From the day Gurltatakko first painted, it was clear to his family that he was one day destined to be a Yammaiamma, a sorcerer capable of the greatest magic, the rarest men found in Peramangk culture. By the age of eleven his red ochre painted motifs of people and animals mesmerised his tribe. Once as a treat when given some white and yellow ochre he drew a giant serpent surrounded by white dots. Panic soon overcame his tribe. Parents distanced their children from him. Baffled tribal elders wanted to know where the creature came from and why he painted white dots. Gurltatakko told them the serpent came from the Murrundie River in his dream and the white dots protected it from ghosts.
The elders were convinced that Gurltatakko had been given special powers and wanted to initiate him into the life of a Wilya Kundarti but his mother refused and convinced the elders to delay this as he had not reached puberty. His imagination would develop further to stay a Kurkurra, an uninitiated boy able to roam carefree. Besides, the elders had more concerning matters before the upcoming journey. What to do if they were confronted by the ghosts of their own people who rode the giant canoes on the Murrundie River? The Ngarrindjeri had spoken of the ghosts when they last traded with the Peramangk. Both tribes were mystified as to why the white ghosts spoke in a language so foreign. Was it the language of the dead spirits they questioned?
All the way down the Taingappa and beyond, Gurltatakko stayed as close as he could to the initiated Wilyaru men who carried a long and thick barked Red Gum canoe for trade with the Ngarrindjeri. Late morning sunlight sporadically reached a woven carpet of bark and creepers that lined the damp forest floor. Only a fluttering breeze allowed the light to weave a path through dense foliage of Red Gum and She-oaks. In their territory the Peramangk were considered an enigma and to be part of the forest by neighbouring tribes. Stories of the Peramangk having ears in knots of Red Gum, and swooping night glowing amber eyes the colour of the Grey-headed Flying Fox, were believed. Only a brave young warrior would dare venture into the home of the Peramangk. Never again would he return after strangers’ fingers shaped like jagged Gum leaves, crept up from behind and tapped him on the shoulder. The forest dissipated as the journey flattened out onto lush flood plains. Gurlatakko paused, inspired by the sunlight which flowed unimpeded to illuminate a yellow floral display offered by several Acacia trees. The Ngarinndjeri were in sight.
Gurlatakko hoped to see first-hand what type of ochre the Ngarrindjeri would offer this time. He whimpered like a Dingo who was a pup no longer, when told to stand back and wait with the other woman and children. He reluctantly sat in a clearing surrounded by a meadow of Spiny Mud grass. Gurlatkako’s whimpers soon faded as his heightened colour sense was stimulated by the Pear green grassland speckled with deep yellow flowers offered by the Variable Groundsel and radiant purple petals of the Rounded Noon flower. From his cleared vantage point he looked further than the meadow towards the Murrundie River. Most of the women of The Ngarrindjeri were pulling in a bulrush root fishing net that was as long as the river was wide in the dry season while their children separated cod, bream and catfish into piles. Other women searched for mussels in the soft sediment that greeted the river’s edge. A small group of children played amongst the bulrushes and water ribbons, scaring several Pink-eared Ducks into flight.
As Gurltatakko watched the ducks fly away, he noticed one puffy white cloud drifting across the endless azure sky. At first the cloud was unrecognizable but as its feathered edges formed, the vision it portrayed became clear. He asked his mother if it was possible to make blue paint. Nahraminyeri told him that she had never seen or heard of it, and queried why?
‘So I can paint the sky around the Minka,’ he pointed.
‘Don’t even think about it. No one paints the Minka bird.’ Nahraminyeri’s lips trembled as she spoke. ‘Do you want to curse our tribe forever? Never say that again!’
Gurltakakko’s younger brother, Munyitya, tried his best to conceal his gleaming white teeth but instead both brothers began to laugh, infuriating their mother even further. Nahraminyeri reached for Gurltakko but he scrambled away sideways like a crab. One of the Peramangk elders returned and declared that the Ngarrindjeri were very happy with the canoe and everyone was allowed to swim and play. The Ngarrindjeri elders also gave a warning of not to venture too far down stream where the white ghosts are gathering in tribes with their magic smoke sticks. With the ghosts are four legged creatures, the colour of red rock from the Kongorong cliffs. These creatures trample and excrete on sacred ground. They may even squash little boys and girls.
