Aboriginal Elder and Artist Lindsay Bird Mpetyane

One of the great characters of contemporary Aboriginal art is Lindsay Bird Mpetyane. Lindsay lives at Mulga Bore, Utopia and is surrounded there by an extended family many of whom are painters in their own right.

Lindsay relies on modern medications and communications and has ensured a western education for his family. At the same time Lindsay is a very traditional man; for example, he is still responsible for the initiation of young men from his clan. He can read the country superbly and is a faultless navigator.

In Lindsay’s paintings one can see motifs of concentric circles (waterholes and rock holes) and meandering lines (trails of ancestors) between them. The paintings tell of the creation of the water and rock holes in the Dreamtime. Other works speak of bush foods that were gathered in the area surrounding the water places.

During a visit to Mulga Bore in late 2008 Lindsay offered to take me and a good friend, Dr Gary Darby who wrote this essay for me, to a rock hole which he described, with a wave of the hand, as being in country extending in that direction. One must realise that the surrounding country is flat scrubby desert for as far as the eye can see. We set off in our four-wheel drive and motored for some forty minutes to the southwest of Mulga Bore with Lindsay pointing out the way. We crossed trackless country for another fifteen minutes after turning south until with a slow up and down motion of his hand Lindsay indicated that we are nearing our destination. My friend and I were glad that Lindsay was there because we had no idea where we were.

And seemingly we had halted in a flat sandy area which gave no clue to the whereabouts of Lindsay’s rock hole. But sure enough he was right on target and with a wry smile sat down on a flat rock bed and began to wrestle with a rock plug which protruded some seven or eight centimetres above the surface. With some effort Lindsay removed the plug to reveal a perfect small rock well containing clear fresh water in an otherwise arid situation extending in every direction. Lindsay announced proudly, “My father used to bring me here when I was a kid”.

To our untrained western eyes this little rock hole at first looked insignificant but the realisation soon dawned that in the old times this place could have meant the difference between live and death for the people of this country.

The opening of this rock hole was quite small, smaller than Lindsay’s hand, and the surface of the water was some fifty centimetres down. It was one thing to locate the water in the endless desert but another to extract the water from the hole. Lindsay gathered some long grass from nearby then dipping the grass into the water and allowing it to trickle down into his mouth.

During the drive back to Mulga Bore Lindsay explained that he knew of several such rock holes throughout this country and in the old days his family would move in a nomadic way camping around them for weeks or months at a time.