Like my parents, I grew up in small settlements in the outback – far from the towns and cities of white settlement. No books: just the sky and the land.
When I was young, kids from the local camps taught me to throw a boomerang and to track snakes and lizards through the desert sand and dry river beds, and told me their stories. Camp life was hard for the kids. They grew up quick. While their parents were some of the best stockmen and women in the district, the parents were plagued by drink, disease and despair.
It was not always that way. Before white settlement, the first people lived in distinct nations with unique languages and legal systems. The nations roughly encompassed river systems, bordered by mountainous country. Vestiges of the old laws remain, in the names of valleys, rivers, creeks and mountains.
In happier times, some travel between nations was permitted for trade, celebration or feasting. Inter-national agreements set terms and agreed timing for these occasions.
Within the inter-national agreements, travel was also permitted for limited legal reasons, allowing authorized hunters to track and recover or kill those running from justice. This task fell to Kadaitcha.
Kadaitcha were specialist lore holders of all the nations – particularly skilled in survival skills. Some moved between the nations, teaching and hunting.
Kadaitcha were not simply herbalists or hunters. They were part witch doctor, part assassin. They dispensed justice – with spears, boomerangs and deadly magic.
The camp kids knew frightening stories about the Kadaitcha. They become invisible when they put on their shoes made of kangaroo hide, with emu feathers glued together with blood. They can will a person to death or turn a person into a rock. A decade ago, around another camp fire, I was told how Mount Palerang was made stone by Kadaitcha – and all around her, the Monaro, the bodies of her victims. Frozen as hills as they fell, their naked bodies become visible as the mists burnt away.
Kadaitcha were not all bad. They make and trade aphrodisiacs and hallucinogens, compacts for healing physical wounds and diseases and mental anguish. They also could heal or hurt people, from afar, using a form of magic. Transference magic.
We don’t hear about aboriginal law men anymore. But the early governors of the colony of New South Wales knew them– and both Governors Brisbane and Darling actively sought to enlist them into the defense of the growing colony. Later they were an important part of the early Queensland Mounted Police. The names of these law men are noted in old colonial records – Wannamutta, Werannabe, Sir Watkin Wynne and Bilecla. Over the years the names have gradually faded from memory, in later colonial times, these men were referred to as black trackers.
Perhaps that is why we don’t hear about the Kadaitcha these days – we don’t believe in magic these days. The memory of the walkers has gradually faded – and some have started to wonder whether they ever existed.
But when you sit around a camp fire listening to the eucalyptus crackle and retelling the stories of the dreaming, they are as real as the flames warming your face.