The Malkii Painting Site

We are chatting noisily as we walk up the gorge to the Malkii rock art site, when Cliff Coulthard, the senior cultural interpreter from Iga Warta stops in his tracks. “I’d like you to approach this sacred place in silence”, he says. “This used to be an ancient initiation site — a place where young boys travelled through, on their journeys to becoming men”. A hush descends on the group as we approach the cave and I search for a flat rock to sit on. In the silence, the sounds of the bush are amplified. As I pay attention to the wind in the trees and the chirping of birds, I think about the generations of men who passed through here. Cliff explains that this site has been dated at 35,000 years but dating rock art is tricky business and we can’t really be sure of its exact age.

Lost in my thoughts, I am jolted back to reality as Cliff begins to speak.

“The young Adnyamathanha boys came here to touch up the paintings”, he explains. A picture paints a thousand words but the depth of meaning eludes us. Cliff deciphers some of the symbols. They reveal stories of indigenous ceremonies and sacred rituals, of journeys along songlines to waterholes and the animals that were hunted. They mark the passage of time and the travels through country. There were sacred men’s and women’s sites, and the paintings here reveal this site was one where both men and women gathered. The art hints of the rich culture and the traditions the rock people observed for thousands of years. It was ultimately extinguished due to the influence of the Christian mission at Nepabunna and a new way of life that left no room to be inclusive of indigenous culture.

Cliff talks with some sadness that his dad Clem was one of the last people to be initiated here. Of the initiated men in that group, Clem was the only one who had children. He explains that growing up he had felt a deep sense of loss in not being able to partake in the ceremonies that were essential to his manhood. Eventually, he made the decision to travel up to Central Australia and complete his rites of passage according to Pitjantjatjara Law. Many other Adnyamathanha boys also undertook this journey. He feels at peace now that his understanding of the Law is complete. Yet, he also feels a sense of sadness there is no one alive who can revitalise the Adnyamathanha traditions in the Flinders Ranges that is his Country.

Rites of passage were not only an important marking of the various stages of ones life it was also a time of celebration and bonding for the whole community.

Today, the onset of menstruation is still celebrated in many cultures as the passage into womenhood for a young girl but the transition into manhood is less clear for a boy. While I am aware that some of the initiation practices of ancient cultures were quite painful, this is a tradition that could be revived in a sensitive way. Initiation not only prepares you for the journey into adulthood, it also gives you the confidence of being accepted as a fully-fledged member of your community. Closely related to the ideas of initiation is the concept of the ‘Hero’s Journey’, as described by Joseph Campbell and adopted in narratives like Star Wars.

Campbell writes that deep within our psyche is the hidden desire to go on a journey of self-discovery. But today society steers us toward following a plan that has been mapped out for us. We all know what that entails…college, job, marriage, house in the suburbs…kids. Yet, this plan does not excite or resonate for everyone, which leads to feelings of anxiety when we miss out on ticking one of the boxes — or break the unspoken rules about how they must be ticked — and then sense the sorrow or perhaps pity in the wider community who feel we have missed out.

The Hero’s Journey is about following your bliss.

It is about a journey of self-discovery that you undertake, strongly encouraged by a mentor. During this journey you will wrestle with everything you were taught, slay the dragon — your greatest fears — and hence discover your own truth. You can then freely come back to your community as someone who is equipped to contribute freely.

There is much to learn from these ancient traditions.

My silent prayer is that firstly we dare to set an example and secondly that we will have the courage to be mentors to the next generation. Encourage them to answer the call of adventure, so they can slay their dragons, discover their destiny and live meaningful lives.

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