Craig recently spent time wandering the trails of Mutawintji National Park in Far West NSW, reflecting on the geological and spiritual creation of Country and humanity’s intrinsic link to the land, even when we may not feel it.
We acknowledge that this adventure is located on the traditional Countries of the Malyangapa, Wilyakali, Wanyuparlku and Pantjikali peoples who have occupied and cared for this land and water for thousands of years. We pay our respects to them as the Traditional Custodians and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.
Welcome to Mutawintji
The chrysalis was cracking. My newly exposed skin was quietly, inevitably being exposed to a tumult of sensations. Each small step increased my electrical sense of connectedness with place. With Traditional Owner’s Country. I was a guest, white fella in Wiimpatja world.
It began at dusk on day one. Up the serpent’s tail of Western Ridge, first of the trio of marked trails in Mutawintji National Park. Desolate aeolian dunes unspooled. A range of hills trembled, levitating in a heat haze, on the horizon. Closer to hand, seemingly graspable, southern hills flexed their jagged musculature, scored deep by shadow.
As sunlight leached from the day, the outback’s disconcerting paradox effect took hold: an increasingly intense ochre glow radiated out of the terrain. Earth became sun. A great chasm of silence opened its maw.
The air in western NSW’s vastness – this semi-arid just-about-desert – seemed almost weightless. Gravity was tenuous. A languorous buoyancy prevailed. As Patrick Leigh Fermor observed of the air on Greece’s rugged Mani peninsula – Spartans’ home – it seemed ‘alive and positive and volatile’.
Whether motionless or conjugated into the energy of wind, the air was animated, signifying a potent dynamism of place. An unsettling vertigo, a sense of the Earth tilting, took hold. It seemed apt, considering the turmoil of Mutawintji’s geological and social past.
A Gathering of Peoples and Songlines
The ancient is tangible at Mutawintji. Forces at work here were Earth-shattering and Earth-building. Culturally, it’s one of NSW’s most significant places and holds some of the most extensive rock art – stencils, engravings, paintings – in Australia.
Aboriginal peoples have – for 8,000 years – gathered here from 500km away. Named after its waterholes and what was its open grassland, Mutawintji is an intersection of Dreaming tracks. Each of these tracks is a means not just for First Nation peoples to navigate Country, but to understand it too. Ceremonies, trade, dispute settling, punishments, and the sharing of knowledge, responsibility and wisdom all took place here.
When Europeans began exploiting the region for its pastoral potential in the mid-1800s, Traditional Owners were obliterated and/or moved on. A way of life extinguished.
While Mutawintji’s Traditional Owners will have been familiar with the intimacies of the park’s three trails, they’re modern confections, devised to highlight the park’s attributes. They bring to mind Robert Moor’s observation, in On Trails, that hiking paths can become cultural artefacts, ‘much like pieces of art or religious relics’.
A value of the parks’ trails is as potential empathetic bridges to generate respect for First Nations’ cosmology and culture. They also allow wanderers to dwell on the Country’s unqiue biodiversity and geology.
The connectivity between these elements is often encompassed with elegant, compelling power in Dreamtime. Collectively, this wealth frequently left me concussed, overwhelmed. At others, I was adrift, unencumbered, hypnotised by beauty.
In discussing native American Indian paths, Moor pointed out that, ‘For many indigenous people, trails…were the veins and arteries of culture. For societies relying on oral tradition, the land served as a library of botanical, zoological, geographical, etymological, ethical, genealogical, spiritual, cosmological, and esoteric knowledge’.
Sounds like a good approximation of Aboriginal peoples’ definition of Country, to me, in which every element in the landscape is part of a creation story. Meaning is prolific.
A Geological Cosmos
The rock-scarred, bubbled, and brutalised landscape is an ochre garden painted with mere murmurs of drear green – mainly mulga and salt bush.
Amongst the stony debris, inland Acacia, and Casuarina shrublands and woodlands, Chenopod shrublands, and inland riparian communities eke out a water-parched existence. They’re some of the most threatened and poorly conserved vegetation types in Australia.
The topography they exist in is the result of a series of geological cataclysms that shook and collided this place into all-consuming ‘nowness’. It’s a stage shaped by, and set for, epic scenes. Perfect for the majestic power of Dreamtime.
