Wednesday 24 August 2022


The title caught the eye: caged ghosts? The promotional golden sticker told that the book had been awarded a history prize: there was something mysteriously interesting here – the haunting photograph on the cover hinted at the ‘history’ subject that seemed differently intriguing: this was no ordinary history. The book was picked up and perused. As the pages turned, one saw beautiful maps, and drawings and photographs of sandstone engravings and carved trees; old and new intertwined, considered. It was obvious that the book was about the travails of the Australian aboriginal and place: it was purchased.

We were travelling through Coffs Harbour on our way to a family gathering when we stopped for lunch. This is GUMBAYNGGIRR country. It was on the stroll back to the car that we passed the bookstore and discovered a well-stocked shop. It was a pleasure to see such a good collection of books; the book Cage of Ghosts by Jon Rhodes was a surprise find in amongst an array of other titles on the subject of Aboriginal Australia – category ‘INDIGENOUS’ - but the discovery should not have been unexpected in such a well-stocked outlet. Here one could find many things of interest: it was no cheap, discount, remainder store that many bookshops seem to have become these Internet days. A.C. Grayling’s collection of writings in NON-FICTION had looked tempting, but it was the caged ghosts that caught the imagination. One soon understood the reference: known remnants of aboriginal art and artefacts in our environments were divided from us for protection, separated from us, screened off - ‘caged’ - into a ‘museum’ place, changing it; turning living visions into exhibits caging ghosts of distant pasts. One needed to know of this; there was a sense of richness, of love and protest here; of cynicism and desire; of commitment and determination: and then there were the unknown pieces in places yet to be discovered, let alone understood, that kept one thinking.

Jon Rhodes

The intent of the text was made clear when one read, amongst other scheduled Aboriginal places, the reference to the Bora at Burleigh Heads^ in the introduction. We live at Burleigh Heads. With some embarrassment, one asked “Where was the bora?” One can recall knowing of it once, in less developed times when modest, uncluttered fibro beach shacks lined the track parallel to the sandy edges of the beaches; one had heard of it, but its location could not be recalled. Where was it? Google Earth was opened. It turned out that the Jebribillum Bora was on the dual highway on the northern side of Burleigh Heads, just up the road from MacDonalds, framed by highrise development on the east, with Aldi nearby on the north. It was a place that had been passed hundreds of times without a blink; without any recognition or understanding; without any tingle down the spine, or any humiliation of embarrassment. It had been forgotten, swamped by the toing and froing of the distractions of daily modern life.

Google Earth Street View revealed the bora as a bland, fenced off area of a park, defining a no-man’s-land zone that looked no different to the remainder of the turfed park space. What might one be looking at? The low wooden barrier typical of 1960’s park post and beam log barrier detailing, took a segmented semi-circular form that unhappily appeared to crash awkwardly into the road alignment at the footpath that also had the same fencing barrier. It looked as if the whole circle did not now fit, but what was left had been assumed to be near enough as an exhibit to recognise this sort of thing. What happened in this place?^ For what and for whom might it have been a ceremonial centre? Where was the power of place today?** Why here? What have we done to the aboriginal world? What might the Burleigh environment we know today once have been? What do we not know? Where do we walk; on what? Where do we drive; over what?

One became aware of the great gap between two worlds, with one riding roughshod over the other, bizarrely getting and spending, laying waste the powers# that once held significance and meaning at this centre. The book took on a new, more urgent, timely meaning. One looked forward to reading it. There seemed to be something of a questioning mind here, worried about how we have been so careless with significance; so arrogant with place and purpose; so dismissive of a different sensibility.

Rhodes’ interest in this subject was stimulated by a small book he saw in Alice Springs. This publication had drawings of the landscape around Alice with the aboriginal names of the landmark elements annotated. Place was known, named, and contained stories; it was never just something pretty and picturesque. There was depth and meaning latent in our environment that we know very little about. How could one even discover how to feel about such things now when our society has developed into such a greedy, self-centred, ‘fake’ entity that sees landscape simply as real estate blurb for hype and heightened prices: “glorious, relaxing mountain views,” etc.; or something for indulgent holiday enjoyments: “bask on the stretches of white sandy beach beside the turquoise waters with your martini.”

One thought of the ancient landscapes of the world; more intimately, that of the Shetland Islands to the north of mainland Scotland. Here each nook and cranny, each recess and swelling, is named. It is place that has been occupied for thousands of years by the Picts and the Vikings; place that has stories and meaning; place that has been lived in and walked over by many more than ourselves that we seem so concerned with these days, being carelessly self-centred. Foolishly, one had not even thought of Australia in these terms, thinking loosely about only a few locations, perhaps street names, that carried an aboriginal sounding reference that would have been labelled by the white settlers, perhaps phonetically. Have our brazen Colonial roots recreated its own self-centred history? Our history books told us nothing about this understanding of place; this unique wholeness in experience in our environment.

