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Saturday, 29 April 2017

Engravings at dawn

This was written quite a few years back, but soon enough, I will be taking newest grandchildren out like this. The photos here are all more recent, because we keep hunting, and keep recording.

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Er collectors call this "a shield" — but is it?
Up in the early morning, long before piccaninny daylight, I look at the night sky to make sure there is no cloud, then I awaken my younger son.  His older sibs lack the resilience to tackle a pre-dawn scramble up a rocky hillside, but he seems to have inherited a wild and scatty nature that makes such things appeal to him.  He must get it from his mother, because she has elected to come as well.

All the day birds are silent at this hour, though I can hear one mopoke making his mournful cry of ‘more pork’ away in the distance.  We hurry into the clothing we laid out the night before, grab up the rucksack of water bottles, coffee flask and fruit, and then we sneak quietly out into the car and away.

In sunlight, water on the rock makes the images show up.
This is the only approved way, but there are lots of wrong ways.
We head for a small mountain, half an hour north of our home through the dark and deserted streets.  We pass just two other cars on the way out, and my son points out a smudge of light in the east, just before I stop the car.  The moon is about four days past full, so it is still up, and there is light to see by.

This is a wrong way. Some idiot has scratched the surface,
and missed the line. Notice the 38mm 50-cent coin for scale.
We all know how to walk quietly through the night bush without a torch, but the moon will help us see any wildlife still out on the hillside in the cool pre-dawn.  Dawn is close now, for the day birds are staking out their territorial claims with considerable gusto.

We have been this way be
fore, and we know from the tracks and scats we have seen that there are quite a few mammals in this area, so we walk quietly.  There is barely any breeze, but what little there is blows towards us.  We maintain our hope, but we also maintain our pace, for the wildlife is a secondary concern this morning.
Professionals (I'm not one) carry proper scales like this.
On a rock ledge that looks out to sea, there is a swarm of faintly engraved animals.  There are at least eight kinds of fish, lizards, and many other shapes that are too faint to see clearly.  We are here now because the early morning sun will have to slant across the ledge, bringing the faint grooves into sharp relief, and we plan to photograph as much as we can.  The engravings are at least 200 years old, but probably they are older, very much older.

I first heard of this ledge from a friend.  Some years ago, I carried his book on the area up here, and followed his vague instructions.  He is delightfully vague, as I discovered when we collaborated on a book some years ago, but I think the vagueness here may well have been calculated to make those lacking commitment retreat in dismay.  Anyhow, at first, I managed to get lost all over the mountainside.

These are probably eels. There is often a pool nearby.
After a while, I found three small groups and one very good site, but I eventually despaired of ever finding the famous ledge.  Heading back to the car, I went across country and stopped on the edge of a small cliff line to drink some water.  Stepping forward to look over the edge, I realised that I was about to tread on a whole mess of fish.

Most engraving sites are in places with good views, and this one is no exception.  From here, you can see the highest of Sydney's city buildings, some 30 km to the south.  Close by in the east, you can see Pittwater, the next harbour up the coast from Sydney, a few small patches of settlement, and a huge expanse of unbroken bush, with the Pacific Ocean lying beyond that.  By careful selection, you can see the view almost as it was before the white man came.

Probably meant to be a goanna: see my
previous entry for more on these animals
As we step onto the top level, the sun shows suddenly in the east.  I hurry my son back down the track, so we can watch it rise once more, then we scramble back up and sit behind the ledge.  Now we can relax, eat, drink, and search the bush below with our binoculars, looking to see who is late in getting to bed.  After the fires last year, we only see two wallabies and a couple of moving blurs, probably bandicoots.

It will be maybe half an hour before the sun is high enough to show the engravings off to their best advantage, and my wife begins to speculate.  The main engraving site on this mountain, after this one, is believed to be where the women went to give birth.  This mountain has most of the main food animals on it that women used to catch: could it be a ‘women's business’ site?

The sad fact about these sites is that nobody knows enough about them to say anything at all with any real certainty.  The people who knew the answers nearly all died within a few years of the arrival of the first whites, mainly from disease.  The remainder had their society shattered by the trauma of their losses: with few descendants to pass their culture on to, they took their surviving secrets to their graves.  Her theory sounds like a good one, we decide.

We know how they were made, though, because when the makers died, there were some works-in-progress. The makers used a larger stone as a hammer, and pecked small holes in the stone by hitting a piece of ironstone. Then they used something like ironstone to gouge a groove, joining the holes.

By now the sun is just beginning to slant across the rock.  My son sets up the camera on a tripod, lays a metric scale on the rock, and we start photographing systematically.  We repeat this every five minutes until the grooves start to fade with the rising sun, and then retreat back down the mountain.  Fruit may fend off hunger, but now we need a serious breakfast.

This is an emu, but from this angle, it is upside-down.
As we turn into our driveway, a black 4-wheel drive churns past in the street with its top is down.  Two women, one short and one tall, both dressed as Valkyries, all blonde plaits and plastic horned helmets, hurl the Saturday papers onto our front lawn.

The stereo in their car is playing ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, and they are lustily croaking all the ‘Tojohojo’ bits and giggling as they go.

We call this a spirit figure.
The Fancelli sisters, it seems, are filling in for somebody.  I rather suspect that it will not last for long — Wagner is not popular with the locals.

I must tell you all about them, one day.

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