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On a number of occasions in the past ten years, I have led groups to Aboriginal sacred sites in the central Australian desert. On these journeys, my companions and I have had powerful shamanic experiences. Here is my account of the first of these pilgrimages in 1999.

I approached the journey as a personal vision quest. I was aware that as soon as we reached the Aboriginal Homelands, local elders would be our guides. This would enable me to be silent most of the time, which is the way I like to go into the bush -- silent and
fully present to whatever chooses to reveal itself.

Walyinga (Cave Hill) was a powerful first destination, with the awareness we were camped alongside a Dreaming site into which we should not venture without guidance. Law Man Stanley joined us immediately on arrival, and I was thrilled when he launched right in with the story of the Seven Sisters and Wati Meru, he of the uncontrollable double penis.

Being led by Stanley and the other male elders to the caves and the water hole at daybreak on the second day was a moving experience. Here was the Seven Sisters Dreaming "made flesh" (or rock, if you prefer), the land carved and shaped by the Creation Ancestors. In the caves, I felt the presence of the spirits to whom Stanley called to herald our coming. Here I saw for the first time Aboriginal rock paintings of which I have read so much, and, unlike those in Kakadu, these are still repainted regularly. It
was awesome to stand in the presence of a living spiritual tradition that stretches back unbroken forty or sixty thousand years.

This feeling of awe at ancient continuities was reinforced for me throughout the week: By the grinding stones and silky smooth grinding indentations beside the rock holes. By the shards of ancient rock tools found along the hill margins. By the singing and dancing of the Ngintaka Tjukurpa (creation story and law) and our journey on that Songline to see the Ngintaka's shape-shifting in stone. By sitting in the circle of men beside the Atal rock hole to hear old Mick's account of his naked childhood in that very place, his family's encounter with their first white man and his "huge angry dog" (camel), and the spear battle that left teenage Mick seriously wounded and his father jailed. Awe at the ancient continuities was most powerfully reinforced by the accounts from both Stanley and Lee Brady of their recent encounters with the elusive "wild people," who are still living
naked in the old nomadic ways in that desert.

I was struck by the common core of shamanic practice worldwide. An example of this was Lee's story (told while painting us for dances) of his two spirit guardians, who come to alert him to danger. His description of the forms in which they manifest could have come from any of the world's shamanic traditions. Another example was what I learnt of the traditional healers among the Anangu women. The different ways in which they gain their healing vocation, their diverse "specialties" and their soul recovery journeys are all classic shamanic patterns.

A third example was the shape shifting, another core feature of shamanism. This, of course, is central to the Dreaming stories. The shape shifting of the Ancestor Spirits is given form in the landscape, as also when their Tjukurpa are danced. I was struck by the ability of the Anangu elders (men and women both) to shape shift. Apparently aged and creaky, with incredibly spindly legs and bony bare feet, they magically transform into lithe, rhythmic dancers.

Even more magically, the men from our group were transformed when we danced. This may not have been very apparent to the watching, singing women, but if they could have seen how sadly bad we were during our rehearsals (me worst of all, by far), they would have agreed that our final performances were shape-shifting miracles! Personally, I had the mysterious experience of being thoroughly energized by the body painting and the dances, when I had started out at the rehearsals feeling so tired that I doubted I could get through it.

Shamanism is nothing if not practical. It embodies the survival techniques which brought thousands of generations of our ancestors successfully through the millennia. It was impressive and humbling to observe the depth of ecological knowledge and bush skills demonstrated by the Anangu, even in the limited time we had with them. They moved with such ease from story telling and singing to practicalities like weather forecasting, bush tucker gathering and fire lighting with soaking firewood.

About the author:

Dr. John Broomfield, author of OTHER WAYS OF KNOWING: RECHARTING OUR FUTURE WITH AGELESS WISDOM, leads tours to Australia, New Zealand and India, and teaches shamanic workshops internationally. He and his wife Jo Imlay live in the remote Marlborough Sounds, New Zealand, where they have created a nature reserve on their forested 50 acre property. For more photos and information on “Songline of the Ancestor Spirit: An Aboriginal Australian Journey,” May 30-June 7, 2009; and “Creating the Life You Want: A Shamanic Workship,” New Zealand, February 9-15, 2009, visit or email John at


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