The children of the tribes mingled at the water’s edge. Gurlatakko joined a small group of young boys chasing a Growling Grass Frog until it safely made its way into a clump of bulrushes inaccessible to young boys. Gurlatakko had other things than games on his mind though; he wanted to see the red cliffs described by the Ngarrindjeri elders. He convinced Munyitya that they would be back quickly. Gurlatakko made his way through what seemed like endless clumps of bulrushes until he found a well worn track that followed the river’s edge; Munyitya followed. Floating in the main current, a pair of Black Swans with their crimson beaks pointing downstream convinced Gurlatakko the cliffs were not far away. Munyitya ran in short spurts trying to keep up with Gurlatakko and the swans. As the brothers snaked their way along the track, fertile dried mud they walked upon gradually became impregnated with what seemed like small fragments of limestone, but in reality the mud hid a vast deposit of limestone that lay dormant underneath, waiting to be disturbed. Gurlatakko bruised his heel as he kicked the ground in anger.
‘The cliffs aren’t red,’ he cried to Munyita.
Munyita shrugged his shoulders.
Gurlatakko stared at the ancient yellow limestone cliffs that lay before him on a bend in the river. I’ve been tricked by the Ngarrindjeri elders he assumed. Coarsely chiselled by the elements of time, the warming cliffs towered above the tallest River Red Gum and stretched further than Gutlatakko could see. Both boys sat in the shade of a Silver Banksia Tree that hung out over the river bank. Gurlatakko massaged his heel which had the effect of easing his anger. Munyitya wanted to go straight back to the tribe but Gurlatakko insisted on resting his foot which he dangled in the calming cool water near the rivers’ edge. As Gurlatakko rested he began to admire how the yellow cliffs were splashed with shades of orange flames. Despite the sun’s dissipating heat, the cliff’s luring flames grew in intensity. Gutlatakko was transfixed and barely noticed the rippling waves that began to break on the river bank.
A giant canoe gently slapped the water as it approached the boys. Two white ghosts rowed in time. A third ghost sat at the rear of the canoe and grumbled in strange tongues. Gurlatakko was amazed how the oars never touched the river bottom.
‘What are you, black boys, doing on my land?’ the third ghost demanded.
Gurlatakko and Munitya opened their mouths but didn’t speak.
‘This land that was declared Waste and unoccupied is now mine and I want you off it,’ the ghost shouted as he released his thumb and index finger in the form of a pistol that directed upstream.
‘I don’t know what the ghost is saying but I’m scared. We should leave this sacred place now,’ Munitya muttered and began to walk backwards. He tried to pull Gurlatakko with him.
‘Are you, boys, deaf? Go on sealer, move em off.’
One of the ghosts got off the canoe and confronted the boys. ‘Well, you heard the new landlord. Off with you,’ the ghost fumed.
The boys stood with Gurlatakko resting his elbow on his brother’s side, taking the weight off Gurlatakko’s swollen foot. The ghost pointed upstream but the boys stayed motionless, dumbfounded not only by the ghost’s unrecognisable language but also by the way the ghost contorted its lips and tongue to produce strange utterings.
‘Give em a push’ the third ghost,’ ordered.
The ghost grabbed Gurlatakko and faced him upstream. Gurlatakko tried to run but the ghost’s push forced him head first into the dusty and rocky ground. Before the ghost could grab Munyitya, he ran with his legs pumping faster than his heart. Gurlatakko dazed, wiped the dust from his grazed face to reveal tears. The ghost took a vice like hold of Gurlatakko’s painting wrist.
‘Let me go’, Gurlatakko pleaded to no avail as he regained his focus. He looked into the Bluey green eyes of the ghost hoping to summon mercy but the pain now in his wrist overcame every emotion. He bit the ghost’s arm with all the might of a Fur Seal cornered out of water. The ghost took the form of a sealer and in wounded rage, drew his weathered knife. Then, as if on instinct, gutted Gurlatakko who collapsed breathless on the river bank. A cockatoo’s screech echoed and then dissipated along the cliff face.
Later that evening when Munyitya returned to the cliffs with his mother and several elders, Gurlatakko’s blood had dripped into the water and seeped into the cliffs. His motionless body glowed like a red coal on the river’s edge. The elders debated whether to approach Gurlatakko as they too began to glow like flaming coals. Before they could come to an agreement; a giant rainbow serpent surfaced from the scarlet river in front of Gurlatakko. The serpent swallowed Gurlatakko in one peaceful mouthful and took him away to the dreamtime where he forever paints the colours of the Peramangk.
Andrew Mansell, February 2011.
Foot Track – Trail – A trail that follows the Marne River from Wongulla to the foot of Mount Crawford. An important trade route that linked the Peramangk and Nunguruku peoples.
Important camping and art sites are located along the river with hollowed trees, burial and artifact sites. Evidence of Semi-permanent huts with stone foundations have also been located within the vicinity in the Eden Valley area along with stone fish traps also being located along the Marne River.
Wikipedia (2011) Peramangk, [online] Available at:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peramangk [Accessed: 15th Nov 2011]. Website