Journey to Horseshoe Bend
by TGH Strehlow
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Previous: October 17th

Wednesday, the eighteenth day of October, 1922.

At seven o'clock next morning the van was already moving through the luxuriant giant saltbush flat which spread south towards the sandhill edges from the right bank of the Finke.

Theo, who had just said goodbye to his last local Aranda acquaintances, felt sad and rather lonely when Idracowra Station faded from his view. The donkeys, refreshed by their three days of rest, moved forward with vigour and determination. The saltbush flat extended east for close on four miles; and somewhere near its centre, about two miles from Idracowra, lay the sacred rain totemic site of Mborawatna. Its name was known throughout the Southern Aranda, Eastern Aranda, and Matuntara areas, many of whose rain sites were linked by myths with Mborawatna. According to the local beliefs, there had been two ancestral camps at Mborawatna at the beginning of time. One had been that of the rain ancestors, the other that of the rain ancestresses. It was the latter who had wielded most of the power to create rain; and the whole plain had been turned into a vast boggy swamp by the fluids pouring forth from their bodies - fluids that had created all the rainclouds in this country ever since the beginning of time. According to the Southern Aranda traditions, rainclouds still formed whenever the hot north-west summer winds swept over the saltbush flat of Mborawatna. At the beginning of time heavy thunderclouds had towered in multi-tiered array over Mborawatna; and the lightning flashes from these clouds had been visible from places a hundred miles distant, and even further. They had hence been seen also from Ilara, on the Palmer River; and two male kangaroo ancestors, who had likewise possessed the power of creating rain, had travelled to Mborawatna from Ilara, carrying a huge waningga whose edges were ablaze with lightning flashes. They had sunk down deeply into the mud as soon as they reached the boggy plain of Mborawatna. To save themselves, they had flung away their heavy waningga.

But even this desperate act had proved unavailing. They had in the end sunk completely out of sight in this almost bottomless swamp, and had been forced to continue their further journey underground for many miles till they emerged onto firm ground again near another rain site called Puna. From here they had gone on to join the Loritja kangaroo ancestors at Itinja, near the source of the Goyder River.

A short distance past Mborawatna the van moved over the saltbush flats of the Kringka, close to its point of entrance into the Finke. The name "Kringka" signified "game tracks" - an appellation explained by the putia myth, which related how a large party of putia or sandhill wallaby ancestors and ancestresses had left their home at Urkatura in the Musgrave Ranges in order to follow an Eastern Aranda messenger from Alatopa who had brought a young novice with him. The messenger and the novice had travelled back from Urkatura surrounded by the male putia ancestors. The putia ancestresses had moved as a separate group, and had performed their women's ndapa dances over the whole of the distance traversed. After reaching the saltlake north of Pulkura, they had left behind a visible track in the country over which their dancing feet had taken them. Trees and shrubs had been broken down and sandhill crests levelled by this vast party of putia women: the Kringka watercourse was, in fact, believed to represent the trail once carved into a still plastic countryside by the feet of these dancing women. The putia party had paused from time to time at some local sites in the Finke Valley, and had then continued their journey north across the sandhills as far as Alatopa, in the Eastern MacDonnells. Here the novice had been initiated; and the weary putia travellers had thereupon turned into upright stones, which still rose up in considerable numbers at the final mythical campsites of the party.

The saltbush flat stopped soon after the broad Kringka watercourse had been crossed, and the level of the country began to rise once more. A few miles further on the highest point of this rising ground had been reached. From here a brief glimpse could be gained of Chambers Pillar, where the fierce gecko ancestor Itirkawara had settled down to his last rest. The Pillar, about sixteen miles away, rose high into the air, looking almost like a distant, lopped-off factory chimney.

But its shape was blurred by greyish-white heat haze, and the site of Idracowra Station itself was now indicated only by great clouds of red dust. For hot north-west winds had begun to roar over the countryside while the van was passing across the saltbush flat of Mborawatna: the rain ancestresses were awakening from their sleep, and these hot winds were bringing clouds into the sky-clouds that might pour down refreshing showers on this desiccated and parched country within the next few days.

