Ulpma (Serpentine Gorge) Northern Territory
MY FAVOURITE PLACE STORY AND PHOTO BY JAMIE AND DANJA DERKENNE
WE MAKE CAMP just of f the Larapinta Trail on a f lat claypan covered in f lannel f lowers. Cold frosts our breath. We lie on the ground watching stars fall below the bulge of the starry coolamon, the Corona Australis, which once tumbled earthwards holding a baby while its parents, the morning and evening stars, were dancing. During the night Danja hears a dingo howl, and we both hear the thump of black-footed rock-wallabies. The night is so quiet we hear our own heartbeats.
We get up before dawn, too cold to sleep. The eastern sky begins to pink, but the morning star shines bright. We walk down to Ulpma, the Serpentine Gorge in Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park, a sacred place. A path leads down through ancient cycads to the gorge itself, but at this time of day we are the only visitors. The water is so still, there is no telling what is rock and what is ref lection.
Water is so important to the local Arrernte people that they differentiate between types of water, or quatcha. A waterhole is called quatcha laia. A soakage in the sandy bed of a creek is quatcha nunja; a spring is quatcha peinda; and so on. Lara is a creek. A creek with running water is lara pinta.
In the 1870s Europeans arrived in the area to find full waterholes and good feed. They were soon running thousands of cattle, putting huge pressure on the water systems. Elder Mervyn Rubuntja once said, “All those old Arrernte people, they were worrying for their water. And all of those old white men, they wanted to use that water, too. They had a big f ight about the water.” He later added, “The land’s there for everyone.”
Ulpma is a ref lective place. We sit on rocks by the water’s edge. Every sound we make echoes off walls created 350 million years ago. We are in a cathedral that will soon echo with babel voices from tourists awed by the beauty and oblivious to the stories those rocks tell. It is a magnif icent gesture of hope and humanity that the Arrernte allow outsiders to see this place and to proclaim everyone is of the land.
You can visit Ghostwater, our sculpture and photography exhibition featuring Tjoritja, at the Gallery Lane Cove in Sydney from 5 December.