Wednesday, the eleventh day of October, 1922

When the young dawn approached next day, the fresh morning air was quickly filled with the twittering and chirping of birds. The miners were already sounding their delightful and merry music when the eastern sky showed the first glimmering of light; and when the sun began to shed a rosy glow upon the crests of the western gorge walls, the black-and-white butcher birds awakened from their sleep and proceeded to give out their beautiful flute notes from the projecting branches of gums and whitewood trees. A little later came the discordant and cynical caws of the cheeky crows, who keenly watched the morning campers from the closest proximity that safety permitted, ever hopeful of picking up any unguarded scraps. The morning air had been bracing in its cold freshness, and there had even been some light dew on the ground; but as soon as the sun began to peer over the crests of the range, the sudden new sting of its morning rays foretold that the day would soon turn oppressively hot: The hobbled horses had been brought in long before breakfast by Hesekiel, Jakobus, and Titus. The horse teams drawing both vehicles were changed in order to give the previous day’s working horses a spell. Loading proceeded with great speed. Then the vehicles moved off slowly from the gravel bank to continue their journey down the Finke Valley: At about ten o’clock in the morning the long, reed-fringed waterhole of Alitera was reached. This name celebrated the fact that, according to Aranda mythology, the two ancestral ilumbalitnana or white ghost-gum serpents who had camped here together with their uncle, a wallaby ancestor, had originally come from the Lira Alitera or Hale River in distant Eastern Aranda territory. The two beady-eyed, baleful serpents had slithered on westward while their uncle was sleeping; and the wails of the deserted wallaby ancestor had filled, the Finke valley at Alitera after he had wakened from his sleep. Unable to follow his faithless nephews, the wallaby ancestor had wandered off into the nearby Ilkitjeramanta gully, and turned into a huge boulder. The two venomous ilumbalitnana serpents who had deserted him were believed to have composed the secret songs and instituted the secret rites used during the ceremonial induction of the Western Aranda medicine men into their occult craft. The much more prosaic white name for Alitera was Boggy Hole. It had been used as a police camp for some years a long time ago but few traces remained of the former police days. It had been abandoned in the middle of 1891, after its police officer Mounted Constable W. H. Willshire, had been taken south for trial on a murder charge.

Careful driving was called for, both in crossing the Finke at Alitera and in negotiating the next half-mile or so of the rock-strewn flat along the river bend. It was the existence of this rough and difficult expanse that had caused the greatest worry to Strehlow and his advisers when the journey down the Finke was first being planned; and a closer look at rocks, laid bare even more menacingly by the huge Finke floods of early 1921, revealed that these fears had been only too well-founded. The Finke had, in fact, come down in flood, time and again, from November, 1920, onward; and it was only in March, 1922, that the dying streamlets between the pools had ceased to pattern the sandy river bed with their intricate lacework. But at the beginning of May a further flood had ripped out again all newly restored horse-paddock fences south of Hermannsburg, and more weeks had elapsed before the flow of water had dried up finally. The advance road party had worked hard to produce a passable buggy track at Alitera by moving the smaller rocks with crowbars and by clearing new deviations wherever the terrain permitted. But only dynamite and the giant earth-moving equipment invented by a later generation could have fashioned a reasonable vehicle track. In spite of the hard toil of the advance working party, both vehicles still had to get over the larger rocks by straddling them with their axles; and some of the huge, deeply embedded rocks stuck out so much from the ground that the axles barely cleared them. The sick man was jolted about unmercifully, and was forced to hang on with both hands to the front seat of the buggy. But after some anxious moments both vehicles completed this part of the horror track without breaking either their wheels or their axles. When more level ground had at last been regained, the buggy was halted under a gum tree for some minutes to enable Strehlow to recover from his ordeal. Every bump of his heavy, swollen body against his upholstered chair had made him catch his breath and wince with pain; and he looked very ill and utterly exhausted when this grim half-mile stretch at last lay behind him.

The road party workers and the kitchen women, who had escorted on foot the two vehicles on their slow journey from Rubula to Alitera, said their last goodbyes to their master and mistress at this point. Many tears were shed by the women; and not a single person started back on the long walk to Hermannsburg till both mission vehicles had moved on once more and passed out of sight completely. Hardly had the vehicles turned round the next corner of the winding valley, when they encountered the camel-mail string from Horseshoe Bend. Old Jack Fountain, the gaunt, white-bearded mailman, stopped his team and unloaded the Hermannsburg mailbags from one of his camel boxes. They were quickly opened, and Heinrich and Mrs Strehlow took out the mail addressed to Strehlow and to themselves. After a brief exchange of news Jack Fountain continued on his way to Hermannsburg. According to the mail contract let out to Gus Elliot, his employer, Fountain had to cover the one-hundred-and-fifty-mile run from Horseshoe Bend to Hermannsburg in five days; and he was due at Hermannsburg on the forenoon of the following day.

