Kumpupirntily: Lake Disappointment
I'm telling you that that cannibal mob is out there and they are no good.
Yunkurra Billy Atkins, Jigalong, 2008
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Kumpupirntily (Lake Disappointment). Photo: Tim Acker, 1997.
The power of the Jukurrpa, and of the ancestral beings whose actions shaped the world, remains present in the land. These ancestral beings, who often transformed into the landscapes they created, can also affect living people and events. Along the Canning Stock Route, this influence is felt most powerfully at Kumpupirntily (Lake Disappointment).
Kumpupirntily is a vast dry salt lake that dominates the country east of the Canning Stock Route, from wells 18 to 21. Explorer Frank Hann came across it in 1896. Having followed creeks that flowed inland in the hope of finding a freshwater lake, he named it after the disappointment he felt.
Hann knew nothing of Kumpupirntily's cultural importance. One of the most dangerous areas in the Western Desert, the lake is home to cannibal beings known as Ngayurnangalku (the word means 'will eat me'). The Ngayurnangalku live under the surface of the lake, in their own world, with its own sky and a sun that never sets. They are said to resemble people, except for their large fangs and the long curved fingernails they use to catch and hold their victims.
Cannibals and the Canning
Martu people will not set foot on the lake's salt-encrusted surface for fear of those who live beneath. According to Yunkurra Billy Atkins, even passing by can be dangerous:
When the wind is blowing we can go there, can go past. If the wind stops you can't go any further, because he is there.
Such places made life difficult for Aboriginal people working with the drovers. As a boy, Frank Gordon travelled the route several times with his parents:
[Cannibal] there, properly. Might kill me fellas. All the devil. We was frightened all the way along.
As they approached the lake, Aboriginal stockmen would muffle their horses' bells so as not to alert the cannibals to their presence. Yunkurra also describes how they sought the aid of local maparn (magic men):
Drovers used to get a maparn to go front, make a big wind come up so they could go through.
The cannibal Jukurrpa
In the Jukurrpa, when Ngayurnangalku were living all over the desert, they came together for a big meeting at Kumpupirntily, and debated whether or not they should stop eating people. Jeffrey James continues the story:
That night there was a baby born. They asked, 'Are we going to stop eating the people?' And they said, 'Yes, we going to stop,' and they asked the baby, newborn baby, and she said, 'No'. The little kid said, 'No, we can still carry on and continue eating peoples,' but this mob said, 'No, we're not going to touch'.
Following the baby, one group continued to be cannibals, dividing the Ngayurnangalku forever into 'good' and 'bad'. The bad people remained at Kumpupirntily, but the good were kept safe by 'bodyguards'.
The bodyguards were saving all the people. Sandhill in the middle of the lake separates good people and bad people.
Jakayu Biljabu and Dadda Samson, Martumili Artists, acrylic on linen, 122 x 77 cm
The Ngayurnangalku started round Mundawindi side. They went on their knees and wailed and crawled all the way to Lake Disappointment. Ngayurnangalku travelled all the way to Savory Creek from east and west. They stopped at Jilakurru and near Puntawarri. They travelled from long way, and stopped at Kumpupirntily.
Cannibal Story, about 2003
Billy Atkins, Martumili Artists, acrylic and pen on board, 60 x 121.1 cm
My grandfather went to Lake Disappointment ... that [cannibal] woman grabbed his arm and put her very long sharp fingernail through his wrist and paralysed him. [She] took him to a group of other cannibals, ready to cook him up to eat. My grandfather is a strong maparn [magic man]. Lucky for him, he got out of there. They were trying to kill him and eat him.
Kumpupirntily Cannibal Story, 2008
Billy Atkins, Martumili Artists, acrylic on canvas, 106.5 x 105.5 cm
It's dangerous, that Country. I've seen that [cannibal] man, he's there and I know it. I don't know how white people go over there. If they were to run into him he would eat them straight out. Kumpupirntily, that's a no good place ... leave it alone and have nothing to do with it at all. Just leave it how it is.
Yanjimi Peter Rowlands, Martumili Artists, acrylic on canvas , 150 x 106.5 cm
When some Ngayurnangalku decided they would keep eating people, their kind was forever after divided into the 'good' and the 'bad'. The bad remained cannibals at Kumpupirntily; the good were kept safe by ancestral 'bodyguards', who became landforms around the lake. Yanjimi's painting describes the story of the bodyguard Nganyangu, the ancestral bush turkey. No more of this story can be revealed.
Lake Disappointment, 2008
Yanjimi Peter Rowlands, Martumili Artists, acrylic on canvas, 75 x 36 cm
From there Nganyangu lived and walked in with other Ngayurnangalku and he became a bodyguard for the good people from Ngayurnangalku ... with his two wife and his two sons ... They all the bodyguards, they all maparn people.