Aboriginal Games and Pastimes
Variations of this game were common to most Australian tribes.
A thick bark disc was rolled across a cleared space or down a slope in front of a row of players who each had a small spear 120-150 cm long. As the disc passed each one they tried to spear it. The winner was the one whose spear hit closest to the centre of the disc, which was 30-90 cm in diameter
One variation replaced the disc with two sticks tied together to form a cross. This was held vertically and thrown so that it bounced across the ground, representing a bounding wallaby, while the line of players tried to knock it down with their toy spears and boomerangs.
(You could try this with a hoop covered with paper. You will need to agree on some rules to keep everyone safe from spears.)
This game was played by people of the Lower Tully River in Queensland. A small gourd was selected, two holes drilled in each side, and a loop of string passed through them. The thumbs were inserted into the loops and the string twisted by spinning the ball. When the hands are pulled apart, the string unwinds, spinning the ball. Then the tension is quickly released, allowing the spinning ball to twist the string again. The ball can be kept spinning as long as you like.
The game was known as ngor-go after the type of gourd they used. Any sort of ball or disc will do, as long as it’s not too light.
A flat piece of wood, 7-15 cm long and 3-4 cm wide was attached, by means of a hole drilled in one end, to a piece of string. The string, sometimes made from the sinews of a kangaroo’s tail, was held in the hand and the wood swung over the head.
In most tribes the other end of the string was tied to a stick about 50 cm long. The stick was held firmly and the smaller piece whirled rapidly above the player, which produces a humming sound. One writer observed that “when the noise is loudest, the player gives the instrument a sudden turn, causing it to make a loud crack like a stockman’s whip.”
In northern central Queensland the toy was used by both sexes of any age. In other areas it was a plaything of men and boys only. On the Bloomfield River boys were allowed to play with them in public, but only after their first initiation ceremony. In many areas, females were forbidden to view the toy.
A larger bullroarer, up to 70 cm long, was used only on sacred occasions and not as a plaything.
A game which helped children remember and identify the surrounding landscape is played by the Walbiri tribe of the Northern Territory.
Start with just a few objects, but sometimes the Walbiri children had as many as fifty placed on the circle. You could use place names from around your town, or locations within the school grounds.
One observer remarked that Aboriginal Australians “are fond of spinning any suitable objects which fall into their hands.” Small pebbles, nuts, shells and fruits, together with manufactured spinning tops, were spun on any level surface by children and adults.
A small top was made, in many areas, by piercing a large seed with a twig.
The people of Cape Bedford in Queensland passed a small splinter through a flattened disk of beeswax
The Cooper Creek people moulded clay tops around small wooden pegs.
Elaborate tops were made by the Murray Island people in Torres Strait. These were carved out of stone, with a hole drilled through for a stick, and sometimes weighed up to 4 kg. The stone was 10-25 cm in diameter, decorated with paintings, and the stick 15-45 cm long. They held elaborate top-spinning competitions where onlookers sang special “top songs” while the competitors balanced their spinning tops on pieces of melon skin. Some could spin for up to 35 minutes!
What natural materials can you find to make a top?
The boys of the Arunndta and Aluridja tribes made a set of short, round sticks, tapered at both ends. These were laid out on the ground. Taking a longer stick, they hit one end of a small piece, making it bounce into the air. While it was airborne, they hit it again. The competition was to see who could hit a stick furthest.
(If you try this, you will need to take turns and make some safety rules.)
There were many variations on ball games played in different regions. In north-west Queensland a popular game was played by two teams. One team threw the ball back and forth between its members while the opposition tried to intercept it. The ball was thrown high in the air, and interceptions could only be made while the player was in the air. The game was known as “kangaroo-play” because the competitors resembled kangaroos in flight.
This game from the Northern Territory is played on a smooth, flat sandy area about 60 cm in diameter. The players cover their faces or walk away while the leader hides a small object about the size of a match head in the sand, carefully blowing to remove any disturbance in the sand. They must leave part of the object showing. The other players, each holding a long grass stalk, are given to chances to point it out, but are not allowed to scratch the surface. The person who finds it has the next turn at hiding it. If it is not found, the one who hid it is challenged to find it, but only after walking twice around the area. If they cannot find it someone else is chosen for the next turn.
Riddle telling was a popular pastime at adult gatherings. Brief songs were used to describe the things to be guessed, with the singer acting out various parts of the song.
Q. What is it that says, “You cannot help it; you will have to go and let me take your place; you cannot stay when I come”?
A. The grey hairs in a man’s beard to the black ones.
Q. What is it that goes along the creek, across the creek, underneath it, and along it again, but has left neither side?
A. The creeping water-weed.
Q. Who says, “You cannot leave me behind. You cannot walk or run away without me”?
A. A person’s feet.
Salter, A.S. “Games and Pastimes of the Australian Aboriginal”, Unpublished Masters Thesis, 1967.
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