The Night Skies of the Orroroo District
By Paul Curnow [B.ED]
I recently spent some time enjoying the scenery of the Flinders Ranges. I always find the night skies of this region absolutely stunning! Unfortunately, on this trip, it was close to full moon, so it wasn’t at its best for a stargazer like me. On the way home I spent a night in Orroroo in the state’s mid-north. I had two reasons for this, the first was my grandfather was born in Black Rock, which is located close to Orroroo – the second was to look at some of the general history of the area.
Before Europeans began to settle in the Orroroo district, it was once home to the Ngadjuri Aboriginal People. The Ngadjuri People have a rich history of art, astronomy and storytelling, in addition to other cultural beliefs and practices, and some of their artworks in the form of petroglyphs (carvings in rock) can easily be found in the town along the Pekina Creek. It is generally accepted that the name "Orroroo" has been derived from the Aboriginal word ‘oorama’, which means "rendezvous of the magpie,” however others believe it to mean “early start." Evidence suggests that in the past the Ngadjuri People once lived in larger populations around the mid-north when it was much wetter. For example, 18,000 years ago South Australia was still in the grips of an ice age and evidence suggests that the region would have been far less arid than today with a more plentiful supply of fresh drinking water.
"Why do Aboriginals argue so much over the correct way of spelling of their ancient words and language? It's not the way that you spell it that counts, it's the way ya correctly pronounce it that matters...." - Marvyn McKenzie (1964 - ) - Adnyamathanha Man
Little has been recorded or passed down about the Dreaming and in particular the stellar beliefs of the Ngadjuri People; however, a number of snippets of how they viewed the nightly dance of stars above have survived. Additionally, there is some crossover in the ways the skies were seen between bordering groups such as the Kaurna on the Adelaide Plains to the south and the Adnyamathanha in the Flinders Ranges to the north. For example, the Ngadjuri People see the Southern Cross as the claw of the majestic Wedge-tailed Eagle Aquila Audax. Eagles and other Australian Birds feature strongly in many stories told by Indigenous Australians and the Ngadjuri call the Southern Cross Wildu. This belief corresponds with the Adnyamathanha view of this part of the sky, which they call Wildu mandawi. Furthermore, the Lutheran missionaries Clamor Schürmann and Christian Teichelmann who arrived in the Adelaide colony in 1838 had recorded that the Kaurna People also have an eagle in the sky, which Schürmann and Teichelmann spelt as Wilto.
According to Ngadjuri Elder Barney Warrior (1873-1948), in the Dreaming of the Ngadjuri People there was once a camp in the Orroroo district when it was believed that animals were human beings. Wildu the eagle had been out hunting with the crow one day. When they returned from their hunt Wildu had not given the crow a fair share of the food they had collected, so the crow became angry and set a trap so that the eagle would injure his foot by stepping on a sharpened kangaroo bone. The eagle had tried to pursue the crow but never caught up with him. The word for crow is wakala and it is conceivable based on other Aboriginal names around Australia that this may have been the star Canopus in the constellation of Carina. For example, the Boorong name War, and the Boandik Wa, or Wah, all apply to Canopus.
Ngadjuri People the band of the Milky Way is known as wali’bari and like the
Kaurna and Ramindjeri Peoples to the south, it was seen as a river stretching
across the sky (wali or wadli = hut, bari = river or creek). Strewn along the
banks of this celestial river are a number of bark huts or as they are commonly
referred to throughout Australia wurlies. The term for ‘star’ in the Ngadjuri
language is budli. Furthermore, prominent in southern skies during summer is the
Pleiades Cluster. The Pleiades are an open cluster of stars, which are believed
to have formed approximately 50-60 million years ago, and are located some 378
light years away from our sun. The Ngadjuri refer to these stars as Bulali.
In addition, the nightly motion of the stars and moon were used as a calendar to monitor the seasons. This was vital to survival in Aboriginal society to assure that they would know which bush foods were available throughout the year, based on the seasonal changes of constellations in the sky. The Ngadjuri People know the moon as Bera and the sun is known as Jandu or Djendu. With the exception of modern Ngadjuri descendants living in the district, there are few reminders of the people who once lived in this area. However, take a walk down to Pekina Creek and journey back in time to see the ‘petroglyphs’ left by the earlier inhabitants of the region. These were first recorded by a non-indigenous person in 1959, a Mr H. E. Burrows from the South Australian Museum. The style of art found in Pekina Creek is referred to as ‘Panaramitee style’ and it is found in many regions around the mid-north of the state. This style of art often includes circles, animal tracks and straight lines. In addition, engraving sites like the one down at Pekina Creek in Orroroo represent a way of passing on knowledge, a way of teaching people where to find water, the food sources in the locality and sometimes relates to the Dreaming stories of the people.
Amery, Rob, 2000, Warrabarna Kaurna: Reclaiming an Australian Language, Swets & Zeitlinger Publishers, Netherlands.
Clarke, Philip, 1990, Adelaide Aboriginal Cosmology, Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, Adelaide.
Curnow, Paul, 2007, Ngadjuri Skies, The Bulletin (May) of the Astronomical Society of South Australia, Adelaide.
Knight, Fran, 2007, (personal communication).
Pring, Adele, Warrior, Fred, Knight, Fran, & Anderson, Sue, 2005, Ngadjuri: Aboriginal People of the Mid North Region of South Australia, SASOSE Council Inc.
Pring, Adele, 2002, Astronomy and Australian Indigenous People (draft), DETE, Adelaide.
Ridpath, Ian, & Tirion, Will, 2000, Collins Guide to the Stars and Planets 3rd Edition, Collins, London.
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Updated 17th August 2012