On their way down from their headwaters the Mann, Liverpool, Gumardir and East Alligator Rivers all run through extensive sections of gorges, which in many places are spaces where rainforest species are protected from wildfire. This gorge is on the Mann River, on the eastern side of the Arnhem Plateau. The indigenous people of the plateau talk about where rivers start and finish quite differently to the concepts used in Australian mainstream english speech. In Australian english rivers are spoken of as finishing in the sea. In indigenous ways of talking in West Arnhem Land a river finishes at the point where it starts its journey to the sea, and it starts where it enters the sea. It’s one of those “you say ‘start’, I say ‘finish’ things and quite confusing until each speaker picks up on what’s happening. The photo was taken a few years ago as water levels dropped in the transition from wet season to dry season.
How does the name of an attractive bird like the Spangled Drongo (Dicrurus bracteatus) become a slang word for a dimwit or general loser? Drongo has been a widely used Australian insult since the 1920s although these days it has drifted out of common parlance into dictionary lists of quaint and outdated expressions. In Victoria in the 1920s a racehorse called Drongo, with impressive bloodlines and enthusiastic backers, started in 37 races and failed to win even one. Drongo did manage a few creditable placings, including a good second in the 1923 Victoria Derby. His problem was that his owners kept entering him in races where he was outclassed. In less prestigious races he could have done well. His owner, Dorothy Wood, daughter of a prominent racehorse owner, wouldn’t give up on him and secured the services of a leading jockey, Bobby Lewis, to ride him on many occasions. However his record of failure led to his name being used to describe losers of the human variety. As one journalist put it “an expression was born that one might be “bit of a drongo” — meaning a try-hard, an also-ran, or a champion that never was.” There is even a book devoted to the unlucky galloper — Drongo, the Story of a Champion Loser, by Bruce Walkley. A Drongo joke from the 1950s goes like this: One mornin’ the boss asks the drongo to hang a new gate off the barn. Off goes the drongo with ‘is tools and the gate. Come lunchtime he hasn’t been sighted, so we went out to look for ‘im. We found ‘im standin’ by the dam. The boss was hoppin mad. “What do you think you’re doin’? I told you to hang that gate!” “Sorry boss,”says the drongo. I couldn’t find no tree ter’ hang it on, so I drowned the bastard.
The Spangled Drongo is no loser. It’s a handsome creature whose “spangled” feathers reflect glossy colour in the right light. The Drongo is found across northern and eastern Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, Malaysia and other parts of Asia.
Kunumeleng is the Kundedjnyenghmi name for the season that white folk call “the build up” — a time of oppressive heat and humidity relieved by isolated storms. The storms often include spectacular displays of lightning. The Top End of the Northern Territory has some areas with amongst the planet’s highest numbers of lightning strikes per year. Indigenous people of the deep north don’t relate to the European temperate regime of four seasons. Kundedjnyenghmi names six seasons: kunumeleng (the build up), kudjewk (the monsoonal wet), bangerreng (last rains and strong winds that knock down tall grasses), yekke (early dry season), wurrkeng (colder weather) and kurrung (hot weather when the ground burns bare feet). Kunumeleng is a time when plants spring back to life and many edible fruits mature. This picture was taken at the road crossing at Manangayhbalhmeng, known in english as “Dreaming Lady Crossing”. The name Dreaming Lady refers to yawkyawk mermaid spirits which live in the billabongs down stream from this open rocky road crossing. The bush is still recovering from Cyclone Monica which has the record for most intense tropical cyclone on record for Australia. It knocked down and stripped trees throughout western Arnhem Land in early 2006. It peaked with winds of 250kph (155mph) and Dreaming Lady was right in its path. I have seen large trees that have been stripped bare of bark by the wind strength. Rocky hills clothed in forest were left as bare rock. Slowly the bush is recovering.
The explorer Ludwig Leichhardt was the first European to see this spectacular grasshopper from the Arnhem Plateau, recording it in his journal of 1845. It became known as Leichhardt’s grasshopper but it didn’t really need a new name as the Kundedjnjenghmi and Gundjeihmi speaking Aboriginal people of West Arnhem Land had been calling it Alyurr for many thousands of years. Alyurr is associated with Namarrkon, the lightning spirit responsible for the intense electrical storms just before the wet season in November. Alyurr is the child of Namarrkon. It hatches from eggs underground early in the dry season and is a resplendently coloured adult by November. Alyurr is a fussy eater and depends on the aromatic and oily plateau plant pityrodia, hatching at the base of the plant and moving upwards through seven stages, or instars. Alyurr has a scientific name — Petasida ephippigera.
If you are interested in the creatures of North Australia and how indigenous people there classify and name them, check out linguist Murray Garde’s online resource
And for lots more information about language in the Deep North and Western Arnhem Land in particular, try the Bininj Gunwok blog: http://bininjgunwok.org.au/blog/