Gungan || Water

Water is gungan in Yuwaalaraay. People are talking about it a lot around here at the moment. Bottles of it are being carted to dried-out towns, decades-old Murray cod are floating belly-up in pools of the green soup that used to be rivers, and there’s anger with our governments over the endless shafting of everyone in the Murray-Darling.

The above photo, with the elastic-sided boot on the big old cod, was actually taken in 2011 (courtesy Jennifer Marohasy) and was caused by black water rather than cyanobacteria. Fish kills aren’t new, but the combination of drought, poor water management and a state election has created a potent mix.

I was thinking about this as I scrolled through Walgett Shire Council’s monthly “what’s on” email. This February, the Anglican bishop of Lewes is set to visit Walgett; the Ridge bowlo is having a Valentine’s Day couples’ special; and Walgett Hospital is having a Shamrocks and Shenanigans day  (dress code: “black tie, with an Irish tone”).

In a sign of the times, though, more than half the public notices are not about tennis competitions, gymkhanas, bake-offs. The vast majority are about gungan, and the effect that its absence is having on the physical and mental health of people out west. There are healing clinics by visiting ngangkari (traditional healers from central Australia), women’s health clinics and Family Matters workshops.

But it’s gungan that we all keep coming back to.

Beating the Walgett water taste-test sounds like something you’d find in the SMH‘s weekend magazine. But they’re not talking about 10 Ways to Make Yummy Water Even Yummier!

Walgett’s drinking water is currently drawn from a bore which means that it does have more mineral content … More minerals means more taste, and in this case there is a higher than normal level of sodium (salt) in the water.

Chilling your drinking water can help reduce the salty taste … You could also add some flavouring such as cut fruit, fruit juice or low sugar cordial which may improve the taste.

More minerals means more taste! But if, for some weird reason, you’re not fond of the delicious saltiness of Walgett water, simply pop some in the fridge or add a dash of low-sugar cordial for dose of extra refreshingly yumminess!

The next council notice is headed “Walgett Raw Water At Critical Level”: “Walgett is experiencing unprecedented water shortages, the recent flow in the Namoi has now been exhausted”. Walgett is now on Level 5 water restrictions. Oh, and the boat ramp at Collarenebri has been closed due to ongoing dry conditions in the Barwon River. (And Colly is on Level 4 water restrictions.)

There isn’t much in the way of flowing water around here but I thought I’d take a look at the Narran River where it crosses the Goodooga Road, north-west of the Ridge.

[Goodooga is a Yuwaalaraay place name: guduu is “Murray cod”, with the suffix –ga “place of”.]

I headed out on a Sunday afternoon. Wide swathes (like, acres and acres) of paddocks on the northern side have had their trees flattened. I’m not a farmer and I don’t know the logic behind this. We’ve had more dust storms this season than many long-time locals remember: is this an attempt to create a kind of mulch over the top soil?

The point where the Narran crosses the Goodooga road is the site of the old Bangate Station. (I blogged about new Bangate’s wool day elsewhere.) A rock-wall weir was constructed at some point in the distant past; I guess it was to create a permanent water source for old Bangate.

The Narran is fed by rainfall from way upstream – in Queensland – and that rainfall just hasn’t been happening, not for a long time. The southern (downstream) side of the weir is dry as a bone. There isn’t a blade of grass to be seen.

The water on the northern side has been reduced to a green puddle. A longish puddle, granted, but still a puddle. The edges are littered with the desiccated skeletons of roos: Were they simply too exhausted to even drink? Were they poisoned by the foul water? Shot?

However bad the water might look, when you’re on the bones of your arse it’s going to be better than the alternative.

There must be something going on though. This sacred kingfisher looked to be in pretty good health. Or maybe he was keeping going on a diet of skinks and lizards.

The Narran at this point has been heavily modified, sometimes intentionally (the weir and road crossing) and sometimes unintentionally (changing land use). The upshot is that, like almost every river in Australia, it now flows differently and its profile is different. Trees here are slow-growing and the biggest are very, very old. They don’t move away during tough times, and looking at their roots shows how the world around them has changed dramatically during their lifetime.

As I walked along the bank of the river, small bandaarr (grey kangaroo) hopped lethargically out of my way. Showers of parrots screeched ahead me and a lone heron drifted from its perch in the tallest branch of one tree to the tallest branch of another.

A squall of shrieks and broad wingbeats came from the river ahead: whistling kites, maybe eight or ten of them. They wheeled and hung in the air, catching the thermals and floating across the sky.

I turned the corner and saw what they’d been snacking on: perhaps the unluckiest bandaarr in the whole drought-stricken north-west of the New South Wales. Drowning in puddle. I mean, what are the odds?

I left him there to the kites.

Maybe the metre of water that’s fallen on Townsville might gush down the western slops of the Great Dividing Range and, come July this year, the Narran will be flowing again. By then there will have been a state election, a federal election, maybe even an inquiry or two.

But by then there’ll be more dead bandaarr and guduu, and the people of Walgett will have become masters of spicing up their special “tasty” water. That’s life out west, where gungan is the key to life for every living thing.

