Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hang Out With Aborigines, But Beware the Jun-Jiddy Man!

Bennelong, an aboriginal used for "show and tell" back in England

I've always been fascinated by aboriginal culture of Australia. As an American, the story is eerily familiar. The British showed up on boats. They tried to interact with the local indigenous folk, but a lack of cultural understanding always seemed to screw things up. Ultimately, much of the native population dies off from disease or get killed. The survivors are relocated to a small portion of their "native lands."

Here is one account of how things went wrong early on with the aboriginals. The story from 1790 has to do with a beached sperm whale and a group of sailors rowing to shore to investigate.

The cove was full of natives allured by the attractions of a whale feast; and it being remarked during the conference that the twenty of thirty which appeared were drawing themselves into a circle round the governor and his small unarmed party (for that was literally and most inexcusably the situation) the governor proposed retiring to the boat by degrees; but Bennillong, who had presented to him several natives by name, pointed out one, whom the governor, thinking to take particular notice of, stepped forward to meet, holding out both his hands toward him. The savage not understanding this civility, and perhaps thinking that he was going to seize him as a prisoner, lifted a spear from the grass with his foot, and fixing it on his throwing-stick, in an instant darted it at the governor. The spear entered a little above the collar bone, and had been discharged with such force, that the barb of it came through on the other side. Several other spears were thrown, but happily no further mischief was effected. The spear was with difficulty broken by Lieutenant Waterhouse, and while the governor was leading down to the boat the people landed with the arms, but of four muskets which they brought on shore one only could be fired.

Ahhh, the colonial period. And in 1790 I think European philosophers in general were hoping that at some point during their sea voyages they would encounter the "noble savage" as Rousseau called them. They had this idea that people not reared in European society might actually have a more pure, civil, civilization free from concepts of property or vice or greed or dishonesty. Yeah... that's as dreamy as El Dorado. Upon close examination it became clear that anywhere you find humanity you find assholery, and every culture has its own cocktail of fucked up beliefs and behaviors.

Here is a clip from Where the Green Ants Dream by Werner Herzog, a great film that illustrates the cultural discordance between settler and aboriginal culture:

Anyway, anytime I meet an Australian I ask about aborigines. The responses are just as varied as those you might hear if asking an American about Obama or their country's foreign policy. Many responses are sensitive and intelligent, showing a similar awareness about Australia's colonial history that many Americans have about their own. I think most Americans and Australians, and anyone with familial roots to a major European country are aware of their Midas touch for cultural annihilation!

But here are a few classy statements I've heard from non-aboriginal Australians over the years, for the sake of scoffing:

--"All they do is sit around drinking alcohol and sniffing glue."

--"We give them money and housing, and all they do is spend it on drink and then tear the house apart and sell the appliances and wiring for more drink. Then they tear the wood out of the house and use it for their cooking fires. In the end they just sit around a campfire burning on the foundation of the home our government gave them."

--"The abo' is a prehistoric man. He can't think like the modern man."

--"The government gives them so much money as an apology for what we did hundreds of years ago. When is it ever going to be enough?"

Last time I heard, only six of three hundred languages spoken by Aboriginals still exist. The rest are forgotten and lost, never to be relearned. No resources to do so. Much like our own Native Americans, much of what once existed is lost. Hell, by the mid-1800s most northeastern Native Americans had died  of disease or warfare. Those in the southwest escaped to high elevation mountain ranges to avoid us. The remaining ones were resettled on the Trail of Tears or eradicated in a number of wars out West and in the Southeast.

