The Tears of Tjilbruke – Part 1

ev shadows


In January, 2011, I flew into my home town Adelaide, South Australia, on a visit.

I was a tourist in my own country, someone looking at the all-too-familiar through the eyes of a stranger.

Initially, before going to stay with my brother, I stayed for a few days at the Kingston park caravan park, about 10 kilometres south of Adelaide.

The caravan park was a long, narrow strip of ground sandwiched between a suburban beach and behind it, a series of high, worn down cliffs. On top of the cliffs was a look-out encircled by a chain-link fence. There were steps going up to it from the caravan park. Inside the chain-link fence was a bench seat and, a monument to commemorate a mythical aboriginal hero from the Dreamtime named Tjilbruke. There was also a fine view of the ocean and coastline. It was a good place to go at sunset – which I did on my first day at the caravan park after a long, heavy sleep.

The Tjilbruke monument was a tall phallic looking column of rough, yellow-brown rock with another, smaller, rock balanced on top of it. It was striking, especially given its conspicuous position, but hardly original (I’d seen this kind of thing before in other parts of the world). I found the plaque fixed to it base far more interesting. It provided the following information: the monument was unveiled in 1972 by the then Governor General of South Australia and was erected to officially recognise the existence in pre-white times, of the Tjilbruke Dreaming Trail.

The trail began where the Kingston Caravan Park was now located, where there had apparently been a spring (it seemed hard to imagine, a spring where now there was dry hard earth, gravel, and cabins and caravans packed together like sardines in a tin). The Tjilbruke Dreaming trail had followed the coast for some 80 kilometres. Tjilbruke was a mythical hero of the original inhabitants of Adelaide and its surrounding suburbs, the Kaurna people (‘Kaurna’ pronounced ‘Garna’ ) . He was a half-man half-ibis. In its general outlines, the myth-story ran like this:

‘One day Tjilbruke got word that his sister’s son had been speared to death for breaking a taboo against eating emus. The body of the dead youth was taken to the beach where today the Kingston Park Caravan Park is situated (and where before white settlement there was a spring). In accordance with ancient custom, the body was smoked and dried. On arriving at the beach, Tjilbruke gathered the body of his sister’s son in his arms and stricken with grief, began crying. He carried the body along the coast heading southwards. At regular intervals he stopped to take a rest and shed tears. At those places where he stopped, his tears formed springs and water holes. ‘

The story of Tjilbruke caught my imagination. I wanted to find out more about Tjilbruke and, the Kaurna people. 


One day, I went to the Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery in the South Australian Museum.

I have visited many museums in many parts of the world and this was easily one of the best museum displays I had seen. There were spears, boomerangs, woomeras, canoes, clubs, digging sticks, bark paintings, baskets and medicines collected by some of Australia’s greatest pioneering anthropologists during the early decades of the twentieth century when there were still tribes living outside the white man’s world. On a touch screen I found out about the physics of the flight of a boomerang, about aboriginal natural medicines, dreaming paths, initiation ceremonies, dancing and art. I got lost in some of the stories. The one about Murray really moved me. Murray was born in 1885 as a member of the Miriam tribe. There was a dispute between the Miriam and a station owner over a water hole. The station owner put strychnine in the water hole – a tried and trusty technique used by farmers all over Australia then – and wiped out the tribe, except for Murray. He didn’t drink the water. He was the only survivor. He left the area and went to Perth. He got a job and lived as the only survivor of an exterminated people in the white man’s world. The idea of that sent shivers down my spine. It also filled me with revulsion. And shame.

On a TV screen set into a wall, I watched old black and white film clips featuring everyday events in the lives of remote tribes of aborigines. A tribe of naked people drinking at a water hole, all of them lying flat on the ground with their heads stuck in the water; men stalking kangaroos with their spears and woomeras; boys smoking possums out of the inside of a gum tree; women and children collecting witchetty- grubs and honey ants, catching lizards, and birds, digging for roots and tubers; men sitting on the ground outside their wurlies making spears and boomerangs. I stood before the screen entranced: this was a rare and wonderful cinema experience. The sequence of clips reached the end and then repeated itself. I stood there for two complete cycles. Those film clips portrayed a way of life which so simple, so basic, it was truly breath-taking in the context of our super materialistic twentieth first century with its computers and mobile phones, its four-wheel drives and digital cameras, its fashion and its advertising and its throw away ‘culture’.

When these images were captured, film- making was in its infancy. Pioneering anthropologists were travelling out into the most remote areas of the Australian continent and using what was then state-of- the-art technology; they were recording a way of life which was about to vanish forever.

