Updated disclaimer: (25/11/2019) This post regards Kangaroo Island and a section makes reference to the Indigenous peoples connection to the island. In this section, I have made a considerable effort to gather and consolidate as much available information on the subject, which is largely derived from the Kaurna, Ngarridjeri, Ramindjeri and Peramangk Nations stories; archeological discovery and subsequent analysis; as well as anecdotal historical accounts. Beyond the stories of the Dreamtime and the First Nations custodians’ spiritual connection to the island, there is a considerable amount of ambiguity and conjecture regarding the history of the island’s inhabitants. I must stress – that out of the utmost respect to the Indigenous peoples; past, present and emerging – that I am not attempting to make any definitive conclusions about this, based upon the information I have available. On reflection now, I should have put this disclaimer up prior to publishing the post yesterday. To date, I have not been contacted by anyone regarding this post, but I felt compelled to provide this statement out of my respect and admiration for the First Nations peoples of Fleurieu and Kangaroo Island.
There’s been a bit of a break from the Communiqué posts since my month-long vacation back in October. As this long year draws to a close, my energies seems to be increasingly on the wane, but it would be shame not to cover some of my activities, observations and musings over the past couple of months. This instalment covers a very memorable trip to Kangaroo Island.
My partner and I visited Kangaroo Island over a one-week period in mid-October and spent the bulk of our time walking the five-stage Wilderness Trail. It’s a remarkable 65 kilometre hike through the vast Flinders Chase National Park, on the south western region of the island. I managed to make some field recordings along the way, but I was restricted to having only my handheld recorder (Olympus LS-100) on hand for recordings. It’s a great reliable recorder, but unfortunately it’s not great in windy conditions since the windjammer can’t do much to attenuate anything from a stiff breeze to raucous gale. In this respect, recordings from the coastline were write-offs; however, the recordings made in calmer climes favoured much better.
One such recording was made on our first day of the hike, which featured long stretches along the Rocky River. The Rocky River is (inexplicably) the only protected waterway in Australia, and as a result was absolutely pristine and teeming with life. An array of birdlife could be heard along the waterway; twittering and catching an abundance of bugs, whilst honeyeaters feasted on the flowers and wattles along the riverbanks. Aside from the birds, a regular sound was the bonk and plonk of Eastern Banjo Frogs.
Also known as Limnodynastes Dumerilli (or the ultra-cute Pobblebonk), these frogs are found across south eastern areas of Australia. They’re a common presence at my mum’s place in Yankalilla, especially when the Carrickalinga Creek is full of water. They are a burrowing frog, which means when it’s dry they will take shelter underground. Then there is its call, which doesn’t really sound much like a banjo at all. My old friend Alex (a banjo player, funnily enough) is firmly of this opinion, and says that you can’t get anymore unglamorous or unhip than being an animal associated with the banjo. As much as I like the instrument itself, I actually think the Banjo Frog sounds better than a banjo being plucked. I can’t say specifically what it sounds like, but it’s a lovely sound; and with absolute respect to the banjo, the call certainly possesses the resonant oomph and projection of that much maligned and misunderstood instrument.
When heard in conjunction with a natural environment – such as the Rocky River cascading over ancient glacier rocks – it’s a beautiful thing. In the recording below you can hear several of the frogs along the riverbank – some in the foreground, others on the near periphery. The calls punctuate so clearly and distinctly over the cascade of the water. There’s a discernible pattern of call-and-response, and given the acoustic reflections evident in this location, it can be a bit tricky to distinguish a call from that of an echo.
Island of the Dead, Distance & Long Time
The south western region of Kangaroo Island is remote. The only practical way to the island is via a ferry that leaves Cape Jervis, at the foot of the Fleurieu Peninsula. Once it arrives at KI’s second-largest town, Penneshaw it’s a 150 kilometre drive across the island to Flinders Chase. This was my first ever trip to KI, and this might seem a little odd if you knew that I grew up on the Fleurieu Peninsula; where on a clear day from Normanville Beach, you could often see the island on the horizon. When we were on the ferry, it was a peculiar feeling seeing the Fleurieu Peninsula recede into the distance; even more so when we landed in Penneshaw and I looked out to the Fleurieu from the beach. From this vantage it looked like another island.
