Who first heard the roar of the surf pounding on the sand of Goolwa Beach?  Who were the first men to come down the river, and on reaching the Lakes, to taste salt water, see the gulls circling overhead, and hear the mighty voice of the sea?

The history of the white man on the river, from Sturt’s first journey to the present day, amounts to little more than a hundred years.  Yet it has a past which belonged to a people who may have come here not long after the last Ice Age, the oldest people in the world. The tribes of the Murray valley,  the Lakes, the Coorong and Encounter Bay were a migration from the north-east, an earlier people than the desert tribes.  They were uncircumcised, contemptuously referred to as “the Narrinyerri” by the circumcised tribes of a later migration from the north-west.   A tremendous barrier of custom and tradition separated them; there was no inter—marrying.

The frontier was a line which curved from the north-east to the south-west just above Goolwa, and it was as bitterly disputed as frontiers the world over.  The initiation ceremonies which admitted the young boys of the Narrinyerri to full manhood were a matter of grease and red paint rather than the cruel mutilations to which the circumcised subjected their youths.  Yet these river tribes were strong and brave and very warlike, and they gave the white men far more trouble than the tribes of the Adelaide Plains. Their rich, copious food supply was largely responsible for their strength.  The myth of Nurrunderi and the Great Fish was the story of their origin.  In the dim past they had come down the River Murray, and the endless twists and turns of the tortuous river were recalled in this story:

In the beginning, Nurrunderi made all things.  He made the earth, and men to live on the earth, and to all men he gave land.  To the Old Men he gave the Law, and to the young men he gave weapons of war and hunting. He taught them the skills of the hunt that they and their children might live and grow fat.  Nurrunderi came from the far country between the rising and the midday sun. He was the mightiest of all hunters.  One day, standing in his bark canoe, he speared a great fish. So big was this fish that even Nurrunderi with all his strength could not kill him. The fish leapt forward, twisting this way and that.  Down the river he came, carrying the waters of the river before him, dragging the hunter behind him, this way and that.   Down the river came the fish, down the river came the mighty Nurrunderi, in towards the dying sun, down towards the cold lands.  At last the fish could go no further.  In its struggles it threw the water farther and farther out onto the land, till at last it  made a great shallow lake, and there Nurrunderi killed it.   Hungry and weary, the hunter took the fish to cook and eat it.  Then he said: “I cannot eat such a fish alone. Lo! this fish shall be all fish to all men who dwell here by these waters so that they need never be hungry.”  And tearing the huge fish into pieces he threw them in the waters of the lake. They became all the fish beloved of the  blackfeller that he speared from his canoe, except the sweetest fish of all, the tinuwarre.  So Nurrunderi stood beside the lakeshore and threw flat pebbles into the water and these became tinuwarre, the favourite food of the blackfeller.


The Narrinyerri people were made up of many tribes.  One of the most powerful and troublesome of these tribes was the Tanganekeld who lived along the Coorong, the long thin strip of water and sand running for some ninety miles to the east of the Murray mouth. The Tengenekeld sang a beautiful Dreamtime song of their coming to the Coorong:

In the long, long ago their fathers came out of the lend of the noonday sun. They came from Lerami, the inland scrub country, where there was no rain.

Weary and hungry they came, for all game had fled and the land was bare. The women were too weak to find roots with their digging sticks. The babies they carried weighed little, for their mothers‘ breasts were dry. The men had no flesh covering their bones. Many died, but the rest went on, seeking the promised land, the land of plenty.

As this people came out of Leremi to Tengi, the landward shore of the Coorong, they heard a terrible, roaring noise.  It was an unknown sound, terrifying in its strangeness, tremendous in its ceaseless roaring.  Many stood still, transfixed in terror.  Others rushed here and there in senseless panic.  The leader came forward and stood beside Pandalapi, the waters of the Coorong.

“What will you do now, oh my brothers?“ he asked, and in their language the question was, “Tanganwalognan?”.

Still they hesitated, overcome by panic.