Beyond the highest point of the rising ground the level of the country sloped down again towards a vast pebble-strewn waste, from which an imposing array of table mountains raised their flat ceremonial crests of solid rock hundreds of feet towards the leaden sky. The van moved down this sloping country with ease; and for the rest of the day the party travelled up and down the rises and the falls of this barren waste, often following small watercourses between the bare, stony hills. Except for the two major box gum creeks which ran across this desolate area, the whole country looked like a forbidding desert gripped in the bony clutch of death.

Even the trees and shrubs had suddenly vanished from the scene, and only a vast expanse of pebbles and stones stretched out before the eyes of the travellers, hour after weary hour.

The first of the two box gum creeks that crossed the camel-mail pad followed by the party was known as the Nine Mile Creek, and the second was called the Fifteen Mile Creek.

Both creeks figured prominently in the myths of this desolate country which was, according to the Southern Aranda traditions, the land where Death had first come into the world.

How this had happened was related in the myth of the two Ntjikantja brothers of Ndapakiljara, a place situated not far from the Finke River several miles below Idracowra. At the beginning of time a shell parrot ancestress was said to have come to Ndapakiljara. She had become pregnant by her own will from the winds that had been blowing upon her. She had given birth to twins, who had later assumed the shape of baby snakes belonging to the greenish-black and venomous ilbaralea species. After giving birth to her twins, the ancestress had once more turned into a shell parrot, soared up into the sky, and left her babies to fend for themselves. The two abandoned brothers grew at a magic pace to their full adult size, and then began to wander into the table mountain country that lay between the Nine Mile and Fifteen Mile Creeks. Sometimes they wandered about in the shape of ilbaralea snakes, sometimes in the guise of young men. When the mother finally returned to them, she swooped down from the sky like a bird, changed back into the shape of a woman, and offered one of her breasts to her sons. The younger brother, incensed at having been abandoned at birth, closed his mouth around her breast, turned himself into a snake, and bit it off. Then he resumed his human shape and hurled the breast to Bagatia, where it turned into a large breast-shaped hill.

The terrified mother, shrieking with pain, changed into a bird once more. She flew south for hundreds of miles to gather a band of avengers to kill her two treacherous sons. At length she came upon a great horde of Tangka warriors in the Lake Eyre country. These had banded themselves together in order to kill several other totemic ancestors who had perpetrated deeds of crime and murder against their nearest kinsfolk. The advance of the Tangka avengers on their circuitous journey of perhaps six hundred miles or more to the Fifteen Mile Creek was of necessity a very slow one. They suffered severe casualties at Akara in the Simpson Desert, where hundreds of them fell to the spears of two ancestral eagle brothers who had previously murdered their cousin; and only a remnant of them escaped after the eagle brothers had finally had their arms broken by boomerangs thrown by a left-handed Tangka warrior. Even so there were still a hundred or more of them left, when the shell parrot ancestress at this point assumed leadership over them and guided them towards the lair of her sons.

When the warriors approached the Fifteen Mile Creek, the two Ntjikantja brothers grew afraid. They turned themselves into ilbaralea snakes and sloughed off their skins.

These skins, immortal like themselves, immediately became filled with flesh and bones. The brothers ordered these newly-formed snakes to crawl away towards the rough country where the Nine Mile Creek was to originate subsequently.

