Sunday, 10 August 2008

End of the Adventure (Chapter 14 - The End)

After the stimulation of the tropical north and the delightful company of the aborigines, the trip south again-despite the distance and the terrain-seemed rather an anticlimax. By now, anyway, we were quite used to making the most extraordinary demands on our Prima scooter, and another thousand-odd miles seemed merely a hop. Half an hour after rejoining our little machine, which had been garaged a stone's throw from Darwin's stockaded civil prison, the gear was packed, Nita was firmly ensconced, and the engine was ticking over erratically, voicing its displeasure at having been laid up.

Four days later we reached Alice Springs-more commonly called 'The Alice'-an over-publicized township which proved (save for the Flying Doctor Memorial Church) to be a disappointment. The usual assortment of coffee-bars and chromium-plate seemed strangely out of place in the majestic tranquil desert among the Macdonnell Ranges. The church was the exception: although ultra-modern in design-symbolically incorporating the suggestion of an aircraft wing in the construction-it did not appear misplaced. At the entrance was a lily pool of remembrance, while inside a little museum behind the altar contained some of the early equipment used by John Flynn, including a pedal radio set and the great man's swag and blackened billy. This unique and functional memorial was built entirely by the people of Alice Springs on a voluntary basis. It seemed all the nicer when one heard about that.

From one hundred degrees of arid heat we went southwards again aboard the 'Ghan' railway for four hundred miles; then there was another ride through South Australia towards the greatest contrast of the whole trip: a contrast which came as a shock after living for months in the briefest of clothing. For as we re-entered Victoria we were met by a howling snowstorm which lasted for three days and had us shivering constantly and stopping every few miles to make roaring fires at the roadside.

We arrived in Melbourne, two very dejected and half-frozen creatures, at eleven o'clock at night. Desperately I searched through our papers and found the scrap which had been given to me by Jack Kelley-the Mobilgas Rally driver-so long ago in far-away Darwin. I huddled in the 'phone booth, glad for a moment to cut off the biting wind.

'Marriott! Sure I remember. Come right on out. We'll have bowls of hot soup and a roaring fire to greet you. Sure you can find the way now?' I answered that warm, friendly voice, saying that wild horses couldn't stop us, and rang off.

So, fittingly in a country with a reputation for its hospitality, we spent the last six weeks of our Australian venture with two of the most friendly people one could hope to meet, in Australia or anywhere-Jack and Lila Kelley of Preston, Melbourne.

Jack's hastily given promise during our brief Darwin encounter was kept to the full. After lavishing their hospitality on us (it was heavenly to sit round a roaring fire in a cosy room, sipping hot soup, after battling in the teeth of a snowstorm for so long) they presented us with the key of Jack and Lila's luxury caravan, with the words, 'It's yours for as long as you want it.' This was, indeed, great generosity.

And so the six weeks passed. We wrote a great many notes, organized the processing and packing of our film, spent most week-ends as guests of our wonderful hosts, and toured the Victorian countryside, generally acclimatizing ourselves once again to city life.

One night I was dragged hastily from our extremely comfortable quarters to watch the path of the first Russian Sputnik as it raced across the sky; at the time I had been engrossed in studying some of the photographs of our aborigines-the most primitive people on earth. The sudden revelation of the first earth satellite zipping over Melbourne was most disturbing.

It also seemed incongruous that, only a few days previously, an expedition a couple of hundred miles from Alice Springs had reported making contact with a tribe of aborigines who had never before seen white men. There were very few details of the discovery at that time, other than that the tribesmen had been almost mesmerized at the sight of the wheels on the expedition trucks. As I watched the fast-travelling light in the sky, I wondered what those primitive men would think (were it possible to explain the technicalities) of their white brothers' latest achievement.

Possibly, we are in the last generation of those who will find adventure on this planet, and future exploration will be limitless. But at that moment, puny as our own efforts seemed, our desire to see over the next horizon had been more than fulfilled.

