The West MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia represent an extraordinarily ancient section of our planet. In many places, the 800-million-year-old sea floor can be seen rising vertically in great slabs the size of dinner tables. The Arrernte people have existed in this area for twenty thousand years or more; at least that is the physical evidence. It’s likely they have lived here for much longer. Traditional owners once knew every tree, every bird, every animal and every plant that brought them sustenance and medicine for a sustainable life from one generation to the next. The Dreamtime gave meaning to their life and the sprawling cosmos they slept beneath every night.
The Arrernte people know their country in a way Westerners can only imagine. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from trying to gain a deeper appreciation of the country and that indigenous wisdom. In my case, a 15-day trek brought me beyond the realm of imagination and into the heart of beautiful, red desert country.
It had rained just a month before, which meant the wildflowers were in full bloom when I arrived. I’m talking thousands of them. I must have taken over 500 images of the flowers and the landscape, such is the breadth of this wild desert country. I knew only a few of the plant names and nothing of their chemistry in terms of survival. I am currently trying to identify the plants from a book and the help of a very knowledgeable friend.
Then there were the obvious birds, like the very large and very graceful wedge-tailed eagle that soared so close to me on the last day of my trek into Alice Springs. It was as if this magnificent bird was telling me to return – and of course I have every intention of doing just that! One trip just opens the door to other more specific trips: Mount Giles and the Ormiston Pound; The Alice Valley; Heavitree Range from Counts Point and Gosse Bluff to name a few.
Another wedge-tailed eagle flew in very close to me on the edge of the ‘Lost World’ in Lamington National Park some forty-two years ago when, as a thirteen-year-old boy, I sat and waited, drifting in and out of shock in the knowledge that my sister – who had just fallen from a 50-metre cliff – was most likely dead.
To this day I have returned to that spot on a yearly basis; with my father, on my own, with friends and more recently with my adult children; Lost World Valley is a spiritual home for me. Last weekend I gave three homilies to Heather Jan Easton at St Mary’s-in-exile in South Brisbane, which were warmly received by an extraordinarily enlightened group of people. At nearly nearly eighty years of age, Father Peter Kennedy led the service. He still holds such wisdom and insight to life.
I had no intention of breaking any records when planning my Larapinta trek; I originally had allowed seventeen days which in several places has many tourists visiting who can drive in on bitumen roads and camp in their luxury campervans and can order café lattes. The water holes are spectacular and the red, orange rock massifs rise 50-100 metres in many places. I saw dingoes, rock wallabies, lots of dead fish from the icy cold water, which I would not normally contemplate swimming in. Unfortunately, I did fall into Hugh Gorge with an 18-kilogram pack on while trying to ‘boulder’ around the water with my hiking boots on – they are clearly not built for rock climbing). My splash into the water was embarrassing to say the least and I could hear the ‘gods’ laughing out loud at my stupidity as I swam – ever so fast – to the shoreline. Thankfully my pack buoyed me while I struggled out of the icy grip. Invigorating, though, after a big day of walking where the afternoon temperatures rose to nearly thirty degrees and the nights mostly fell back to zero. I am sure I saw chunks of ice floating in Hugh Gorge as I paddled to the sandy bank – the gods were throwing them in from above.
Walking through the valleys and over 1,300-metre-high peaks, it was easy to imagine a small group of Arrernte men wondering who this white man was, with his large pack and no real connection with the land – at least not in the way these people knew, with so many thousands of generations of Dreamtime storytelling and a knowledge of every living thing on country.
The women and children I imagined in the wide-open, sandy river beds searching for roots, yams, legumes and grubs, working together while the men ventured out to hunt wallaby, goanna and snake.
I hope they would accept my visitation and somehow forgive me as a descendant of a people who removed the Arrernte from their lands over 100 years ago. I recognise this removal as one of the worst acts of genocide of the oldest culture this planet has known – but try telling that to the majority of comfortable white Australians in 2016. All they see of the indigenous people are those sitting in the Todd River in Alice Springs, drinking the wine they purchase with Centrelink benefits. Fortunately, these Todd River camps are declining, however it takes real understanding to know what the Aboriginal people have been subjected to in the past two hundred years, living under European occupation of their lands.
