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When Ngurunderi walked across the Murray’s mouth

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Friday, 7 February 2014


Australia was erroneously considered terra nullius at the time of European settlement. I know this wasn't a land belonging to no one because there are the dreamtime stories, including the story about the formation of the Murray River. It happened as the hunter of creation times chased the mighty Murray cod downstream, the bends and reaches being formed as the fish thrashed along the channel. This happened a long time before Captain Charles Sturt sailed his whaleboat across Lake Alexandrina in February 1830.

Different indigenous tribes have slightly different versions of essentially the same dreamtime story. According to the Wotjobaluk people of the Wergaia tribe of the Wimmera region of northwestern Victoria, the hunter was named Totyerguil. According to the Yaraldi people of the Lower Murray his name was Ngurunderi. The story of Ngurunderi, as told by Albert Karloan, a council-member of the Manangki clan, Yaraldi tribe, to the anthropologists Ronald Berndt in 1939, is much more interesting, and perhaps much more historically relevant for Australians than anything we might read about Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis.

This story begins with reference to an 'epic voyage down the river', these are almost exactly the same words used by business magnate Rupert Murdoch's favourite newspaper, The Australian, to describe the beginning of the beginning of their 'Save the Murray' campaign in 2001, but I digress.

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In the beginning of Mr Karloan's story, Ngurunderi had left his homeland that was perhaps in the upper reaches of the Lachlan or Darling Rivers, in search of his two wives. He was poling a canoe down the river when the sound of the pole frightened a Murray cod. It set off swished its tail, making bends of the river, with the wash forming swamps. At Polmandang (Point Pomanda) on the shore of Lake Alexandrina the cod swam into the lake.

It was not Ngurunderi, but his brother-in-law Nepeli, who eventually speared the fish on the other side of the lake near Poltuwar (Poltalloch Station) from his own canoe.

The fish was dragged up onto a sand shoal where Ngurunderi cut it into many small pieces. One piece he held up, and, as he threw it into the lake, he called, 'You, boney bream!' As he threw the next piece, he called, 'You, perch!' Then he cut another, 'You, callop!' Another, 'You, catfish!' Yet another, 'You, mudfish!' So he cut all the pieces, throwing them into the water, making the fish. The small pieces he threw in to form sprats. Then he threw the last piece, 'You, Murray cod!'

When this was complete Ngurunderi poled his canoe away from the sand shoal to the mainland. Some days later, when he smelt the fish his wives were cooking, he lifted up his canoe into the sky, and set off on foot walking to Kuripang on the shores of Lake Albert to catch-up with them.

It is important to note that at this point in the story Ngurunderi abandoned his canoe. So he did not have it when he eventually reached the Murray's mouth, still in pursuit of his wives.

Indeed Mr Karloan, in the telling of the story, goes in to great detail to explain when the hunter in search of his two wives was walking, when he waded across to the Coorong to the yulemar (sea side, facing the ocean; Younghusband Peninsula), and how he then walked west along the coastline.

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Mr Karloan explains when Ngurunderi stopped to dig for water in the sand and how, after a time, he had given up hope of ever finding his wives. So he went fishing. Then, some days later, Ngurunderi continued walking along the coast, all the way to Tapawal, at the Murray Mouth.

If at Tapawal, Ngurunderi had waded across the mouth of the Murray River I expect that Mr Karloan would have said as much, because he did explain that Ngurunderi poled across the lake, and waded across the Coorong. But indeed when the he comes to the Murray River's sea mouth, Ngurunderi did not reach for his canoe in the sky, or wad into the water, rather he simply walked across into Wakend territory.

That is what Mr Karloan, one of the last three youths to undergo full initiation rites in the Lower Murray region, told anthropologist Ronald Berndt in 1939: that Ngurunderi walked across the Murray mouth from Tapawal into Wakend territory and then on into Ramindjeri country.

Back in the dreamtime there were no irrigators upstream to steal the water, so perhaps, just perhaps, the Murray River's sea mouth had closed over naturally and Ngurunderi walked across a sandbar. Perhaps it was just that time of year, or perhaps too much water had washed into the swamps.

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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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