Sunday, 3 August 2008

The Aborigines of Snake Bay (Chapter 13 – Snake Bay)

The little aircraft stood on the runway of Darwin Airport, coughing fitfully as the pilot warmed the engine against the cold morning air. Nita and I, carrying our one valise between us, crossed the tarmac strip and stood waiting (somewhat apprehensively, for the plane was shuddering violently and a mechanic was collecting a heap of tools from beneath the fuselage) for the Native Affairs officer. The pilot, a cheerful type (unfortunately looking only about fifteen years old) greeted us.

'Not a bad old tub,' he volunteered, interpreting Nita's worried glances. 'We call her Bleriot's Prototype. A bit of historic machinery that, but we should make it with a following wind. If we do get any trouble it won't be in the air, but trying to put it down on dirt strips. Never did like those jungle clearings to put down on. Last bloke over did a ground loop and finished up in the scrub; took a hundred natives three days to fish him out. Still, it is early morning. Gets real turbulent around midday when the temperature climbs a bit.'

The sun was already uncomfortably hot and we looked around for our travelling companion. To our relief he appeared on time and we boarded the flimsy aircraft and strapped ourselves in. The Administrator was paying a brief visit to the twin island of Bathurst and the Catholic Mission there. We would go on to Melville as guest passengers in his plane, where we would be deposited and left very much to our own devices for as long as we liked. If the ancient aeroplane held together, fortune was indeed smiling on us.

The little plane made a perfect crossing and an equally good landing on the Bathurst strip. It took off again and dropped down finally into the steamy jungle of Snake Bay with equal ease, and my wife and I heaved a sigh of relief, brushed the perspiration from our eyes, and were once again convinced that appearances can be very deceptive. Soon the hum of the aircraft grew fainter. We watched as it circled once and rapidly disappeared into the brazen sky; the roar of petrol engines was replaced by the buzz of insects and the weird, chiming call of the bell-bird. Beneath our feet was the scorched brown earth; on every side the thick emerald green of the jungle. We hitched up the valise and made our way to the warden's lonely bungalow which overlooked the tropical grandeur of Snake Bay, Melville Island.

Colin Townsend was a man who had forsaken the city for the bush. He strode out from the bungalow to meet us. From beneath a wide slouch hat, a keen, mahogany-coloured face grinned a greeting.

'Good day. Good trip over?'

'We have arrived, and that's as good as I want it,' I replied, relief evident in my voice.

Col laughed and introduced himself. 'I look after the running of the sawmill. Most of the boys go walk-about from time to time, but we still manage to ship a fair amount of timber to the mainland.'

'Sawmill!' we both ejaculated in amazement, gazing round at the seemingly virgin jungle. 'Do you mean to say that the aborigines work here for a living?' I asked.

Col laughed again. 'Oh, you needn't get anxious. Some of them hang around the administration building here and do the odd spot of labour; but then again a lot of 'em don't. Guess they're the ones you're after, eh?' We nodded.

Inside the bungalow, cool and comfortable, with the roar of the surf breaking only fifty yards away on the golden beach, our host elaborated.

'The Australian Government have a sound scheme, under the Native Welfare Department, whereby all these islanders can, if they wish, have a fair share of what our gracious modern living can offer: tucker, clothes, medical treatment, even wages. But of course it's the devil's own job to convince 'em that if they can have everything else for free, why should they have to labour for cash which they can't spend, anyway.'

'What do they do with the money, then?' asked Nita.

'Oh, they're usually saving up for something. Some of it goes as bride price, perhaps, or for the odd one or two who are ambitious, on a trip to Darwin. Or they swop it for tobacco, or buy bits and pieces from the store. And in return they work the sawmill.' All our visions of truly primitive people began to disappear.

Outside, a small knot of islanders had gathered to inspect the new arrivals; and on the surface they looked primitive enough. The men, with tall, well-built figures of glistening ebony, were dressed only in nagas (loin-cloths) and were all carrying long, twin-barbed fishing spears. The women, in Mother Hubbard gowns, clutched blackened billycans and equally black children with both hands. The only thing that marred the picture was a packet of Capstan cigarettes which protruded from the waistband of one hunter.

Col, following my gaze, explained. 'There are only one or two of 'em who can afford tailor-made cigarettes, and only then on pay day. They usually smoke Nikki-Nikki-trade tobacco-most of the time. Anyway, you might as well start your visit by having a look at the post. Don't suppose you'll want to spend too much time in the "civilized" part of the island.'

The 'sawmill' was something of a relief. Just a clearing in the bush with one circular saw under a corrugated-iron roof, driven by a mobile generator. The store was equally modest, and a hundred yards from the tiny settlement the rest of the island appeared just about as it had been since the beginning of time.

Next morning, the formalities completed, we set off, leaving the buildings behind us to search for a family of island nomads who were living their lives independent of the settlement. The authorities had presented to us for the next few weeks an ideal family to study; that of Wampiat-L-Miri (pidgin-English name, Black Joe), his wives and children and, of course, his dogs.

We found them about four miles away, camped with two or three other families in a natural amphitheatre, through the middle of which ran a crystal-clear stream. Smoke from the cooking fire curled in and cast a slight haze over the camp area. The whirlies, those merely temporary shelters built by nomadic aborigines, were all but invisible against the rest of the bush and jungle patches, being just discernible as dwellings by the limp leaves of the cut branches.

