Chapter 8: Spirit of Death arrives – Nhunggabarra Country today
|Wild goat perished in search for water.||Sandalwood. Of little value. The most common tree in the area these days.||Degraded soil|
|Narran river full of silt these days||Darling river: Today a turbid stream full of silt. In 1835 with water so transparent that the explorer Thomas Mitchell saw "large fishes in shoals, floating like birds in mid-air".||19-mile plain – today largely a desert|
Many Aboriginal stories describe Wanda, the spirit of death, a white-skinned terrifying ghost who in a prophecy comes to earth to live on Aboriginal land and brings death and devastation to all people.
I am walking with Tex across Nhunggal country, a sunny day in April 2004. The dry red soil is covered by the ubiquitous galvanised burr, the typical plant on degraded soil in this part of Australia – it is some ten to twenty centimetres in height with sharp thorns that trash our shoes, socks and trousers. There are a few scattered trees and no edible grass: the millet grass gave up in the mid 1900s, and in 1974 the last white sheep farmer sold out of the area.
The property we are walking on occupies roughly one-tenth of original Nhunggal country. Today this land sustains four families of 21 people in total; together with people in industries and services the land sustains some 30 to 40 people. The same land would have fed a minimum of 50 people with Aboriginal methods prior to 1788, and maybe as many as 200. The story is repeated all over Australia. Not long after the Aborigines had stopped tending to the landscape with their methods the Australian soil degraded rapidly.
The Darling River is an Australian national icon, an 'extraordinary river ... with the finest water ... and without which those regions would be deserts, inaccessible to and uninhabitable by, either man or beast,' as Thomas Mitchell noted lyrically in his journal. Grass covered the riverbanks and huge river gums shaded and cooled Thomas Mitchell's party that thirtieth day of May 1835. Today the age-old river gums are doomed, clinging precariously with their exposed roots to slumped naked banks. Mitchell saw 'water being beautifully transparent, the bottom was visible at great depths, showing large fishes in shoals, floating like birds in mid-air'. Today the river is a turbid stream filled with opaque silt, which allows few fish to breed and no light to penetrate to the plant life.