix on that one would need to find out when traditional fire-stick farming practices ceased here. And from the accounts provided by Gammage, it is clear that there was much traditional burning still going on here in that time. An open question requiring open minds.

Most of the track from Charlotte Pass to Mount Kosciuszko, though, is above the tree-line. The alpine vegetation either side of the road consists of varieties of low and dense wiry scrub. I lack the vocabulary to accurately describe this low, heath-like countryside.

Picture – view near start of track from Charlotte Pass. Who was Charlotte?

As I walk I know that, like The Fool in the Tarot pack, I am surrounded by my own ignorance. Part of my lack of knowledge of plants is congenital, I suspect, but I also have  a conscious aversion to Latin and scientific European naming systems of Australian plants.

What was the name of the tree we know as Banksia, for example, established long before “Two on the Eastern Coast” – Cook and Banks – sailed into Botany Bay in 1788?

We miss the true poetry of this country by not being able to access indigenous naming systems, which assign plants (and so much else) a place in the overall scheme of things, usually by way of Dreaming stories which combine all manner of factors in a kind of grand Glass-bead Game.

All of the low scrub in this high country is covered by thick snow in winter, and is made up of extremely hardy bushes . I find that, in addition to the real risk of snake-bite by placing feet where you can’t see, it is virtually impossible to push through this tangle of rough low scrub without some kind of pre-existing foot-track.

There is some recognition that early European explorers followed Koori trails as they pushed into the country and proceeded to bestow new and foreign names upon its features.

Naming the highest ‘peak’ after a Polish hero is another instance of the operation of a ‘totemic operator’ by which European explorers used features of their own social landscape to map what lay before them.

Patrons and officials could be so honoured, along with others of their own social rank by way of acts of ‘modest’ mutual recognition.

If you pause to reflect, is it not bizarre that the highest point in Australia is named after a remote Polish hero? But then, so much of modern Australia is named after other remote British sources (Sydney? Hobart? Melbourne? Brisbane? Adelaide? Perth? Darwin?), a Polish ring-in does not stand out as starkly as it otherwise might.

There were some interesting rock formations in places along the ridges as I followed the easy road. They briefly reminded me of some familiar Central Australia ‘sites of significance’. How did local Koories here see the country I wondered in passing?

How would the Warumungu lawmen of Central Australia ‘read’ this country? In 1983 I had travelled with a representative group of traditional owners in the Warumungu land claim by bus from Tennant Creek (Northern Territory)  to Canberra (and the High Court). Senior men and women and their families.

They had all wanted to see snow – but we lacked the funds for the return trip home at that time so a trip to the snow was out of the question. What a pity! Coming from the desert they really wanted to see the snow! Thanks to Charles Perkins we did get to see the salt-water at Manly beach instead. Another time perhaps?

Half-way along the track from Charlottes Pass to the Kosciuszko summit, the former public vehicle road crosses a concrete bridge spanning a stream which is the headwaters of the Snowy River. A very pleasant place to stop as, in addition to the modest flowing stream,  some large rocks in formation provide some rare shelter from the wind (and shade from the sun). [On reflection, this must have been an important place for Koories for these, and other, reasons.]

Picture – Snowy River headwaters

After reading the National Parks signboard advising not to drink the water without boiling it (due to micro-organisms) I relaxed my concern about my water supplies, knowing I would be able to drink the contents of  my water-bottle and pause here on return – and do that very Australian thing of boiling the billy – at the head of the Snowy River, what’s more!  A round of Waltzing Matilda would have completed the picture! No jumping into this cool billabong for me, though.

(On their TV show Tim and John filled their water-bottles from this source, stating something like, “ if you can’t drink the water here, where can you?” If only. I would like to know what the NPWS people thought of that bit of advice!  There is a real risk here of water contamination from the human dimension too, I figured, with  so many walkers pausing here before completing the next 4.5 km stage to the toilets. I assessed my chances accordingly.)

From this source of the Snowy, i continued up the relatively gentle climb, enjoying the thought that it is mainly downhill on the return trip. The next landmark is the solitary Seamans Hut – a stone-walled shelter built in memory of a man of the same name who perished for lack of shelter years ago. It would be most welcome when the country is covered with snow, and a misty blizzard blowing.

