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Row, row, row the boat…(folklore)

Long ago in the distant past all the animals that are now in Australia lived in another land far beyond the sea; they were at that time in human form. One day they met together and decided to set out in a canoe in order to find better hunting grounds over the sea. The whale, who was much larger than any of the rest, had a bark canoe of great dimensions but would not lend it to any of the others. As the small canoes of the other animals were unfit for use far from the land, they kept watch daily in the hope that the whale might leave his boat, so that they could get it, and start away on their journey. The whale however always watched it closely and never let his guard down.

The starfish, a close friend of the whale, formed a plan with the other people to take the attention of the whale away from his canoe, and so give them a chance to steal it. One day, the starfish said to the whale: ‘You have a great many lice in your head; let me catch them and kill them for you.’ The whale, who had been much pestered with the parasites, readily agreed to his friend’s kind offer, and, tying up his canoe alongside a rock, they sat down. The starfish immediately gave the signal to some of the others, who assembled on the beach in readiness to sneak quietly into the canoe as soon as the whale was distracted.

The starfish rested the head of the whale in his lap and began to remove the lice from his head. The whale was lulled into passivity and did not notice the others quickly get into his canoe and push off shore. Now and then he would ask, ‘Is my canoe all right?’ The starfish in reply tapped a piece of loose bark near his leg and said, ‘Yes, this is it which I am tapping with my hand,’ and vigorously scratched near the whale’s ears so he could not hear the splashing of oars. This continued until the canoe was nearly out of sight, when suddenly the whale became agitated and jumped up. Seeing the canoe disappearing in the distance, he was furious at the betrayal of the starfish and beat him unmercifully. Jumping into the water, the whale then swam away after his canoe, and the starfish, mutilated and tattered, rolled off the rock on which they had been sitting, into the water, and lay on the sand at the bottom. It was this terrible attack of the whale which gave the starfish his present ragged appearance and his habit of keeping on the sea floor.

The whale pursued the canoe in a fury and spurted water into the air through the wound in the head he had received during his fight with the starfish, a practice which he has retained ever since. Although the whale swam strongly, the forearms of the koala pulled the oars with great strength for many days and nights until they finally sighted land and beached the canoe safely. The native companion bird, however, could not stay still and stamping his feet up and down made two deep holes in the canoe. As it was no longer of use, he pushed it a little way out to sea where it settled and became the small island known as Gan-man-gang near the entrance to the ocean of Lake Illawarra.

The whale, exhausted after his long swim, turned back along the coast. He still cruises there today with his descendants, spouting water furiously through the hole in his head.

Thurrawal tribe – from R.H. Mathews (Folklore of the Australian Aborigines)

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