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.)