Then they hid themselves till night had fallen. The Tangka warriors, having quenched their thirst at the Undunja waterhole, went on a little further to camp on an open flat at Uralterinja. The brothers came forward to the blazing campfires of the warriors and mingled with them, pretending to be two innocent local young men; and the shell parrot ancestress herself failed to recognize them. Instead she offered herself to all of the southern warriors in turn, in order to strengthen them for their grim purpose: after union with the ancestress no man might flee to save his life, no matter how savagely the Ntjikantja brothers, whose presence at Uralterinja no one suspected, should strike back at him. But the two brothers had a different plan for saving their own lives and for punishing the Tangka avengers. They roused the warriors in the darkest hour of the night and led them to a low rise a short distance away, where they challenged them to a spear-climbing contest. "Let each man stab his spear into the ground and attempt to climb up on it into the sky," they urged the surprised Tangka men. The southern warriors obeyed; but their spears proved useless for their intentions. At last a faint greying of the eastern sky showed that a new day was approaching. Triumphantly the Ntjikantja brothers thrust their own slim spear known as a walera into the ground. The spear immediately began to shoot upwards. It grew and grew till it touched the sky. At the order of the brothers, the southern warriors attempted to climb up on this magic spear; but they were unable to get very far and leaped down to the ground again. The brothers ordered the last inept warrior to descend, and gripped their walera with their own hands. The elder brother began his climb confidently; and he had no difficulty in penetrating into the vault of the sky. The awe-stricken Tangka men, who had gathered around the magic spear very closely when the elder brother had grasped it, fell back in shocked amazement when they saw his miraculous ascent. For the spear had turned into a serpent that rose into the sky and carried him with it. The younger brother followed in the same effortless manner. From the newly made opening in the sky the command of the Ntjikantja brothers came roaring down to the shocked warriors to pull the spear back to the earth. But none of the Tangka men had the courage to touch the magic weapon. Thereupon the triumphant brothers pulled the spear up into the sky so that no man could follow them.

Proudly they proclaimed their new names to their duped enemies. The elder brother assumed the name of Koputangualka, "the Bushy-haired One", from the huge crest of eagle plumes that he was carrying on his head. The younger brother called himself Natnitjintika ("Climbed Up Sitting"), because he had climbed up into the sky, taking the walera between his legs. Blazing in the sky like two bright stars, the brothers now pronounced the curse that brought Death into the world - first of all to the Tangka warriors and then to all human beings of later ages that were to come after them: "You miserable death-doomed wretches, all of you must die now! You may never return from the earth while you are living, and you may never return after you have died!"

And now the first glimmers of orange and red appeared in the eastern sky. Terrified, the Tangka warriors picked up their useless spears. As soon as the morning light was strong enough for sighting tracks, they began looking for the footprints of the Ntjikantja brothers, not realizing that they had just seen them with their own eyes vanishing into the sky.

As soon as they sighted the two snakes that had come into being from the sloughed-off skins of the two brothers, the Tangka men rushed forward, killed them, cooked them, and devoured them, flinging only their bones away. After the meal they lay down and rested, happy in the belief that they had accomplished their dreaded errand with unexpected ease. But the bones of the two immortal brothers came together again of their own accord, and soon two ilbaralea snakes crawled away once more. Moreover, their bodies had grown to a much bigger size than before. The surprised Tangka men pursued them again. They killed, cooked, and ate the two snakes as before, and flung their bones away a second time, only to see the snakes returning to full life once more. After several repetitions of this death and rebirth cycle, the two ilbaralea snakes had grown to such vast proportions that the Tangka men no longer dared even to approach them for fear of being swallowed by two gigantic monsters that could not be killed. The track carved out by the fleeing snakes turned into the ever-broadening bed of the Nine Mile Creek. Where this creek entered the Finke, a large waterhole called Tjikara was formed. The two ilbaralea snakes, who had long since turned into huge water serpents, rushed into the depths of this waterhole and disappeared in it forever.

From that moment of time the two Ntjikantja brothers who had ascended into the sky had looked down in deep malice upon the earth and its human inhabitants in the form of the two Magellanic clouds; and all men and women had been compelled to die at the end of their days. The curse of the Ntjikantja brothers had taken away from mankind all hope of immortality. Uralterinja, the site where the Tangka warriors had made their camp on the edge of the Fifteen Mile Creek, had come to be regarded as accursed ground; and the dwarf box gums standing on it, which vainly tried to grow any taller, showed that the deadly magic of the brothers had saturated with its venom the whole of the camp ground of the southern visitors. The low rise from which the Ntjikantja brothers had made their successful ascent into the sky was looked upon fearfully as the very home of Death. Only men of mature years who belonged to the local snake totems were ever allowed to be taken to this dreaded site on special secret occasions. All men of other totems, as well as all women and children, were banned on pain of death from entering the several square miles of prohibited country that constituted the private domain of Death. Its very name was kept a secret that could be divulged only to the older snake totemic clansmen. To discourage idle speculation and to lessen the danger that curious prowlers might seek to catch an unauthorized glimpse of Death's own home, the rest of the local population (and this included all younger Southern Aranda snake men who had not yet been shown the secret site) were told the official lie that the Ntjikantja brothers had ascended into the sky at Tjikara.

