Some writings I recently found of some early
experiences in the desert are contained in this entry. This was a memorable day
out in the bush with the Yuelamu mob.
Strange as it may seem, I was always apprehensive
whenever I was about to journey into the bush with the Aboriginal people of
Mount Allan. It wasn't that I feared for my safety; one wasn't likely to perish
with people who had survived for tens of thousands of years in the same
environment. The very centre of their culture revolved around the 'Dreamtime'
ancestors, who had created not only the land and all of its physical features,
but all forms of life, all varieties of food, and every source of that most
valuable of resources - water.
now only gathered to supplement the plentiful supply of food in the community
store, the people still knew comprehensively how to gather and to prepare
traditional bush tucker. My apprehension would begin with the constant demands
prior to leaving.
"Old Bob, we need a
billy," would be the cry from Mary Nungala, the boss of the women for the
museum/gallery I was curating for the Yuelamu Community. "And you gotta get a
axe, and cool drink, and chips......" and 'Old Bob' (a term of respect rather
than age) would have to dip into his pocket, or to book up some tucker on the
museum account at the store.
you got a billy at the camp we can use Mary? We can't just spend money all the
time when it isn't necessary........" And so we would to and fro before
departing - usually with three or four more passengers than we originally
intended to take. This trip was unusual, because two vehicles were going,
fortuitously as it turned out.
Morton Jabanardi, the 'boss' of the museum, was taking his 4WD Izuzu traytop
out, to gather the raw materials for carving artefacts. He had conned the money
for the vehicle out of museum funds, and I could only hope it would last a month
or two to keep him out of my hair for a while. Don, Fat Teddy (Mary's husband)
and myself were the only men, while the women were going to gather seeds of
various kinds, traditional bush tucker, but which was being gathered for
commercial reasons on this occasion. It seems there is a market for the seeds of
plants which can survive the harsh environment of the Tanami desert regions, in
the Middle East, where the hardy arid land varieties help to prevent
desertification. While the market was 'hot' i.e. the importers were desperate
for supplies, the women could get as much as $20 for a six gallon drum of seed
from the manager of the Yuendumu Mining Company, located in a small store in the
nearby (80k) Yuendumu Aboriginal Community. When there was an oversupply, the
price could drop to $2 a
The other vehicle was my
second-hand diesel Jackaroo, which had seen many a bush track, and was generally
reliable, though I was aware that the front wheel hubs needed servicing, so I
only had rear wheel drive.
with the last minute addition of a few kids, some coolamons, (traditional wooden
food carrying bowls) and some plastic tarpaulins, we set off to the east of the
Mount Allan Station, the traditional land of the Anmatjerre people. The
temperature was in the 40*degree celsius range. I took the community video
camera with me.
It was a track I
wasn't familiar with. A well enough defined red sandy road with occasional
wash-outs and dry creek crossings. Many of these tracks lead to remote bores,
which were maintained by my nephew, who knew all the tracks well, but I was in
the hands of my guides.
"Old Bob, you
gotta stop over there!" Mary informed me, pointing to a clump of mulga (acacia)
trees. I pulled up in the shade, and the women began to strip the smaller
branches from the trees, and to beat them on the tarpaulins they had spread on
the ground. The seed pods were shaken off, along with leaves, twigs and bark.
When a suitable amount had been collected the women would commence a graceful
winnowing process, sieving out the coarser material with their fingers, and
allowing the wind to blow the finer particles
"Olden days, Old Bob. You gotta
make video." and Old Bob would do as he was told. When this rough winnowing was
complete, the seed was transferred into buckets, and our journey continued. Mary
was complaining that the trees were not big enough, and Don reckoned that if we
were to cross the wide sandy creek we were following, we would find larger trees
on the other side. I was dubious about being able to cross the creek without my
4WD working, but Don was
"I'll go first Old Man. If
you get bogged I'll pull you out. No
I agreed, and Don engaged his
4WD, and ploughed into the sandy bed. Three quarters of the way across he was
bogged to the axles. When I checked Don's front wheel hubs, I realised that he
had inadvertently disengaged the front wheel drive. I showed him how to switch
the hubs to engage the front wheels. Don's inability to read and write
contributed to his inability to realise which setting was
"Don't worry Old Man, we'll get
him out. You sit in the shade."