Reclining in the doorway of the biggest, most central whirlie, was Wampiat-L-Miri, tribal elder, battle-scarred and dignified, a full-blooded aboriginal. He was smoking a crab's-claw pipe with obvious relish, and across his knees was a half-finished spear of ornate carving. Our young guide pointed at the lounging elder. 'Dat one fell a him Black Joe,' he announced. Then, with duty done, he turned about and set off back towards civilization and the tailor-made cigarettes which he obviously preferred.

Black Joe, we immediately discovered, was not cluttered with any chains of formality. He greeted us with 'Gibbit li'l bit 'bacco,' and held out the enormous crab's claw for replenishment. I had been forewarned and had brought two dozen tins of the precious weed with me. Nita found a tin and opened it; it was returned with a few strands in the bottom. Lesson one, never hand a tin of tobacco to an aboriginal.

The man who now puffed so contentedly watched us shrewdly from beneath craggy brows. Confident, without being arrogant, he basked in the comfortable security of his position, that of chief elder.

In the grass hut behind him, three wives sat crouched over a smoky cooking fire. Two were wizened crones who muttered to themselves, champing toothless jaws the while, while the third was a lithe girl of some nineteen years, already well initiated into motherhood with four chubby children to her credit. The youngest clung to her, pick-a-back fashion, watching our every movement with doubting, amber eyes. He was very near to tears during the first day after our arrival.

For that first week Nita and I did nothing more than camp a little way off from the cluster of whirlies and spend the days winning the confidence of the small tribe, and Black Joe in particular. It was this battle-scarred old warrior and his favourite wife (white-fella name, Fillissy) whose fortunes we wanted to follow in the humid jungle and thick bush of Snake Bay.

Gradually the barriers of suspicion were broken and we began to record camp life on film, without being stared out of countenance; and the army of dogs growled and bristled no longer. Indeed, having given scraps to one winsome pooch during the first days, we had great difficulty in eating at all without a vast canine audience, expectant and disconcerting, ringing our camp-fire among the gums.

One morning, Nita and I rose very early, at that time of transformation when the first grey streaks tinge the night sky-and tried to capture on film the fascinating sight of an aboriginal family awakening.

By the time we had the camera set up I could just get a reading on the exposure meter. A few yards away, Black Joe and his brood were still asleep and, despite the chill air, looked warm and cosy. In the middle of still warm fire ashes, Joe and Fillissy lay huddled back to back. Each had an arm protectively around a soundly sleeping baby. One of the children lay between its parents' legs and the other-the youngest-curled between their shoulder blades. To retain the warmth there were no fewer than five dogs forming a furry wall around the slumbering bunch of humanity. The family had, as always, started as a circle round the fire, gradually contracting as the flames died and the air became colder. They always finished up right in the ashes.

Joe awoke first, instantly alert, and grinned when he saw us with the camera turning, but averted his head almost immediately. My repeated requests' not to look-im-in-eye one-fell a camera' had been well absorbed. Fillissy jumped up at the same moment. The piccaninnies and the dogs were the most reluctant risers, rolling instinctively towards the warm space vacated by the adults. Joe and his wife were, of course, smothered in wood ash, but they did nothing to disturb their coating of fine particles.

After taking a long draught of water from the nearby stream, Joe sauntered off, armed with his throwing stick, to look for breakfast. He returned an hour or so later with a fat goanna lizard about four feet long dangling limply from his shoulder. He might have stumbled on a 'possum, a snake (nearly all edible), any of a variety of birds, wild yams, or other succulent roots; all manner of fish in the hundreds of creeks that twisted away from the golden beaches; or, had he been very lucky, a wallaby, crouching in the thick bush of the higher level inland. Later we were to see Joe use his throwing stick. His accuracy was uncanny.

One might think that to wake in the morning, hungry, with nothing edible to hand would be a source of constant anxiety. But these primitive people know what vast resources are at their fingertips, so well are they versed in bush lore. They can, in fact, live very comfortably in country where a white man would have (and has) starved to death, with the nearby sounds of game mocking him from impenetrable green walls.

So the time passed and Nita and I became increasingly fascinated as we watched each day unfold for our primitive family. No longer were they camera conscious, or 'playing to the gallery' ; we were accepted completely-or so it seemed-by these children of Nature, and the ensuing days gave us a vivid picture of the life of the world's earliest men.

Joe's command of the English tongue was very shaky, but that didn't matter at all. I was more than content just to tag along with him on hunting expeditions, or to watch him shaping throwing sticks or carving ironwood spears outside his whirlie. He may have been slowing up a bit with the years, but his old cunning and knowledge of the bush stood him in good stead. If he got within striking distance of goanna or bandicoot, that animal was as good as cooked-well, moderately cooked, for Joe's idea of a well-roasted lizard was one that had been rested in hot ashes for about five minutes. The resulting dinner was promptly eaten, skin, innards, hot ashes and all.

Although these people are direct descendants from Stone Age Man, they still have something to teach our modern world about harmonious living. Their moral code is of the strictest, and they are true communists. Everything is communal-game, implements, weapons, tobacco, clothing. Their vocabulary does not include the word 'gratitude': no one is beholden to another.

Even their peculiar marriage laws have sound reasoning for a basis. The old men marry the young girls, and the youths marry the old women. They are, of course, polygamous, but this custom is an ideal genetic arrangement. It ensures that at least one half of the family is capable of food gathering and that the tribal population is kept up to economic strength. Three or four wives to each elder is not uncommon. Security for all is assured.