After this short interruption the vehicles moved on once more; and at noon the party had reached Irbmangkara or, as the white folk called it, Running Waters. Irbmangkara was situated about halfway between Hermannsburg and Henbury, being about thirty miles distant from either station.

The party made a two-hour midday halt at Irbmangkara to enable Mrs Strehlow to read the letters out to her husband; for no reading was possible in the dim light of the kerosene storm lantern at night. Theo meanwhile chatted with the drivers while they sat on the edge of the long expanse of clear water that marked the beginning of the four-mile stretch of shallow, fish-filled pools known as Running Waters. These pools and the running streams that linked them were fed by springs bubbling out of the river bed of the Finke. As was to be expected, Irbmangkara had always been a natural home for wildfowl and for game. The pools were fringed by luxuriant stands of bulrushes and ti-tree bushes and by a forest of young gums, the bigger trees having been washed out of the river bed by the unprecedented floods of the previous year. The lush vegetation in a way reminded Theo of that in Palm Valley, except for the fact that there were no palms growing at Irbmangkara – a strange fact, seeing that the Palm Valley Creek continually washed palm seeds down into the bed of the Finke River. For centuries, or perhaps for thousands of years, before the white man’s coming Irbmangkara had been an important Aranda ceremonial centre. Its sacred cave was located only about a mile away from the upper pools, and no women or children had ever been allowed to enter these forbidden precincts. Even the fully initiated men could do so only on ceremonial occasions; and at such times no weapons were allowed to be carried. No game or wildfowl could be killed by hunters within a radius of about two miles from the hill containing the sacred cave. Irbmangkara had hence been, according to the ancient traditions, a game and wildfowl sanctuary “since the beginning of time”. Its ti-tree and bullrush thickets afforded magnificent breeding grounds for several varieties of ducks, for cormorants, pelicans, and spoonbills, and for all other waterfowl found in Central Australia; and these birds found ample food in the shallow parts of the pools, since these were richly stocked with several varieties of fish, ranging from the flat and bony ntapitnja (known among the whites as “bony bream”), which attained a maximum length of about eleven inches, to the shorter and rather fatter ntamintana and longulbura, whose rich white flesh was much freer of small bones. Irbmangkara looked a place of peace and undisturbed serene beauty; but, like many other seeming Edens on earth, it had known its full share of man’s cruelty and viciousness.

Irbmangkara had always been an important ceremonial meeting ground for several Aranda groups; for it was linked by sacred myths with many other totemic centres. According to the local myths, Irbmangkara at the beginning of time had been the home of duck ancestors – of immortal beings that could take on the shape either of ducks or of humans. One large group of these duck ancestors had followed an ancestral leader called Remalarinja north-west through Western Aranda territory to Kularata, a place situated in the floodout swamps of the Dashwood River, north of Ulaterka. Another group of duck ancestors had been taken south by a local cormorant ancestor called Ankebera to Tnauutatara, on the southern bank of the middle Palmer River, in the Upper Southern Aranda area. Another cormorant ancestor from Irbmangkara, who had travelled west through the Matuntara area to a place west of Tempe Downs called Walbmara in order to steal some of the local ancestors’ pile of mulga seeds, had by this theft linked Irbmangkara with Walbmara; and the Walbmara snake ancestor, who had pursued the thief back to Irbmangkara, had decided to stay there forever.

Travelling fish ancestors, who had come south in a flood created by themselves from Ankurowunga, in Unmatjera territory, to Uratanga, on the middle Finke River, had also passed through Irbmangkara, and broken through a fish-weir erected against them eight miles further on. This fish-weir had later on turned into a section of the Krichauff Ranges, and the gap through which the fish had escaped was called lltjanmalitnjaka (“Where the Crayfish had dug”) or, in white terminology, Parke’s Pass. That well-known hunting pair of Upper Southern Aranda mythology, the Two Young Men (Nditja Tara) had hunted kangaroos with success in the open country east of Irbmangkara; and the Northern Aranda curlew ancestors of Ilkakngara had fled wailing to Irbmangkara after one of their number, who had died and was attempting to rise again from his grave, had been stamped back into the ground by the angry magpie ancestor of Urburakana, situated in the Central Aranda area. The human guardians of all the totemic centres that were linked by myths with Irbmangkara had the right to come as visitors to the Irbmangkara ceremonial festivals; and hence the members of the local Aranda group which owned the songs, myths, and ceremonies of lrbmangkara had always been well known to many Western Aranda, Northern Aranda, Central Aranda, Upper Southern Aranda, and Matuntara folk.

