I expressed to our travel agent my desire to learn about Aboriginal culture on the trip to Australia we were planning for August-September, 1999. She connected me with the Aboriginal Bush University and Wedgetails Tours. We flew west from Darwin, NT to Kununurra, Western Australia, a small town with a ten shop shopping mall, a caravan park and an airfield. We stayed the night in a bungalow in the caravan park. Next morning Marcia, my wife, remained in Kununurra while I, Jillian and Margaret, the other two participants, boarded a single engine airplane and flew about 100 miles due west into the Kimberlies. We flew over a huge meandering brown river with lush green banks. Beyond the river banks we saw rolling hills dotted with small trees. All the hills looked the same and all the trees were the same size and shape. Not a place to get lost.
The plane landed at a bush airstrip and we were met by Graham and Judy, proprietors of Wedgetails Tours. Margaret and Jillian were old friends of theirs, lived in the same town in Victoria and had been on previous Wedgetails Tours excursions. Walking to the Wedgetails Tours bus we were introduced to Paddy N, Paddy W, Lucy W and Biddy D, all elders of the Ngarinyan tribe of Western Australia. Paddy N, with a razor sharp gray mustache, was Paddy #1 on this trip because we were visiting territory with which he was very familiar. He was both traditional and a man of the world since he had visited Lascaux in France to see the famous cave paintings. Paddy W gave us a great big smile and stuck out his hand. He was wearing shorts, exposing the parallel initiation scars on both thighs. If I were ever lost here these were the two men I would want with me. Lucy was a shy, slim woman, her very dark skin accentuating her thick, wavy gray-blond hair. Biddy shook my hand vigorously and told us "I belong to this country." I liked that. The land didn't belong to them but visa-versa. There is a lesson here. Biddy was going to be my "Mom" on this trip, even though she was only a few years older than me. "See that tree over there? Get out your camera and take a picture of it. That tree has medicine. Show the picture to people back home where you live." Okay Biddy.
Into the vehicle and onto the dirt road. We took a detour to an old camp site frequented by Paddy #1 in his younger days. There we were introduced to some different forms of bush tucker (wild foods). There was wild taro growing in the mud that surrounded a small spring. I pulled some up, hoping that we could prepare it back at camp. They told me it was too "cheeky", meaning it was astringent and didn't taste very good. Next, Paddy W poured water into a large enamel cup, walked over to a bush which had a large cluster of leaves formed into a ball about the size of a baseball. Quickly, he grabbed the cluster, plunged it into the water and squeezed vigorously to crush the green ants which had formed the leafy nest. A couple more green ant nests were added to the brew before we tasted the "green ant lemonade". Sour! Formic acid, the sour stuff in ants, is the strongest organic acid. Usually this drink is sweetened with sugar bag honey, produced by the local stingless bees.
I attempted to enlighten my Aboriginal hosts by telling them how, as a young boy, I and my father had accompanied a friend in gathering wild honey in the Pacific Northwest. We arrived with a jar containing a small portion of dilute honey at an area known to contain wild beehives . We would catch a wild bee and put it into the jar. It would drink its fill of the honey solution and then fly in a "bee line" towards its hive. After doing this in several locations we were able to triangulate exactly to the location of the hive. The Aboriginals smiled indulgently at me and then told me how they had been finding wild honey for the last 40,000 years. "You catch a wild bee and then use a tiny bit of bees wax to fasten a small feather on the bee's hind end. Then you feed the bee a little bit of honey and let him go. The feather slows him down so you can just walk along and follow him to his hive." I've got to try that when I get home.
Near the spring there were several pandanus trees. Pandanus is common throughout the Pacific from Hawaii south. We were instructed to break off a sector from one of the fruits which had fallen and eat the tender sweet morsels from the tip. Delicious! The tiny bit of edible material tasted like pumpkin pie. The remainder was hard and fibrous. Jillian, a retired nurse, handed me a pandanus fruit and said "Smell this." I did and said to her "I won't tell you what it smells like if you don't tell me what you think it is." After we came home from Australia I told our son, the biochemist, about the peculiar aroma of pandanus fruit. He said the aroma came from either spermene or spermidene, a couple of aromatic organic chemicals which are present in both the animal and plant kingdoms. I also remember this aroma emanating from shrubs near our home in Palo Alto.
Our camp for the night was an open spot surrounded by rolling hills. In the middle of camp there was a campfire fueled with cypress pine, an incredibly resinous, fragrant wood, unrelated to pine or cypress but something unique to Australia. As the sun headed for the horizon Graham told us that the Aboriginals tell their children "When you see the sun in the crotch of the trees it's time to come home." As near to the equator as we are there is very little twilight. The sun plunges below the horizon very quickly, unlike an Alaskan summer where the sun takes for ever to set. After dinner the two Paddies put their swags on the ground half way between the camp fire and the bus. A swag is a heavy waterproof canvas contraption you put your bedding into in the Australian outback. It is waterproof and can sport an internal foam pad for the delicate of back.
Liking my privacy I carried my swag about 30 yards away on the opposite side of the campfire. I was getting settled there when Biddy came over to me and said ""Old Fellah, you go sleep with the boys." I had received my "nom de camp". From then on I was "Old Fellah". These people don't seem to use names the way we do. I would guess that Paddy, Paddy, Lucy and Biddy were the names that the outside world knew but they also had more personal names among their own tribe. Margaret, very diminutive, was called "Shorty". Graham said that the year before there was a visitor who was post-polio. She became "The Crippled Lady". Not meant as a pejorative, just a unique feature. Furthermore, if someone named Sam died then everyone else named Sam in that community would change their names. . . .
"If you are interested in reading the full account of Dick Baugh's Australian adventure and looking at some of the photos, then join the Society of Primitive Technology and read the SPT Bulletin #23 - Spring 2002 for the rest of the story. Support the Society of Primitive Technology and receive the bi-annual SPT Bulletin magazine. Call (208) 359-2400 or email Dave Wescott at email@example.com. Also visit the Society of Primitive Technology website at http//:www.primitive.org to become a member."
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