Ulpma (Ser­pen­tine Gorge) North­ern Ter­ri­tory


Australian Geographic - - Expedition Diary -

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.

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