About 1815, just before the establishment of the earliest stations on the Finke River, a sudden catastrophe overwhelmed the local Aranda group of Irbmangkara. A middle-aged man, called Kalejika, who belonged to a Central Aranda local group, paid a visit to Irbmangkara, and then told some Upper Southern Aranda men that Ltjabakuka, the aged and highly respected ceremonial chief of Irbmangkara, together with some of his assistant elders, had committed sacrilege by giving uninitiated boys men’s blood to drink from a shield into which it had been poured for ritual purposes. According to an old Aranda custom, fully initiated young novices, at a certain point of their manhood ritual, used to be given blood to drink which had been drawn from the veins of their elders. This was done during a special rite which was spoken of only in whispers of fearful secrecy. To offer any of this blood to uninitiated boys would have been a particularly detestable form of sacrilege. In Christian terms, it would have been equivalent to the action of a priest who had poured consecrated communion wine from a chalice into the drinking mugs of children attending a carefree birthday party. It seems incredible that Ltjabakuka and his elders would even have considered indulging in such a frivolous perversion of one of the most sacred Aranda rites; but Kalejika was an esteemed elder in his own region, and a number of Upper Southern Aranda men believed his story, or perhaps pretended to believe it in order to satisfy some private grudges that they might have held against Ltjabakuka. For sacrilege was an offence always punished by death. In the pre-white days capital punishment was easy enough to inflict when the offender was a young man. But when the ceremonial chief of an important centre and his chief elders had been accused of sacrilege, the only persons who could be called upon to punish them were men who came from totemic centres linked by myths with the home of the offenders. Though Tnauutatara lay in Upper Southern Aranda territory, few of the Tnauutatara clansmen were keen to undertake a raid on Irbmangkara: too many of them were linked by personal kinship ties with the Irbmangkara group, and no man could be compelled against his wish to kill his own kinsfolk. Similar kinship considerations affected the Western Aranda groups living along the mythical trail linking Irbmangkara and Kularata; indeed, these groups dismissed Kalejika’s story with indignation as an empty fabrication of malicious lies. It was rather easier to stir up to action some of the Matuntara men who lived on the trail linking Walbmara and Irbmangkara. In the end a band of avengers was organised, consisting of perhaps fifty to sixty warriors. Most of these were Matuntara men, but there were a few Upper Southern Aranda men to be found among them.

The latter, as was to be expected, came mainly from places in the Horseshoe Bend area, situated more than a hundred miles away from Irbmangkara. However, at least two Upper Southern Aranda men from closer sites – Kangkia, who came from the eagle centre of Pmoierka, and Kaminnga, who came from the emu centre of Erpalka – were persuaded to join the avenging party. The leader of the combined band was a Matuntara man called Tjinawariti, who came from the region south of Tempe Downs. The name “Tjinawariti”, which meant literally “eagle’s foot”, was the term given to the Southern Cross in the Matuntara area. Tjinawariti, who belonged to the eagle totem, was a man renowned both for his height and for his prowess with spear and boomerang. Another important man in the avenging band was Kapaluru, a native cat totem ceremonial chief from Akaua, on the Palmer River. His influence was directly responsible for the addition of several more young warriors to Tjinawariti’s band.

And so, late one afternoon in 1875, three parties of warriors, hidden among the bushes of the nearby mountain slopes and in the undergrowth in the river bed at their foot, were watching the men and women of Irbmangkara returning to their camp at Urualbukara, laden with the game and the vegetable foods which they had gathered during the day, for since the upper pools of Irbmangkara constituted closed territory to all except the initiated males on ceremonial occasions, the normal camping grounds of the Irbmangkara folk were located at Urualbukara, the southernmost pool, four miles below the source of the springs. The avengers were numerous enough to form a group of tnengka – this term being the name given to a body of men who could overwhelm a whole camp of victims by means of an open attack made in broad daylight. The only reason for this party’s going into hiding was to ensure that every member of the Irbmangkara population had returned to the camp before the murderous assault was undertaken. These fifty or sixty tnengka had accordingly been split into three parties upon arrival at Urualbukara – two parties took up positions on the hill slopes of Ilaltilalta and Lalkitnama respectively, while the third hid in the thick undergrowth that covered the river bed south of the camps. This arrangement was intended to frustrate any attempts of escape on the part of the victims.