Before venturing to Australia, I used to ask, "Do aborigines live in the cities? Like, do they walk around and work jobs? The answers were mixed, but from what I could gather most aboriginals lived on their native lands with a few occasionally assimilating into society. But when I walked throughout Melbourne and Sydney I didn't see anyone I could identify as aboriginal. Then I got to Darwin where aboriginals hung out in the town. Unfortunately, some did sniff glue. One guy approached me offering me a didgeridoo for $15. His voice was thrashed, and his breath smelled like booze. But I didn't take the interaction with him as an indication that "they must all be this way." Unfortunately, like many Native Americans, there is an epidemic of alcoholism amongst the indigenous folk. On the tour into Kakadu National Park, we stopped at a petrol station for morning coffees. I was standing at a picnic table drinking a Farmer's Union Coffee (basically an Australian and better version of one of those chilled Starbucks drinks in the little jars) where an Aboriginal man startled me. He'd approached from behind asking, "Got a cigarette, mate?" I didn't, but our guide had one to give him. After our guide gave him a light, he disappeared into the bush just as quickly and quietly as he'd appeared. Ghostlike, really. It was pretty awesome.

In Darwin city, I was walking along the beach and saw a number of aboriginals just hanging out on the shore. I noticed that no tourists or white person, for that matter, interacted with them, approached them, or even looked at them. I was eager to talk to them, especially after hanging out with this weird French girl. I mentioned how I wanted to talk to some of the aborigines we saw around Darwin, and she condemned it, as if I was harassing the wildlife, or as if that "take only photographs, leave nothing but footprints" bullshit applied to them! It didn't make sense to me. They're human beings. Compassionate, interesting human beings. Why couldn't an American kid walk up to an aborigine and shoot the shit?

Oddly enough, a couple who were fishing with a hand reel for crabs had more to say to me than I did them. I simply asked what they'd caught for the day, and I ended up fishing with them for an hour. They were a husband and wife what had made their way from Western Australia on foot, camping each night and subsisting on a mix of store bought groceries and tucker found along the way. 

"Florida?" the man asked, "that's right up there near Canada. Right, mate?"

Of course, I can't remember their names, long aboriginal names, but that hour of hanging out and fishing for crab with them was simply a lesson of having the nerve to approach a stranger and have a friendly conversation--a rather Australian thing to do. More and more it seems like this is harder and harder for people to do in general. And, it was awesome to just hang out with aborigines. Most folks only learn about aborigines from the movies.

I remember I took a course in college called "The Australian Experience" which consisted of reading about the life in Australia from the early days of 18th century penal convicts and free settlers up to the 20th century. Our professor was visiting from Sydney, and I remember her talking about some of the complications in getting aboriginals to assimilate with today's Australia. A big issue, she explained, was the notion of walkabout. When one tries to hire an aboriginal for a job, the aboriginal might just not show up one day, having gone walkabout. This, I can imagine, is complicating and annoying. Imagine a carpenter who hires an aboriginal as his helper yet lost him to this concept of "walkabout." And what about the concept of time? Property? Money? Does an aboriginal show up on time? The fact that they don't have to, the fact that "walkabout" still exists in the world today as a real thing that happens, is beautiful. It is one example of a displaced culture biting it's thumb at the hegemony of the Western world. The "global village" merely replaced colonialism. Good on them to disregard it and not even muster the energy it would take to give it the middle finger.

It also serves as evidence that the colonial impact on aboriginals is, perhaps, slightly less devastating than it was on Native Americans. I can't think of anywhere in the United States where Native Americans can wander from one side of the country to another subsisting off of the land, and it being allowed without a hassle such as "this is my property, get out!" While some Native American tribes have had a great opportunity with casinos, they only have those casinos because their lawyers found loopholes in the law regarding their rights as "nations." Really, if I had to compare the ugly history of the United States and the Native Americans to the English settlers and the aborigines, the aborigines have faired better in a number of ways. The government declared a day of apology, many aboriginals have received reparation pay as an apology for half-casting, and tribal lands such as Arnhem land require permission before non-aboriginals can enter. This is done in an effort to preserve what is left of aboriginal culture. That's pretty impressive, considering American elementary schools still teach kids that an indian named Squanto helped the Pilgrims survive in the early days of the colonies and that they and the indians gathered around a table and all had a big Thankgiving dinner. Most people never learn that Squanto was the survivor and millions of others natives would perish.

