by Shelley Woodrow – Sydney Australia
Oh the places we have been!
Paul and Laura’s recent sojourn to Australia was an opportunity for us to share some of the remote places of our homeland as well as visit areas where the first inhabitants of this land are still practicing a living tradition stretching back 60,000 years. My hope was to take them beyond the usual touristy trail and to find authentic experiences of culture and wild nature that would touch us in deep ways.
Their visit was also was an opportunity to experience and share the CI body posture practice for the first time in Australia with a budding group of enthusiasts ( including our two daughters and my 90 year old mother!). When I first experienced an altered state of consciousness with the body posture method at CI in 2013 I had the feeling that I had touched the source of the Aboriginal dreamtime. As we flew out of our home town, Sydney, towards Darwin in the tropical north I felt the thread of recognition of one of my first trance journeys pull at my senses – a memory of a portal of hands with fingers touching and making an almond-shaped opening drawing me in, through and down deep into trance. I felt a stirring of what I call my ‘wild soul aspect’ that arises within me with the body posture practice. I also felt a call of welcome from this ancient land and a sense of anticipation for adventures and connections ahead.
Of course we began our journey being tourists on a bus with four others! This seemed the best way of accessing the vastness that is the Northern Territory and easing our way into the journey. Four days in a small bus on hot bumpy roads took us to some amazing places – Kakadu National Park with its profusion of wildlife – jabiru, kingfishers, sea eagles, whistling kites, magpie geese and egrets; Corroboree Billabong on the Mary River where we looked for – and found – saltwater crocodiles amongst the waterlilies; Ubirr Rock art site with a climb through ancient painted rock shelters and up past towering red cliff walls to a magnificent 360º view across the Alligator River plain; Gunlom Falls where we swam in a natural infinity pool above the waterfall looking out across the plain. Here I encountered a tiny brown frog sitting on a huge sculpted rock separating the two pools. I had the distinct impression he was warning me not to enter the upper pool – so I didn’t; canoeing at Nitmuluk Gorge with its sheer red ochre cliffs; at Bitter Springs floating with the current down the crystal clear lukewarm minty blue stream lined with pandanus palms and with iridescent blue dragonflies flitting above us; the exhilaration of sitting under the pounding waters at Wangi Falls knowing that there was a sacred site above us and freshwater crocodiles hiding near its edges – apparently harmless unless cornered! ; and a final dip in the string of spa-sized Buley Waterholes before our return to Darwin.
A journey such as this calls forth mythic and poetic language – language of spirits and sacred geometry. Paul seemed to conjure lightning wherever he went – Thunderbird calling to his antipodean ancestral brothers – the Lightning Brothers. It was even flickering in the storm clouds as their plane took off to return back to the USA! A 5ft olive python (just a baby!) swimming in the pool at our campsite reminded me of the role of the Rainbow Serpent in this landscape – the creation being of the Aboriginal Dreamtime responsible for creating all waterways and many landforms – that we had been journeying along a songline of sorts – swimming in the Rainbow Serpent’s dwelling places – rockholes and streams across the Top End
So by day five of our journey we had begun to settle into the flow – had moved from merely ‘looking at’ to ‘being in’. A day trip out to Bathurst Island was a wonderful induction into the Tiwi Islander way of life. We were warmly greeted by Kevin and Vivien on the beach and welcomed with smoking ceremony, traditional dances and songs. Their openness in sharing their cultural practices and ceremonies as well as personal stories of cultural disruption and loss was awe inspiring. Vivien told of visiting an exhibition of Tiwi culture at the National Museum of Australia (several thousand miles away) and of the joy he felt in recognising a long lost Frog Dance on a historic recording playing at the exhibition. Another of the artists told me of a vivid dream he had as a child of his family and house being swallowed by the Rainbow Serpent. He had such wonder in his eyes as he described still being able to see the luminescent blues and greens of its skin as it came towards him with open mouth. This, he assured me, was a very good dream. This description resonated with me as I have been visited by a huge silvery blue serpent in several of my trance visions. Their generosity of spirit continued with an afternoon in their art studio helping us to play with paint and fabric and teaching us how to screen print using some of their historic store of screens with beautiful traditional designs. (Pictures we took from the Tiwi Culture Museum below)
A series of extraordinary coincidences led to a fascinating encounter with the iconic aboriginal actor and dancer David Gulpilil on the streets of Darwin – Paul with a book under his arm which he had purchased only half an hour before at a local thrift store for $1 which featured a full page photo of David whom we had been discussing over lunch. David was thrilled to see the book and we had a lively discussion about a broad range of issues facing aboriginal communities in Australia today. He also expressed a keen interest in visiting Santa Fe and offered to take Paul hunting in his homeland with spears… Perhaps that is for the next trip! Our hope for authentic connections with culture and landscape was off to a good start.