The sun had sunk very low in the western sky before the waiting warriors could be reasonably certain that all members of the Irbmangkara camp had returned. Keeping under the cover of bushes and trees, the armed men crept forward with the relentless and uncanny skill of hunters used to stalking suspicious game animals. As soon as the clearing around the camp had been reached, they rushed in, like swift dingoes upon a flock of unsuspecting emus. Spears and boomerangs flew with deadly aim. Within a matter of minutes Ltjabakuka and his men were lying lifeless in their blood at their brush shelters. Then the warriors turned their murderous attention to the women and older children, and either speared or clubbed them to death. Finally, according to the grim custom of warriors and avengers, they broke the limbs of the infants, leaving them to die “natural deaths”. The final number of the dead could well have reached the high figure of from eighty to a hundred men, women, and children. Before leaving the stricken camp, the bodies of all clubbed victims were prodded with spears to make certain that there was no life left in them. For the warriors had to be sure beyond all doubt that no eyewitnesses had survived who could later on incite reprisals against them. Satisfied that they had carried out their grim task with flawless precision, the warriors now left the Urualbukara camp. But they had made one fatal mistake. Laparintja, one of Ltjabakuka’s wives, though severely clubbed, had merely shammed death, and had succeeded in stifling her urge to scream while being prodded by a spear point. She had in addition successfully covered her blood-stained baby son Kaltjirbuka under her own prostrate body. As soon as the avengers had departed, she raised herself cautiously; and, taking her child with her, she had slowly wriggled towards the bulrush thickets that grew on the edges of the closest pool. Once she had reached the bulrushes, it was an easy matter for her to make good her escape northward to Irbmangkara, and beyond the uppermost pools towards Arbanta, where another camp of Irbmangkara folk was located.

As the warriors were about to return home, an unpleasant surprise awaited them: Nameia, a middle-aged Irbmangkara man, who was very late in returning from the hunt, suddenly burst into view. He was accompanied by a second man called Ilbalta who belonged, like himself, to the Paltara class. Suddenly fearful of having their grim deed betrayed to avengers, the warriors rushed at both hunters and hurled their spears and boomerangs at them in a frenzy of alarm. Ilbalta was handicapped by an old cut in the leg, and was quickly brought down and speared to death. But Nameia, though hurt by a spear-thrust in one leg, proved unexpectedly fleetfooted. When his pursuers drew uncomfortably close to him, he stopped, picked up some of the spears that had missed him, and threw them back at his attackers. The latter paused for a few moments, and the break enabled Nameia to continue his flight. Since rising clouds of smoke in the distance showed that there were other camps of people located upstream from Irbmangkara, the warriors did not dare to pursue him too far, lest they should encounter additional late-returning hunters. Tjinawariti called off the chase, and then dismissed from further service those Southern Aranda men who had assisted him, so that they could return to their homes. After that he set off for Akaua with his Matuntara followers. Over the whole band of tnengka warriors there now hung the fear of terrible retribution: Nameia had seen most of them, and had recognised all those that he had seen; for every man in the band had been a visitor to Irbmangkara in former years. Moreover, though Nameia’s conception site was situated at Tnotitja, on the Finke River upstream from Pantjindama, his parents had both been Matuntara people. His father Kurubila had been an important ceremonial chief from the great Matuntara native cat centre of Akaua. Many of the warriors who had raided Irbmangkara had hence been his personal relatives.

Nameia, like Laparintja, made his way up the Finke valley to Arbanta. Like Laparintja, Nameia was completely overwhelmed by grief. His Western Aranda wife Tjakiljika, who came from Kaporilja Springs near Hermannsburg, and his two younger sons Pmatupatuna and Unkuarintana, had died in the general slaughter at Irbmangkara. Both Nameia and Laparintja quickly spread the grim story of the massacre at Arbanta and at other camps nearby; and soon the gorge walls above lrbmangkara were echoing with the wails of men, women and children, who were mourning their dead kinsfolk. Some days later several members of the Irbmangkara group who had been away on visits to other camps returned to Urualbukara, and buried the dead victims. The maimed infants had all perished in the meantime.

The next step taken by the survivors was the selection and the ceremonial dedication and fitting out of a revenge party, who would be commissioned to go out as leltja and kill all of the men responsible for the massacre, down to the last guilty participant. Messengers went out as far as Njenkuguna in Central Aranda territory, Ulamba and Jamba in Northern Aranda territory, and the Ellery Creek and Upper Finke valley portions of Western Aranda territory; and everywhere mourning rites took place for the dead during which moral support was enlisted for the punishment of the Irbmangkara raiders. Finally a small party of avengers, chosen for their special prowess with weapons and their special skills in bushcraft, was assembled near Manta on the Finke River, some miles upstream from Irbmangkara. Here the men were put through the special ritual which was believed to endow avengers with the ability to creep upon their unsuspecting victims in safety and to evade without difficulty the spears of their enemies. For, unlike a band of tnengka warriors capable of destroying a whole camp in broad daylight, the leltja were avengers who had to move stealthily through hostile territory in order to kill isolated individuals who had left the security of their main group camps. After passing through their special ritual, the members of this leltja party made their way down the Finke valley. Their leader was Nameia, who had by now fully recovered from his wounds.