My favourite analogy is if members of an alien species arrived from space and proceeded to forcefully remove us from our comfortable homes, take our children, kill those among us who resist, force their alien religion upon us, feed us poison flour, introduce their alien diseases to which we have no resistance, round us up, shoot us, drive us over cliffs and basically remove the will to live from any humans that remain. After all is said and done, the aliens will then tell the survivors we must actively contribute to their society if we’re to ever have a shred of respect. Most comfortable, white Australians usually glaze over at this point – it’s not what they learnt in Primary School textbooks where the primitive hunter/gatherer looks noble in grass huts and is being ‘educated’ into a ‘better’ life. From their perspective, these Aboriginal people “should just get on with assimilation”! It’s rarely considered how much knowledge we may have to gain from Australia’s traditional owners, if only we made more of an effort to assimilate with them.
What our Primary School lessons don’t show is the depth of Aboriginal culture as the longest continuous surviving culture on Earth. There’s surely a lot we can learn from that knowledge. James Lovelock, an English scientist and academic who developed the Gaia theory, knows Earth could go on very happily for millennia if not for one thing: modern humanity. Not the oldest traditional cultures of this Earth; these cultures haven’t had close to the same level of impact on our environment when compared with our current activity.
I do think much healing meditation is a good way forward; I am very, very sure the Dalai Lama would approve as would our own Peter Kennedy. I know for myself the healing journey of being part of a men’s movement here in south-east Queensland and finding the framework to unpack generations of Anglo Saxon ‘challenges’, as opposed to Anglo Saxon ‘culture’, has most certainly been healthy for me and if there is one thing I am dedicated to for the next twenty years or so, it is in helping find the way forward as one people on one planet with limited resources – the most essential of these being clean air, clean water, healthy food and sustainable shelter.
Perhaps I am sounding like a new-age greenie, but since I was a teenager I knew these things were inescapable, and while I have been very busy raising my three children, they are now young adults and this crusade has come back to me in the same way the graceful wedge-tailed eagle flew back to me on the last day of the Larapinta. It was like this magnificent bird was telling me: “This is the way, mate. Get on with it!” I have no option but to follow that wisdom as ancient as the Arrernte people. And let’s be real; none of our current political parties are going to do this. It must come from the people and from a democratic country like Australia.
A revolution? Perhaps. But anyone with children or a love of nature will know the next generation and the next are all that really matter, because only then will our Earth be protected with a vibrant and healthy future as it has had for tens of thousands of years. As only the indigenous cultures of this Earth know – along with many climate scientists and academics the world over, including our own Professor Ian Lowe, emeritus Professor in the School of Science at Griffith University. For most of his professional life he has been championing the case for change.
I believe this groundswell will come. It has to if we want to survive.
I also believe we will need every piece of useful – and I emphasise useful – technology, as opposed to a new Facebook app, to move forward. I don’t think 6.4999 billion of us can go back to a nomadic lifestyle; there wouldn’t be enough wild food sources for a start and, let’s face it, how many of us are good with a spear or bow these days?
Perhaps the most difficult challenge is the need to educate the 5.5 billion-odd who still don’t think change is needed, that climate change isn’t real. But then, perhaps the other billion are mainstream politicians who need sending back to Primary School for re-education? Perhaps we could set up education camps in the Central Deserts of Australia in the middle of summer. Now that would put a new spin on their Christmas pudding – no need for a microwave at least.
Perhaps we are slow learners in certain fields, but change must happen – and fast. Hopefully the change comes before we shake ourselves off this planet with tidal surges, earthquakes and and crashing ecosystems. It really wouldn’t be hard for the Earth to suddenly be rid of us forever. I think it is time 6.4999 billion of us woke up to this possible reality. Just don’t tell the pollies; it might confuse them.
Walking in the ancient terrain of Central Australia, it’s almost impossible not to beginning trying to comprehend the world on a geological timescale. Remember the 800 million year old sea floor that can be seen rising vertically from the Earth’s crust? I meant to also say of the 15 days I spent out there, most nights I spent sleeping under the stars. On nights there was only a sickle moon, so the Universe was above me in full bloom, so to speak.
For the Aboriginal people it was the Dreamtime stories. For us, with all our technology, we know a little bit about this universe. For me, those nights where I drifted in and out of sleep were nothing less than majestic – the meteorites blazing across the sky, entering and exiting our stratosphere reminded me how small and how precious our green-blue planet is… or was? To anyone who hasn’t walked the red centre: go if you can, but leave behind the bitumen, the talk, the mobile phone and listen to your own heartbeat.