In July, after collecting the hard delek rock found in Larrakia country on the coast of Darwin for artists at Injalak, I discovered most preferred soft powdered delek due to the laborious grinding required. I insisted on my willingness to travel anywhere and collect soft pigments and Graham Badari (nabulanj who I call kakkali), the artist whose paintings I love, admitted the best delek was to be found on his kunbolk (country) within the Maburrinj area. I noticed it wasn’t on the outstation map and he said it was the large ‘big name’ area south of Kudjekbinj the outstation where hard kunnodjbe (red ochre) could be found. Kudjekbinj is the kunbolk of other talented artists at Injalak and has a powerful baby-dreaming site whose waters must be crossed in order to pass into Maburrinj (when we got there the water was spat onto the top of my head as language was spoken to counter the possibility of pregnancy as the water is full of yawk yawk water spirit babies that especially wanted to impregnate me). I was instructed to ask Graham’s sisters (ngalbulanj) and stepfather (nakodjok) if they would travel with us. They were all willing and I realised they hadn’t been there since they were young. Graham had in fact never been there, to his father’s country and wanted to also bring two of his brother’s children for the first time, his favourite daughter ngalwamud and her brother nawamud who were top kids (their skins should be kodjok like my kids or bangardi but their father married for love a daluk of the same skin or sister skin, traditionally djamun or tabu).
On the day we were leaving I packed food for 3 days and the daluk brought some essentials (tea, sugar and flour). I also bought a carton of bakki and a couple of birndu (mozzie) domes. Couldn’t fit mattresses and had to share bedding, so sleeping was on often rocky ground which we covered with leafy branches. I found myself able to sleep fine the bininj way, but felt a little cold. Our first camp was near a creek with djenj (fish), but once we got into Maburrinj, there were no large djenj available in the waterways. But this wasn’t the only thing missing, larrk manbolh (no road, nothing!). I found choosing the right path through the bush stressful, I was told to just choose the clearest path, but had no idea of the direction I should be headed. In the end I was relieved to discover one ngalbulanj was an extremely experienced 4wdriver and gladly handed the driving over to her. Travel was slow as the bininj (men) and often the wurdwurd (kids) or whichever daluk wasn’t driving, walked ahead of the truck with an udburru (axe) and chopped kundolk (trees) too big to drive over. We also removed logs and pounded down the many henpek or termite mounds. We encountered big mobs of nganabbarru (buffalo) and a few pigs but no kunj (macropods) or ngurrurdu (emu), the djang animal of the area with the same skin as me ngalkangila. A gun would have been useful so we could hunt nganabbarru in the event of a food shortage.
The second night the daluk said we were off course and I noticed nabulanj very uneasy saying Namorrodoh, the father malevolent spirit who resides in Maburrinj, was watching (so when I attempted to play clapsticks to encourage him to sing to namorrodoh like he’d said he would, he was obviously fearful and stopped me). He then said that there must have been a death in Gunbalanya and the human spirits had led us off course. We made fires all around the camp and stayed up late uneasy about sleep and in the dead of night when our protective fires had died down and we all slept, I sprang at the sound of pounding hooves. Knowing the flimsy tent was no protection I instinctively scrambled onto the other daluk who were trying to find the zippers and run away. Luckily nakodjok’s cry nganabbarru! from the bininj tent had sent the large animal in the opposite direction. The protective fires were lit amid laughter (especially about me jumping on the other daluk) and morning tea was very early. Both Ngalbulanj took directive control now claiming the old man nakodjok had forgotten the way.
We crossed all kinds of terrain, muddy swamps, sandy springs and rocky plateaus being the most precarious, but the truck made it through. I shared the driving with ngalbulanj and we reached a beautiful site with a small waterfall significant to the family where their karrang (mother) and ngabba (father) used to camp. All the sites we went to had small names within the large name Maburrinj. This place was called Minmorlork and I went swimming with ngalwamud while kakkali took photos. Later we arrived at a sandy creek area where the ‘old people’ or ancestors used to camp when the spring water was clean enough to drink (it was muddy now due to pigs and nganabbarru). Nabulanj later claims the daluk had heard the spirits of the old people banging the truck when we had left it unattended and worked on building a crossing. This was hard labour, first finding a suitable site and then digging into steep banks and collecting rocks for road base. We had several difficult spring crossings, but the worst was to come after attempting to cross a creek and becoming wedged good and proper, all four wheels sinking into the sandy bed beneath the water. This site is called Manbirrukarre and had pristine, crystal clear water with wakih (freshwater shrimp) and yeow (tiny fish used for bait). (On the way home we stopped at this site to cook our last manme (food) which consisted of damper made by the daluk baked in the hot sand heated by fire with jam and cheese I had left).