We were lucky to visit an aboriginal family living on traditional land on an outstation about 40 minutes out of Alice Springs. Meeting the matriarch Maggie – and having her teach me a few steps of a traditional honey ant dance – and the other women as they cooked their lunch on an open fire under a tree was very special. It’s amazing to think that English is her fourth or fifth language after several other aboriginal languages which she speaks fluently. While their culture has been brutally disrupted since colonial invaders took their land and ongoing government policies have decimated their lives, they continue to live honouring the Dreamtime and practicing their ceremonies, kinship responsibilities and law as best as they can…. very humbling.
Alice Springs was the starting point for the next phase of our journey with a drive planned through the stark beauty of red desert country to what I think of as the heart of Australia – the breath taking landforms of Uluru and Kata Tjuta. One could not help but ‘be present’ with the sweltering heat and flies (kept at bay with essential fly nets draped over our hats) and the visual feast of red, red earth, brilliant blue sky, clumps of yellow spinifex grass and soft green low trees and the profusion of parrots, budgerigars and other bird life.
Sensing and being responsive to ‘spirit of place’ requires getting up early and beating the tourists to these special places! No – we didn’t consider ourselves tourists – more as cultural and spiritual pilgrims seeking out a real connection to the deeper mysteries of this land and its people. Emily Gap, which is only 20 minutes out of town, was just such a special place with a feeling of power and the presence of the ancients. At 6am we had the sandy bottomed, red-cliffed chasm to ourselves. We began by asking permission to be there – a practice which aboriginal people do when approaching sacred places. We felt welcomed there and created music from stone and sticks which echoed off the red cliffs. We took in the breathtaking rock art painted on the side walls of the cleft – white and red ochre stripes representing the journey of the caterpillar dreaming spirit ancestors to this site.
It was here that a series of happenings convinced me that I had been given a message from this land. Firstly, you have to know that I like to take a tiny piece of wherever I am as a souvenir of my journey – a leaf, a stick, a stone, a piece of wire. I already had a small collection under the car seat including a prized rusty can opener destined to become an artwork! So… 3 things happened almost simultaneously: I dropped and broke my camera, my mobile phone refused to take anymore photos because it had no more memory and my partner, Graeme, dropped his mobile phone and cracked the glass. The message to me was clear “TAKE NOTHING … NOT EVEN PHOTOS… Just BE in the land”.
For the rest of our trip I felt liberated from the burden of capturing each special moment for posterity. I basked in just BEING in each special place – breathing the air and savouring the sensory input of the moment. And such glorious moments we had: we continued following the path of the Rainbow Serpent along the edge of the Western MacDonnell Ranges – swimming in her icy cold deep waterholes; we lay in the middle of the road in the pitch dark just 100 paces from our Glen Helen Homestead guest room and took in the magnificence of the Milky Way, unimpeded by light pollution, making out the giant emu in the sky in the dark spaces between the stars; we ritually greeted sunrise and swam in Glen Helen waterhole – just nose above the water with the sound of my breath in and out and the dawning blue sky and with towering red cliffs above and birds flitting in the cool morning air; we climbed heart pumping Kings Canyon at dawn; we drove across 3 hours of bone jarring rutted red dusty road – Laura and I avidly discussing aboriginal anthropology, archaeology and cosmology all the way; we read aboriginal dreamtime stories and tried to decipher the 4 levels of meaning from the mundane children’s fables through to the law and metaphysics only known to the “men of high degree”.