“Tanganwalognan?” he cried once again. “Will you go back towards the land of the noonday sun, to the hot lands, where the soles of our feet crack and burn, and our children grow thin and die?  Or will you stay here beside Pandalapi where there is game for our spears, and sweet roots for the women’s digging sticks? Tanganwalognan?  What will you do now?”  Some said, “Let us go back. This mighty roar is more terrible than any noise we have ever heard. Some mighty spirit speaks to us in anger.” But the rest said, “Let us stay. We cannot go back; we shall die of hunger. Let us stay and face this terrible noise. This is good country, let us make it our home.” So the people stayed beside the waters of the Coorong, and they were called Tanganekeld, because of the words of their leader.

One song belongs to the Ramindjeri of Encounter Bay whose ‘ngaitye’ (totem) was the whale, and tells of the mother whale and her calf coming so close into land during rough weather that it seemed they must be washed ashore.

Evil-minded men of the tribe set their minds on wishing that mother and son would be stranded on the beach. They coveted the whale oil with greedy longing, wanting it for their bone poisons and body paints:

“Onto the beach, whale mother and son!

Hei ei ei!  Set the mind on wishing

Whale mother and son, onto the beach, hei ei!“


But the man of the whale ‘ngaitye’ , protects the sacred pair with his thoughts:

“Swim around the bay, mother and son!

Hei ei ei!  Set the mind on wishing

Mother and son around the hay! Hei ei!”

This song is interesting evidence of thought transmission. There are many such among the fragments we possess of blackfeller lore.


There are other delightful songs and myths that tell of the lakeshore and river people. One called “Neilun”, or “Netting”, tells of the long ago Dreamtime when all birds were men:

The fishing birds lived beside a lagoon at Tenetjanul, (known today as Murrayville).  They exhausted the fish in the lagoon and two gulls came south looking for better fishing grounds.  On reaching the Coorong they found the water salt, so they turned back to the north shore of Lake Alexandrina where they found calm, fresh water and ideal fishing. They cooked and dried some Murray Cod and took it back to the fisher folk at Tenetjanul, whereupon the whole flock, gulls, shags, coots, divers, pelicans, weet-weets and many other fishing birds, migrated to the Lake.

They made their way round the northern shore of the Lake fishing as they went. The pelicans manned the nets, the shags and divers went ahead to locate and turn the shoals of fish towards the nets, the gulls drove them into the meshes, and the coots swam about in the wake keeping the fish within the nets. The magpie and the crow followed on shore carrying firesticks, ready to strike camp, make a fire and cook the fish for the rest.

They fished till the pelicans‘ hands were numb with cold.

“Make a fire, and cook us some fish,“ they begged, but the magpie refused, saying,

“Not yet, go on a little further.”

So on they went, filling the nets over and over again, carrying the fish on strings threaded through their gills.

Each time they rested, they begged the magpie to make a fire, but each time the magpie refused, urging them on. Down the eastern shore they went, past the Narrows to Lake Albert, avoiding the salt lagoon near Pelican Point and the salt water of the Coorong.   Following the fresh water, eventually they reached the tall cliffs at Point Sturt, where they found animals of the Ramindjeri from Encounter Bay enjoying a warm camp fire.   By now all the fishing birds were very angry with the magpie.  “Make us our fire, magpie!” they shouted, and the little coots who had the job of sorting the fish, threw a lot of Bony Bream, a much despised fish, at the magpie.  “See! You only get Bony Bream!  That’s all the fish you’ll get!” the little birds called, and the magpie turned on them, chasing them and beating them with the fish, shouting at them as he chased them. Then he hit the crow with his firesticks and blackened him, then he beat the pelicans with the fish and covered them with white scales, and he finished up by falling into the ashes of his own fire, and blackening himself.

Then in the confusion all the Fishermen turned into birds.  The pelicans dived into the water taking their nets with them hanging from their beaks, to help with their fishing. The gulls took to the air where they could watch for food. The coots ran into the reeds to hide from the angry magpie, and the magpie stayed up on top of Point Sturt watching the others, (so typical of his habit of perching up on high places.)


