© Max Merckenschlager

Winner, 2018 Betty Olle Award, Kyabram Victoria.

People of the Ngarrindjeri nation believe that Pondi the Dreamtime Cod was responsible for making Murrundi [the River Murray] during his frantic bid to escape the Spirit Hunter, Ngurunderi. The river’s sinuous shape and its rough limestone cliff-bends are lasting signs of Pondi’s flight. Ngurunderi formed a series of deep pools with his giant strides. One of his abandoned spears became Lenteilen [Long Island], midstream below Pomberuk [Murray Bridge]. Pondi’s fate was sealed near Tagalang [Tailem Bend], when another spear found its mark. Ngurunderi’s spirit brother Nepele helped dismember the great fish close to Raukkan, at the entrance to Kurrangk [the Coorong]. 

Pondi the cod from a lair in the Darling
could penetrate cloud with his opaline eyes.
When arm of The Hunter was poised for his movement,
Ngurunderi’s silhouette branded the skies.
With flick of a fin in contempt of his Seeker
and tortuous body as lithe as a snake,
the cod flashed away in a torrent of bubbles –
Ngurunderi’s spear left awash in his wake.

The banks of ‘The Gutter’ slid down to caress him,
the roots of its rivergums tickled his tail,
and high in their branches a thousand corellas
encouraged the Pondi with barrack and rail.
Above on the floodplain, a mob of gray kangaroos
looked up from browsing and tested the air.
Wheeling, they bounded in compass directions –
a blink and the grasslands were silent and bare.

The gap between fish and his Hunter had widened,
the hammer of heartbeat had smoothed to a hum,
when rounding the southernmost bend chasing freedom,
he found that the river was totally swum.
It wept into waters both shallow and spreading,
it tramped among bushland in trickle and leak.
But gathering nerve from the sounds of his Hunter,
the cod carved a furrow that ruptured the creek.

Each thrash of his body made sinewy progress,
each curve in Murrundi reflected his sweep;
the cliffs that he grouted and gouged from the limestone,
be-stained by his bloodtrails, were rugged and steep.
And down from the ramparts that Pondi had fashioned,
Ngurunderi’s bellowing rang in his ear,
as onwards He followed the serpentine ribbon,
retarding His quarry in whirlpools of fear.

Bruised and exhausted when swimming through Pomberuk,
Pondi was shaved by a spear as it passed.
Left in His haste by the Spirit Pursuer,
Lenteilin formed from the weapon He’d cast.
Ngurunderi closed for the kill nearing Tagalang,
hurling a spear that would splinter his spine,
but summoning strength for one last push to freedom,
the cod sliced a desperate, arrow-straight line.

Down to the lakes limping mortally wounded,
instinctively Pondi set course for the sea,
but Raukkan’s Nepele was warned by Ngurunderi,
Nepele, in-wait by a point of the Kurangk,
lay scanning the surface for ripple or fin.
The throb of a tail was the last in defiance –
the last in a battle that Spirits would win.

Pondi was slain and his body recovered;
displayed on a sandbar, his carcass was carved.
The fish of our rivers and oceans would issue
from segments of Pondi They quartered and halved.
Callop and Mulloway, Catfish and Silver Bream, Mullet –
all spawned from those pieces of cod.
Great fish of courage can trace back their lineage …
back to The Pondi – a fish for a God.

Pondi (pon-dee) the dreamtime cod
Ngurunderi (nuh-run-der-ee) the spirit hunter
Murrundi (muh-run-dee) River Murray
Lenteilen (lent-ee-len) Long Island, midstream below Pomberuk
Pomberuk (pom-ber-ook) Murray Bridge.
Tagalang (tag-a-lang) Tailem Bend
Nepele (nep-elly) Ngurunderi’s spirit brother
Raukkan (row-kon) (row, as in argument) Ngarrindjeri settlement
Kurangk (koo-rang) the Coorong

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