Based on my interactions with aboriginals on my first trip to Australia, I took the opportunity to chat with two aboriginal ladies in a bar on my second trip while in Cairns. Granted, not every bar in Cairns is frequented by aboriginals. I was at a bar called the Railway Inn. Inside was a mix of aboriginals and some serious bruiser-looking men still in their hazard clothing at the end of a workday. With a camera in hand, I got a dirty look from a few of the white folk, (I would later tell some local skaters in Cairns that I hung out there only to be met with surprise, for the Railway is a bar of aboriginals, derelicts and "people that are hooked on ice". People also "get shot there!" said the kid. But why would an American fear a place where shots are fired?) but these two ladies asked where I was from.

"What ya doin' in Australia, Mister?" asked the one on the right.

"Oh, just seeing the country. First time in Cairns. I went out on the reef for a few days, and now I'm fixing to rent a car and explore. I heard there were rain forests north of here, and aboriginal lands. Are they worth driving to?"

"Indeed. You should look for my cousin. At the Albatross Hotel. He'll take you fishing," said the lady on the left.

"Do you have a phone number?"

"No number. Robbie Nelson. If you go ask for him at the Albatross, you'll find him. There he'll take you out to catch barra. You know the fish?"

"Barramundi? It's tasty. We have it in America now. At the restaurant I work, we had it."

"You've eaten barra? But have you caught one?"


"Well, Robbie will take you. Bloody strong fish. They fight you. But watch out for crocs. Keep a fire burning all night. Otherwise the crocs will eat through your eski looking for barra, and maybe eat you."

"That dangerous is it?"

"Yes, and there is another one to watch for... the Gungganydji man!" (Pronounced like "jun-jiddy")

"Who is the Gungganydji man?" I asked. 

"A small bugger. He will sneak up in the night as you sleep and take your barra. He'll take whatever he wants. And he's quick. And small."

"Small? How small?" 

"A very small man, but very strong. The Gungganydji man will wrestle you and win. They love to wrestle. He'll always beat you in a wrestling match. He lives in the forest, with no clothes. They are little ones of us. Very little, but be careful. They are powerful." 

Again, how would one have such a great experience if they couldn't get past their weird colonial-elephant-in-the-room guilt and say "What's up?" to an aborigine. What is travel without interaction with the locals? It's a lesson far too many people will never learn. 

I was intrigued enough by the story of the Gungganydji man that I researched who he was. It turns out it is not a man, but a tribe, an extinct tribe

The woman's description of small, strong men came from the fact that the Gungganydjis were pygmies. The woman I spoke to, who was most likely a child of an aboriginal half-caste or one of the stolen generation herself, must have either directly experienced the Gungganydji or grew up hearing lore about them. The tribe went extinct in the latter half of the 1900s apparently, but her story intrigued me enough to venture northwards... until I realized that I had no idea of how to find the Albatross Hotel. Nor could I spare the two or three days to go fishing when I needed to drive 1800+ km from Cairns to Brisbane in just over a week, at a max of 50 mph, and that drive pretty much sucked.

It would have been fun wrestling the Gungganydji men with you, instead, Robbie Nelson. Sorry I never made it. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Reluctantly Buying A Tour Into the Outback

As an American with summer vacations, the cool thing about Australia is that you can go enjoy the winter time June-August while Florida is an unbearable, humid, mosquito ridden hellhole. Florida is a great place to live as long as you can afford to leave. Winter in Australia is like a Floridian winter. Snow is rare and limited to the Blue Mountains, but the air is dry and the daytime weather is gorgeous. And in the Northern Territory, wintertime is the safe time to venture out into the Outback. In the summer, the rainy season floods the estuaries around the Northern coast and waters flood far inland. The waters recede as the dry season comes along, but humongous saltwater crocodiles get stuck in residual pools of water--sometimes miles from the shore of any river or ocean. A few days prior to our journey into the bush, some aborigines and wildlife officers had to remove a 4.5 meter crocodile from a residual water hole. That's about 20 feet. As the local authorities remove the marooned crocodiles, the tourists and campers journey in to the same pools of water to cool off. So while I say that it is annoying to have to hire a tour into the outback, there are reasons for them. An experienced guide can spot a saltwater crocodile, which will eat you, versus a freshie that will just sit on the shore sunning itself. Oh, and they point out snakes and spiders and all that as well, and cook and clean and drive and all that.