The distance from Cape Jervis to Penneshaw across the waters of Backstairs Passage is approximately fifteen kilometres. Although our ferry trip was pretty calm going over (and a little choppy coming back), these waters are treacherous and can make for a difficult crossing in rougher conditions. When we were coming over on the ferry I thought about the Indigenous peoples of the Fleurieu and wondered if they ever attempted to make this crossing by canoe or raft.
What scant history and stories there are concerning the Indigenous peoples and their connection to KI would suggest that crossings didn’t happen – at least in the last 4,000 years. There are two plausible reasons. The first is fairly obvious, since the strong currents and tidal swells of Backstairs Passage would make such a crossing virtually impossible. The other reason may have something to do with the mainland peoples cultural and spiritual connection to the island.
Whilst the Indigenous connection with the Fleurieu Peninsula is comprehensive (Kaurna, Ngarridjeri, Ramindjeri, Peramangk), very little is known about Kangaroo Island, which the Ramindjeri people referred to as Karta, meaning ‘Island of the Dead’. The Ramindjeri believed that the creation being from the Dreamtime, Ngurundjeri crossed to the island before making passage to the Milky Way. It is believed that the spirits of the dead from a number of tribes follow his passage to the realm of the afterlife. It is also purported that the name ‘Island of the Dead’ may also be associated – in part – to the uncertain fate of the island’s inhabitants.
Kangaroo Island became an island 10,000 years ago following the last glacial period. It is understood that the island was last inhabited somewhere between 2000-4000 years ago. By this point, it is believed that the inhabitants were a relict population – numbering probably no more than 700 . The uncovering of campsites, tools and hammerstones in the early 1900s established that habitation went back as far as 16,000 years. At some point, the inhabitants abandoned the island or died out when sea levels rose to the extent that the island was completely separated from the mainland by the waters which now comprise Backstairs Passage. The island would be visited and named by European explorer, Matthew Flinders in 1802, with Nicolas Baudin mapping most of the island in the following months.
Reflecting on a human-less-ness in the Anthropocene
At several points along the Wilderness Trail, I thought about this absence of humans on the island over a span of between 2000 to 4000 years . It was a startling thing to contemplate, since I don’t think I’d ever been anywhere in the world in a landscape that could have been human-less for so long. This especially made an impression on me when we visited the beautiful Rocky River cascades. Walking over the ancient glacier rocks and listening to river’s cascade, with birds and frogs on the audible periphery, I imagined that what I was hearing could be a similar soundscape to what would have been occurring thousands of years ago. It’s obviously a more poetic reflection than anything empirical, but it was fascinating to contemplate. Such is the geographic remoteness of Flinders Chase – with very little flight path activity – the landscapes (and soundscapes) comprising Flinders Chase are by far the most human-less places I’ve probably ever visited in terms of the absence of any anthropogenic noise.
 Let’s assume approximately 2200-220 B.C to 1802 AD.
No drone of vehicles or machinery (on land or in the airspace) and very few human voices. As the experienced and well-travelled practitioners – such as the great Bernie Krause and Chris Watson – have lamented, parts of the world that are virtually free of anthropogenic sound are increasingly impinged upon by a noisy, chaotic and over-populated planet. In this respect, the western region of KI is very much a precious part of the world – suggestive of an eco-acoustic continuity spanning back tens of thousands of years.
In light of our precarious times too, when in a place like this, one can’t help but also project thoughts towards the future – imagining a post-human soundscape. Perhaps arriving sooner than we think.
Spending a week immersed in this relatively human-less soundscape was, at once startling and refreshing for my ears (as well as my heart and soul.) This was a very special trip.
I shall revisit KI again in the near – albeit uncertain – future.
There’s a lot more I wanted to cover in this post, but for the sake of brevity, I might carry over some of the other KI impressions into future instalments of the Communiqué. I’m sure they’ll find a place somewhere.