The party included at least two of Ltjabakuka’s sons, also several of his close relatives. But the numbers of the avengers had to be kept to the lowest possible limits commensurate with safety. Possibly no more than ten men went out on this revenge expedition. They knew that it would take them at least a couple of years to achieve their retaliatory errand. For they were moving into the well-populated country of enemies who were expecting a reprisal visit, and who were therefore on their guard. They would have to pick their victims off, perhaps one man, and certainly no more than three men, at a time, preferably when they were out hunting; and after each kill the avengers would have to lie low for weeks till their victims’ relatives had given up looking for them. They would have to live off the land in hostile territory, and often move about singly so that any persons sighted from a distance accidentally could not raise an alarm about a travelling band of warriors. But with their own lives continually at stake, these leltja avengers killed – and waited between kills – with the determination and the patience of highly intelligent beasts of prey. Sometimes the killing of a man might involve also the killing of his wife and children in order to wipe out all danger of eyewitness evidence. But slowly they achieved their purpose. One of the few Irbmangkara raiders who escaped retribution was Kangkia. He was cornered, but succeeded in convincing the avengers that he had been compelled by force to accompany the tnengka band, and that he had hung back during the attack so as not to kill anyone personally.

After they had picked off the guilty Aranda warriors, Nameia’s band of avengers moved from the Horseshoe Bend area across the South Australian border as far south as the Hamilton River; for some of the Matuntara men had gone down into this distant region. After that the avengers made their way back in a north-westerly direction into the Palmer valley. In the end even the dreaded and watchful Tjinawariti and the respected Kapaluru succumbed to their spears. After these final successes the avenging party hastened to return to the security of the Krichauff Ranges, probably at some point south of Alitera; and then they made their proud return journey up the Finke River into Western Aranda territory. Here they found that the world which they had left behind over three years earlier had changed completely. It was 1878 by now; and white men had invaded their land during their long and dangerous absence. The first structures built by white men greeted their eyes on the banks of the Finke at Hermannsburg. Their friends and relatives in the native camp were overjoyed to see their courageous kinsmen returning. Their spare and gaunt forms proved how tough life had been for them during the past three years, and how often they had had to endure hungry days and nights because there had been too many enemy hunters waiting for them in the best game country. But they had achieved their object, and there had not been a single casualty among them. They were given a heroes’ welcome, and no one ever forgot the amazing achievement of these warriors – an achievement that would bear comparison with that of any modern guerilla fighters in any other part of the world.

By 1878 stations were being established and cattle were being moved into the valleys of the Finke and the Palmer; and the new era of violence brought on by white settlement ended any chances of counter-reprisals being made, except perhaps against some individual members of the leltja party. In any case men and women in all groups affected by the Irbmangkara massacre had become sickened by several years of murder and killing, and longed to return to an era of peace and quiet amity. Only the Matuntara remained unhappy, for in Tjinawariti and Kapaluru they had lost two of their outstanding leader figures and ceremonial chiefs.

In return for their deaths it was decided by their kinsmen that at least one Irbmangkara man should lose his life. The man marked out for the final killing that would close the whole grim episode was, naturally, Nameia. Not only had he been a Matuntara himself, but he had also been the only man capable of identifying all the members of the original band of raiding warriors. He had been the leader of the avengers, and it had been his intimate knowledge of the Matuntara area that had made possible the stalking and the killing of Tjinawariti and of Kapaluru. But having come to the decision of executing Nameia, the Matuntara were willing to wait several years before taking any action: this time no risks were to be incurred that the executioners themselves would once more be detected by unforeseen eyewitnesses.

Some twelve years elapsed before Nameia met his doom. A new police outstation, known as the Boggy Waterhole police camp, had recently been opened at Alitera, some twenty two miles downstream from Hermannsburg; and its officer-in-charge was none other than the dreaded Mounted Constable W. H. Willshire himself. For several years previously all the “mulga wires” in aboriginal Central Australia had been running hot with never-ending stories of the alleged murderous zeal of this police officer in going out and shooting down tribesmen in any area from which stories of cattle-killing had been sent to him by worried pioneer cattlemen. Aremala, Nameia’s eldest son, who had been safely at Arbanta while his two younger brothers had died at Irbmangkara, had been engaged as a native constable by Willshire; and Nameia decided to pay his son a lengthy visit at Alitera. Unfortunately Alitera was not far from the Matuntara border, and the news of Nameia’s arrival soon reached his waiting executioners. They decided to move quickly, and to take the calculated risk of killing him in close proximity to the new police camp.