It’s also a setting perfect for the eternal conflict between the pedestrian and the spiritual. Except here, the resolution seems complete, reconciled in ways – raw nature – that’s almost never apparent in the human-built environment:
– There are 47,000 hectares in the park’s declared wilderness zone, but even on the marked trails and by the park’s sole official campground, a sense of wilderness pervades
– The landscape’s intensity inverts expectations, however, with its stilling effect. Country holding its breath. A slow surge of oxygen’s intake then, imperceptibly, its release. It was a tentative tread on the eggshells of time. Or, more accurately, on the ancient trilobites, brachiopods, and archaeocyathids of time
– For the prosaic, it’s ligament-threatening pulverised rock rubble that’s front and centre, negotiated in ever-weaving transit
The heraldic expanse of gorges is its most totemic characteristic. But its natural ‘trails’ of blasted rock ridges and gasping dry serpentine creeks also provide eye-drugging beauty. River red gums’ contours and colours are refuges for birds, recalcitrant frogs, wind’s whispers.
Bird life’s concatenation includes white flagged Little corellas, the neon vividness of Mulga parrots, irrepressibly garrulous galahs, twitching micro finches. Crashes of vegetal debris, evidence of floods past, are jammed in marooned trees.
Much of the park’s ecology is difficult to discern. The threatened Wangarru (yellow-footed rock-wallaby), Long-tailed dunnart and Interior blind snake are amongst them. Of the species found in the most recent surveys, there were 150 bird species, 49 of reptiles, and 17 of mammals. There are others that were once known to inhabit the area but are thought to be extinct.
The park’s ranges and waterholes were formed, its Wiimpatja Traditional Owners believe, by the creation being Kurlawirra. Some are over 650 million years old. The landscape is predominantly the eroded remnants of a 400-million-year-old seabed.
Volcanic eruptions, intrusions of molten magma, tectonic plates slipping, and grinding, the deposition of marine and alluvial sediments, mountain building, and eons of erosion and weathering, have all occurred here – a geological cosmos. It was once on the edge of the blue, Gondwanaland’s true littoral, a grungy oceanic soup hard slapping its shores. Rare Devonian and Cambrian fossil localities tell their stories.
Navigating Mutawintji’s Trio of Trails
Out here, there is space. Space in which to think, or unthink. The great unravel. Clots – mental, emotional, physical – of tension resolved. And just as tension unspools, so do the park’s three contrasting marked trails reveal their stirring idiosyncrasies.
I say ‘marked’, but these are the lightest touch ‘marked’ trails I’ve ever encountered. Trail walking in Mutawintji is about as close as you can get to the rough ‘n’ tumble of off-track hiking’s battering and snags. This is a clear point of difference to other national parks.
On the Western Ridge and Mutawintji Gorge walks there are irregularly spaced metal stakes to guide you. On the Homestead Creek walk there are small plaques with directional arrows. On all three you need to keep your eyes peeled for this nav.
You’d have to try pretty hard to get lost on Western Ridge, but you’d be ill-advised to push beyond your boundaries anywhere out here. Only on one trail did I come across other people. If you did wander off-trail, it could be some time before you were found. And, mostly, there’s no drinkable water.
Even experienced walkers would be wise to take a map, either paper and/or a GPS-enabled phone option. The latter has the benefit of being able to precisely track your location. Using this you can, when needed, guide yourself back to the trail or Homestead Creek campground, which is central to all the walks.
Drinking water, and back-ups of everything (including petrol and perhaps a couple of spare tyres, as some connecting gravel roads are brutal), you need to bring yourself. The closest supplies are about 90 minutes away. There’s some mobile coverage (Telstra) on parts of Western Ridge and at the ranger’s compound.
As alien as I felt on arrival, Mutawintji’s come-hither beckoning soon induces you ever deeper into its secrets. Here lies danger. Once succumbing to its temptations, the thirst becomes unslakable.
Each of the three marked trails are packed with diverting siren songs coaxing the unwary into off-piste explorations:
– Extend Western Ridge’s further north up its jagged spine
– Mutawintji Gorge begins its seductive beguile with the sweet smile of a winding creek – the time-freed wanderer’s ever fascinating temptation. Beyond the mighty defile, in its eastern and northern crevassed connections, there are stunning sculptured options for the intrepid
– Deep into Homestead Creek’s trail, rockpool-pearled arroyos, lightly veiled with shadows and their sibling mysteries.