with the video, as Anne Cook Nungarai, the older of Jack Cook's two wives, used
a coolamon to further winnow the collected seed. She would shake the coolamon
until the heavier material would gather on the low end, to be brushed away. At
other times she would toss the seed on the bowl into the air, allowing the finer
particles to blow away. Finally, a couple of small hands-full of clean seed
would emerge from the process, which had begun with a very large pile of
The young girls watched
intently, and sometimes helped, but no instructions were given. This is the way
such skills are learned, by observing and
Don and his wife Evelyn
toiled in the hot sun, digging the sand from the wheels. Finally they managed to
get across. Don called me across, but with the churned up sand I was only able
to get halfway, before bogging
"I've got a towrope Don, but it
won't reach unless you get back into the
"No Worries Old Man, I'll be
back soon." and he took off.
returned with a long strand of barbed wire he had found (I didn't ask where) and
proceeded to wrap it around my bull-bar, and then tied the other end to his tow
bar, clear of the creek. In no time I was across. I tried to undo the wire from
my bull-bar, but found it very sharp and awkward to handle. To my amazement, one
of the young girls set to, and untied it as one might untie a piece of
We continued to collect more
seed of various kinds, and I got into difficulty again when my car was unable to
gain traction on a sandy section of track. I could only move very slowly on the
loose sand , inching forward as the rear wheels slipped constantly. In no time
my temperature gauge was rising alarmingly. Don went back for the barbed tow
rope, and I found myself being unceremoniously towed along a track my car should
have handled with ease, and vowing to get my front wheel hubs checked at the
We stopped for
lunch soon after, and Fat Teddy, who had earlier hammed it up for my video, soon
had the billy bubbling over a fierce little fire. He pulled a can of fruit out
of the vehicle, and I realised there was no can opener.
"How you gonna open the can?" I asked.
"Easy Old Man," grinned Teddy, and
produced a butcher's knife, which ripped the can open in seconds.
"Now how is he going to eat without a
spoon?" I thought, only to see Teddy spearing a a twig into a half peach and
popping it into his mouth. "You want some Old Man?" He offered the can over, and
I stuck a twig into a peach and recalled the mass of camping equipment I had
deemed necessary in my past life.
did not need to cross the creek again, and were now on a track I knew well,
which headed towards the community, but a large goanna crossing the road ensured
that we wouldn't be home for a while yet. The goanna climbed a tall mulga, and I
stopped so that the women could get it down. There were no rear doors on the
Jackaroo, so I had to lean the seat forward for the older women in the back to
exit the vehicle.
The goanna was in for
a hard time. It was subjected to a barrage of rocks and sticks by the women,
dropping gradually lower in the branches, till a direct hit sent it spinning to
the ground. It immediately shot up another tree, but another barrage knocked to
to earth again, and faster than the eye could follow, Beryl grabbed it, and hit
it firmly against the tree. Teddy proudly posed for the video with the goanna
hanging from his hand by the tail, a big toothy grin, and his bright red
t-shirt with the yellow Ford Falcon on the
The ladies put the goanna on the
floor behind my seat, and continued to look around for more tucker. As I waited,
I saw the goanna move as I looked through the
"Hey you mob!" I shouted "This
goanna's still alive!"
finish up." the ladies assured me.
was dubious, but thought perhaps it may have been nerves twitching. A little
later the ladies got back into the vehicle, and as I prepared to drive off there
was suddenly a great deal of squealing and yelling from behind me, and I
realised that my observation had been
Having nowhere to go, Old
Annie was equal to the occasion, and she picked up the goanna by the tail and
proceeded to belt it against anything and everything in sight. My new
second-hand Jackaroo was splattered with blood and bits of goanna before the
yelling died down.
A half hour later we
unloaded our booty back at the
"Old Bob, you gotta take us
to Mount Wedge tomorrow......" Mary was saying, and Old Bob wondered why he
didn't agree immediately, but there would be other days.......
Posted: Thu - September 21, 2006 at 04:19 PM