As the Southampton-bound liner pulled away from the Melbourne wharf, breaking the brightly coloured streamers, and echoing the cheers of those left behind, the faces of our friends gradually merged with the rest of the crowd. It was with mixed feelings that we prepared for the next six weeks of shipboard tedium.

Our adventure was over. The tiny vehicle that had made our journey possible lay once again in the hold beneath us, with nearly thirty thousand miles to its credit. Perhaps not a wise choice for the venture we had undertaken, but with our limited resources, the only possible one.

As we watched the nose of the ship ploughing through the choppy sea of the Great Australian Bight, we thought of the many anxious moments we had undergone in remote and outlandish places, and how thinly lined our pockets were. But, as Livingstone declared, 'the mere animal pleasure of travelling in a wild, unexplored country is very great'.

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

During the beginning of the third week we awoke one morning to the sound of most dismal semi-musical cadences. Laurie One-Eye told us that it was his sister-widowed some time previously -trying to 'sing' her husband back to life. Laurie One-Eye intimated that the day was very near when the whole tribe would hold 'Pukamuni' (a burial corroboree) to bury the dead man and cast him out of their memories for ever. Since the poor fellow had died he had been mourned by his wife and a host of near and distant relatives. The 'Pukamuni' would send him finally and irrevocably to the land of his ancestors and his name would be taboo ever after.

As the day for the send-off corroboree drew nearer, excitement mounted in the camp and more time was devoted to celebration preparations, and Nita and I waited expectantly.

While Joe hunted in a desultory fashion, prior to the 'One-Bloody-Big-Fella Corroboree', his young wife Fillissy, carrying her baby piccaninny, fossicked among the steaming mangrove swamps for giant crabs and oysters. A rewarding pastime, provided a wary eye was kept for marauding shark and crocodile, of which the Melville Island variety are reputed to be the hungriest and most ferocious in the world. Joe himself was nearly taken by a croc and bore some ugly scars on arms, chest, and shoulders that he would carry with him to the grave: 'Him debil-debil a'right dat one.' (Joe's uncle, Larry One-Leg, had acquired his white-fella name from the same source.) These occupational hazards, however, are viewed by the aborigines with the resignation of city-dwellers towards road accidents.

By this time, my wife and I were almost two of the tribe. It was no longer quite so astonishing to watch a man make fire with two sticks almost as quickly as I could light a match, and I ceased to gasp with amazement when Joe's throwing stick sped unerringly into a clump of foliage and a dead bird or lizard fell out instantaneously. We knew that when Fillissy suddenly darted at a hollow log, thrust a long stick into the black cavity and pulled, a furry creature-'possum usually-would be brought struggling forth, its fur hopelessly entangled round the end of the stick. We were no longer amazed, but our admiration at the prowess of these hunting nomads increased as the days passed.

And sitting round the camp-fire at night under a soft velvet sky, with the water lapping gently against the nearby beach, the contented murmur of gossiping natives, piccaninnies, and dogs became blurred at times as I wondered about the 'advancement' of mankind. Here was life in its simplest form, and I'm not sure that complexity is preferable.

The 'Pukamuni' started haphazardly enough. One morning we crawled from our sleeping-bags to find nearly all the tribe assembled in camp. They weren't doing anything much, but no one seemed anxious to pick up hunting spear or throwing stick. Pretty Polly (an effervescent old woman, hideously mutilated by yaws) made the first positive move in the corroboree preparations. Squatting cross-legged she began to mix a number of different make-up paints from ochre, wood ash, and the sap of certain trees. Then, with a line of little clay pots before her, she began to colour her own particular offering to the dead man, a woven bark basket. Soon, most of the other women followed suit and by midday all were industriously weaving, painting, binding, and carving. The pile of 'send-off' presents grew larger each minute. In the nearby bush an unseen mourner began a rhythmic tap-tapping on a hollow-log drum. A feeling of expectancy crept into the air.

