Learning to have ears



Little by little more and more people are referring to the place where the town of Alice Springs grew, as Mparntwe, the name of an Aboriginal estate that persists here and an important site within the area.

In the unyielding grand structures of the place – the river, the ranges, the hills – the power and stories of Mparntwe survive. Across much of the town area though, Country and its sacred trees and sites have been hemmed in, concreted over, built out, damaged and abused since colonisers arrived. Yet for Arrernte Traditional Owners the places, their narratives and cultural meaning are as present as ever.

“To their eyes it’s a town,” says one, “to our eyes, it’s a different vision, we see it as sacred. They see buildings, we don’t, we see places, things were there they can’t see.”

This speaker is one of a group of Arrernte Traditional Owners who came together to talk about Mparntwe as they live it – now, in the past and into the future. For as much as there have been grievous losses and as ignorance and prejudice will likely lead to more, Mparntwe will abide: “Our Country’s alive, forever, it’s there for life.”

Their recorded conversations have been put together as an audio tour called Awemele itelaretyeke, meaning “Listen to understand.” For $9 you can download it to your phone from an App store or Google Play. If lots of people do then the creators will see the app is valued and hopefully find ways to update it to keep up with new phone models.

Taking advantage of a recent cool and blustery morning, we met at the top of Untyeyetwelye, one of the Arrernte names for Anzac Hill, looking to experience more of the Country spread before us through Traditional Owners’ eyes. Or perhaps we should say, through their voices, guiding our gaze, informing our perceptions.

At the app’s first interpretive sign just below the crest of the hill, we started to listen.  Our re-orientation was immediate, with the Custodian calling out to Country as to another being, telling the spirits of the area “that everything’s all right …let them know he’s having a look around.”

Our first “look around” was to the south – antekerre – that much photographed view towards Ntaripe, known in English as Heavitree Gap.

Above: The early days of developing the app: Amelia Kngwarraye Turner points to Ntaripe. With her are Beth Sometimes, Stephen Kernan and Magdalene Marshall. Photo KF. 

In recent times, particularly in the debate over the location of the proposed national Aboriginal art gallery, we have heard about Ntaripe as an important gateway. Once Aboriginal visitors approaching Mparntwe from the south would wait for permission from senior male Traditional Owners before the visitors could come through. (There was a ceremonial acknowledgement of this protocol at the time of the Olympic Torch relay in 2000 but not since, to our knowledge.)

In the gallery debate, the protocol has been invoked as part of the reason for locating such a cultural project south of the gap. There has also been discussion about reinstating the protocol in some form as part of the gallery’s cultural approach.

We learned from the app that people coming from the north would also seek permission to enter the Mparntwe area. And how would the visitors communicate their request? “They made smokes” – lit a fire.

Today the practice persists among at least some people although the message probably goes via mobile phone. On the app, two of the Traditional Owners talk of the advance notice they sent through to communities in Western Australia when they were hoping to travel: “They gave us permission to go through there.”

Women weren’t allowed to come through Ntaripe: it was a “men’s place only” where sacred objects were kept in a cave, now obliterated by the railway track, according to one of the speakers. (In the past, women travelled into the area by alternative, longer routes.)

There was another reason for the area’s special status: “It was because of the water … I guess that’s why our Elders were strict on that, because of the water sources.” (Surface waters were so precious in these dry lands that they were carefully used and managed.)

Within the town area, there are women’s sacred places too, places men can’t talk about. One visible in southern vista from the hill is Akeyulerre, known in English as Billygoat Hill. The site has lent its name to the healing centre at its base, Akeyulerre Inc, credited as producers of the app, with funding support from Centrecorp. Beth Sometimes, a multi-lingual artist, interpreter and translator, was a key collaborator.

In the broader Alice Springs community, when a place’s sacred standing arises as an issue there is often cynical pushback or outright rejection. Frequently, this is based on the speaker’s blinkered view of any cultural practice other than their own, as well as on a denial of Central Australia’s colonial history. These tensions have come to the fore in the recently announced decision to close the ascent to Alhekulyele / Mt Gillen. (Some Traditional Owners have been asking people not to climb Alhekulyele for decades.)

Above: View from the hill to Alhekulyele / Mt Gillen across the Alice Springs industrial area. Photo FW.