This then was the myth explaining why a curse had been laid upon the upper reaches of the Fifteen Mile Creek, and why this arid and gloomy expanse in the heart of the table mountain region had become the Land of Death. Strehlow, who had passed Uralterinja somewhere about midnight, had not been able to view the sombre landscape; but Theo, who was seeing it in the middle of the day, felt intensely depressed by its almost ominous barrenness, even though he did not know the grim myth associated with it. The fierce dust-storm of the morning had brought up mountainous thunderclouds from the north. At midday the storm began to ease considerably; and for the last mile or two before the van reached

Uralterinja an unnatural calm set in. It was now one o'clock in the afternoon. Suddenly a loud crash of thunder broke the silence. Heavy drops of rain began to fall noisily. A wild gale suddenly leapt into life, and the gnarled box gums marking the beginnings of the Fifteen Mile Creek bowed their thickly leaved crests before its tempestuous fury. Great branches were twisted as though they had been thin twigs, and hundreds of torn-off leaves could be seen scurrying helplessly across the shelterless expanse of pebble and stone.

Little dustclouds began to reveal the many-tailed trails of violent gusts across the hard ground. The donkeys laid their ears back close to their short, upright manes, and began to snort apprehensively. Fortunately Undunja waterhole was close at hand; and when the van reached its high bank, Njitiaka and Lornie stopped the donkeys and took refuge themselves in the totally inadequate shelter of the rocking van. For a few minutes it seemed as though the whole desolate landscape, whose unnatural darkness was lit up by sun-bright flashes of forked lightning, would be overwhelmed by the mad fury of driving wind and pelting rain. Then the reverberating rolls of thunder ceased as suddenly as they had begun, the heavy drops stopped falling, the storm died down and subsided, rifts appeared in the ominous cloud-banks above, and an almost breathless calm ensued. The brief burst of welcome, rain-scented freshness that had come into the heated, dust-laden air departed again, and the heavy, sultry atmosphere was even more unpleasant and oppressive than it had been before.

As soon as the last fitful gusts had died away, Njitiaka and Lornie gathered up a few dry twigs which the storm had ripped off some of the box gums near the van, and lost no time in boiling the tea billies. For several hours past there had been no firewood along the track, nor was there any more firewood available before the next Finke crossing; and the travellers were not due to reach the latter much before sunset. The donkeys, too, were given a drink at Undunja, though they had travelled only fifteen miles since leaving Idracowra. For the heat of the morning had been unexpectedly fierce, and the next watering place would be at Horseshoe Bend.

A long, sultry, tiring afternoon followed upon the resumption of the journey. Hour after hour the van clattered over the pebble-strewn wastelands, scarred deeply by sharp, ditch-like watercourses that had cut their way through the softer layers of clay and rock. These watercourses came down from the flanking line of table mountains south of Uralterinja.

Many of these mountains marked sites visited at the beginning of time by the crow ancestor of Mbalka. Theo watched with horrified fascination the wheel tracks made by his father's buggy the night before, particularly at the places where they crossed these sudden watercourses. Many of them were only about twenty feet wide, and their low, hard clay and rock banks descended almost perpendicularly to a depth of two, or even three, feet at the camel pad crossings. It was clear from the wheel marks and the tracks of the struggling horses that the buggy had plunged down during the night into all of these watercourses with a violent jar that would almost have shaken the passengers off their seats, and that sometimes several harsh and jolting leaps by the rear horses had been necessary before the vehicle had bumped its way out of the deeper gutters again. Since the driver had had only the dim lantern lights carried by the two riders in front of the buggy team to guide him, it was amazing that the vehicle had not been overturned when hitting the sharpest and deepest of these ditches. What the totally exhausted sick man had been forced to suffer on his rough night ride through the Land of Death was almost beyond imagination. Occasionally the tracks showed that the buggy had halted for a while after gaining the top of the opposite bank of a gutter, probably in order to enable Strehlow to regain his breath after being flung hard against the back of his chair.

