The Devils Marbles are 393 km north of Alice Springs and 760 km south of Katherine. In other words, in the middle of nowhere. The Stuart Highway between Darwin/Katherine and Alice Springs goes right past the reserve.
The rocks vary in size, from 50 cm up to six metres across, and are strewn across 18 square kilometres. Many of them seem impossibly balanced on top of each other. They started out, many million years ago, when an upsurge of molten rock reached the surface, spread out and settled into a solid layer. That one block of granite developed horizontal and vertical cracks and split into many rectangular blocks. Over the following millions of years erosion wore away the edges and many became rounded.
The first time I saw the Devil’s Marbles I was 19 years old and travelling on a bus with fellow Teachers’ College students on a three week trip to the Red Centre. The year was 1970 and I remember being shocked by the graffiti, mainly painted initials, on some of the stones. We had recently left Alice Springs where we saw Flynn’s Memorial, with one of the marbles sitting on top. It too, bore the initials of unthinking visitors.
I had no idea in those days that the real name of the Devil’s Marbles was Karlu Karlu or that the stones were of special significance to the local Aboriginal people. I have since learned of one the most popular Dreamtime stories involving the rocks. The legend speaks of Arrange, an ancient ancestor of the local people who once walked through the area. As he passed through, he made a hair-string belt, which is a traditional garment worn by initiated Aboriginal men. When he began spinning the hair into strings, he dropped big clumps of them which then turned into the red boulders we see today.
Imagine the distress of local Aboriginal groups when in 1953 an eight tonne rock was taken from the area to be placed on John Flynn’s grave in Alice Springs.
John Flynn was a Presbyterian Church Minister who grew up with a desire to live and work in inland Australia. He was inspired by a letter he received shortly after WWI suggesting the solution to administering the spiritual, medical and social needs of inland people was the aeroplane. With the help of a bequest and a meeting with Hudson Fysh, a founder of Qantas, he was able to to launch the Aerial Medical Service (later known as the Flying Doctor Service).
In 1949, aged 70, Reverend John Flynn climbed Mt Gillen and declared this was the place he would like to be buried. Following his death in May 1951 Flynn’s family and friends located a burial site at the foot of Mt Gillen, 15km west of the township of Alice Springs.
Mrs Jean Flynn was motivated by the biblical story of the crucifixion in which a large rock was rolled across the entrance to the grave of Christ. At a meeting of community and church groups it was agreed that a rock would protect the ashes of the late Reverend John Flynn.
Following an unsuccessful search for a suitable rock in the nearby MacDonnell Ranges, one was located in the Devil’s Marbles and transported to the site of Flynn’s Grave by the Northern Territory Public Works Department without the consultation of traditional owners of that area.
Meetings were held in 1980 and 1981 between the Uniting Church and Aboriginal representatives and the search for an alternative stone was commenced. However controversy surrounding the removal of the rock from Flynn’s grave resulted in a stalemate.
It wasn’t until 1996 that negotiations once again commenced involving the Central Land Council, Uniting Church, the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority and the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory. An agreement was reached in October of that year for the marble to be returned to Karlu Karlu.
In early 1997 the Arrernte traditional owners of the site of Flynn’s grave began the search for an alternative rock. After considerable effort and input by all parties concerned, a suitable rock was identified in late 1998.
The stone came from an area of vacant crown land subject to the Alice Springs Native Title Claim and was removed in accordance with a certificate issued by the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority. The exchange of rocks was financed by Community Aid Abroad and all parties involved were satisfied and happy with the outcome.
The story of the stolen marble had been aired on SBS TV so we were aware of the controversy as we approached Karlu Karlu in 2001. We were towing our new A-van and although we didn’t camp overnight we were able to explore the area more thoroughly.
I was pleased to see all signs of graffiti removed as it had been painted over with a red ochre paint but was especially excited to identify the rock from John Flynn’s grave. It was unmarked but I noticed it was a different colour to the other rocks. My theory is that when the graffiti was removed the red colouration caused by oxidation was removed also.
The year was 2013. We were travelling with friends who had not seen Karlu Karlu before.
Again, because it was only lunchtime and we were booked into an Alice Springs Caravan Park we moved on. Those who have camped here overnight describe an almost surreal feeling as the moon rises over the Marbles. Maybe for us there will be a next time where we will experience this too, although at 3,150 kilometres from home it is not a trip we do too often.