It was a day later that there was time: one could settle down and start reading this intriguing publication and know its content more intimately. The book is really a series of quests setting out tasks to respond to various questions and propositions. It is a remarkable document that records Rhodes persistence and rigour.

One is left knowing a little more about our historic environment, but there are many questions left that need attention. It is truly staggering how Australia’s best record of aboriginal sandstone engravings has just disappeared; that the offer to have them as part of a collection was apparently ignored. It is remarkable to get some understanding of what the engravings might have meant when the Big Man is perhaps revealed as a guide to water and ochre, when the proposition is put: we will go and stand and look in the same direction as the Big Man and test the theory. Body and soul are engaged here in place, such that bodies today can possibly make something of the significance. It is a shame that we may never know how the soul was once encountered, or how it might be re-engaged. We seem immune to any real understanding of the carved trees beyond seeing them as ‘interesting sculptures’ for museum exhibits that come with pseudo-explanatory texts that say very little that is not simply descriptive, e.g.: “found at … on . . .; carved from such and such a tree . . .; size . . .; perhaps burial markers.” Alarmingly, one sees that the local university – of Queensland – was involved in collecting these astonishing symbols, removing them from their context for a life of display – caged; isolated.

Rhodes’ photographs tell the general story: the eerie shadow of the jogger shading the sandstone engraving of a shark that is just not seen, let alone recognised by eyes that look only at the performance watch looking for a PB; the post placed centrally on top of one engraving, as though it just was not there;* likewise with the fence. There needs to be no comment with these images as they sum up our history of the treatment of our indigenous Australians.

Bill Neidjie

Bill Neidjie, who came to be known as Kakadu Man, decided to transcribe the elders’ oral stories so that they might not be lost. He was aware of the dwindling power of this knowledge with young folk having more interest in western matters and their quirky diversions. So we have his marvellous little books that tell us about his understanding of the world.## It is a start; books like Rhodes’ Cage of Ghosts only highlight how much more we do not know. We should be humiliated; but politicians today have taught us how never to be shamed; how bold spin and cheeky lies can frame fake intents to make them ‘true.’ We need to rediscover the mystery and magic of place in life if we are going to have any hope of understanding our aboriginal world, and be prepared to feel shame.

Strangely, it was in the Shetland Islands that a book on the aboriginal pathways in south-east Australia was discovered – in a charity shop in Lerwick. Just how it ended up there is anyone’s guess; but it does add yet another layer of understanding to our aboriginal place, making the concept of terra nullius an astonishing farce – pure, unadulerated spin. The map in the frontispiece of Rhodes’ book highlights the completeness of aboriginal settlement in this country. The vacancy refers more to our understanding than anything else. More needs to be done so that we can all recognise something of the richness of place as understood and lived by our aboriginal predecessors. The publication is yet another excellent step in this direction. It is readable, intriguing, and powerful, making it an excellent introduction for those starting on the path of caring, sensitive recognition, if not meaningful understanding.

Rhodes has given us more than just hollow, meaningless words; smartly spun phrases; bland, political gestures; and crude, nonsensical clichés that pretend to acknowledge, understand, and respect our aboriginal past once in a while when convenient to us. He has shown us how we all share place that has been known and lived, and suggests an attitude and interest that can seek out its re-enchantment with a raw rigour - lest we forget. We have to learn how to live in this special place; we have to learn its history, and not indulge in our own shallow, gratifying fantasies that disfigure both time and place to suit ourselves.

Stone memorial for Indigenous 'diggers': see - 


See: Secret tribal men’s business -

See also:

and -


Judith Wright expresses the sense of loss and meaning in her poem:

Bora Ring

by Judith Wright

The song is gone; the dance
is secret with the dancers in the earth,
the ritual useless, and the tribal story
lost in an alien tale.

Only the grass stands up
to mark the dancing-ring; the apple-gums
posture and mime a past corroboree,
murmur a broken chant.

The hunter is gone; the spear
is splintered underground; the painted bodies
a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot.
The nomad feet are still.

Only the rider's heart
halts at a sightless shadow, an unsaid word
that fastens in the blood of the ancient curse,
the fear as old as Cain.


Apologies to Wordsworth:

The World Is Too Much With Us


The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.


This is not unique to Australia. On the island of Unst in the Shetland Islands, above Crussafield, the slope that rises north from Baliasta - the site of the first Althing in Shetland - there is a mysterious arrangement of stones. Four slabs of stone have been placed standing up low to form a box about a metre square. On the Ordinance Survey Map of the island, this location is called The Giant’s Grave. No one knows much more about it; but, in the middle of this ‘box,’ the local crofter has placed a straining corner post for his fence. It is an astonishing insult to history, and archaeology.


Bill Neidjie’s books:

Australia’ Kakadu Man: Bill Neidjie

Story About Feeling

Old Man’s Story: The Last Thoughts of Bill Neidjie.

Gagadju Man: Kakadu National

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