Western Ridge Trail
Western Ridge became one of many Mutawintji shrines. Here, the desolation of day became an early evening cradle of comfort and succour.
As the translucent dusk light finally expelled its last sigh, pin prick sparkles began their supernal glitter – just another dimension of this place’s grandeur.
In one sense – outdoors’ implicit granting of freedom – this was a lacuna which anyone could fill with their own interpretation and storytelling. On the other hand, this place is anything but a lacuna, prolific as it was with Dreamtime and Wiimpatja social history.
The ridge’s 6km trail follows a flung rumble of ossified red sandstone. Only the most resolute of flora and fauna exists here. Irregular life. Irregular rain. Irregular terrain. Softness is sparse. Except, paradoxically, it’s not, as it sings from the alluring, time-toughened poetry of rock.
The trail’s elevation provides some sense of scale of the park’s Byngnano Range centrepiece. The heights also meant the breeze was a near-constant, straining to converse. This countered the dominant aural interjections which were the relentless percussion of boot and rock.
Mutawintji Gorge Trail
Drama-hunters will be sated by the eponymous centrepiece of the Mutawintji Gorge trail. You dissect rangeland before being enclosed by one of Byngnano Range’s most archetypal architectural offerings.
Only the merest delicate curlicue of cloud in the cerulean, yet a cutting winter wind prompted me to hunker down in my shell. It was consistently below zero in the mornings, but in summer it often hovers around 40.
The red rock vertical enclosures of the gorge, however, offered protection from the wind. Congresses of pools, mini-beaches, and river red gums composed timeless scenes. White man’s heritage were carcasses of dead, feral goats polluting the watercourses.
The largest pool – a rare permanent one – blocked passage through the gorge’s head.
If you’re game, backtrack a little, then grapple and pinball your way to a northern arroyo offshoot. If pursued further north, you’ll soon be embraced by the open-armed expansiveness of The Amphitheatre’s sacred surrounds.
This is off-track, however, and requires thoughtfulness and nav. The Amphitheatre’s southern side is a sacred women’s site, too, and should not be approached by males. Speak to the park rangers for guidance.
Byngnano Range Trail
The Byngnano Range trail is the most diverse of the three marked walks and, due to its 8km length and the terrain, the most physically challenging (straightforward, though, for anyone moderately fit and mobile). It’s crammed with fascinating diversity – ravines, mini-rope climb, rock holes, rock art – making it one of the best day walks in the country.
On it you wade through sand-clogged creek beds, roller coaster over rubble, and broach monstrous, seeming single-rock massive hills, weirdly blistered beehives bursting from Earth’s bowels.
Its fiery, violent past – blithe to my passing – fiercely smouldered a thrumming orange.
Country was holding its, as Annie Dillard said, ‘invisible breath’. In a spell, wariness wavering, my heartbeat slowed to an unfathomable, unknowable rhythm. I hoped a lifeline of empathy was roping me to some semblance of Traditional Owners’ Country.
Country and Humanity are Intrinsically Bound
This fireball-forged Country, initially tense, always inscrutable, relaxed with familiarity. It conjured a storm of neutrinos, billions of them, howling through my body – a scouring, revitalising grit.
Bruce Chatwin wrote of desert wanderers finding in themselves ‘a primeval calmness’. An approximation, perhaps, had descended on me. City shackles attenuated, an emancipation. I exulted in the ever-changing drenching the asylum of wilderness lavished.
Even those normally immune to the ‘spirituality of place’ have been known to have their position swayed by immersion into Mutawintji.
‘Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery’, said Annie Dillard when musing on nature. She could have been writing about Dreamtime and its influence over these lands and the people in it.
A deep encounter with Mutawintji also prompts a reckoning. For what people of European descent have inflicted on Country – its First Nation peoples and environment. ‘Nature and human ethics are not unconnected,’ said poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder. ‘The fate of humanity and that of the nonhuman natural world’ are not, he said, independent of each other.
What can be done to repair the damage? Not everything is within each individual’s grasp, but as Black Lives Matter has made clear, as well as our use of environment-destroying resources, we can see that each of us does, indeed, wield power. The question is, what are we doing about it?