We knew that many tribes would be gathering at the market at Kopparramurra in the coming season. Due to the rains there would be good supplies of pituri and we would be able to exchange it for ochre if we made the trip past the great lakes and towards the mines at Bookatoo. Both these substances are very important to our ceremonies. We use pituri for coping with injuries and helping us see beyond this world. We usually chew it but I have known of others who smoke it. It is important that we trade for it directly with the Dieri. They are its custodians and only the most experienced of their elders, those with white beards, know how to harvest and prepare it properly. The ochre is important for a great many things, not least of which is giving our tribesmen a proper burial when the time arrives. It was to be an arduous journey and we would have to obtain enough supplies to last through difficult times, which would surely come again.
It had been the first good wet season for a long time. Before it had arrived, the Zebra Finch and the Pigeon had heralded its coming. They signal that a change is approaching and only come out to play when the scent of rain is in the air. Now that it was here flocks of budgerigars had infused new and bright colour into the homelands. Even though I had seen it before I marvelled at the transformation that took place in our homelands. Animals and plants sprang to life out of the once parched earth. It was a wonderful sight. Even fish woke from their sandy beds. It was as if the land was celebrating with everything it had to offer. Unfortunately, we knew that the wet wouldn’t last long. The rains had turned the desert around us into enormous lakes. Once the rain ceased the lakes would disappear as quickly as they had been formed. The desert would swallow them up once again. We could not be complacent and needed to make preparations for the hard times which would surely follow. Already the rains were becoming intermittent. All the tribes knew this and we were taking this opportunity to trade while supplies were still in abundance.
I had set out with several of my fathers and brothers. We made sure that we had the right message sticks to guarantee safe passage through hostile territory. In the past we would have travelled in a much larger group but we had a lost a great many warriors and this was no longer possible. It had become our responsibility to ensure supplies for our family. The size of our group meant that we would not be able to carry as much as we had in the past. We still hoped that we could secure enough supplies to last until the next rains. The most prized ochre lay far beyond the great salt lake and came from the blood of the sacred emu. The journey to the mine itself was a long one. Even so, we had decided it was more profitable to mine it ourselves and not to trade for it further from the source. There was some degree of risk. We had heard rumours that the mine may no longer be accessible, and perhaps had even been taken over by the invaders. There was uncertainty as to whether anyone could mine there at all. If so this would be a great disappointment. The ochre from Bookatoo was unequalled in quality. There were other sources, but nothing came close to it in terms of colour and purity.
Upon arrival our fears were thankfully unfounded and we were relieved to find the custodians still guarding the mines. We remained wary of the presence of the invaders, although some of them had become our friends and could be trusted. Not all of them were bad. We had established good relationships with many of them. There were those among them who respected our traditions and allowed us to freely use our lands as we always had. We had recently made contact with those who appeared to be wise men from their tribe. They were learning our language and we were learning some of theirs. These men seemed to be very interested in the way we lived and appeared to be studying us. I was fairly certain their motives are honourable. This was at odds with some of the others we had encountered.
When I was younger I witnessed enormous brutality on their part, mainly led by one of their lawmen. Willshire was his name. Mercifully, his killing ways were being curbed. One of their wise men, who went by the name of Gillen, had come to our aid. The problem lay not solely with Willshire, for there were many more like him. And there did not appear to be enough Gillens to hold them all at bay.
The threat from the invaders was not the only problem we faced. We needed to be back home within a couple of seasons as there was a new batch of apprentices who would need to go through final initiation. Many ceremonies would have to be performed. I had made the trip once before with my birth father to the markets but never to the mines. This time my father had taken ill from a spear wound and needed time to recover. Due to the recent rains the going was tough. Much of our journey involved traversing the wide lakes which had appeared. We still had one experienced guide who knew the route even though the landscape had changed. We did not have to worry about the abundance of food, although finding clean water did present a problem at times. We had taken with us a quantity of our best spears and boomerangs, as well as hair string which we hoped would be in high demand.