One night in January, a few days after the time of full moon, a number of dark figures stole over the ranges as soon as complete darkness had fallen over the narrow, closed-in Finke valley. They had several hours in which to move into position behind clumps of bushes; for the moon, according to local Central Australian time, was not due to rise till about nine-thirty that night. Although it was summer, the proximity of the great waterhole, whose waves were lapping the black rock walls of the gorge on the left side of the river, soon brought a delicious coolness to the campsite; and all the Aranda men made up their night fires from substantial logs, in readiness for the chilly midnight air. When the moon rose, sharp eyes began to watch the sleepers in the Alitera camp from behind the nearby bushes – eyes that were eager to identify the campfire of Nameia. The watchers were very tense, but managed to curb their impatience. A mistake had to be avoided at all costs; Nameia had to be killed, not wounded, and no other person harmed. The night grew colder with the passing hours; and, with the increasing chill in the air, one sleeper after the other began to stir and to stoke afresh the fires that were burning at his side. At last the patience of the watchers received its expected reward, Nameia himself sat up, drew the smouldering logs at his side closer together, and heaped small twigs on them. With a loud crackle the flames shot up brightly and revealed his face and body clearly to his enemies. The latter, on the other hand, received added protection from the wall of increased darkness cast up by the bright flames between themselves and their victim. Suddenly and without any warning several spears hissed sharply through the still air, and Nameia fell back mortally wounded. His enemies rose and fled, assisted by the light of the rising eastern moon. The long, opaque shadows of the trees protected them for the first quarter of a mile; and then they rushed forward in bright moonlight, knowing that they had safely outdistanced their would-be pursuers. By keeping to the rocky trail on which they had come, they left few marks behind for any trackers who might be interested in their identity next morning. When the sun rose above Alitera, they had regained the timbered country south of the Krichauffs, and were back safely in the Matuntara area.

The shouting and the general commotion that spread through the Alitera camp after Nameia had fallen down by his fire quickly awakened the white police officer. But there was nothing that he could do that night, and in any case Willshire was not a squeamish man: the “tribal killing” of some “rascally old nigger” would not have interested him normally. He merely noted down next morning in his police journal that “old man Naimi” had been murdered at his camp on the Finke River “at midnight on 9th January, 1890”, by a party of “Tempe Downs blacks”. Nevertheless, the intelligence that Nameia had been the father of his native constable Aremala was undoubtedly a very welcome discovery to Willshire. Even better, this had been a Matuntara raid executed upon a Southern Aranda camp, and the white officer felt that it would for this very reason deeply offend his other Aranda native constables as well.

However, for the time being Willshire had to hold his hand in this matter, no matter how strongly he might have felt that his authority as a white police officer had been rudely challenged by this “tribal execution”. The Lutheran missionaries at Hermannsburg had not welcomed his setting up of a tough police camp in such relatively close proximity to their mission lease; and a number of reports had been sent down by them to Adelaide concerning the conduct of at least two of the Central Australian mounted troopers, – of Willshire himself and of his main associate Wurmbrand. As a result, an official enquiry was looming in the near future; and Willshire adopted the prudent course of biding his time.

The two South Australian Commissioners – H. C. Swan, S.M., and C. E. Taplin – who had been appointed to investigate the charges made as to the treatment of the aboriginals living in the southern part of the Northern Territory by the police, the pastoralists, and the missionaries, opened their enquiry in Central Australia in July and presented their Report to the South Australian Parliament late in September, 1890.