Somewhere near four o'clock in the afternoon the majestic, cone-shaped mountain of Kngeitnama could be seen towering up against the sky several miles south of the track. Its mighty cone dominated the flat-topped mountains around it, just as a decorated ceremonial chief, wearing a sharp crest of white plumes, might loom up above a group of his followers who were carrying horizontal ornaments on their heads.

Kngeitnama, whose name meant "the Father is standing", was associated with a local rain myth. Its sharp and pointed crest was formed of white rock, and from its broad and rounded base the land fell down steeply towards the green Finke Valley, which could be seen against the northern horizon. The sun came out from behind the clouds which were beginning to break up with the waning of the afternoon. At last some signs of life appeared - red-and-white, and mottled, Horseshoe Bend cattle, with their long, sharp horns, grazing among the juicy herbage that grew in the narrow beds of these sharp watercourses. Their slim cattle pads could be seen winding for miles in a northerly direction towards the waterholes in the well-timbered Finke Valley. The smell of the rain in the early afternoon had induced these cattle to come out into the barren table mountain country for some miles further south than usual - to the very ends of even their tiniest hair-root trails.

The buggy tracks now began to veer back towards the Finke Valley; and some time after six o'clock in the evening the iron-tyred wheels of the van ceased to clatter noisily. Instead they began to bite deeply into the soft ground that marked the edge of the box gum flats flanking the broad, sandy river bed. A large stockyard on the southern bank of the Finke indicated the proximity of the waterhole of Uleta.

The road had to cross the riverbed here, since the southern bank of the Finke at this point was formed by high cliff walls. These marked the trail of the Tangka men on their way to Uralterinja. Behind these cliff walls rose some single flat-topped hills which indicated the haunts of an Ititilbiria bird ancestor who had once proudly pound his large heaps of grass seeds here in order to knead meal cakes from them.

The sun sank below the crests of the western table mountains as the van made its first crossing over the Finke below Uleta.

There was no time to halt for an evening meal. For the remainder of the journey to Horseshoe Bend the van followed the well-defined donkey waggon trail which led from the Uleta stockyard to Horseshoe Bend Station. The brief rainstorm that had hit the travellers at Undunja had not extended as far as the Finke cliffs below Uleta; and as the van moved slowly through the northern bordering box gum flats and stands of needle bush, it was enveloped and swallowed up by a cloud of warm and choking dust stirred up by the plodding, dragging feet of the tired donkeys. The wheels of the van sank deeply into the loose soil powdered up some weeks previously by the Horseshoe Bend waggon which had carted posts and rails for the cattle-yard, and firewood for the station population, from the splendid river gum and box gum stands in this area. The van wheels, being much narrower than those of the heavy waggon, cut at least three or four inches down into the loose ground which was a mixture of river sand and flood loam. The wooden fellies and the ends of the wheel spokes carried up tall, thin slices of powdered earth when rising; and the dust created by this soil when falling down obscured the lower parts of the wheels almost completely as the van moved forward slowly, evenly, relentlessly, without halt or pause, into the gathering gloom that was beginning to descend on the thick tree stands.

Two hours later a hot night lay in breathless oppressiveness over the dark landscape. The van once more crossed the Finke in order to cut off a large bend, and the vehicle now moved over into the sandy silt flats bordering the southern bank of the river. The soil here was a mixture of white creek sand from the Finke and red sand from the mountainous dunes that flanked its southern overflow channels. This wide silt flat was covered with tussocks of tall cane grass; and the bare ground between these tussocks had been gouged out deeply by the heavy floods of the previous year.