To build the crossing we had to jack up the troopy and place a big mob of kunwardde (rocks) beneath the wheels (lucky we were near a rocky plateau, although the ngannabbarru kept coming to look at us there), and dig out the muddy bank in which the back of the truck was embedded. After finally getting across and burning lots of grassland to make the way home quicker (nabulanj was very good at lighting grassfires so they burnt away from the truck) we were elated to be in familiar surroundings, a large grassland with a rocky outcrop where the family remembered gathering for photos all those years ago. Naturally I took some group shots and serendipitously there was a family of nganabbarru there. Nabulanj would later say no one could shoot them and lovingly explained they were looking after his kunbolk, no bininj being there to do it.
It wasn’t long before we arrived (a day late) to our destination madjarlngarlkum, the place where the whitest delek was to be found. It was marked by a beautiful bilimanda (red gum), which subsequently had nawamud’s delek laden hands printed on it. The wurdurd had so much fun painting themselves with the delek and kunnodjbe from Kudjekbinj and ngalbulanj lovingly placed the delek on ngalwamud’s hair. The delek was pure chalk in balls amidst the muddy banks of a creek. The site was sacred to Ngalyod and nabulanj told me how the delek got there, its real substance (secret), that it should be eaten before drinking from the creek, especially if red meat like kunj is eaten so ngalyod won’t smell it on your breath and swallow you. I just happen to cook kunj I had packed for our meal so I ate the delek and it tasted like pure chalk. The daluk also made the most delicious damper I had ever tasted, they had fried small cakes of it in the margarine I had brought.
Collecting enough delek to fill three large drums was a slow process. Nabulanj was very particular and insisted we try to get as much mud off it as possible. We spent the next morning collecting too and unfortunately ran out of time to visit the ngurrurdu djang kunwardde bim (emu dreaming rock art) nearby with three names Ngalwandjulk, Gurdurgarrdje and Debalkarrmeng. I also found out later that a purple ochre in the form of an underwater clay could also be collected near that site and wondered if it was the source of the very dark staining pigments left of the oldest kunwardde bim (rock art) contributed to mimih on Injalak Hill. I really want to go back one day.
We took a slight detour on the way kunred (home) to find the spring where Karlba could be found, the yellow fat of ngurrurdu (emu). I was excited because, like the purple, it was to be collected by diving deep under water and digging into the bank. The site was beautiful with big mob kunngobahn (pandanas), clean kuku (water) and a small waterfall. The wurdurd helped me and we dived deep feeling along the sandy bottom until it became clay. Bringing it up to the surface a rich golden colour with streaks of white. I was so happy and kakkali captured the special moment on my camera. A rock emerging from the waterfall became the spot where nawamud left his yellow hand prints. I began carrying the heavy water laden drum of karlba until the daluk insisted nabulanj carry it.
We were then on a mission to get back to Gunbalanya even though it was a long way away and the track we had made was easy to lose site of. Being already a day late, we knew people would begin to worry, and sure enough, djamun (police) came in a helicopter to find us, but by then we were on the Kudjekbinj track. I think when they saw our happy faces and our surprise to see them there was nothing they could say, but Injalak staff and the parents of wurdurd had been worried enough to send them. I wasn’t in the good books when we got back late in the night, but I couldn’t stop smiling.
The next day we had to collect green leaves and smoke the delek in a ceremony to remember their sister who had passed on. Then it was sold to the art centre after much dispute about the pre-agreed price. Nabulanj spent weeks talking emotionally about his country and dreaming of building a road and outstation there. Ngalbulanj was inspired to renew her license and dreamt of buying a troopy like mine. Everyone loves the troopy, and so do I, it’s the reason I was able to experience this unforgettable journey to collect paint in the Australian bush (thankyou Adam Bell).