Mining was hard work. It was dark and cramped. Fortunately I was small enough to wriggle deep down into the depths. It felt as though I was travelling into the bowels of our mother, the earth. I feared the spirit that lived there and had asked permission to enter. Even so, I felt that I didn’t have much time. I wasn’t willing to anger the spirit. I was, after all, a guest in this place. There came a point when I couldn’t see my own hands. It was darker than a starless night. My uncle had taught me how to make a small fire and I lit it on a loose rock. After some searching I found the vein of ochre. I had been told that it would be easy to spot. There was clearly still a great deal to be mined. This was indeed a resource which would not conceivably be extracted before the end of time.
I had a stone tool for which we had bartered earlier on our journey, but most of the time it was easier with my hands. I sat cross-legged and hunched over in order to scrape away the rock. I was relieved that several large blocks fell away and I placed them in my dish. Once it was full I extinguished my fire and slid back down the tunnel, pushing the food dish in front of me. As I went I kept knocking my head on the jagged roof above me. By the time I reached the entrance my hair was smeared with blood and dirt. I gave my uncles quite a scare when I emerged. They thought I was the spirit coming out of the mine to punish them. I tried to maintain the illusion but I couldn’t help laughing at their reaction and this gave me away.
I crawled deep into the mine several times until we had as much as we could carry. In the meantime my uncles prepared the ochre for travel. They ground it down to fine paste and made large balls by mixing it with water. At one end of each of the balls they formed an indentation so that we could carry it on our heads. I marvelled at its colour. It shone bright red and sparkled in the sunlight. It was truly beautiful. I realised how precious it was and why we had made such an arduous journey to obtain it.
Before leaving we spent some time thanking the spirit for allowing us to mine. We also presented the caretakers of the mine with two of our best spears and the tools we had bartered for. We then began our return journey, back towards the lakes.
It was only later when we were at the markets that we became aware how fortunate we had been. We were told that the invaders had been there since we left and killed a number of the caretakers. We did not know if we would ever be able to return there in the future. I felt honoured that I had been given the opportunity to go there, and even more so that I had been chosen to enter the mine. I was certain the memories of the experience would always remain with me.
The market was extremely busy. I don’t think I had ever seen so many people gathered in one place. There must have been hundreds of men. My fathers had feared that there wouldn’t be many people, but it was clear their fears were unfounded. We set up camp and started our fire. The atmosphere was incredibly jovial. There was much discussion about the situation with the invaders. Many tribes told stories similar to ours. A great many people had been slaughtered. Some of the tribes from where the sun rises spoke proudly of dealing out retribution for the killings, but they were the exception. For the most part, people were fearful of evoking the rage of the invaders. Many held strong to the view that one day soon these brutal men would tire of our land and return to where they came from. Personally I doubted this. I was sure the invaders were here to stay and that things would get worse before they got better. There was also much discussion about members of tribes who had gone to work for the invaders. It seemed that not all the invaders were bad, but those who could be trusted and provide something worthwhile for our labours were few and far between. A lot of warriors were against helping the invaders at all and felt that those who went to work for them were being exploited. There was a lot of talk about mistreatment of the womenfolk, and in particular women who had been taken as partners by the invaders. Many were concerned that this undermined our marriage system. There were complaints from warriors who had been promised in a marriage to particular women and were having to deal with their being claimed by invaders. Many of these situations had ended violently, I was told, with casualties on both sides. There was great fear of the incredible force of the invaders’ weapons. These were difficult times indeed.
Eventually all had been said that could be said on the subject of the invaders and the mood lightened greatly. Food was shared. A fine delicacy was the fish which we only rarely saw and only came with the rains. As night fell we all took to dancing and singing. A lot of new stories I didn’t know were performed and the celebrations went deep into the night. What a fine evening that was. We were swept back to a time when things were a lot simpler. To a time when we respected one another and the rules were clear. I feared for what lay ahead and it saddened me to think that perhaps a night like this wouldn’t happen ever again, at least not on such a grand scale.
The following morning we had a bite to eat and set about bartering. There were all manner of goods to be had, but our plan was already fixed. We threw down a portion of our ochre and waited for a reasonable bid. Eventually a good supply of pituri was offered, although we did have to sweeten the deal with some hair string. We now had all that we could possibly carry and a generous supply for the coming time. It was with some relief and with less trepidation that we embarked on our journey home.