The ground was spongy and green, the accents Irish, the light atmospheric and ‘soft’ (in other words, it was raining) – the scene was set for a storytelling session about epic battles and strange worlds, good versus evil. Especially as we were standing on a hilltop near one of the millennia-old passage tombs of Carrowkeel, the lake in the valley below glinting as fingers of sun made it through the clouds.
Our guide Sam told us of epic battles between evil giants and brave warriors, of how Irish mythology influenced George Lucas, with obvious references scattered throughout the Star Wars films. (I kid you not: in Sam’s telling the whole movie franchise is a kind of ‘Celtic legends in space’, from the lightsabers to Luke’s father issues.) He explained how the tomb was designed to let in the rays at sunset on the summer solstice, and how Ireland’s ancient monuments were positioned to reflect the world of the gods on the ground below. Then he pulled out one of his own woodcarvings (as you do), and mentioned that these stories are widely known through songs, stories and school.
‘Wow’, I thought, eloquent as always. ‘Imagine having that connection between the landscape and the past. Imagine having insight into how other cultures saw the world and explained its workings and mysteries, and the depth that would add to your own understanding of a place.’
Moments later, it hit me. We do. Indigenous Australians have the oldest continuous civilisation in the world. Theirs is an oral culture, with foundation myths and stories making sense of the landscape and the world, while also providing maps and information for navigating through country and life, for making sense of the world and their place in it.
And right behind this realisation was a sense of unease: that I didn’t know more about Indigenous culture; that (like most east-coast dwellers) I’ve never had a meaningful connection with an Indigenous person; and that I didn’t know the stories because they weren’t mine to know. I’m not going to get all angsty here – this is supposed to be about enjoying the outdoors, right? – but this line of thought connected neatly with Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan’s National Press Club address in April in which he called out the lack of value placed on Australia’s Indigenous past. In this wide-ranging, thought-provoking talk he said:
‘We are in the first instance a society that begins in deep time. That is the bedrock of our civilisation as Australians, our birthright, and if we would accept it, rather than spurn it, we might discover so many new possibilities for ourselves as a people.’
Since returning home, I’ve thought again of camping up at Yarrangobilly over Easter, freezing during the night, cooling off in rivers during the day. It was my first trip to the Snowies in years, and (as always) I wondered why. The plains, the mountains, the caves; the freedom of camping and the joy of watching the brains of little people change as their sense of the world expanded. We talked about the hydro scheme, ‘the Man from Snowy River’, the area’s gold-mining history. We saw kangaroos, brumbies and even a tiny snake. What we didn’t talk about was the area’s Indigenous heritage, because I didn’t know much and it wasn’t easy to discover.
The two families spent a day exploring the Blue Waterholes area, splashing up the Clarke Gorge to the waterfall and swimming in the freezing pools. It’s a place of sheer-sided cliffs, vibrant blue water and spectacular caves – and no doubt cultural importance.
I chatted to Shane Herrington, a Discovery Ranger at the National Parks and Wildlife Service, who gave me some insight into the area’s significance.
“The Blue Waterholes area is on the ceremonial line for the Gumal nation, made up of the Walgalu people in the north and the Ngarigu in the south. As with many groups, the Walgalu had a Kurdaitcha (medicine man).
“A story we have is about one of the Wiradjuri groups that would travel into the Walgalu area, up on to the Gumal nation’s ceremonial line, for the annual bogong moth migration. The Wiradjuri were about to travel through country and were told they could, but not to stop and negotiate with the Kurdaitcha or they would be turned to stone. On that journey they came across the Kurdaitcha and tried to negotiate and talk to him: as a result they were turned to stone.
“The big boulders you’ll see lying within that country are our old people. You’ll see big boulders with smaller ones around them, and what they are is our ancestors that were turned to stone when they were out with the little kids collecting things like yam daisies. Those rocks actually look like our old people bending over, digging with their digging sticks.
“They are set in stone now so they look after the country, and they look after us as we travel through the country too.”
I wish I’d known that story earlier: I would have looked at the boulders very differently.
From now on I’m going to investigate the Indigenous heritage of an area before I go exploring, to try to add depth and meaning to my adventures. Because these deep connections between past and place are part of our heritage if we choose to engage with it; to expand our knowledge, appreciation and understanding of both our country and our culture.
As Shane said, “If we (Aboriginal people) don’t share our knowledge, these things may become lost. It’s important that we give it away to keep it.”
For the next couple of months Wild will be collecting and collating sites, stories and companies exploring the Indigenous heritage of popular protected wilderness areas. Whether you’ve had a similar experience with a local guide or ranger, or want to point us in the right direction of useful reference books or information centres, please drop us an email here.
Megan travelled to Ireland courtesy of Tourism Ireland and Failte Ireland. Sam’s ‘storytelling adventure’ business can be found here: shanakee.ie