Willie asks each of us in turn. And then: ‘‘ Suppose I told you no, you were born in China, how would you feel about that?’’ In my case, spirited away from south London at the age of seven, it’s not a huge leap.
I am comfortable with the proposition but it is not the answer he is looking for. But Marc is on to this. He’s passionate about the Swiss village where he spent his childhood. His parents live there still and he visits often. He can’t conceive of being born anywhere else. It’s so woven into the fibres of his being, he’d be a different person entirely, and Willie uses this as a springboard to make a point about the spiritual connection we have with the place where we are born.
The next significant site isn’t a cave at all but a curving cliff wall decorated with more elaborate figures, many of them female, some painted upside down. Some of the paintings are bright and alive, others have faded to faint smudges. It’s the birthing place for the Nugalwarra clan. A woman would give birth here, assisted by other women, while her husband waited in the background. A couple of generations back, a woman gave birth here to a baby with a white father. There were those in the clan who wanted the mixed-race baby dead but his mother dug in her heels and so Willie’s grandfather lived.
Piled up at one side is a heap of stones painted with squiggles and dots. They don’t look like Aboriginal paintings somehow. If there are children along on the tour, Willie gets them to paint their own design, a way of connecting them with the storehouse of memory laid down here.
‘‘ Now tell me how it was for you when your children were born,’’ Willie says, turning to we three men. ‘‘ Were you there? What did you do?’’ And Marc comes to the rescue again with a wonderful story that he tells from the heart that leaves us all silent and thoughtful in the dust.
Our last stop is a cave back on top of the escarpment, well away from all the other rock art sites. By now our eyes are tuned in and we can identify yams, an echidna, male and female figures. Dominating the back wall is Yirmbal, the rainbow serpent, the one image that is almost universal in Aboriginal rock art, and central to its belief systems. There are canvas chairs arranged in a half moon inside and the cave becomes the backdrop for Willie’s final dissertation, which draws the strings to complete the cycle of life.
All in all, it has been a strange and revealing morning, and what has been revealed is as much of ourselves as of Willie and his rock art. We wave goodbye from the windows of our four-wheel-drive Oka but already he has turned and is heading back up the hill, a big man in his own country.
I feel as if I have been in a church rather than on a walk through the Queensland bush. Michael Gebicki was a guest of Tourism Queensland.
Willie’s Guurrbi Tours excursion is also included on the two-day Bama Way tour, which begins and ends in Cairns. More: www.guurrbitours.com; www.bamaway.com.au.