Michael Gebicki joins an illuminating Aboriginal rock art tour near Cooktown
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,’’