Our arrival at Uluru meant our journey was nearly ended and marked our final transformation from quasi tourists to what I can only describe as a state of deep communion with the land – to the spirit of this place. As we sat atop a sand dune across from our hotel and gazed upon the magnificent monolith that is Uluru we watched an amazing vista unfold – dark clouds, curtains of rain and lightning played across the sky above ‘The Rock’ and as the sun was only minutes from setting a vivid rainbow – the Rainbow Serpent – reared straight up from the plain to the left of Uluru and declared itself to us. We who had followed our own imagining of its creation journey throughout our Northern Territory travels were seeing it in all its glory in the desert at the heart of Australia (a place where rain is rare). We felt we had been welcomed to this sacred place that is the home of the Rainbow Serpent and crossroads of many creation beings’ ancestral journeys across Australia.
Over the next few days we walked around the 9km base walk, delving into crevices and rock art sites and sacred waterholes and sensing the sacred energy of this place. We had hoped to do a body posture ritual somewhere at the base of Uluru but it became clear to all of us that this was not to be… that it was not appropriate for us to bring this practice to this potent place of aboriginal sacredness. On the chosen morning Laura awoke with an excruciating pain in her hip and visions from a dream of the Rainbow Serpent biting her and not letting go. I had woken in the night with a vision of two spikes of power emerging from a central core, one black and one white and with a sense that we must be careful not to enter into these powerful beams of energy. These special places around Uluru are still used for ceremony today much of which remains secret to the uninitiated. We all agreed that we would not mess with forces that we knew nothing of.
Instead we drove to Uluru in the pre-dawn darkness, with glimpses of lightning flickering in the distance to remind us of the Rainbow Serpent’s hold on this place, found a spot to meditate, to hold our power within and to project no power surges to offend… and watch the dawning light creep across the landscape. Mythic and poetic language seemed like the only appropriate way of describing this epic place.
Circle of sky framed by red cliffs…mirroring pool below.
Feeling the bigness of this place.
Disorienting. Distorting perspective and sense of scale.
Flipping ‘Up’ and ‘Down’.
Sky is pool and pool is sky.
Flipping my senses…
Hanging off the world like an ant on a rock.
Flipping all that I know on its head…
Pulling me under… pushing me out into the universe.
Later, in our hotel room, we created a ritual space to do the Feathered Serpent posture and each journeyed to that other state of reality that is still such an adventure. With some initial trepidation I felt myself slipping into trance where I had a visceral experience of being swallowed by a huge silver snake who then flung me out into a swirling galaxy towards a bliss point … that sacred point of geography where earth and sky meet … which in my altered state of consciousness I understood to be that place where you can slip through the edges of the universe into the sublime. I felt a flood of gratitude for this mysterious secret.
And I feel a flood of gratitude for having shared this epic journey with 3 such special people!
About the AuthorShelley Woodrow is an independent education consultant with 25 years of experience in the development, production and delivery of cross-curriculum education programs to the school and pre-school sector in Australia. With a degree in education and post-graduate diploma in Museum Studies, her professional experience is broad ranging. She is currently exploring her long term interests in Anthropology, Archaeology, Australian Indigenous Culture and Performance Art. Shelley Woodrow is an independent education consultant with 25 years of experience in the development, production and delivery of cross-curriculum education programs to the school and pre-school sector in Australia. With a degree in education and post-graduate diploma in Museum Studies, her professional experience is broad ranging. She is currently exploring her long term interests in Anthropology, Archaeology, Australian Indigenous Culture and Performance Art.