Wil­lie’s world

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

Check­list

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.

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