The Todd River up stream from Alice Springs
The Todd River up-stream from Alice Springs

The mythical rain ancestor of the western Arrernte people known as Kantjia, of Kaporilya near Hermannsburg Mission, is described in this Western Arrernte song recorded and translated by T.G.H. Strehlow:

Among the rippling waters he sits without a move,—

It is Kantjia himself who is sitting without a move.

Moveless like a boulder he is sitting;

His hair bedewed with rain he is sitting.

On the fissured rock-plates he is sitting;

On rock-plates welling with water he is sitting.

Bedrizzled with rain he sits without a move;

Among the rippling waters he sits without a move.

Bedrizzled with rain, a reddish glow overspreads him;

Among the rippling waters a reddish glow overspreads him.

The sky is clouded with water-moss;

The sky sends down scattered showers.

Over the rock-plates the flow is echoing,—

Over the rock-plates green with moss.

‘Moss-covered one,

Spread forth your waters!’

‘Come, moss-covered one,

Pour forth your waters!’

‘Come, foam-crests,

Come, spread over the waters!’

‘Come, drifting twigs,

Come, spread over the waters!’

Over the sun-darkened river sands calls the voice of the thunder,

the voice of the thunder;

From billowing storm-clouds calls the voice of the thunder, the

voice of the thunder.

The first storm-showers,—

The first storm showers are falling here and there, are falling

here and there.

The first storm-showers,—

The first storm showers are pouring down in torrents, are pour-

ing down in torrents.

A flash of lightning

Shivers trees in pieces.

A flash of lightning

Shocks and terrifies.

Overflowing its banks into side-channels

The flood rolls down its waves.

Strehlow, T.G.H. 1950. An Australian viewpoint. Melbourne: The Hawthorn Press; 1950.

Last Saturday morning I flew back into Alice Springs through deep low cloud from which we emerged into a landscape soaked by days of glorious late-summer rain. That rain continued through to early yesterday as the massive monsoonal system moved slowly eastwards into western Queensland.

In this part of the world rain is something scarce and precious, and when we get a year’s worth of rain in a few days the country springs to life and gets “fat” and full of the promise of food and life. Birds flock in from all around, frogs and toads crawl out of their sandy refuges deep in the creek and river beds singing fit to bust, trees gleam with new bright growth and, as I showed in my most recent post, all manner of small invertebrates pop out of their hiding places. The land shrugs off the baking torpor of the long drought and comes alive again.

Sometime over the past few wet days I keyed in a search that led me to an article by the renowned local historian Richard (Dick) Kimber from which the Strehlow excerpt above is taken.

Dick Kimber has lived in Alice Springs since early 1970 and has been privileged to spend many years living and working with local traditional Aboriginal owners across central Australia.

Dick has worked as a secondary and tertiary teacher and was the first Sacred Sites officer appointed to the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, an independent body that administers the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act. Dick has also worked as the senior Papunya Tula Artists Coordinator in the late nineteen-seventies and has worked on behalf of various Aboriginal groups to assist in presentation of their land claims and Native Title claims.

Dick’s article was published in the November/December 2001 edition of the online newsletter The Arid Lands Newsletter, produced by the University of Arizona in the United States.

In his article, Australian Aboriginals’ perceptions of their desert homelands Dick looks at several aspects of Aboriginal people’s regard for their country. One aspect that particularly caught my eyes as the rain poured down outside my window were the references to the role of water, including the following observations on the centrality of rain totemic and dreaming sites in a dry country:

As might be expected, among the most important sites in any desert country are the Rain totem sites, at least some of which are situated in areas which attract lightning and, through being in the line of the rain-bearing winds and as a result of their elevation, cause rain-clouds to mass and rain to fall.

Any man who has been conceived or born at or near such a location, especially if his ancestors have also been conceived or born there, is considered to be imbued with the eternally present life-force essences of the Rain ancestors.

As a consequence, if he is respectful of the older generation of rain men, learns all of the rain-songs and other sacred associations with the sites that he can from them, and becomes an avid reader of all of the signs of humidity and cloud formations, he is considered to have special powers that enable him to create rain. An excellent abbreviated account of just such an old man, Imbarkwa Tungalla of the “Kaitish” people of Barrow Creek (300 kilometers north of Alice Springs), was recorded a century ago.

“This . . . rain-man told us the history of his old [mythological] ancestor . . . . He arose in the form of a little . . . [boy], of course at a waterhole. At first, like very young . . . [children] nowadays, he was reddish, but as he lay out in the sunshine he turned black. By some means he split into two, so that then there was an elder and a younger brother. Gradually they grew into big men and then started off on their wanderings, the full account of which, with the most minute details, occupied the whole of one afternoon in the relating. At the end of their journey, however, they mounted a hill—one of those . . . not far from . . . Barrow Creek—sat down and gravely stroked their whiskers, out of which two euros ([hill] kangaroos) came. That is why the rain-men now wear a euro tooth as an ornament, hanging down over their ears, for henceforth the euros were the friends and mates of the rain-men. At last they died on the hill top, but before this they cut off their whiskers, from which the clouds sprang and then went up into the sky. From the clouds the rainbow arose, and now it is the latter which is always trying to prevent the rain from falling. These and many other things the old rain-man told us, entering into the most minute details with keen relish. Spencer, B. and F.J. Gillen. 1912. Across Australia. Vol. 11. London: MacMillan and Co., Ltd.

And of course the flip side of abundant rain is what is largely the default condition in the arid centre of Australia – the dry times, when memories are all that remain of the times of abundance bought by the rains.

When such floods ran sufficiently for the waterholes to be filled and for all life to burgeon, as they did in 1889 and 1920, they became places of plenty. Thus, in the terrible drought year, 1929, when hundreds of starving people left their home countries to migrate—sometimes hundreds of kilometers and, as Dinny Tjapaljarri put it, “like perishing bullocks to a water-trough”—into the sanctuary of Hermannsburg Mission, it was not the drought but the good times that were recalled. As Geza Roheim, who was a visitor there for most of the year, recorded, two women’s memories were of the river which runs beside Hermannsburg—the Larapinta, as the Finke (the Centre’s largest river) is called by the Western Arrernte people.

Memories of swimming are always related to plentiful rain and flooded rivers, which means abundance in the desert. Most of Urkalarkiraka’s conversations with me centred about the time in her childhood when there had been heavy rains. There were many waterholes in which she could swim. And how many ducks! What a quantity of eggs! She even saw a tree full of wild oranges, which is an event in a life centred around the food quest.