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The Arunta
Chapter 1 - Introduction

The, Arunta is, or rather was, one of the largest tribes in Central Australia, and still occupies a tract of country extending from the Macumba River on the south to seventy miles north of the Macdonnell Ranges, a total distance of about 400 miles. Thirty years ago, when first we studied it, its members must have numbered at least 2000, now they cannot be more than 300 or 400.

The nature of the country that the tribe occupies is very varied. The southern part forms the Lower Steppe lands, which rise gradually from an elevation of only seventy feet above sea level at the Macumba River, to 2000 feet in the north, where they fringe the southern margin of the Macdonnell Ranges. The Higher Steppe lands include a series of great ridges known as the Macdonnell, James, Waterhouse, Kirchauff, Gill, Levi and Strangway Ranges, that run east and west for between 300 and 400 miles, with here and there bold peaks and cliffs rising to a height of nearly 5000 feet. The northern ridges of the Macdonnell Ranges dip beneath the Burt Plains that stretch far away to the north, falling gradually from a level Of 3000 feet at their southern margin, to one of only 700 at Newcastle Waters, which fon-ns the centre of an enormous inland basin, bounded on the south by the central Ranges and on the north and east by the highlands that mark a division between a relatively narrow strip of coastal country and the great plains of the interior.

The main water-courses, the Finke, Todd, Hugh, Ellery and Palmer Rivers, with their tributaries, take their rise amongst the jumbled hills on the northern side of the mainRanges and, flowing through deep and often narrow gorges and gaps, find their way to the south, and meander slowly across the Lower Steppe lands until they are lost amongst the sandy flats, or, perhaps, reach the great depressed area centring in the salt bed of Lake Eyre, below sea level.

Away to the south and west of the Steppe lands lies a vast area of true desert region, crossed by no river courses, but with mile after mile of monotonous sand-hills covered with porcupine grass, or with long stretches of country where thick belts of almost impenetrable mulga scrub stretch across.

We may first of all briefly outline the nature of the country occupied by the Arunta tribe. At the present day the trans- continental railway line, after running northwards close by the southern edge of Lake Eyre, lands the traveller at a small township called Oodnadatta, which is the present northern terminus of the line, and lies about 680 miles to the north of Adelaide. Beyond this, transit, in the early days of which we write, was by horse or camel; and across the centre of the continent ran a track following closely the course of the single wire that then served to maintain the only telegraphic com- munication between Australia and Europe. From Oodnadatta to Charlotte Waters stretches a long succession of gibber I plains, where, mile after mile, the ground is covered with brown and purple stones, often set close together, as if they formed a tessellated pavement stretching away to the horizon. They are formed by the disintegration of a thin stratum of rock, called Desert Sandstone, that forms the horizontal capping of low terraced hills, from which every here and there a dry water-course, fringed with a thin belt of mulga trees, comes down on to the plain, across which it meanders for a few miles and then dies away.

The only streams of any importance in this part of the country are the Alberga, Stevenson and Hamilton, which run across from the west and unite to form the Macumba River, which in times of flood empties itself into Lake Eyre. It is only very rarely that the rainfall is sufficient to fill the beds of


Gibber is an aboriginal word meaning a rock or stone. The word is probably defived originally from a Queensland dialect, but is now used by white men in many parts. Gibber-gunyah is an aboriginal cave dwelling or rock-shelter.