It’s clear how offensive and frustrating Traditional Owners find such closed minds: “Some of them are ignorant to learn, ‘cause they’ve got no ears,” says one, “standing in their own way, gotta do this, do this, do this, but in reality they know which Country they living on … you got to respect it.”

This respect is more than an attitude, it’s a practice: “Wherever you go, whatever you touch make sure you place it back, pick up a rock, put it back where it is, you are on someone’s else Apmere – ground.” (Simple translations from the Arrernte dictionary of Apmere also include country, camp, region, home.)

“When you see the gum tree, it’s very old, very wise from Dreaming. Don’t just go there and burn it, you burning our Dreams away.”

“Trees are like people too…like us…White gum trees are very special for us, not only gum trees, all trees, because most of trees have got sacred names. You can use it for a purpose, things like Sorry business, medicine, smoking. These trees we’ve got here in Mparntwe, they’re useful for our knowledge and for our kids to pass it on.”

In town these long-established Arrernte ways of respecting Country are often in conflict with non-Arrernte ways or expectations – some people and organisations expect to be able to go wherever they like, do whatever they want to, all the more so if they’ve got power and money.

The ways in which Arrernte decisions are made are not well understood by the general population, so the app’s enlightening conversation (at tab 4) about how Arrernte governance works is particularly useful.

It would be wrong to imagine that it delivers neat definitions or anything like a flow chart of linear logic. An instructive and charming aspect of the listening experience is the inter-weaving of perspectives and the reach for ways of explaining something that is deeply ingrained for the speakers.

There is talk of the roles of Kwerterngerle – “a caretaker, looking after the place” – and Apmere-ke Artweye – “the big boss, you got to listen to him what he says.” (The masculine pronoun is used but the roles fall to women as well.)

These roles (often inadequately translated and undifferentiated as Custodian) are part and parcel of the Arrernte kinship system – Anpernirrentye. An example is given: at Sandy Bore homeland Peltharre and Kngwarraye are the skin groups of the story-owners: “They got the book in their hand, they hold the story.”

Angale and Ampetyane become the Kwerterngerle for the story-owners: “That’s how it works. We need each other for our Countries.”

“Kwerterngerle gotta be there when the stories are written with the Apmere-ke Artweye. You hold the land, this one manage the land. They got to know all that story and who’s in that story. Is my father in that story, or is my mother?”

“You got to know your cousin’s Country and vice versa, the story of the land, how people are connected …”

“They’re the caretakers and I’m the keeper, make sure everything’s done in a good way, make sure everything’s right …”

Although one speaker describes the Apmere-ke Artweye as “the big boss”, another speaker evokes the power of the Kwerterngerle: “Someone’s managing that Country, they got the power to say yes and no. Apmere-ke Artweye can say yes, Kwerterngerle can say no, and shut everything right off. He’s got a say, he can tell you what to do on your Country as well because he’s in charge for your Country when you’re not there. Kwerterngerle is very important for us Apmere-ke Artweye mob because without them we’ve got no foundations, sort of thing. So you get your permission from your Kwerterngerles.”

This is a much more complex picture of Arrernte decision-making for Country than is allowed for in standard consultation processes, where governments and others want the convenience of a single individual or representative body – often in a box-ticking exercise.

In the app’s conversations Traditional Owners speak plainly about what happened in the Centre historically:  “White people come and pushed [us] out, claimed land … invaded, not only this place but all over Australia … they could have asked where to put their cattle station, should have come and asked Traditional Owners.”

That kind of entitled land grab can still happen, even though it might be masked by some attempt at cultural acknowledgement.

Here’s how one speaker describes a recent example:

I don’t like it when they come to ask us for the names of the tracks they are on now. In the first place when they was talking about making bike tracks in the hills there, they should have come and consulted Traditional Owners. Now they want to come and ask if they can name the places in Arrernte, but they was ignorant in the first place not to come and ask people about that. Why think about it now?

There are special places there … my son Coco [Peter Wallace] tells me, shows me where the sites are, not going into the site, standing away, telling stories about the Land. So we don’t like people to go into the sites, so they can go in and destroy it … it’s the life story of our Creators.

Above: View from below the crest of the hill to Athnelke Ulpaye / Charles Creek and beyond towards the Telegraph Station, among “the first local sites of Arrernte settlement as traditional life was forcibly ended.” Photo by KF. 

