Scientific & Ecological Surveys
SONGLINES & SHARED JOURNEYS Knowledge Mapping the Simpson Desert

In Search Of Watti Watti


"As I travel through our beloved Wangkangurru lands I am always conscious of my grandfather, Watti Watti

- I want to see my country as he saw it, the smells, the sounds, the stories, the knowledge in the landscape,

I see him in the trees and the waterholes, I see him in the sandhills and the gibber plains,

he is my guide, he is my inspiration."


Don Rowlands OAM

Wangkangurru-Yarluyandi elder




This project is about one man's life-long journey to rediscover his cultural heritage and unlock the ancient stories hidden in its landscape.


Don Rowlands OAM, Wangkangurru-Yarluyandi elder, and Ranger-in-charge Munga-Thirri National Park lives in Birdsville Queensland.


Formerly known as the Simpson Desert National Park, the Munga-Thirri National Park, is the largest in Queensland, covering over 10,000 square kms. It is also the land of the 'Mikirri' desert people, the Wangkangurru.


Don's knowledge of the country, the flora, the fauna, and its connection to story is unsurpassed, he is one of the few traditional knowledge keepers left in his generation.

Don's grandfather, Watti Watti, was the last ritual leader of the Fish Mura Ceremony, a Wangkangurru elder and a custodian of these lands.


Over the years Don and his wife Lyn, have worked tirelessly as guides, both professionally and voluntarily with Australia's leading anthropologists, linguists, academics and researchers, taking them on country and supporting their important work.

Now, as Don is reaching retirement age his focus has become personal, and he feels a sense of urgency to finish his own research on his culture and record all he knows for future generations, continuing on the tradition of custodianship to the next generation.




"Our identity is connected to landscape, connected to country, and despite 150 years of it's destruction, pushed from our lands,

massacres, epidemics, and the break up of family through the forcible removal of children,

our resolve to hang onto and claim our culture has not been weakened."

Don Rowlands OAM


For millennia the Wangkangurru people maintained a fragile presence amongst the salt lakes, clay pans and sand dunes of north-eastern South Australia's channel country and Munga-Thirri (Simpson Desert) "tracing their way along a network of shallow wells, refining their elaborate songs and stories, perfecting a material culture austere and full of grace…"


First contact during the 1880's and 1890's bought systematic dispossession and a series of massacres (during significant ceremonial gatherings), which decimated the Wangkangurru family structure and traditional cultural practices.


Remaining Wangkangurru people deprived of the skills and leadership of their senior family members (rain-makers, tool-makers, lore men and women) began to flee the desert seeking shelter in the Lutheran mission at Killalpaninna or in pastoral camps including Muloorina, Mungeranie and Cowarie.


In the early 1920's, due to the start of WWI, the Lutheran mission at Killalpaninna, was closed down forcing families to be scattered again. Then there was a post-war influenza epidemic which hit the indigenous population taking many lives and causing a further break-down of cultural traditions and family structure.


Adding to this many children were forcibly removed from their families and either institutionalized which cut all contact and knowledge of family, culture and language, or they were sent, as young as 8 years old, to pastoral stations to work. The removal of children was the final breakdown of family and the passing on of Wankangurru people's oral histories.





'Songlines are known as navigational tracks, in that the elders or the trained Indigenous people will sing the landscape and therefore be able to move from location to location through it, and teach each other,' . . . 'At every location, each sacred site within that sung track, they perform rituals. Those rituals are repeated songs, and those songs encode the information.'

Lynne Kelly - The Memory Code



The songlines are the core of all cultural knowledge. The song narrates a journey marked by special sites, these stories hold all the knowledge needed for survival, from history and science, to customs and law, how to hunt, flora and fauna, geology, weather, astronomy, everything society needed to know was held in the songlines.


Through story, art, song and dance, the complexities of life were learnt. Traveling through the land reciting song and performing regular rituals and performances were crucial to ensure no knowledge was lost. Only the most knowledgeable elders knew them all, and could pass them on.


Each songline is a journey, and every journey has a story connected to specific natural landmarks that guide your way and act as waypoints. Each landmark will hold not only the next chapter of the story but a wealth of knowledge relating to the living things and the landscape you will encounter on the way.




In 2017, through Cultural Partnerships Australia, Don received funding from the South Australian Government's Stolen Generation Fund, to research relevant cultural records  (such as text, photographs, film etc), held in institutions nationally.


There are several significant collections of recordings, transcripts and photographs held in institutions in Canberra and Adelaide (National Museum, National Library, AIATSIS, the George Rose Collection, State Library SA & State Museum SA)


Don's quest is to take story back to country to fill in the gaps and in doing so add his own knowledge to the record. Part of this process has also been to create a digital 'keeping place' for his knowledge, which the AIATSIS has asked to hold in their National archives.





There is much work still to be done. To finish his work Don's dream is to complete a series of on country expeditions following major songlines to the most remote areas of Australia. This will be critical in connecting story to Don's knowledge of the natural landscape.


Because of Australian Desert Expeditions methodology of walking slowly through country, ADE has already been able to substantially contribute to the Knowledge Map of the Simpson Desert and is in a unique position to be able to contribute to "filling in the gaps" of the Watti Watti songline.


"Even in this day of 4WD travelling, the best way to see the deserts is to walk them. With the demise of the stockman and his horse, and the Aboriginal leaving of the Simpson and Western Deserts in the 1900s, very few people walk the remote desert any more for extended periods.

Consequently, the stories the desert holds have been missed

over the last few decades.

The desert deserves to be approached gently, so its mood is revealed.

The way people have always approached these (areas) was on foot,

as we have done today.

That reveals the country - the continuum of country."


ADE Founder & Executive Director Andrew Harper OAM FRGS

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