Karlu Karlu - The Devil’s Marbles

23 April 2011

It has been a sacred site for thousands of years known to the Kaytetye aboriginal people of Australia as Karlu Karlu and is known as such in four local languages.

When first seen by Europeans in the nineteenth century, however, it was not long before the place had been given a new name – The Devil’s Marbles.

Many of the ‘marbles’ are poised, almost at tipping point it seems and with spectacular visible effect.

An inscrutable, unfathomable place of awe-inspiring picturesque splendor, the seemingly unsteady heaps of colossal granite boulders, dazzling open skies and eye-piercing sunlight create an impression which is quite unforgettable.

Situated in the Northern Territory, just over a hundred kilometers from the nearest town of any size, Tennant Creek, the broad, shallow valley in which the stones can be found is littered with these huge, sometimes almost spherical granite boulders. It really does look as if some giant force (perhaps not the devil, however) had been idling the time away with a game of marbles and then perhaps had to hurry away, the game half finished.

Of course, the Kaytetye people who live in the area have their own stories about the boulders.  One myth which has built up over the years is that these boulders are thought to be the eggs of the Rainbow Serpent of aboriginal myth.  This, however, is not true – and is a product of something akin to New Age sensationalism.

Many ‘Dreaming’ stories have connections to Karlu Karlu.  However, these stories are passed on within the aboriginal community.  Those who do not belong to that community are not privy to most of the myths and legends associated with the place.

One story tells of Arrange, variously the Devil Man, who was travelling through the area.  As he walked he made a hair belt, which is worn by initiated men.  He would twirl the hair in to string but some of the clusters dropped from his hands. These became the boulders of Karlu Karlu. Upon his return to the area he spat on the ground, which formed more boulders.

The land was, as you might imagine, taken from the aboriginal people. Yet ownership was returned to what are known as Traditional Owners (hence the capitals) in 2008 and this event was marked with a ceremony held on the reserve.  Although it is leased back to the Australian Parks Service Karlu Karlu is now managed and run jointly. It has to be said, nevertheless, that despite the ownership being in dispute for decades, responsibility for the site is an unbroken tradition that has continued since creation time.

The formation of the marbles has taken that long, literally. Essentially there were two steps in their geological formation. Magma within the crust of the earth hardened millions of years in the past and so the granite was formed.  The layers of sandstone atop the granite place immense pressure upon it and as the Eath’s crust folded the granite was lifted upwards.

The sandstone surrounding the granite erodes, when exposed to the elements, much quicker and eventually the granite was almost above ground.  Without the sandstone on top and around it the pressure on the granite lessened, which meant that it expanded.  As it expanded it cracked, forming huge square blocks. You can still see this process going on - see the pictures above.

Now comes the second part of the story. Inevitable exposure to water meant that the rocks began to crumble, little by little. This formed a layer of very loose material around the base of the blocks which, when the rocks had surfaced completely, was washed and blown away.

As the millennia passed the rocks were weathered both chemically and mechanically. The rocks were rounded as chemical processes act with more effect on the edges of huge square boulders. This gives some of the rocks at least the look of an onion, with different layers exposed. The process is known as spheroidal weathering.

Some of the rocks have been split asunder, as if the devil himself lost the game of marbles and threw them to the ground in a tantrum.  However, this splitting is due to a process known as solarisation. It may be 93 million miles away but the when the sun sets the extreme heat of the day gives way to a bitter cold.  So, the rocks expand as the run rises and shrink as it sets.  This pressure has caused many of the rocks to crack – and some have even split in half.

Karlu Karlu is one of the oldest religious sites in the world which is still used for the same function.  It is visited often by the many Traditional Owners who live nearby and although visitors from outside their various communities are welcome, the site should be respected in much the same way you would a church or a mosque, should you visit them as a guest of those who worship, deliberate, philosophize and imagine within.



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