The surface of the silt flat was accordingly very rough, and bumpy with hillocks a foot or eighteen inches high. The height of these hillocks was due to the fact that the dense network of roots under the cane grass tussocks had enabled the ground covered by them to withstand the gouging action of the ripping, tearing floodwaters. The springless van began to lurch and bump like a drunken thing in a thicket-like darkness unrelieved by any vehicle lights; and Theo decided to complete the final miles of the journey on foot. Njitiaka had long since tied the reins of the leading donkeys to the curved piece of flat iron projecting over the tool-box mounted on the front of the van, for the donkeys could be relied on to follow the tracks of the station waggon without any deviations. They moved forward with surprising briskness although they had already covered a distance of more than thirty miles from Idracowra. They seemed to sense that a few miles further on they would come to journey's end; and that would mean water, feed, and rest after a hot day and a long, hard pull. Njitiaka's occasional harsh barks were not really needed any longer, but he kept on shouting at the donkeys from sheer force of habit. Theo could not help marvelling at his seemingly iron-lined throat, which had enabled him to keep calling out loudly for some fourteen hours with few breaks of any length.

And so the last miles were covered, chain by chain, yard by yard, step by step. Theo put down one bare foot before the other almost mechanically, sometimes wondering whether the long-expected station lights would ever come into view. There was no moon; and though the stars were shining, their brightness, too, seemed to have been dimmed by the heavy pall of dust that still hung in the atmosphere after the wild storm gusts of the morning. Because of the darkness which blotted out all the more distant objects, such as the hills and the dunes, it often seemed as though neither the van nor the team was moving forward at all. In spite of all movement the travellers seemed to be marking time; and even the closer trees passed by them seemed to reappear again and again. From time to time Theo would ask how much further the station was, and Njitiaka would bark out gruffly in pidgin English that it was "close up now-little bit long way yet".

And then, when Theo was beginning to walk and to stumble like a sleepwalker, the van, which for a while had been heading directly towards a dark cliff bank on the eastern side of the river, turned in a more southerly direction. A few minutes later the dim lights of a couple of storm lanterns could be seen blinking uncertainly beyond the southern end of this cliff bank from somewhere on the rising ground across the white river bed. The donkeys slipped down a steep decline into the loose sand of the deeply scoured-out main channel of the Finke. There came a hard and heavy pull through the fine, powdery river crossing and a hard and steep pull up the high and sharply rising bank on the far side.

Then the van rolled slowly past the stockyard gallows, from whose high cross-beam the carcass of a freshly slaughtered bullock was hanging, split down its middle. A pack of half-starved camp dogs, sniffing and wallowing amid the strong-smelling mess of bullock blood and fresh manure, slunk off snarling as the travellers went past them to the front of the Horseshoe Bend Hotel, some chains further on. The van pulled up in front of the hotel verandah. It was ten thirty in the evening.

Dark men and women came forward to help Njitiaka and Lornie with unharnessing the sweating, snorting donkeys.

The swags were tossed off quickly. Heinrich came forward and took Theo to the kitchen. Mrs Strehlow greeted her son briefly and then rushed back inside. A quick supper ended a long day's journey for the party, all of whom were too tired for any conversations. Everyone wanted to go to sleep as quickly as possible. Njitiaka, Lornie, and Titus carried their swags to their friends in the camp, which was situated across a deep natural gutter. These gave them sleeping room in their tin shacks for the night. Theo was bedded down on an iron stretcher placed on the hotel verandah outside the room in which his parents had been put up. He was glad of the waterbag hanging from the verandah rafters close to his bed - he had not been able to stop drinking all day, and the water in this bag seemed deliciously cool after the constant great draughts of lukewarm and hot water which he had been consuming on the long journey.

His queries after his father's health were answered with curt briefness by people who were feeling just as tired as he was. The buggy had arrived at Horseshoe Bend only at ten o'clock in the morning. His father had scarcely been able to stand the cruel bumps over the pebble-strewn country among the table mountains during the night; and when the hot morning sun had begun to pour down its fires on him, he had been seized by an asphyxiating bout of asthmatic breathlessness. He had gasped for air for at least half an hour back in the first box gum flat before the buggy had been able to move on. Only the thought of being put in telephone communication with medical aid had given him the necessary strength to complete the last few miles to the hotel. The heat of his first day at Horseshoe Bend - well over a hundred degrees in the shade - had further exhausted him. He was asleep at last, but he had needed a heavier dose of laudanum than ever before.

Next: October 19th