So while staying at a hostel in Darwin, I found myself sitting in the office looking at an album full of brochures for tours into Kakadu National Park and Livingstone National Park. The woman working in the office was manager and a local travel agent who insisted that nobody would let me venture anywhere on my own and that a "proper tour" was the only way to go. Sigh... Another tour. Another Australian selling tours. Tours of tours of people touring. So I'm looking through this album of brochures and photos, and I'm so bummed because all I see are these young, strapping Australian lads taking pasty Irish girls into the bush. I was already over the whole "young adults bonding" crap before I even began, yet I ended up choosing this Kakadu 4x4 Safari tour where we would camp and explore a rather vast area of wilderness for a few days. I was keen on the "aboriginal guide" that led us. I was told to be ready to leave at 6 am.

So I get up, and there are all these other kids from around the world waiting to be picked up for tours. One by one they get picked up. A Taiwanese kid goes off with some nineteen year old guy driving a huge bus and wearing no shirt. A Swiss kid goes off in some military-looking, desert trekking vehicle with yet another stereotypical, young poonhound tour guide. Then this guy shows up...

What the fuck? Score! My guide was "right out of the shed" as my friends from Adelaide would say. This dude had no shoes on. This dude had holes in his hat. This dude was gnarly looking. So by this point I had a tad more enthusiasm. At least this guy looked like a bushman who might have sheared sheep back in the day. Turns out, Pat, was much more a bushman than that. This guy's experience in the bush came from exterminating endemic water buffalo in a national effort to get rid of them all in order to sell meat to the U.S. Problem is, after turning hundreds of thousands of water buffalo into dog food or exotic steaks, the U.S. said no thanks.

After picking up about six or seven others, we drove a few hundred km into Kakadu National Park, stopping at the Adelaide River Inn to buy last minute supplies.

 Inside the Adelaide River Inn, they've got a stuffed water buffalo. Not just any water buffalo either... the one that was in Crocodile Dundee. He apparently did stunts and died of natural causes or some shit. Anyway, at this point I'm assuming that every Australian is embarrassed by that movie. So I ask Pat, "What do you think of that movie? I mean, all that 'that's not a knife' stuff and the zany antics of taking his outback skills to New York City?" Pat replies, "Oh, I thought it was okay. I mean, you have a bushman who meets a worldly woman from New York City, and by just being a good guy and practicing chivalry they fall in love. Just shows the rewards of being a gentleman no matter where you are." Fuck me! Astounded. The dude mulled that one over. Here I am expecting him to gag at the mentioning of the title, and instead I get this analysis that leads me to conjure up thoughts of this guy chewing a long piece of grass, watching the sun set over Darwin harbor and coming up with an original opinion. Not bad.

Of course, after hours of driving in a car full of young tourists, the day ended at a swimming hole. The one that you see in, again, Crocodile Dundee, when he spears a fish for Sue before being picked up by Wally. Geez, it's obvious I've watched those movies too many times. While Pat had endless amounts of information about the history of the area, the wildlife, the differences between fresh and saltwater crocodiles, all of which I'm finding fascinating, the rest of the group finds him to be too talkative and gradually branch off to "enjoy their vacation." Much of our conversation consists of comparing Australia to Florida, what dangerous things live there, what can kill you, what the swamps are like. Eventually, our discussion leads us to conclude that a Florida native who can find an alligator, identify the states four poisonous snakes, camp, make a fire, and tell which bodies of water are safe to swim in is essentially a bushman equivalent. 

What astounded me was the overall disregard for his vast amount of experience and knowledge of the area. I was nerding out, but perhaps the pale gals from Ireland were hoping for a strapping poonhound as opposed to a legitimate bushman. Basically, for the next four days, I'm talking shit with Pat about all things bush, Australia, aboriginal, while the rest of the crew swats at gnats and keeps to themselves. And, being that I like to cook, I'm the only one volunteering to help.

