While many of us look at this country as an observer of the land, water animals and plants, the traditional owners see ‘Kiirrakiirra’ or ‘Country’ with a deeper connection. Country is not only the landscape, but the stories, uses, kinship, and events intertwined with time, place and cultural relationships. It is this connection we seek at Mutawintji National Park in the corner of outback NSW.
Leaving Broken Hill, the flat plains of saltbush and mulga are unusually green and plump following the recent rains. It is a rare reprieve from what is normally a dry, dusty earth that glows and shimmers in a heat haze. There is little to slow down for except the regular road kill to allow time for the large wedge tail eagles to slowly take off like a lumbering fully loaded jumbo.
Eventually the tar is replaced with dirt as we head towards a small uplift that breaks the horizon. Here the Byngnano Range begins to rise as a red rocky outcrop exposing its 400 million year old sea-bed. It’s not long before we enter Mutawintji National Park, which lives up to its name as ‘place of green grass and waterholes’. We quickly set up camp at Homestead Creek, its flat grassy sites amongst the welcome shade of the River Red Gum trees making it an idyllic spot for the next few days.
This is the only place for permanent water between the Darling River and Coopers Creek, which made it an important stop for the horses in the early European journey from Broken Hill to White Cliffs. While rock rubble is the only thing that remains of the other watering hole – the Rockholes Hotel, it is a different cultural history we have come here to experience.
For the same reason early Europeans stopped at this sanctuary in an otherwise barren outback, it was a meeting place for ceremonies, trade and sharing of wisdom for the traditional custodians of this land. To develop a better understanding of this history we meet Mark to be taken on a walk through the restricted Mutawintji Historic Site. Mark is a Malyankapa man, and Mutawintji is his family's traditional lands.
We begin at the Mutawintji Cultural Centre and are quickly immersed in an audio-visual display that tells the Dreamtime story of Kuluwirru Ancestor God who lived in the sandstone caves of Nutharungee Hills and how he created Mutawintji. From here we are led up in to the rocky escarpment past native lemon grass, bush tucker and medicine plants to see his creation.
Entering the rocky overhangs the hand prints of traditional owners of the past seemingly wave from the dreamtime. Mark is a commanding man who’s imposing size is quickly replaced with a softer side as he quickly draws the children together under his wing giving them a unique privilege to get close and experience the rock art. With his hand pressed up against the ochre-stencilled cave wall, he re-enacts a tradition that has occurred for several hundred years.
There are many stories shared and many that are left to the imagination such as the references to Snakes Cave (a traditional men's initiation site) and Mushroom Rock (a traditional women's birthing site).
We cross the valley and wind our way up another escarpment to a point where the entire hillside has become a canvas of rock art etched in to the flat bedrock. Here emus, kangaroos, ceremonial headdresses, boomerangs, animal tracks and gods have been carefully carved into the stone. Only senior men were allowed to add to the hill and looking out from the top of the range it is easy to see why this place was chosen to sit and tell the Kuluwirru dreaming story.
Mark’s passion for country is equal with his enthusiasm to share the story of the historic action of the local community. What began in September 1983 with a blockade by about 100 local Wiimpatja and their supporters eventually resulted in Mutawintji becoming the first National Park in NSW to be handed back to Aboriginal owners. At the end of our tour Mark also hands us back with greater wisdom and knowledge allowing us to explore the rest of the park.
Having woken from a chilly -2 deg overnight we spend the next two days doing our own exploration of the 4 gorges that bisect the range each named after a colour of ochre. The Mutawintji Gorge Walk, Wester Ridge Walk and Rockholes Loop Walk all have taken on new meaning, connecting landscape stories, events and cultural relationships.
Exhausted, but feeling more connected, we sit by the fire for our last night, its glow creating shadows of the gum trees out across the dry river bed. As the ghostly shapes move in the crisp night air the words of Elizabeth Hunter, a traditional elder from the area, swirls between their leaves –
“Kaarukaya, yuna yuku ngaangkalaana kiirrinana, Paliirramarri kiirra, kiirrayi.”
“There is a place out in the west, and it’s the place that I love best”.
What to do
MUTAWINTJI GORGE WALK (6km) - a 3 hour return walk that leads you into the gorge, over rock boulders ending at a large rock pool surrounded by the red imposing cliffs.
WESTERN RIDGE WALK (6km) – departing from homestead creek camp this walk leads up the range past rock art and then traverses the ridge that overlooks the plains to the west.
ROCKHOLES LOOP WALK (4km) – This walk allows you to experience rock art and waterholes then up to the peak of the range with amazing outlooks before returning through narrow rock crevasses and down ravines with the assistance of rope.
OLD COACH ROAD DRIVE – While there are no difficult 4WD tracks in the park there is a nice 10km drive out to a walk to Split Rock.
MUTAWINTJI HISTORIC SITE – To protect this sensitive site it is only accessible with a guide.