Food Safari 9: Narran Lake Open Day

Narran Lake is a vast, flat, open area to the north of Walgett and to the south-west of the Ridge. On maps it appears as a lake, a body of water, but it’s ephemeral and only fills properly after deluges in Queensland pour down the Condamine–Balonne catchment. There’s an important creation story that involves people being eaten by crocodiles, which seems odd for this part of Australia but (in a remarkable testament to the durability of oral storytelling traditions) fossilised crocodile skeletons have been discovered in the area.

I went there with a group of Year 8 Yuwaalaraay language students for the annual open day. These days the lake is co-managed by NSW Parks and Wildlife Service and local elders. There were dances and songs and boomerang throwing and tours of the dry lakebed. Tommy Barker’s remarkable artefact collection was on display.

But most importantly there was weird food: emu rissoles, crocodile kebabs, goat and gravy and roo tail soup. Mmm!

I got stuck into a goat and gravy roll first because, well, that was the first thing to get served up. There are quite a few people farming the goats around the west of the state; I don’t know if these were farmed goats or feral. But it was good meat, nice and tender, and the gravy was proper gravy – not that prissy “jus” you get in fancy restaurants. All served up in a sop-absorbing white bread bun.

I didn’t get anywhere near the crocodile kebabs: as soon as they came off the barbecue they were pounced on by the kids. Opinions ranged from “awesome” to “disgusting”, but that could mean anything.

I went in search of emu rissoles. Too slow, old man.

But there was bucket-loads more goat-in-gravy and beggars can’t be choosers.

We dragged ourselves away from the food to take a walk of the lake. I’d been down here before to see the amazing archaeological work that’s being undertaken by the team from the University of New England. We got a good sandalwood smoking before we set off.

I could come down again and again; it’s such a multi-layered place. On the walk were a few old blokes who remembered harvesting crops on the lake in the years before it was gazetted by parks. There are still plenty of remnants of the lake’s time when cattle ran freely.

We got back in time for the most important course of the day: fried scones. There was a frenzy of margarine and syrup and kids licking slithery goo off their hands and forearms. The scones were good, but I have to say that Goodooga’s were better.

I did manage to get a late-entry emu rissole though, and I’d say that that was my food highlight.

Narran Lake open day: do yourself a favour in April next year and get down there.

Narran Lake

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.

Food Safari 4: Goodooga fried scones

This month’s Teachers Federation meeting was at Goodooga, a drive and a bit up the Castlereagh Highway. We set off in the little bus, as  the sun started to slip down the western sky. It’s flat out this part of the world. Acres of grass and saltbush with the occasional line of trees marking a creek line. Pools of water from winter’s rain still hugged the edges of the bitumen.


The road to Goodooga is quite possibly the bumpiest stretch of road in all of Christendom. Within the first couple of kays we were all suffering the early stages of jogger’s nipple.


Goodooga is not a big city. Its school is the usual rural hotch-potch of demountables clustered around the core of an older building, one that belongs to an era when fifty kids would sit in front of one teacher and be shouted at all day.

There’s something indefinably depressing about the labelling of modern school buildings, something that makes me feel like the autonomy and self-determination is slowly draining from my soul.


I understand the impulse, the desperation, to decorate these buildings but somehow that only magnifies the institutional aspect of the place.


Anyway, we had our meeting, in K Block. We all got pissed off about the government and what it’s doing to our education system, and we made resolutions about Stuff, and we changed the world in teeny-tiny ways. There was a restless energy in the room: people had travelled long distances to be here and to sit and listen to the Bad Things that were happening.

Some of this energy rubbed off on me but at the same time the energy-sapping environment of the school, the pathos I felt when I looked at the decorated demountables, the knowledge that the loathsome politicians in Sydney would not even be able to find Goodooga on a map let alone care about the kids who go to school there, it all left me feeling sad and troubled.

But then came dinner. The people at Goodooga school are wonderful. Whenever there’s a meeting at their school they put on a spread for the teachers who’ve trekked from Walgett and Collaranabri and the Ridge and elsewhere: wholesome food that fills you up and makes you feel good again. And the crowning glory of Goodooga school’s catering is its world famous fried scone.

The fried scone is incredibly versatile. I had one with my main meal; it’s kind of like a doughy Yorkshire pudding, perfect for scooping up gravy and curry goo.


It also works perfectly as a dessert. With a slather of margarine and a scoop of golden syrup you have something that kicks Adriano Zumbo’s arse from Goodooga to Bondi and back. It triggered lots of wistful talk about the Olden Days, when a tin of golden syrup was staple in every pantry across the Commonwealth. At our house we had a tin of syrup and a tin of thick, black treacle. Oh my God, how I miss treacle.


I left Goodooga restored, with the sense that there were still places in the world where Goodness and the Right Way prevailed. I bet Adrian Piccoli and Mike Baird have never eaten a fried scone. Forget resolutions and petitions: this is how we should change the world – make them travel down the bouncy road to Goodooga, sit in K Block and eat fried scones. THAT would be change. THAT would work.