Bush Tucker

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.Although 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. “Haven’t 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.Don 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 drum.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.Finally, 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 away.

“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 insistent.

“I’ll go first Old Man. If you get bogged I’ll pull you out. No worries!”

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 needed.

“Don’t worry Old Man, we’ll get him out. You sit in the shade.”

I sat 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 branches.

The young girls watched intently, and sometimes helped, but no instructions were given. This is the way such skills are learned, by observing and imitating.

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 down.

“I’ve got a towrope Don, but it won’t reach unless you get back into the sand.”

“No Worries Old Man, I’ll be back soon.” and he took off. 

Don 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 ribbon.

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 earliest opportunity.

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.

We 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.

Beryl, the best hunter of all, with a Perentie she caught one day.

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 chest.

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 window.

“Hey you mob!” I shouted “This goanna’s still alive!” 

“No, he’s finish up.” the ladies assured me.

I 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 correct.

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 community.

“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……