This is a story of a lakeshore, freshwater people. The tribes kept to their own country. Those belonging to the lakes kept away from the Coorong, and the Ramindjeri at Encounter Bay kept away from the river. The Jaralde tribe of the lakeshore shunned saltwater. The story describes with great accuracy the habits of the birds and the fishing technique of both birds and men. The River Murray tribes were very skilled at making and using nets. They made them from certain reeds found at special places, and used them in different ways to catch both fish and birds,  especially duck.

They must have learned to net fish by watching the pelicans, and many a shoal of fish must have found its way into the blackfeller’s nets thanks to the activities of these wonderful birds!  According to one authority, the “Ngaitye” or totem of the Goolwa people was the pelican, and they venerated and protected him.   There seems to be some doubt as to who were the people of ‘’the Goolwa’.   It was rather the meeting place for several tribes of the Narrinyeri — the Jaralde from the Lakes, the Tanganekeld from the Coorong, the Ramindjeri from Encounter Bay, and several other tribes.   They met for initiation and marriage ceremonies, for corroborees, cockle feasts and other friendly gatherings. They quarrelled and fought there amongst themselves, and they fought near Goolwa against the circumcised tribes, and celebrated their victories beside the river. So the land beside the Goolwa was essentially a place of dance and song, of contest and battle. There was so much food.

Apart from the usual land food – bush creatures, roots and grubs, lizards and snakes –  the whole place teemed with water food: salt and freshwater fish, freshwater crays which they called “yabbies”, water birds and their eggs. Swans bred in millions in the sheltered waters, and their eggs were a great delicacy.

The greatest delicacy of all was the cockle, still known today as the Goolwa cockle. It has always been found in abundance all along the beach, and was there in such quantities that the local tribes allowed the Murray Valley natives to come down the river for cockle feasts and even to carry away as many as they could in their canoes.  The inland tribes travelled great distances down-river, and the cockle feasts were occasions of much dancing and jollification. They bartered women and exchanged useful articles. The inland tribes had hunting spears made from their own hardwoods; the coast and lakeshore tribes had all manner of nets made from reeds and also from certain roots that were cooked and then chewed by the women for hours.  The fibres were split and twisted into strands of varying thickness, then woven into symmetrical nets and baskets;  seaweeds were used too to fashion rain-proof cloaks.

These same Tanganakeld, with their skills and their abundant food supply, were dangerous enemies. Silent feet carried death along the beach at night, shod with shapeless shoes that left no prints: a dark figure, silent, invisible, carrying the deadly sliver of poisoned bone to plunge into the enemy’s neck. Before the sleeping man could wake to know his fate, his murderer had run back along the Coorong, mile after mile on the hard sand near the water’s edge, the tireless, shapeless feet bringing the man of the Tanganekeld to his tribe again before the first thin silver streak of dawn. He carried back the magic things, shoes of bark and human hair, smoked in a green wattle fire, bag of human hair to cover head and shoulders, coverings of kangaroo skin strips woven with rushes for arms and legs.  It was these same Tanganekeld who murdered the survivors of the brig “Maria” and the unfortunate Captain Barker who had been sent to look for another mouth to the Murray — the young officer of the Army who went to his lonely death beyond Barker’s Knoll on the far side of the river from his companions.  He had walked overland all the way from the mouth of the Onkaparinga, only to meet a silent death under the spears of the fierce dark men waiting for him when he swam the mouth of the Murray.   His blood stained the foam as the undertow sucked him out into the cold south sea, never to be seen again.


A death song of the Tanganekeld tells of their first encounter with white men:

A dream man, Kulda, came out of the sky like a flash of light from the Southern Cross. Over he went to the West, and making a great smoke signal he held up his hand to call the people. As he did so there was a sudden noise which hurt the ears, and with it another flash of light, The people said, “Listen to the great noise away in the west. Kulda makes it. See, in the west he makes it and death comes. Kulda beckons and the spirits of the dead follow him into the west, to the Island of the Spirits.”

This song of death is thought to refer to early casual visits of European ships, Whalers and sealers, long before the settlement of South Australia in the 1830’s. The noise and the flash must have been the firing of the guns, and the great sickness a smallpox epidemic which decimated the tribe.  Smallpox was ascribed by the blackfeller to the death-spirit Kulda who took all the dead to Kangaroo Island, the blackfeller Heaven.