While the women toiled at an increasing speed to swell the gift pile, the men occupied themselves with more personal adornment. Joe extricated himself from between a couple of his dogs and sparked off the proceedings by casually robbing his wife of some of her coloured paints and, using the lid of a food tin as a mirror, began to decorate his face and neck with a startling and most impressive series of zebra stripes. In his hair were placed the exotic tail plumes of birds he had successfully hunted, and around his neck was placed a gut necklace with a fur bobble attached, which he told us would 'keep debil-debill-o-n-g wayway'.

By late afternoon we were surrounded by a ferocious-looking tribe of warriors-only one or two of whom we could still recognize-who looked quite capable of overpowering Nita and me without the slightest qualm and popping us into the ashes for their next meal. Joe now appeared positively frightening, his charcoal-smeared face slashed with vivid white and red ochre streaks. He had added a couple of armbands of sharks' teeth and approached us clutching his ceremonial spear in one hand and a vicious-looking panga in the other. His words, however, were not in keeping with his appearance: 'Gibbit li'l bit 'bacco, Baas.'

Gladly I gave him a pinch from my ever-open tin, as I rested for a moment from filming the colourful scenes around me. Even the camp dogs had caught the fever and were chasing each other round and round the camp, livelier than we had yet seen them. One of the bitches pupped in the middle of the proceedings and again Nita and I marvelled at these aborigines, the only primitive people we had ever met who showed kindness to dumb animals. Under the supervision of the dog's owner, a host of naked children dashed around collecting leafy branches, and within minutes the litter and anxious mother were transplanted to their own whirlie to be left in complete peace under the cool shade of the boughs.

I felt certain that the actual ceremony would start directly dusk fell, and I cursed our equipment which could not cope with semi-dark conditions. Joe had been trying to tell me something about a special corroboree ground, but it was too much for his limited English. Nita and I watched the restless nomads closely, wondering what form the great occasion would take. We watched, and, with camera poised, we waited.

We were still waiting when the warriors had become nothing more than vague silhouettes around the flickering camp-fires. The solitary drummer was still beating out the monotonous dirge and the rest of the tribe were still restlessly milling around between the
whirlies. But by nine o'clock there was one different aspect which Nita spotted, and she exclaimed with some amazement, 'All the women are gone.' Somewhat alarmed (for I did not want the men to slip away and hold the corroboree without my getting at least a part of it on film), I approached Joe. He was non-committal, but partly reassuring. 'Alllubra goin' c'rob'ree ground; bye'm bye all men goin' same; makim one bloody-big c'rob'ree true. . . .'

'Bye'm bye' turned out to be next morning. Nita and I were awakened by a bustling in the camp and already the men were filing away in ones and twos towards the thick walls of the jungle. We jumped up, grabbed our camera equipment, and fell in behind Joe. Somehow we knew that this time it was no false alarm.

As the sun filtered through the last of the dawn mists which rolled in from the sea, our party-strangely silent and reverent, despite their savage adornment-emerged from the dense jungle into a clearing already thick with wood smoke. Nita and I gasped with amazement as we broke through the last barriers of foliage. We were in the burial grounds of our aborigines.

All around the clearing stood groups of huge tree-trunks thrusting up like totem poles. Gaudily painted and painstakingly carved, these were the headstones of the tribal dead. Some of the monuments seemed very old, yet still highly impressive like gaunt fire-blackened fingers-many over fifty feet high-pointing nakedly to the sky. Most of them, however, appeared to be recent additions, for the paint was bright and unfaded. In the middle of these commanding pillars the corroboree ground, an area about fifty feet square and inches thick in dust, lay ready.

When we arrived there was one figure in the centre of the stamping ground: the grief-stricken widow, who swayed about, wailing a dirge and beating two throwing sticks together in a monotonous rhythm. She had been mourning thus for two days and nights

Nita and I took up positions as unobtrusively as possible at the edge of the clearing. While my wife made sure that all our available film was ready for immediate use, I took one or two shots of the tribe surrounding the corroboree ground and the mourning widow. Another woman's wail joined that of the chief mourner, and someone else started tapping out a rhythm; then another voice, still female, added to the lament until all the women were wailing in a mournful, strangely rhythmic chorus.

