June 27, 2022
Photo credit: Jarred Walker
Murray Cod are central to the Dreaming of South Australia’s Riverland, but sadly they are rarely seen today. We are investigating.
Your voice could echo for miles in the backwaters of the Murray River and dance with the birds soaring in the bold blue winter sky.
It was here, in this river idyll, that I first heard of Ngurunderi, one of the great Dreaming ancestral ‘heroes’ of the local Ngarrindjeri people, and of Ponde, the Murray cod he hunted. Between them, they shaped the river and the landscape it crosses.
As I sit on the banks of the Murray and watch fish leap from insects that walk on water in their gobby mouths, I reflect on history and how the ancestors of the mighty Ponde (known as named spawn by the locals) are now a critically endangered species. . The latter has significant ramifications not only for the South Australian Riverland Indigenous peoples and their dreams, but for the river itself and the many people who derive income from it.
I spent four days exploring the area and spoke to a multitude of people who reiterated the importance of the area’s streams and wetlands – they are fundamental to the story of Ngurunderi’s dream and stability of the pond, which has been decimated over the years thanks to the introduction of European carp.
On day one, I met Brenton Parker, a sustainable Murray cod farmer from Renmark. Brenton detailed the process of growing up, from collecting cod eggs from his mother during the breeding season in October to harvesting them four years later. Brenton stocks restaurants in South Africa with sustainably farmed fish, but also offers people the rare opportunity to see native fish up close.
“I’ve been running this business for a little over 12 years, and that’s because they are beautiful native fish,” he said. “The color of them fascinates me.”
Brenton said he sometimes sees big ones in the river, but “most people only catch really small ones at the moment.”
This size problem is reflected on the Brenton farm. “The success rate of these fish is very low; it’s very difficult to raise them,” he says. And in the open waters of rivers, where carp are abundant and voracious, there is evidence that the life of a pond is limited.
The next day I drove 20 km north to Calperum Station, a conservation property spanning 242,800 hectares along the Murray. The rugged landscape shows just how beautiful the outback can be after heavy rains – dead trees grow skyward from a bright green carpet of native grasses and shrubs, also punctuated by some of the most tall red river gum trees I have ever seen. Here I met the Ngarrindjeri man, Jeremy Sumner, who guided me through the historic landmarks of the local Erawirung people, including where they built canoes – used for travel and hunting – at from red river gums. Jeremy works alongside conservationists at Calperum Station to manage and protect wildlife and provide opportunities for school children and tourists to visit, stay and learn.
It was Jeremy who first explained Ngurunderi’s Dreaming Story to me. An ancestral spirit who sometimes takes form as a human, Ngurunderi is the shaper of land, laws, and creatures.
“I have a deep connection with the river, Coorong and Dreamtime,” he said. “I spent a lot of time learning about the waters with my brothers.”
For Jeremy, this Dreaming Story underlines the importance of protecting the fragile ecosystem of the river. “I only saw my first laying a year ago. As children, we walked along rivers and lakes only to see carp. We grabbed them and put them down because they weren’t part of the story – we understood Ngurunderi.
Craig Walsh, a Sydney-based artist, knows the intrinsic value of Ponde to locals and has therefore created a remarkable installation along the Murray, called Illuminate Deeply 2022 Renmark. Consisting of projections on the surface of the water, it shares the story of the Dream through the voice of the man Ngarrindjeri and the local Shane Karpany.
You can listen to Shane’s narration here:
Craig told me about his background and his connection to the event and the river.
“We kept talking to people and the cod just kept coming,” he said. “From the fishermen to the museum people, and especially the cultural organizers. That’s what I love about rivers; it’s the story around them. Whether it’s mythology or other stories, there’s always that unknown space lurking beneath the surface.
Craig explained the nature of his projections – it’s in three parts: “The idea is to spread out this event, so there are different points of interaction with the river itself.”
He hopes his screenings will serve as a catalyst to tell the cultural story of the region’s indigenous peoples. “It’s important for reconciliation; it’s important for us, a feeling of identity and a certain pride in what exists here, the relationship of history to this river and to a common species. So it’s building all these links that will be reinjected into a kind of identity for this community.
Craig acknowledges that no one sees a Ponde anymore. “It’s a reality, everyone talks about it. It is part of this culture across generations and nationalities.
As I was walking with Craig along the river, he talked about bringing carp into his artistic projections. He wants people to start a conversation about the evolution of the river and how we may have influenced the conditions in our environment. That night, the Aboriginal elders also recognized the carp and brought it to Craig’s attention. He said to me, “It’s a harsh reality that we are facing.
You can experience Illuminate in depth at Renmark riverside until July 2, 2022.
For more information on the event, visit Illuminate Adelaide.