Mithaka Elders teach Cameleers new skills
This year’s expedition to recover the last cache of journals and equipment buried in the dying days of the Burke and Wills expedition may have been rained out, but all was not lost.
Expedition leaders, the Cameleers (former ADF members who explore the Outback and document Australian history as they battle their various illnesses and conditions), were still able to learn new skills and record some of the history in the area around Burke and Wills’ famous Plant Camp.
The expedition to the Plant Camp was to have involved serving and ex-serving ADF members, including more than 30 3CER engineers, as well as Queensland Government archaeologists.
The record-breaking rain the desert and station managers desperately needed, also delivered the reality that the flooded waterways made travel with heavy equipment to the Plant Camp impossible.
Chief Cameleer former RAAF leading aircraftsman George Koulakis said while he was devastated to have to call off the Plant Camp expedition, another opportunity presented itself on the same day.
“One door closes and another opens,” he said.
The tribal Elders of the Mithaka people, traditional
Chris and Phil looking at the foundations of a gunyah
From left – Chris, Dave, George and Phil looking up close at the foundations of a gunyah
George Koulakis at a native waterhole. It would originally have been just big enough for a person to cup their hands, but visitors to the hole across thousands of years have caused earth to fall from the lip each time, “growing” the hole
A scarred tree
owners of the largely-desert country surrounding the site of Plant Camp asked the Cameleers to join them in a search for ancient sites of significance, including burial sites, native camps, stone formations and remote trading posts central to Aboriginal culture.
Elder George Gorringe and members of his extended families met the Cameleers at Windorah in south west Queensland.
With help from Mithaka people who travelled from all over Australia to be part of the event, the Cameleers set up a depot camp.
“Sharing a camp was the best way to get to know each other as we shared culture and stories,” George (Koulakis) said.
“They were fascinated by our Defence background as the people of Mithaka generally came from a rural background.
“They’re Elders of their communities and they were almost all born on cattle stations and raised as stockmen and told many stories of hardship on the land and droving thousands of cattle to the markets.”
The next day the Elders led them to an area on the outskirts of Windorah and told the Cameleers they had lost the exact location of a grave but they knew it was within a 500m radius.
“The cultural exchange was over for the moment and it was time to share skills,” George said.
He asked the Cameleers to put their military training into practice to find the lost grave.
Chris Sowry uses the metal detector across the suspicious mound they found
It seemed easy enough, and they formed a search team, received a brief, then spent two hours conducting the search.
While the military-trained members did their thing, the Elders found a shady tree, lit a fire and prepared lunch. “During the search up and down the area, we marked what we thought was an unusual mound needing further investigation,” George said.
They swept the metal detector over the mound when the search was complete and got instant response… turns out it was rubbish, obviously buried by a tourist.
Then the Elders asked if we had seen anything else.
No, the Cameleers found nothing else that looked “likely”.
“That honest answer came back to haunt us time and again for the next three afternoons,” George said.
Lunch over, the Elders led them through the search area pointing out ancient camp fire sites, which were several thousand years old, according to visiting Griffith University anthropologists last year.
The same lesson, with subtle variation was delivered the next day – again, while the Elders lit a fire and made bush tea for the group.
This time, the Cameleers walked blindly past dozens of trees scarred hundreds of years ago by Aboriginal warriors stripping large pieces of bark to use as shields, water and baby carriers and seed gathererers.
The lessons sunk in, because as Elder George had reassuringly predicted, the Cameleers “got it” by the time the day four lesson came around.
On day four, the team successfully located every item of interest in a search area rich in archaeological treasures.
The Elders declared the Mission Rehearsal Exercise over, and the Cameleers were “certified” to join the mission proper.
Shoulder to shoulder, the Cameleers and the Mithaka people shared the responsibility of searching for, and documenting, a range of items and features – from stone tools to well-established migration paths used for trade between the Mithaka and other tribes, and ceremonial sites.
“But nothing could have prepared us for what we were shown from a significant hill used for centuries as an observation point,” George said.
He described it as Australia’s “stonehenge”… well-weathered rocks blasted by the wind and sand for possibly thousands of years standing in a perfect oval formation deep in the desert.
He said the rocks were nowhere near the size of the monumental Stonehenge rocks, but, were big rocks that had obviously been deliberately positioned.
For once the Elders had no final decision about the exact usage of the area but understood it was important.
“We don’t know what they are, or why they were put like this, we only know that they are as old as time,” Elder George said.
The time the Cameleers spent with the Mithaka people was extremely rewarding.
“We grew to further appreciate these wonderful people who are so willing to share their country and stories with us,” George said.
“We thanked them for the privilege and hope the friendship and work together endures.”
DRINKING A TOAST TO HARD WORK… (from left) Phil Nguyen, Elder Max and Betty, Toby Gorringe, Chris Sowry, Dave Gaye, Michael Koulakis and Barry Riddiford with George Koulakis in the foreground