It was there, after creating the world, that Nurrunderi made his way with his sons. To reach it he dived deep down under the sea, where he had to pass by a great fire.  One of his sons fell asleep on the way, and when Nurrunderi reached Heaven he realised that the boy had been left behind. Tying a line to his barbed spear, he threw the other end to his son, who caught it and so guided himself to his father.  From that time on, the son always threw the line to each man who died, to guide his soul to Nurrunderi. Nurrunderi by then was nearly blind. Whenever he felt a movement on the line he would ask: “Who comes, my son?“  If the man came from the people of the Goolwa or Encounter Bay,  Nurrunderi would take him to live with him in his own hut forever.

If the man came from another tribe, he had to keep his distance; so Nurrunderi was the special protector of the Goolwa people.  When the dead reached Wyirrewarra the old became young, the sick were healed, and they lived happily in the island where Nurrunderi waited to receive them. (It needs little imagination to see Heaven in the glory  the sunsets along this coast; no wonder the natives enshrined their deity in the radiant light of that inaccessible island to the west.)

Wyirrewarra was believed to be in the Sky as well as on Kangaroo Island. Like every other nomad people whose last remembered vision each night is the spread of the starlit sky, the Australian native had an accurate knowledge of the movements of the stars and planets, part of the accumulated wisdom of the old men.

His heaven was peopled with the spirits of the dead.  As the stars appeared one by one in the darkening sky, he believed they were the spirits of men leaving their huts to go about their nightly business of hunting, fishing, fighting and dancing, always moving on towards the west, the dwelling places of the dead.

He watched the sun come up in the east, making a golden path across the Goolwa, cutting the river from bank to bank at the equinox at the very point of the elbow; and he called Goolwa then “Nonpoonga”, or “Place of Sun on Water”.  He believed the sun was a beautiful wanton, hastening across the sky to the spirit land. As she set over the Island each evening all the spirits gathered to receive her. They tried to make her tarry with them, and those who were fortunate enough to win her favours gave her a rich mantle of red—kangaroo skins, which could he seen in the colours of the sunset clouds. As dawn approached she would set off on her journey once more, rising in the east clothed in her glorious red dress, the envy of every woman.  The moon was a wanton too. She followed the same path across the sky to Wyirrewarra where the spirits awaited her.  She could not bear to tear herself away from her lovers each night, so she grew thinner and thinner, gradually pining away until Nurrunderi in anger ordered. her to he driven out of heaven.  So she hid herself away and nourished herself with all manner of roots till at last she reappeared in the sky, growing

fatter and more beautiful each day — the two were synonymous to the blackfellers — only to take up her disastrous love life once more, and begin the cycle over again.


Now the tribes have faded away like the waning moon, never to reappear. The great heaps of cockle-shells in the sandhills, a few bones in a native burying-place, a few descendants fishing on the Lakes or moping at Point McLeay Mission and this is all.

A man who knows Goolwa well once found, moulded in a bank of seaweed, the form of a plump little child. Only the bones were left, but the shape of the child was complete, just as its sorrowing parents had laid it to rest — lulled by the everlasting roar of the waves which their ancestors had heard with such terror, but which had become a perpetual undertone to their daily lives, familiar and unheeded.  Of the shadow people, there is no-one left. There are none who remember.

They walked the beaches, the river banks, the sandhills and the lakeshores, but they vanished and left no footprints.

They out their bark canoes from the red gums, and went out on the water. How many of them? Who can say? They have vanished from the water, and only a scar in the bark of an old red gum tree remains to tell us of the brown-skinned men who lived beside the Lakes, the river and the sea.  They lit their fires and danced their tribal dances, but the ashes of their fires are cold, and there are none left to tell the history of the tribes in song and dance.

They put the smoke-dried bodies of their dead up into the sacred burial trees, but the last dry bone fell to the ground many years ago, and the sacred trees have long since been cut down.

“A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone…” This is a fitting epitaph for a people who lived a thousand ages, and are gone with the swift climax of an evening in this land of little twilight, this land that was theirs.

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