A Dreaming Story: Ponde and Murray

By Jarred Walker June 27, 2022
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The Murray cod is central to the Dreaming of South Australia’s Riverland, but sadly today is seldom seen. We investigate.

Your voice could echo for miles in the backwaters of the Murray River and dance with the birds that soar across the bold blue winter sky.

It is here, in this riverland idyll, that I first learnt about Ngurunderi, one of the great ancestral Dreaming ‘heroes’ of the local Ngarrindjeri people, and Ponde, the Murray cod he hunted. Between the two of them, they shaped the river and landscape through which it wends.

As I sit on the banks of the Murray and watch fish pop walk-on-water insects into their gobby mouths, I muse on the story and the fact that the mighty Ponde’s ancestors (known as ponde by locals) are now a critically endangered species. The latter has significant ramifications not only for the South Australian Riverland’s Indigenous people and their Dreaming, but for the river itself and the many who glean an income from it.

I spent four days exploring the region and spoke to a multitude of people who reiterated the importance of the area’s creeks and wetlands – they’re fundamental to the Ngurunderi Dreaming Story and the stability of the ponde, which has been decimated over the years thanks to the introduction of European carp.

Murray cod farmer Brenton Parker. Image credit: Jarred Walker

On my first day, I met Brenton Parker, a sustainable Murray cod farmer from Renmark. Brenton detailed the growing process, from collecting the cod eggs from his dam during the breeding season in October to harvesting them four years later. Brenton stocks restaurants in SA with sustainably farmed fish, but also provides the rare opportunity for people to see the native fish up close.

“I’ve run this business for just over 12 years, and it’s because they’re beautiful native fish,” he said. “The colour of them fascinates me.”

Brenton said that he occasionally sees big ones in the river, but “most people only catch really small ones at the moment”.

This size issue is reflected on Brenton’s farm. “The success rate of these fish is very small; it’s very challenging to breed them,” he says. And in open river waters, where carp are plentiful and ravenous, it’s proven a ponde’s lifespan is limited.

The following day I drove 20km north to Calperum Station, a conservation property extending 242,800 hectares along the Murray. The rugged landscape showcases how beautiful the outback can look after heavy rain – dead trees shoot skyward from a bright green carpet of native grasses and shrubs, punctuated too by some of the largest river red gum trees I’ve ever seen. Here I met Ngarrindjeri man, Jeremy Sumner, who guided me through the historical landmarks of the local Erawirung people, including where they built canoes – used for travel and hunting – from river red gums. Jeremy works alongside ecologists at Calperum Station to manage and protect fauna and flora and providing school students and tourists the opportunity to visit, stay and learn.

It was Jeremy who first explained Ngurunderi’s, Dreaming Story to me. An ancestral spirit that sometimes takes shape as a human, Ngurunderi is the shaper of land, laws and creatures.

“I have a deep connection with the river, Coorong and Dreamtime,” he said. “I spent a lot of time learning on the waters with my brothers.”

Ngarrindjeri man Jeremy Sumner. Image credit: Jarred Walker

For Jeremy, this Dreaming Story highlights the importance of protecting the river’s fragile ecosystem. “I only saw my first ponde a year ago. As kids, we would walk along the rivers and lakes to only see carp. We would catch them and place them on land because they weren’t a part of the story – we understood Ngurunderi.”

Craig Walsh, a Sydney-based artist, knows the intrinsic value of Ponde to the people of the region and so created a remarkable installation along the Murray, called Illuminate in Depth 2022 Renmark. Made up of projections along the surface of the water, it shares the Dreaming story through the voice of Ngarrindjeri man and local Shane Karpany.

You can listen to Shane’s narration here:

Craig spoke to me about his journey and connection to the event and the river.

“We kept talking to people, and the cod kept coming up,” he said. “From fishermen to people at the museum, and especially the cultural leaders. That’s what I love about rivers; it’s the story around them. Whether it’s a mythology or other stories, there’s always this unknown space that lies below the surface.”

Craig explained the nature of his projections – it’s in three parts: “The whole idea is to spread this event out, so there are different points of interaction with the river itself.”

He hopes his projections will be a catalyst for telling the cultural story of the region’s Indigenous people. “It is important for reconciliation; it’s important for us, a sense of identity and a certain pride in what exists here, the relationship from the story to this river and a common species. So, it’s building all those links that will be fed back into a sort of identity for this community.”

Light art on the Murray. Image credit: Frankie the Creative

Craig recognises that no-one sees a Ponde anymore. “It’s a reality,” he said, “everyone talks about it. It’s a part of this culture across generations and nationalities.”

As I walked with Craig along the river, he talked about introducing the carp into his art projections. He wants people to begin the conversation around the evolution of the river and how we may have influenced our environment’s conditions. That night, Indigenous elders also recognised carp and brought it to Craig’s attention. He told me, “It’s a hard reality that we face.”

You can experience the Illuminate In Depth at Renmark riverfront until 2 July 2022.

For more information on the event, head to Illuminate Adelaide.