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Ngurunderi - Dreaming of the Ngarrindjeri People Murray River

Ngurunderi is one of the great ancestral Dreaming 'heroes' of the Ngarrindjeri people. The story of his exploits was known in detail by all of the different Ngarrindjeri groups at the time of European arrival in South Australia. The first published version of the Ngurunderi Dreaming appeared in an Adelaide newspaper in 1842, just six years after the colony of South Australia was proclaimed by the British.

Several versions of the Ngurunderi Dreaming have been recored over the last 150 years, reflecting the emphases which different Ngarrindjeri groups placed (and still place toay) on their local sections of this Dreaming. This account is one from the last initiated Ngarrindjeri men. Albert Karloan, gave to the anthropologist Ronald Berndt in 1939 [Berndt 1940]. Like all the other version of the Dreaming however, this account stresses the over-arching importance of Ngurunderi as law-giver and as the main shaper of the distinctive landscape in which the Ngarrindjeri people still live today.

Below is a shortened version of this account. It can only provide a glimpse into the depth and complexity of the Ngarrindjeri oral translation. Richer sources exist for the reader, arising particulary out of the work of Norman B. Tindal and Ronald and Catherine Berndt.

The Ngurunderi Dreaming

In the Dreaming, Ngurunderi travelled down the Murray River in a bark canoe, in search of his two wives who had run away from him. At that time the river was only a small stream, below the junction with the Darling River.

A giant cod fish (Ponde) swam ahead of the Ngurunderi, widening the river with sweeps of its tail. Ngurunderi chased the fish, trying to spear it from his canoe. Near Murray Bridge he threw a spear, but missed and was changed into Long Island (Lenteilin). At Tailem Bend (Tagalang) he threw another; the giant fish surged ahead and created a long straight stretch in the river.

At last, with the help of Nepele (the brother of Ngurunderi's wives), Ponde was speared after it had left the Murray River and had swum into Lake Alexandrina. Ngurunderi divided the fish with his stone knife and created a new species of fish from each piece.

Meanwhile, Ngurunderi's two wives (the sisters of Nepele) had made camp. On their campfire they were cooking bony bream, a fish forbidden to the Ngarrindjeri women. Ngurunderi smelt the fish cooking and knew his wives were close. He abandoned his camp, and came after them. His huts became two hills and his bark canoe became the Milky Way.

Hearing Ngurunderi coming, his wives just had time to build a raft of reeds and grass-trees and to escape across Lake Albert. On the other side their raft turned back into the reds and grass-trees. The women hurried south.

Ngurunderi followed his wives as far south as Kingston. Here he met a great sourcer, Parampari. The two men fought, using weapons and magic powers, until eventually Ngurunderi won. He burnt Parampari's body in a huge fire, symbolised by granite boulders today, and turned north along the Coorong beach. Here he camped several times, digging soaks in the sand for fresh water, and fishing in the Coorong lagoon.

Ngurunderi made his way across the Murray Mouth and along the Encounter Bay coast towards Victor Harbor. He made a fishing ground at Middleton by throwing a huge tree into the sea to make a seaweed bed. Here he hunted and killed a seal; its dying gasps can still be heard among the rocks. At Port Elliot he camped and fished again, without seeing a sign of his wives. He became angry and threw his spear into the sea at Victor Habour, creating the islands there.

Finally, after resting in a giant granite shade-shelter on Granite Island (Kaike), Ngurunderi heard his wives laughing and playing in the water near King's Beach. He hurled his club to the ground, creating the Bluff (Longkuwar), and strode after them.

His wives fled along the beach in terror until they reached Cape Jervis. At this time, Kangaroo Island was still connected to the mainland, and the two women began to hurry across to it. Ngurunderi had arrived at Cape Jervis though, and seeing his wives still fleeing from him, he called out in a voice of thunder for the waters to rise. The women were swept from their path by huge waves and were soon drowned. They became the rocky Pages Islands.

Ngurunderi knew that it was time for him to enter the spirit world. He crossed to Kangaroo Island and travelled to its western end. After first throwing his spears into the sea, he dived in, before rising to become a star in the Milky Way.


Years ago

40 000
  We settle on Lake Mungo and gather perch, shellfish, lizards and emu eggs
30 000
  Giant kangaroos and giant wombats rove the plains — mega fauna
20 000
  Last Ice Age — Snow on the nearby mountains
14 000
  Climate becomes warmer — Some lakes dry out
10 000
  People living at Kow Swamp who look different from the neighbouring tribes
6 000
  Lake Alexandrina formed as sea reaches today's level
4 000
  People living on the lower Murray at Devon Downs
  Many settlements along the river
200   The Murray supports more Aboriginies than most other places in Australia
170   White invasion begins — Squatters take over our river banks and plains — Many of us die from influenza and smallpox
  Many surviving Aboriginies forced to live on missions
  We form our own communities and farms — Some of us live in the river towns

Learn more about Indigenous Australians


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