Suddenly, Laurie One-Eye leapt from the crowd of men and assumed a commanding stance in the middle of the clearing. He chanted rapidly in a roaring baritone for something like a minute and then ceased abruptly, his spear raised above his woolly head.
From the throats of the entire tribe a great crescendo of shouts rent the silence of the jungle. No undisciplined yelling this, but a swelling volume of sound that crashed from an exciting vocal staccato to an ear-splitting roar. The corroboree had begun.

After the initial incantations there followed, in symbolic mime, a reconstruction of a burial ceremony that has remained unaltered through the centuries. Indeed, as these whirling, glistening figures were direct descendants from world's most primitive man, certainly much of what we were now witnessing had been enacted long before Australia became peopled with white men.

But on Melville Island today, with white man ruling supreme, there have to be modifications to an age-old ritual. No longer is the youngest wife of the deceased burnt alive, and never again will the nearest relatives hurl themselves from nearby treetops to commit suicide in a frenzy of grief. Yet, in spite of the make-believe and the miming, the magnetic pull of ancestral practices is still extremely strong. The warriors had the greatest difficulty in restraining the buxom young widow from throwing herself into the fire. Instead of standing calmly over the token fire, which was merely a handful of twigs giving off a wisp of smoke, she tore herself from the paint-streaked elders and dashed across the clearing straight for the huge cooking fire, which was about two yards in width and crackling merrily. Fortunately some of the old women realized what was happening and intercepted the suicidal widow, who fought like a wildcat in a frantic effort to hurl herself into the flames. For the next hour she remained sobbing-almost in a trance-but now very safe, lashed firmly with twine to four of her compatriots.

The potential suicides from the treetops went more smoothly. While twenty or thirty men clung to the topmost branches, poised before crashing to their deaths fifty feet below, the rest of the tribe entreated them not to take the plunge: the tribe would be weakened; the dead elder would not go on his way rejoicing, etc. Without too much difficulty these relatives were persuaded to abandon the death plunge and they climbed carefully down, wailing tenfold in order to disguise their discomfiture; for even though the entire ceremony is only symbolic, it is still very hard for a warrior to appear chicken-hearted.

After the initiation ceremony, all the gifts were carried reverently to the newly carved group of totem poles. The body had been buried some time previously and now the hump of earth, surrounded by the ornate tree-trunks, was smothered with the parting gifts. The tribe, about a hundred strong, fell silent and stepped back from the grave.
A line of young warriors, heavily armed and formidable in their ceremonial paint, formed up and pointed their spears at the remains of their comrade. There was a moment's pause and another of the tribal elders-white-fella name Death's-Head Leo-incited the younger men to frighten away the evil spirits which lurked in the vicinity ready to capture the dead man's spirit as it left the body.

The warriors stamped their feet savagely, once, twice, then twice again, and repeated the pattern at increasing speed, shaking spears and throwing sticks at an imaginary enemy. From the crowd of watchers a ripple of synchronized handclapping arose in an ever-increasing swell, urging the spearmen on to greater effort. Clouds of dust billowed beneath the thudding feet, and a series of blood-curdling yells rent the air.

It was a magnificent spectacle and I hoped fervently that our stock of film would last through this fantastic performance. The sight of the young men, pitting themselves against the unknown, was quite terrifying, and many of the young children were crying with fright at the sight of their normally gentle elder brothers transformed into savage, whirling demons. Nita and I thought quite seriously at one point that they might run amok. Surely those demoniac creatures, almost hypnotized in a welter of dust and sweat, with the goading chant ringing loudly in their ears would not be satisfied with lunging savagely at the empty air! I was frankly quite relieved when the tempo slowed down after about twenty minutes and the dancers, utterly exhausted, fell off one by one and collapsed at the edge of the clearing.

At the end of the casting out of the evil spirits, as the last man staggered on buckling legs back to the crowd, Joe leapt into the centre to tell the story of the dead man's life in mime. Beside us, Billy Geranium told us in hushed pidgin-English whispers exactly what Joe was portraying. It was the story, in savage primordial ballet, of the life of a man of Snake Bay.

