Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert)

“When I finally get to the place of my ancestors it’s not what I take with me, it’ll be about what I leave behind and that’s what drives me.”

Don Rowlands, Wangkangurru Yarluyandi elder.

Like many traditional owners across the deserts, Don Rowlands is conscious of the need to pass on his knowledge to the younger generations.

Don is a traditional owner of Wangkangurru Yarluyandi country which includes Munga-Thirri (big sandhill country or the Simpson Desert).  He is also known to many travellers as the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger for Munga-Thirri.  Don has been in this role for the past 26 years after being encouraged by a local bank manager to apply for the role.

Don Rowlands, a traditional owner for Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert), and his grandson Connor getting out on-country so as to pass on knowledge of country and culture.

In mid-2020, his grandson Connor became a volunteer with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and travelled with his grandfather Don out to Munga-Thirri in search of an ancient mikiri (Aboriginal well) and to collect fuel drums from previous trips and work.  For Don, this was more than just another trip but an opportunity to spend time with his grandson and pass on knowledge of his country in the same way that Don feels like his own grandfather, Watti Watti, has been his guide and inspiration as he travels through this country.

Peter See from the 10 Deserts Project and Luke Barrowcliffe, an Indigenous film maker from Gorrie Vision, also went along on the trip.  Luke is working with Don on a film documenting a trip last year following the Two Boys Dreaming songline from Dalhousie Springs in northern South Australia to Birdsville.  

While the exact site of the mikiri remained elusive the large beefwood trees (Grevillea striata) indicated the general location.  As often is the case with Aboriginal water sources across the desert, the group found a grinding stone nearby confirming that it was a domestic site close to water.  Finding items like this out on-country is always a special event and immediately makes you ponder the amazing knowledge, skills and strength of desert mobs.

Near to the grinding stone was a reminder of harsh this environment is and the risks that climate change poses to managing desert country.  Under one beefwood tree there were three dead red kangaroos that succumbed to drought – their options for water exhausted.

Munga-Thirri and its surrounding regional reserves have amazing features including sand dunes, salt lakes, mikiri, ancient waddi trees (Acacia peuce) and even sea shells that are being exposed by the desert winds.  More importantly though for its traditional owners, it is a cultural landscape full of stories and songs that kept the country alive.

For Don retirement is beckoning and his need to share his knowledge with family and other traditional owners for Wangkangurru country is growing stronger each day.  Trips like this with his grandson, other family members are increasingly important and Don hopes that 2021 will enable him to run another trip along the Two Boys Dreaming songline.  If you want to support Don and his goal get in touch with Watti Watti Custodial Services at https://www.facebook.com/wattiwattiCS/

“From Birdsville to Poeppel Corner to Dalhousie Springs way over in the west there are stone tools, stick humpies, mikiris [native wells], grinding stones, fighting shields, fire places and burial grounds.”

Don Rowlands

Words and images from Peter See (10 Deserts Project).

Our thanks to Don Rowlands and his grandson Connor for hosting 10 Deserts on magnificent Munga-Thirri country.

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