Willshire had every reason to be satisfied with this Report; for the Commissioners found that there was “no foundation for any charge of his being guilty of shooting down the blacks”, even though they also recommended that his camp should be moved from Boggy Waterhole to a location more distant from Hermannsburg. The pioneer white settlers had risen solidly to the defence of the police. The time seemed ripe for action. Richard J. Thornton, the manager of Tempe Downs Station, had been complaining bitterly for some time, making allegations about the wanton and wholesale spearing of cattle on his run by the local aboriginals. The execution of Nameia by a band of Matuntara men early in 1890 hence seemed to afford an excellent excuse for Willshire’s punishing the dark cattle-killers in the usual way – by rifle fire. But because of the recent investigation, Willshire decided to be rather more circumspect on the coming occasion: the shooting would be done by his four Aranda native constables, who would be given arms and ammunition and ordered to kill the murderers of Nameia. To Willshire’s surprise, none of his Aranda subordinates were in the least enthusiastic about his well-thought-out plan. To pursue a blood feud according to the age-old tribal norms and to kill the victim by spear and boomerang was one thing; but for dark men to carry out a white police officer’s orders in a matter that was no concern of his, and to use the white men’s fire-arms against men of their own race, was an entirely different thing. It was an act of treachery against the dark race, designed to advance mainly the cause of the white usurpers of the aboriginal lands. But in the end, the four trackers could not refuse to carry out their orders; for they had good reasons for fearing their white master even more than any of their dark enemies. And so, in February, 1891, Willshire set out from Alitera with his four Aranda native constables. Two of them, Aremala, who had been renamed Larry, and Kwalba, who was now called Jack, came from the Upper Southern Aranda area. The third man was Tekua, who had been christened Thomas in 1887 as one of the first Western Aranda converts at Hermannsburg. The fourth tracker was Archie, who was probably a Central Aranda man. This police party headed swiftly across the Krichauffs into the Palmer River valley, and then moved upstream towards Tempe Downs. On 22nd February, 1891, in the hour of grey dawn – or as one of the official depositions taken down at the subsequent enquiry stated, at “piccaninny daylight” – the four Aranda men swooped down upon the peaceful native camp close to Tempe Downs Station. One unsuspecting Matuntara man was shot by Aremala and Archie while he was lying asleep near his fire. His mate, however, woke up and fled, narrowly escaping the bullets sent after him. But there was a second victim. The sound of the rifle fire awakened a third man, who had been sleeping some distance away with his wife Naemi Nungalka, who had been baptised at Hermannsburg in 1888. This third man darted up and rushed away from his fire, only to be brought down by bullets fired by Tekua and Kwalba. The wails of the dark women who had been disturbed by the shooting now burst upon the grim scene. It was a morning in the mountains that could not have failed to delight the heart of Willshire, who was later to describe a similar attack on a camp of northern aboriginals in the following words: “They scattered in all directions. . . . . It’s no use mincing matters – the Martini-Henry carbines at this critical moment were talking English in the silent majesty of those great eternal rocks. The mountain was swathed in a regal robe of fiery grandeur, and its ominous roar was close upon us. The weird, awful beauty of the scene held us spell-bound for a few seconds.” When the quick burst of shooting was over, Willshire and his four trackers went to the station and enjoyed their breakfast at sunrise. After breakfast Willshire engaged one of the white station hands, William H. Abbott, to assist him in taking the bodies of the two dead Matuntara men away on camels, so that they could be burnt.

This was done with the aid of native constables Archie and Kwalba, who also cut the large amount of firewood necessary for the grim job. One body was taken to a spot four hundred yards south of the station and burnt in the sandhills; the other was taken down a creek bed for the same distance north-east of the buildings, and burnt in the same manner.

But though the bodies had been incinerated till only a few pieces of charred bones remained, Willshire had made one fatal miscalculation. The visit of the two Commissioners from Adelaide six months earlier had given new heart to those few white men in the Centre who believed that the police shootings had gone on long enough. The hour produced the man. Mr Frank J. Gillen, of the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, who was a Justice of the Peace, personally went down to the Boggy Waterhole camp, accompanied by a newly arrived police officer, Mounted Constable William G. South; and from Boggy Waterhole Gillen and South took Willshire and his native constables to Tempe Downs for a searching investigation.

As a result of Gillen’s fearless enquiry, Willshire was committed for trial in Port Augusta on a charge of murder. The case aroused intense interest both in Adelaide and in Central Australia. Willshire spent seventeen days in the Port Augusta gaol till northern cattlemen and stock interests had raised the sum of £2000 which had been fixed as his bail money.

Anxiety about the future safety of the cattle stations in the interior induced the same sections of the community to provide the money needed to engage the services of one of the most eminent legal men of the day, Sir John Downer, Q.C., on Willshire’s behalf. Sir John Downer, who had been the premier of South Australia from 1885-87, and who was to hold this office again from 1892-93, made a speech at the trial, which was described by at least one correspondent as a “powerful and eloquent defence of an innocent man”. But though Willshire was freed by the verdict of the Port Augusta jury, he was not permitted by his superiors to return to his old haunts. The police shots that rang out through the morning air at Tempe Downs on 22nd February, 1891, had not only concluded the grim chapter whose first blood-stained pages had been written at Irbmangkara one evening sixteen years earlier: they had also brought to an end a decade of uncurbed police violence in Central Australia. Gillen’s courage was never forgotten by the Aranda; and some years later their gratitude found its expression in the ceremonial festival held at Alice Springs in 1896, where the secret totemic cycle of Imanda was revealed for the first time before the eyes of white men – to Gillen and to his friend, Baldwin Spencer. Like many other men responsible by their lies for the tragedies of other people, the real culprit who had been responsible for the deaths of well over a hundred men, women, and children, remained unpunished. Kalejika died many years later peacefully in the Western Aranda area, and apparently no man had ever seen fit even to ostracise him. Perhaps his grey and white hairs saved him from that punishment which he had so richly deserved.