One name I continually came across was ‘Norman B. Tindale’.

Evidently he had played an important role in the museum’s history and in ensuring its unique status as what was accurately described in Lonely Planet’s ‘Aboriginal Australia’ as ‘one of the best ethnographic exhibitions in the world.’




One thing I noticed however was the paucity of Kaurna artefacts.

This seemed to me to be a remarkable situation considering that the Kaurna had occupied the very land on which Adelaide and its suburbs were situated. Indeed, sometimes the Kaurna were called the ‘Adelaide tribe’.

I went to the inquiries desk and asked if there was someone who could help me here. I was given the phone number of an academic anthropologist. I made an appointment and a few days later, got to meet her and had a chat.

She explained to me that it was because the Kaurna had occupied the land on which Adelaide and its suburbs were situated that there was so little left over of their culture and way of life. The changes had been devastating and had come quickly. Other tribes, particularly those living in the vast empty expanses of the state, where far fewer whites had settled, managed to hang on to their way of life for far longer; consequently, anthropologists were able to study them and collect artefacts.

As a parting gesture, she gave me a copy of an academic article published in 1987. It was entitled: ‘The wanderings of Tjirbruke: A tale of the Kaurna people of Adelaide’ (the spelling of ‘Tjilbruke’ was different).

‘This is the best article about Tjilbruke.’

The author was Norman B. Tindale.


On the ground floor of the Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery, I found the sole remaining ‘relic’ of the Kaurna people: an enlarged black and white photo of the last surviving full-blood Kaurna person: an old woman, in her late eighties, wearing a cloak made from wallaby and possum skins. The cloak was wrapped around her like a blanket. Only her face was visible. She had short, snowy white hair plastered down against her dark, deeply lined face. She was glassy-eyed and her mouth was thin-lipped and clenched. She looked sad and serious.

A block of text under the photo read:

‘Ivaritji was the daughter of Charlotte and Ityamaitpinna, also known as King Rodney. Ivaritji’s name meant ‘gentle, misty rain’. In the early 1900’s, anthropologists considered that Ivaritji was the last person alive with detailed knowledge of Kaurna language and traditions. Born at Port Adelaide in the 1840’s, she lived in the Clarendon area south of Adelaide. Ivaritji saw the alienation of Kaurna lands and the effects of disease and mistreatment of her people.’

The photo was taken in 1928 by Tindale.


A year after Tindale took his photo of Ivaritji, she was dead.

With her passing went the last witness to a culture and a way of life which had existed for at least 50,000 years. For most of her life, she lived on mission stations a long way removed from her ancestral lands and in complete isolation from the outside world. In the final years of her life, she was hauled out of obscurity as the whites realised she was last person alive who had any knowledge of the culture, language and way of life of the Kaurna people before white settlement. At this point, she was living on ‘a fringe camp on an aboriginal reserve’, at the outskirts of the town of Moonta in the north of Yorke Peninsula. Until 1920, she had lived on a mission station south of Moonta, at Point Pearce. But she had married a black American (in those days called a ‘negro’) and the couple were not allowed to live on the mission reserve at Point Pearce because her husband was ‘not of aboriginal descent’, never mind that he was black or that she had lived for most of her life on mission stations or that the couple were in their 70’s. A race obsessed bureaucracy forced the couple to go elsewhere. They eked out a bare and rough existence in a small dwelling: it had ‘two rooms and was built of limestone and pug with dirt floors and a galvanised iron roof’: not exactly a palace and God only knows what summers must have been like in such a dwelling.

In late 1927, the Curator of the SA Museum, a man by the name of Hoskins, heard about Ivaritji and took the train to Moonta. What he found was a woman who in spite of her hard life and her age – she was well into her ‘80’s – was remarkably active, fully cogent, and had a keen sense of humour. Ivaritji was a living museum, one filled memories of the past. When she was a girl, the state of South Australia was being settled by the white British.

Hoskins invited Ivaritji to come to Adelaide and meet the members of the South Australian Anthropological Association. He offered to pay for her train fare and accommodation. It must have been a long trip for a woman in her late ‘80’s, this at a time when travel on a train would not have been too luxurious.

It was during this visit to Adelaide that she was invited to the South Australian Museum and met Norman B. Tindale.

This was a fateful meeting indeed: the last surviving member of the Kaurna people and a brilliant scientist quietly determined to re-draw the map of Australia – and re-write history.



Tindale’s photo of Ivaritji. She is wearing a cloak made of possum and wallaby hides. The Kaurna wore these cloaks during the winters when they migrated into the hills.


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