Poornati, the Aborigenal experience
As I stand mid- way up the side of Bluff Knoll, in the Stirling Ranges, I see the low white cloud nestling the summit and, Joey Williams, Aboriginal Elder and Loreman, sings in language, accompanied by the tapping of his clap sticks. The sound seems ancient and the hairs on the back of my neck raise, and I shiver.
Joey tells me that the Noongar spirits return to Bulla Meile, the ‘hill of many eyes’, as it is known to his people, and the looming rock faces jutting out of the rock above me, are the faces of his ancestors. I feel the eyes upon me and begin to intuit why this is ‘power’ place.
I have travelled in this south -western region of Australia before, walking the Bibbulmun track, which runs from Perth to Albany, on the south coast. People I walked with were able to tell me the botanical names for the plants I saw, the geological features of the landscape, and stories of farming and the early explorers and settlers. However I wished to connect more deeply, I felt like I was merely touching the surface and I want to connect with the culture who had lived so intimately with this land for many thousands of years before white settlement. So I was delighted to come across Poornarti Aboriginal Tours and they seemed to be the only gateway into Aboriginal culture open to me in this region.
On the road here, to this spiritual heartland of the Noongar people, as well as telling us the Dreamtime stories of the area, of the waalitj (eagle), whos wings formed the mountains, Joey has regaled our small group, over the bus PA system, with stories of his life. He tells us of living in the bush with his parents, of them working for the farmers for crates of tea and flour, to clear their own land, to fence them out, of hunting yonger (kangaroo), karda (goanna) and other animals with his father, and of collecting bush tucker with his mother. Joey only spoke in Noongar until he was 8 years old. I am in no doubt of this mans authenticity, his deep and proud connection to his culture, and am impressed by his passion to share and educate wadjella’s (white fellas) like me!
Amazingly, also, Joey has managed to transform the ubiquitous roadside vegetation, “lots of quondong here”, he remarks, “those ones with the light green shiny leaves….you can see the fruit starting to turn red”. Sure enough, now my eye is trained, I see them everywhere.
At the campsite, we pitch our tents, which thankfully, Poornarti has provided for us. While Poornarti staff, in the camp kitchen, are preparing the evening meal, we are taken on a bush tucker walk. “This is our supermarket”, Joey explains, “you can get everything you need here” and sure enough, amongst the strange plants and trees, Joey reveals to us Aboriginal equivalents of potatoes, spices and herbs, salads, fruit, tea and even a ‘lolly’ tree. There are medicines here too, one of which is the crystalized sap of a gum tree, which was used for stomach problems. “Don’t you try this,” Joey advises,” the ol’ Noongars knew exactly how much to take, you don’t. If you take too much it can make you sick”.
There is a rich kangaroo stew for dinner. Joey also has some tails to cook on the fire. He shows us how the fur is first singed and scraped off, before laying them in the fire. There are roundels of damper, which are also lain in the coals. We try the bush tea, which is similar in colour to green tea, and in my opinion, much nicer. Joey tells us of the diet of bush tucker he had as a child, and how the cooking fire was a focus of family life. There is a funny story of how, in the preparation of karda, or goanna, the sinews in the legs must be cut first before cooking, otherwise they contract from the heat, making the dead animal ‘stand up’ in the coals, which would frighten the children. He tells us of the cooking techniques, for eggs, fish, wild duck, koonacs and bardi grubs. I am struck by how varied their traditional diet actually was, a veritable smorgasbord!
When the roo tails are done, I try them both. On one the meat is tender and moist and falls off the bone, and I find myself sucking on the vertebrae to extract the juice and gelatine. It is quite delicious. The other tail is as tough as shoe leather, and Joey says it must have been an old roo.
We watch a beautiful sunset and as the stars come out our group gathers around the fire. It is a clear night and the big sky is spectacular. There are shooting stars in abundance. Joey tells us Aboriginal stories of the stars and their meanings. There is one of an emu, that we can clearly see when it is pointed out. The position of the emu’s legs at different times of the year, signify when the emu’s are hatching their eggs.
The next day we drive to ‘the lake of many colours’, which is also the site of the sacred ochre pits. We stop at a farm gate and there is an incredible view of the mountains from which we have just driven. Joey repeats the song he sang to us at Bulla Miele, with the Noongar names of the formations “kaya,kaya, Bulla Meile, Yonger Mir, Mabrunup, Toolyulbrup”. The hill of eyes, the kangaroo with the spear thrower on top, the place of the ‘special’ men, and the beautiful woman sleeping. I am struck my how much the shapes of the mountains, appear to be what they are named, particularly Toolbrunup. I can see the woman clearly, the profile of her face, her arms at her side and her rounded pregnant belly.
At the ochre pits, we are welcomed into the site by Joey and we pass by Joey single file, while he sings to his ancestors, asking them to give their blessing for us to be there. We are asked to go barefoot, so that we can connect to the land. The ochre rocks here are astounding, the colours so vibrant and varied, from deepest burnished reds, mustard yellows to startling whites, and bright oranges. It is like an artists pallete, the colours swirl amongst each other, and I can see shapes, faces, footprints and animals.
Joey takes us to the ‘powder room’, where the Noongars prepared for ceremony. Remarkably there is a rock with a concave bowl shape in it. Water is poured into it and mixed with the deep red ochre powder that crumbles from an earth bank, nearby forming a rich paste. Joey then paints our faces, and assigns us a spirit animal. I am waitch, old man emu. We are each taught the movements and we create a dance, our feet stomping with the red dust puffing up round our ankles. We are told to dance as if the earth came up to our waists My awkwardness self-conciousnessness falls away and I become captivated by a sense of timelessness, where I feel free, playfull and awake. We can’t help but to smile.
We go to a patch of flat salty sand and stand in a circle as Joey uses his digging stick to draw his homeland in a traditional mapping style, telling us the story as he goes. The concentric rings around the shapes remind me of gradients on ordnance maps, and Joey explains that he sees them as auric fields, and this makes sense.
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