Lightning Ridge is Yuwaalaraay country. The Yuwaalaraay language is no longer a first language but it’s still spoken around here, and lots of schools in the region teach Yuwaalaraay at primary level or (in high school) as part of the mandatory Languages Other Than English (LOTE) course for students in Year 7 and Year 8.
The school in the Ridge is part of a group of schools involved in the Yuwaalaraay Language Nest, a system borrowed from the Kiwis to support and resource language maintenance. This week I was lucky enough to work with Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay language workers from the Ridge, Walgett, Goodooga, Collarenebri and Dubbo, sharing and developing materials for next year’s study and beyond. Part of the week involved a trip to a site of huge importance to Yuwaalaraay people: the Narran Lake.
The Lake’s about an hour’s drive south-west of the Ridge, down the Cumborah road then south till you hit East Mullane. This former sheep and cattle station must have been super remote back in the day. It’s now the HQ for NSW National Parks & Wildlife Services, and any group that comes to study here.
And there are lots that do. You can’t just drop in to Narran Lake. It’s not a park, it’s a nature reserve, co-managed by Parks and the Yuwaalaraay community. You have to have a reason to come here, usually scientific or cultural. There are people studying birds (the Lake’s on the Ramsar list for migrant birds), water movement, vegetation and – this past couple of weeks – a team of archaeologists from the University of New England.
Among them was Dr Mark Moore, a native of Indiana, USA, and a leading expert in stone tool manufacture, or “knapping”.
Mark and his team were analysing earth ovens when we came across them. What looked like a bunch of rocks was in fact the exposed remains of heated stones used to cook food. We were up on the ridge, near the station, but the team had also examined these ovens down at the Lake and on the flats, though down there generations of livestock had pretty much smashed the evidence.
As is so often the case with archaeology I had no idea what I was looking at until I’d been told. Buncha stones? Nah! This is always sobering for someone with a History degree and a qualification from the NSW Government to teach Ancient History.
The evidence wasn’t just in the stones on the ground; by mapping their location the team had developed patterns of placement, use and movement that offered a glimpse into the way that people from dozens and dozens of generations past had lived and moved on this patch of dirt. Bloody amazing.
There were hundreds of shards of tools too. Again, things that – in my ignorance – I’d have stepped over or kicked aside. Each piece was flagged, recorded and replaced. Nothing was taken away; this is modern archaeology with a focus on the partnership between the academy and the community.
Back at the station, in fact, there were boxes and boxes of previously plundered artefacts that are being repatriated by the university. These artefacts will be stored in a keeping place, probably at the station.
After we left the team we dropped off the ridge and into the Lake proper. Our guides were two Yuwaalaraay men, N (Bubs) and J. These guys were brilliant: they had the extraordinary ability to simultaneously describe the world around us in the language and mindset of the Yuwaalaraay and the scientists, botanists, hydrologists and academics who make their pilgrimage to the Lake.
We crossed a massive, two-kilometre shell midden created from seasonal feasting on freshwater shellfish created by countless generations of Yuwaalaraay people, and the visitors from who knows how many other language groups who met and camped and celebrated here over thousands of years.
While the women took off to do whatever is Yuwaalaraay women do, Bubs and J took me around a series of lunettes recently exposed by wind and rain. The ground was littered with rocks; at least, that’s what they looked like to me. Under their tutelage I began to see hammer tools, spear barbs, axe heads, grinding stones: a whole, industrial-scale manufacturing site for the tools of living in this part of the world.
There were amazingly complex pieces of worked stone. Who was the last person to pick up or use this drilled stone? (Dr Mark, Bubs and J conclude that it may have been used as part of a fire-starting kit.)
The Lake wasn’t full, maybe half full. Black swans, pelicans, plovers, cormorants and shags squawked and wheeled in the sky around us. Against this ancient backdrop, the occasional vapour trail of some invisible passenger jet hauling tourists and business people to Singapore or Dubai scribed its way through the blueness above.
We regathered, men and women, and headed back to the station for a late lunch of salad, and chops barbecued by Bubs and J. We were ravenous and fell on it like we hadn’t seen food in a month. Sated, we lolled around for a little while, before R and D collected some fresh sandalwood leaves, set them afire, and we passed through its aromatic smoke.
It was a magical day. Even the tyre shredded by the brilliant white shincracker road couldn’t put a dent in our enthusiasm.
The Lake was unlike anywhere else I’d been and, without wanting to sound like I’ve been everywhere man, I’ve been fortunate and privileged enough to have visited some quite extraordinary places in my time. I doubt Narran Lake would have had such an impact on me without the company of the Yuwaalaraay people, and Dr Mark and his team.
On Friday night at the pub, the usual group of wise men lamented modern politics and we gnashed our teeth and shredded our garments over the exponential surge in global population and the rise of the Stupid People and wondered, pessimistically, where it would all end. Then we drank some more and solved all those easily solvable problems (global pandemic, anyone?). At least, it appeared to have been solved until Saturday morning, when we woke to find that the Stupids were still in charge and the population was still exploding.
But Narran Lake will still be there, in all its quietness and stillness.