Australian Traveller reader is married through and ancient aboriginal ceremony not practiced for 50 years

Joined by fire, borne by wind

An ancient firestick wedding ceremony, fallen almost completely from use over the generations, takes place at the foot of the Flinders Ranges. AT joins the assembled families – but are we with hte north wind, or the south?

Let’s be honest, wedding ceremonies are usually an awful spectator sport. Brevity is a blessing, especially for the non-relations in the cheap seats, and the sooner things move on from the “I dos” to the free booze the better. This, however, was different.

Iga Warta, an oasis in the vast, dusty backyard of South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, means “the place of the native orange tree” in Yura Ngawarla – the language of the Adnyamathanha (“people of the hills”). This particular weekend it was also the site of a rather odd-looking wedding congregation; an eclectic ensemble gathered to experience one of only a handful of firestick ceremonies performed in more than half a century.

Matt, a veteran outback tour guide who’d been adopted by the Iga Warta family after many visits, had been invited to marry his partner Nicola in the traditional Adnyamathanha way. These were no novelty nuptials, though, and important protocols had to be followed – including a check to rule out any funny family business.

The once-nomadic Adnyamathanha are divided, according to their matriarchal line, into two moieties, the Mathari (south wind) and the Ararru (north wind). To safeguard against accidental incest, marriage is allowed only between couples of opposing winds. Happily, with Matt a Leongatha lad and Nicola hailing from England, there were no quibbles over their north/south credentials.

While they were being prepared for the ceremony – Nicola by the river with her Ararru sisters and Matt fireside with his Mathari men – two kangaroos kept a less gentle date with destiny. Freshly killed for the wedding feast, the bleeding beasts were buried beneath the fire to cook, as a camp elder described their special status in local lore.

As the sun dipped behind the chameleon flanks of the Flinders Ranges, bride and groom appeared from the direction of their respective winds. Painted with symbolic swirls and clad in traditional wedding clobber, they were accompanied by both blood and adopted relatives.

After passing through colourful concentric circles, painstakingly arranged, they sat opposite each other in the epicentre, separated by glowing embers in the sand. Guests and inquisitive camp dogs looked on as the elders reminded them of the solemnity of their commitment: this was for keeps, divorce doesn’t feature in the local lingo, and when you marry someone you also wed their family.

No-one fidgeted. Even the kids, normally as irrepressible as their tangled hairstyles, were stilled by the moment. They’d never seen anything like this before. More surprisingly, neither had most of the local adults. Some had driven for hours to witness strangers getting hitched in a manner once enshrined in their culture for tens of thousands of years. Since 1948, firestick marriages had given way to the cross and chapel here, as European settlement and missionary zeal squeezed traditional life beyond endurance, and the Muda (dreaming) became a nightmare.

But practices which predate the pyramids by many millennia are slowly being reinvigorated. Clem Coulthard, one of the last initiated Adnyamathanha men, pioneered “cultural tourism” in the region, and at Iga Warta his family continue to carry the torch. Quite literally in the case of Clem’s brother and today’s master of ceremonies, Uncle Ron Coulthard, who proudly lit the firestick from the coals and sealed the union.

As Uncle Ron walked the married couple back through orbits of ochre, the women broke into song, their voices resonating across the landscape with a poignancy that sparked a mass outbreak of goose pimples, despite the evening’s warmth. Soon, a more raucous sound erupted, as the north and south wind groups kicked off the after party with a good-natured tussle over who had put on a better show.

With the roo meat and damper devoured and the bones thrown to the dogs, the traditional part of the proceedings was abruptly put to bed. Whether it could sleep peacefully was another matter, as suddenly the Flinders Ranges shuddered to the sounds of a disco. It was a brutal way to be snapped out of 30,000-year-old cultural lesson, but hey – the beer was flowing and the kids were loving it.

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