Joe danced non-stop for three-quarters of an hour, re-enacting all the major events in the life of his dead brother. The lad at our side pinpointed some of the more intricate phases of the dance, but the verbal assistance was hardly necessary.

Nothing of the dead man's life was omitted, from the day he was born (Joe interpreted this with graphic mimicry of a woman in labour), throughout his career as a hunter and fighter (here there were long sequences of deadly battles fought with knife and spear against animal and human adversaries), to the slowing down of the pace representing age, infirmity, and the last struggle of all. The finale showed Joe briefly and magically endowed with the strength of youth to make the final long walk-about, then a sudden collapse in the centre of the dust-filled arena. The chanting died away for a brief space, and there was a strange silence in the fetid jungle clearing.

But only for a moment. Joe rose wearily to his feet, made his way back into the crowd, and was hardly swallowed up among the glistening ebony bodies when another member of the tribe sprang out with a blood-curdling whoop to perform his own interpretation of an incident in the life they were mourning.

Late in the afternoon we ran out of film. For a while our still-camera was constantly clicking, but even that stock had expired by dusk. We had, however, recorded all that was possible with the very limited means at our disposal, and I was hoping that some highly spectacular ceremony was not being withheld to the last moments of daylight.

We need not have worried. The corroboree had hardly started. All through that night the drums barely paused in their frenzied beat. We slept fitfully and were awakened every few minutes-it seemed-by a wild shriek or a wailing lament. They were still hard at it the next morning and all through the second day, but luckily for our recording the ceremonials proved to be fairly repetitive. A full forty-eight hours elapsed before the burial rites showed the first signs of abating. But once into the third day the incredibly overtaxed stamina wilted rapidly. The whole tribe were now afflicted with the equivalent of a gigantic hangover.

Nita and I, heavy-eyed through lack of sleep but jubilant at the thought of our rolls of precious film, carrying the unique record of a Snake Bay burial ceremony, made our way slowly back to the aboriginal camp on the jungle headland. The exciting climax to our odyssey was almost at an end.

Our whole journey, started more than eighteen months before, had culminated in the moment when we dropped from the tropical skies above the Timor Sea by the most modern method of transport, 'and entered the lives of these primitive people, who were to act as our hosts during one of their rare periods of tribal ritual. I most sincerely hoped that the film we had taken would be as exciting when projected as it was through the viewfinder.

We were to catch the mail plane in the morning. Around us the crowds of black tribesmen, faces split in wide grins, jostled each other laughing and chattering to give us a send-off. Comfortably weighed in our arms were the many presents bestowed on us by our new friends. There was the pair of ironwood throwing sticks, presented by Death's-Head Leo: 'You takem Boss sure. Takem longa your country all-a-time white-fella.' There, too, was the beautifully carved spearhead (we just couldn't transport the shaft) which Joe carved specially for us; a debil-debil bobble of tightly woven feathers to ward off evil spirits, and two woven baskets together with a group of little carved figures for Nita.

Those Melville Islanders are a wonderful people. Happy, generous, kind to their animals, they were apparently glad to have had us share their company for a while. For my wife and myself, the Melville Island experience had been extremely educational, balancing our sense of values to a great extent. We had found a race of people who could still live a full and satisfying life without any of the amenities of modern civilization. Australia is working on an integrative policy, the plan being to merge the black with the white, rather as New Zealand has done with the Maori. We ourselves hope that for all the full-blooded aborigines, like Warnpiat-L-Miri (alias Black Joe), this will be entirely beneficial.

The little speck in the sky grew larger, and soon its snarling aero-engines were shattering the peace of the Snake Bay jungle. Twin puffs of dust rose as its wheels touched down on the dry earth and it taxied along the short narrow strip. A quick turn-round, the mail-bags bustled out, and the plane was ready for the take-off .

We shook hands solemnly with Black Joe for the last time and walked across to the waiting aircraft. The Melville Islanders' word for goodbye is 'Nim Bungi'. It sounded very moving when shouted from a hundred throats.

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.