From there it is a short walk to Rawson Pass where there are NPWS toilets. A NPWS traytop Toyota had passed me while I was taking brief shelter from the chill wind at the Snowy River, and it carried the ranger (or staff member) to this high out-house. Quite an elaborate set of toilets too, I was surprised to find (basing my knowledge of NPWS toilet facilities for walkers on the Royal National Park south of Sydney, and other NSW National Parks). But there was no water available. Even hand washing after using the toilet was done by a chemical cleanser similar to that found in the wards of hospitals.

And it soon became apparent that, in addition to the winter demand from skiers, the summertime demand for toilets was greatly increased by the large stream of people arriving at Rawson Pass from the Thredbo side of the range – being brought up by some form of chairlift from the valley below – and having a shorter 12 km return day walk to the top of Australia’s highest mountain.


It was here things started to get interesting in unexpected ways. I paused at Rawson Pass, at the junction of the two paths, to read a relatively new signboard, attached to a low rock, recounting how First Peoples visited this area. This provided information about the significance of the features before me.

The sign told how the nearby tarn (and the highest lake in Australia), Lake Cootapatamba,  was the Dreaming site of the Great Eagle Maliyan who brought fire to South-Eastern Australia.

Lawmen from both sides of the range would come to meet here each year, but only those who belong to the Fire ‘moiety’ of their residential groups. That is, from the coastal side, half of the social group (that associated with Fire) would travel here to meet with others from the inland side of the range – and they too were from the Fire side of their group.

Brilliant social arrangements these since they prevent people who live apart from becoming victim of the sort of geographically defined bounded group more familiar in our own Western Ways. Of course, there would be many types of exchange relationships between these two residential groups, including those of marriage.

As I did not record the details on the sign I later regretted not having the nous to take a picture of the  sign and text with my phone’s camera. My recollection is that it is more or less in line with what I found out later via google (and see Grant Brodie photo of the Lake):

“The aboriginal dreamtime stories tell that Lake Cootapatamba is home of the ancestral eagle “Maliyan” who brought fire to Eastern Australia. This rocky country is his hunting and camping ground. …


Aboriginal elders associated with “Fire Law” travelled and met here every year for ceremonies and secret meetings. From south of the Murray came the Gippsland Yerrung (eagle hawk men) who met with the Monaro Merrung (eagle hawk men). These tribal elders met near ‘dead horse gap’ and travelled up here together to the lake.”

I was greatly surprised by this remote aerie – an Eagle’s camp and fire ceremony site up here in an area associated (in my mind) with cold, rain and snow. How apt that the Great-Eagle-Nest is near the highest part of Australia!

My earlier time with Warumungu speaking people in Central Australia (very much fire country) had provided me with a beginner’s grounding in the Fire side of life from an indigenous Australian perspective.  Hmmm, food for thought.

Having cast my eye over the sign and across to Lake Cootapatamba, and conscious of the need to press on, I joined the growing throng from Thredbo to complete the next stage to the summit. The day had warmed up and the early chill wind – which was a bit of a trial on the Charlotte Pass track – had died away.

I was surprised how very casually some of the day-trippers took this walk  – being dressed as though ducking out to the shop next door or off to the beach. While many were well prepared, some seemed totally unprepared for a change in the weather. They were in luck. The day was a beauty.

The chance for a little peace of mind on my part was over, and there was much chatter from the many people enjoying a pleasant outing, friends talking about all manner of subjects which had nothing to do with their present surrounding, parents placating unwilling children in order to reach the summit. A general hubbub.

Some listened to music on their earphones – music from distant places, no doubt, far removed from the songs of this place. It often strikes me that modern people erect a wall of sound to keep their actually surroundings at bay – did they have spaces within them for the messages from this country? How about a recording explaining the surroundings at least?

It was an easy walk from Rawson Pass to the top of Australia’s highest mountain. Nothing like what would be required to reach the top of highest peak in New Zealand-Aotearoa, where proper mountain climbing gear would be required. Mouth Kosciuszko is no Aoraki – Mount Cook.

Which raises the issue of a dual naming for Australia’s highest peak, – and for the Kosciuszko National Park itself? I found, later, other have already touched on those issues.

The general hubbub of my fellow day-trippers did not cease at the summit. A group of women walkers sat behind me and filled the space with their various concerns. Young lovers cuddled. Families played out their games. Photos taken.


Picture – At Summit Mt Kosciuszko

While I applaud all those who get out and do something, I  could detect no behavioural evidence for the old proposition that man is closer to god (or any other transcendental form) at the top of a mountain – even at “Easter”.