For this article, length requires us to skip over whole sections of the Hill Tour, though we equally enjoyed them. We listened to a rich stream of Arrernte and English, layered with sounds from the environment as well as traditional and contemporary music. Among the offerings  are accounts of the forced move out to Arltunga and later Santa Teresa, before the return to Alice Springs in “the Freedom Ride days” when “everybody started moving from mission, decided to get their Apmere back”;  dreamy accounts of “the peace and quiet” people find when they get away from town out to their homelands, albeit having to contend with mosquitoes and flies and other “creepy crawlies” like centipedes, “long ones, big ones.”

There is an an account of the Ayeperenye Dreaming, traced across a vast stretch of Country; a dramatic account of the Mount Undoolya epic – Antulye, the “Shadow of the Eagle” – complete with the resonant singing of the late Edward Arranye Johnson. And there are many interesting commentaries on Arrernte language, including its rapid evolution such that old people today might ask, “What the hell you talking?”

The conversations are assembled around these themes but are not regimented. They take us into the lived experience of the speakers, with past and present, colonial impacts and Arrernte traditions and contemporary influences all interwoven.

A final short section offers a very lively take on the many ways of saying “Werte” and what it actually means – literally “what”, as in variously  “what’s up?”, “what’s happening?”, even “what’s wrong?” It is much more inquiring of the other person than the English “hello” to which Werte is often translated.

We had spent the better part of two hours by the time we finished the Hill Tour. It was rewarding to yield to the experience of listening rather than rushing to the next tourist spot or appointment. The app had covered a lot of ground, culturally speaking, all from the vantage point of the top of the hill. Not all of the sections are spite-specific, which went against expectations, yet some of those discussions we found the richest and it was good to listen to them while in the thrall of Country stretching out in every direction, sending its winds whipping around us.

This said, we had the benefit of a cool grey day. The crest of the hill is shadeless so taking the tour in the warm season would be best timed to early morning or evening. Or recommend it to visitors in the cool season.

Creators of the app made it primarily for their next generations, but many non-Arrernte people like us will want to listen to it. Some, particularly visitors, might struggle to understand all of the spoken Arrernte English and to grasp some of the geographies being referred to – a map might have been a useful incorporation. We also wondered if photos of the speakers might personalise it more for visitors and listeners who don’t know them.

In a cultural tour like this, encapsulated in relatively unmediated conversations – not a potted digest – it is a matter of going with the flow, accepting that not everything will be clear, while making the most of what has been generously offered.

Days later, what we have learned about the place we have lived in for decades, from those who know and hold Country in their bodies, stays with us.

At top: Getting ready to use the app, looking from the hill towards Ntaripe / Heavitree Gap. Photo FW. 

Below: Starting point for the tour, just below the crest of the hill, where the Aboriginal flag now flies year round (except for Anzac Day), after a protracted campaign. Photo KF. 


As well as the Hill Tour the app offers a CBD walking tour, which we look forward to doing sometime soon.

The people speaking on the tours are: Alison Furber, Amelia Kngwarraye Turner, Benedict Stevens, Edward (Arranye) Johnson (d), Felicity Hayes, Gabriel Kngwarraye Turner, Julie Hayes, Julie Hayes, Lorrayne Gorey, Magdalene Marshall, Margaret Kemarre Turner, Mervyn Rubuntja, Michael Gorey, Peter Coco Wallace, Shirley Kngwarraye Turner, Stephen Kernan, Veronica Kngwarraye Turner, William (Nookie) Lowah, Wyonna Palmer.

The app is a legacy project of the Apmere Angkentye-kenhe language project (2017-20), produced and contributed to by many Arrernte people, artists and supporters.

Last updated (minor edits) 21 December 2020, 10.38am.


  1. Thanks, Kieran, and to the traditional owners for sharing their cultural knowledge.
    Sadly, for too many newcomers, our town represents little more than an opportunity to make some money, as they remain oblivious to the cultural richness that surrounds them.
    I hope this app goes some way to a greater appreciation for local culture, major elements of which resonate with any conservation and sustainability-minded person, as well as reinforcing the importance of Culture in any society: in defining our identity, who we are, through our shared values.


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