This, then, had been the tragic story of Irbmangkara less than fifty years earlier. But Nature does not remember human tears or human suffering. Men may live and men may die, but Nature is indifferent to their fate. And so on that October afternoon, when Mrs Strehlow was busily reading out letters to her sick husband, Theo was conscious only of the peace and beauty of one of the loveliest landscapes he had ever seen.

Sitting near the edge of a thick fringe of bulrushes, he watched the black-and-yellow butterflies flitting about gracefully among the blue flowers that grew along the damp bank of the quiet pool, over whose calm waters delicate-bodied, red dragon-flies were hovering in quest of water insects. Every now and then the smooth surface of the pool was disturbed by little eddies caused by fish which thrust up their cold, wet mouths to snap at unwary flies and gnats which had flitted down too low for their own safety. A busy black-and-orange wasp with a threadlike waist carefully picked up with its slender legs some of the clay from the wet bank in order to build its many-chambered home at the entrance of a wide cave several chains away. This cave also provided a welcome rain shelter for a number of swallows whose mud nests had been built on its inner red rock walls. Almost lost to view in the sky, a pair of eagles, poised one above the other, surveyed the peaceful scene below with sharp menace in their eyes but the huge birds soon moved eastward in order to circle over more open country: they were too wary to venture into the treacherous thicket of gums and ti-tree bushes below

From time to time the faint whisper of a summer breeze sighed through the rustling stems and sharp leaves of the bulrushes, and then the clear outlines of the trees and the surrounding cliff walls temporarily lost their mirror-like keenness. The twittering of small birds sitting on the tree branches, the cooing of the large-eyed crested rock pigeons on the stony ground below, and the occasional rush of wings as a flight of long-necked ducks with gleaming green-and-black feathers skimmed low over the water: these were the only sounds that filled the ancient scene with their gentle, age-old music. Here was water, here was beauty, here was peace. It was easy to understand why among the Western Aranda Irbmangkara was believed to have been, like Japalpa, one of the cradles of mankind at the beginning of time.

But the race whose love and imagination had given to lrbmangkara its rich store of songs and myths had gone down sadly in numbers since the advent of the whites. Theo recalled Jack Fountain’s remark that until the turn of the century the figures of aboriginal hunters had often been visible in the Finke valley upstream and downstream from Irbmangkara, stalking animals that had left the game sanctuary precincts of the sacred site. But on that afternoon no hunters remained to be spotted; for the numbers of the aboriginal population had slumped dangerously since Fountain’s first arrival in the Centre. Irbmangkara had ceased being a home for any of its remaining dark children for more than a decade before the present travellers from Hermannsburg were able to set their eyes on its haunting beauty.

Theo’s parents meanwhile had been far too busy with their mail to cast more than a few glances at the pools of Irbmangkara. The message that had brought them most joy was a telegram giving fairly full details about the proposed journey by Mr Gotthold Wurst, the Appila wheat farmer who had accepted the challenge to come to Strehlow’s rescue after all other appeals for help had failed. He was going to join at Hawker the train on which Stolz was due to go north after leaving Light’s Pass. Wurst’s car was going to be trucked at Hawker; and if everything went according to plan, Wurst and Stolz would be leaving Oodnadatta in this car on Saturday – the day on which the Hermannsburg party hoped to reach Idracowra Station. This heartening telegram brought tears of joy into the sick man’s eyes: his clerical colleagues had failed him in his hour of need, but here was a man of goodwill and humanity who was prepared to risk his car and to come to his rescue without any expectations of liberal financial recompense. Expressed in different terms, here was a man’s man who was ready to help his neighbour in his troubles, not a professional Christian who was content to seek personal favours for himself from the Almighty.

At two o’clock in the afternoon the canteens and water containers on the van were filled at the clear pool, and after that all horses were given a drink: there would be no water for them at the proposed night camp. The Finke Valley had to be left behind for the time being; for the river took a huge bend to the south below Urualbukara.

For the rest of the afternoon the two vehicles moved forward slowly over the rough and stony expanse that led eastward to Iltjanmalitnjaka or Parke’s Pass. About an hour before sundown the travellers passed through this gap, and for the first time found themselves outside the rock walls of the Krichauff Ranges. A new landscape came into view – the table mountain country, which was to stay with them for most of the remainder of their journey. Theo in particular was fascinated by it; for he could not remember having seen table mountains before. Also he had now broken through the range that had bounded his southern horizon so far. His father’s tent was put up quickly. The tired horses were unharnessed and hobbled out, and a hot evening meal ended an unexpectedly heartening day.

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