Michael Ge­bicki joins an il­lu­mi­nat­ing Abo­rig­i­nal rock art tour near Cooktown

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

IL­LIE Gor­don asks what was the most im­por­tant les­son my fa­ther taught me. I have signed on for an Abo­rig­i­nal art tour out of Cooktown way up in north­ern Queens­land and this delv­ing into my per­sonal af­fairs is not the way it’s sup­posed to work.

All has looked promis­ing at the out­set. Wil­lie is wait­ing for us in a clear­ing in dry bush­land near Hope Vale, about a 40-minute drive out of Cooktown. He looks like a nice man: smile, neat goa­tee, big belly. The sort of man his grand­chil­dren would bounce on. I am ex­pect­ing rock art, a few ochre fig­ures danc­ing across a cave wall, a wal­laby or two, some­thing from some­one else’s dis­tant past. But Wil­lie likes to ven­ture into per­sonal ter­ri­tory.

He is an elder and a learned man of the Nu­gal-warra clan, part of the Gu­ugu Yimithirr lan­guage group. He might be called a sto­ry­teller but th­ese are not fairytales. His sto­ries pack a punch. The place we are ex­plor­ing is known as Wan­gaar-Wuri and it is part of Wil­lie’s per­sonal and sa­cred space. There are three oth­ers with me on his half-day Gu­ur­rbi tour: Marc and Cather­ine from Geneva and a French­man, Fred­eric from Aix-enProvence. We have walked barely 50m and al­ready Wil­lie’s bent down and drawn the let­ter S three times in the dirt. ‘‘ We are go­ing to talk about spirit,’’ he says, point­ing to the first. ‘‘ And we are go­ing to talk about sur­vival.’’ He draws a vertical line through the third S: ‘‘ And this is for money be­cause we live in the mod­ern world and whether we are black, white or some­where in be­tween, we need all three.’’ He beams at us. ‘‘ Let’s walk.’’

As we march sin­gle file along a track that barely scrapes the dry eu­ca­lypt bush­land, Wil­lie talks. He tells us to watch out for death adders, not to put any bits of the stalky grass that brushes against our hands in our mouths. He shows us cater­pil­lars we must not touch, the silky fil­a­ments of their trails run­ning up a trunk. The bush around us, which has felt be­nign, sud­denly hums with dan­ger.

He plucks some green ants from a branch and bites off their hindquar­ters. ‘‘ Good for a sore throat,’’ he says. ‘‘ And also if you’ve got a cough or a cold. Or if you’re a mother with a new baby, you can rub it on your breasts to help make the milk flow.’’

The Franco-Swiss trio are feel­ing ad­ven­tur­ous and they chomp into sev­eral ant pos­te­ri­ors, ad­mir­ing the pi­quancy of the cit­rus taste and spec­u­lat­ing what dishes they might en­hance.

Mean­while, Wil­lie is kick­ing at ter­mite mounds un­til he finds an empty one, knocks it over and ex­plains how to make an oven by lighting a fire in­side the cav­ity, with a hole at the top for smoke to es­cape. Or even use it as a mos­quito zap­per. ‘‘ Burn a bit and let it smoul­der and mosquitos won’t come near.’’

He points out the pink flow­ers of the Cooktown or­chid, Queens­land’s flo­ral em­blem, picks a twig and chews the end to make a paint­brush.

The hill­top we are climb­ing starts to slope down­wards and Wil­lie points to­wards the lip of the sand­stone es­carp­ment. The art sites lie be­low us. ‘‘ There are two ways we can go to get down here,’’ he says. ‘‘ If you are con­fi­dent on your feet and not afraid of a squeeze, we can go be­tween the rocks, but it’s tight. Oth­er­wise we can walk around through the bush.’’

We choose the ad­ven­ture op­tion and he is right about the squeeze. It starts off wide enough, but then it fun­nels down into a nar­row slot un­til we are turned side­ways, scrap­ing against the sand­stone walls. It feels as if the nar­row, canal-like pas­sage is his sly in­tent. We are be­ing re­birthed into Wil­lie’s world.

On the un­der­side of an over­hang­ing rock he shows us an ochre paint­ing of a fig­ure with enor­mous arms and claw-like hands. It’s a crude work but the hor­i­zon­tal lines across the torso iden­tify the fig­ure as a teacher, just like Wil­lie. He started off his ca­reer as a welder, he tells us, later be­came a coun­sel­lor and, in 2003, he launched Gu­ur­rbi Tours.

His aim is to in­tro­duce vis­i­tors to the phi­los­o­phy of a liv­ing cul­ture, but it’s been con­tro­ver­sial. There are

Sa­cred space: Gu­ur­rbi tour op­er­a­tor Wil­lie Gor­don in­tro­duces vis­i­tors to Abo­rig­i­nal rock art at Wan­gaar-Wuri, near Hope Vale in the Cooktown re­gion of north Queens­land

Pas­sage of time: Gor­don leads the way those among his peo­ple who ob­ject to Wil­lie de­ci­pher­ing th­ese paint­ings for out­siders. Yet ac­cord­ing to Wil­lie, the paint­ings rep­re­sent a be­lief sys­tem that must be main­tained through trans­mis­sion. They are part of the sum to­tal of hu­man knowl­edge, and that knowl­edge should be re­vealed to all.

Wil­lie leads us un­der a deep, low over­hang. On the ceil­ing is a big paint­ing of a woman in out­line, legs splayed. A foot is emerg­ing from the fig­ure’s un­der­side. It’s un­mis­take­ably a birth scene, al­though one prob­a­bly painted by a man since it de­picts a rare footling breech birth. It is a pre-natal clinic, a calm and iso­lated place where a woman about to give birth would rest.

‘‘ Tell me about the place where you were born,’’

Pic­tures: Michael Ge­bicki

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.