Kangaroo and bean burritos with apple and orange relish.

Swimming hole goanna.

This guy from Switzerland was pretty cool. He'd been traveling the world and had some cool videos from the 'Stan countries. I think his name was like, Urbann or something. 

Cane toad, invasive, poisonous species killing anything that tries to eat it. 

Much of a tour of the bush consists of walking a few km through the countryside, getting hot, stopping at a fresh water source, filling your canteen and swimming for a little while. Not bad. It's gorgeous out there. And the areas you swim and drink from are given the nod as safe by the experts. 

I remember there was a freshwater croc lying at the bottom of this swimming hole, but those aren't the dangerous ones. I swam in here and drank the water. That's what's funny. This is the only water to drink. No hoses or water fountains, just rain that has yet to evaporate. 

Taipan, second deadliest snake in Australia. Luckily, snakes that live in true wilderness such as the Northern Territory slither off when they hear you coming.
 Distant kangaroo

So while most of the tourists kept to themselves or walked away when he began to talk, Pat would tell these crazy stories, to whomever was listening, about life as a bushman. He didn't drink much anymore because of how much booze he consumed in his younger days. He told me, "It's horrible for the renal system, alcohol. When I worked in the bush, we slept in hammocks or laid our swags out by the fire. We had to order enough supplies, food and booze for a month at a time, as we were out in the middle of the wilderness killing water buffalo. I used to order an entire pallet of Bundaberg rum at a time, and another pallet of beer. And that was just my alcohol supply. My mates had their own. To keep our beer cold we used to put fertilizer in an eski (cooler) full of water. You'd get a chemical reaction that made the water really, really cold. Throw some beers in there, chill them, only took a minute, take them out, dip them in another bucket of water to wash off the chemicals--cold beer. They used to call me Psycho Pat. I was an angry young man, out here with the other bushman I'd do some crazy things drinking 500 ml of rum and go for more. 

When I asked him about the water buffalo he killed, he said there were two types of meat. "If we had to chase the buffalo down in our 4-wheel drives, we'd pull beside it, and we had this device that would clamp down around its horns to hold it still so we could shoot it. Or, we'd just jump on them and rope them to the ground, then shoot them. But killing them that way filled their meat with adrenalin, and we'd put them in one tractor trailer that kept the meat frozen for dog food. The other water buffalo we would sneak up and shoot, and try to get them right behind the ear so they'd drop dead on the spot. That meat had no chance for the adrenalin to run through, so that would be put in another trailer for sale to restaurants. Sold that at a higher price. Bloody good eating, water buffalo, if you kill'em right. Problem was, we came close to killing them off, but then the U.S. backed out of the deal, and I was out of the job..."

Somewhere, in this very British-Isle-originated-looking man was aboriginal blood, because Pat had access to aboriginal cave paintings, which requires some sort of license or authorization. 

The turtle in the above painting was painted before the last ice-age, during a normal period of global warming, where the oceans flooded up within a close distance to this rock shelter. Now, the ocean is over one hundred miles away from these paintings.
Layers of paint on this rock date back at least 40,000 years, but some argue that layers behind reach as far back as 60,000 or more. I don't know. I'm no expert. 

Of course, the finale of these trips involves something very familiar to a Florida native--feeding crocodiles. The main difference between the American alligator and the saltwater crocodile is that a saltwater crocodile is not scared of a human and will eat a human like it would anything else. The American alligator, when not fed by humans, will often avoid humans or just sort of watch them when they come near before swimming off. But to really get the tourists excited, our last day involved a crocodile feeding frenzy. Here is a pic of the horse meat used to lure them...

Much like in Florida, our guide hung meat from a string at the end of a stick and made the crocs jump for us... Here are some clips...

And, like, most tours, our drive home consisted of the tourist shops and photo opportunities near large magnetic termite mounds....
Just call me Teddy Roosevelt! 

As our group made its way out of Kakadu National Park and in between stops at Aboriginal art galleries (you know, make sure your mates get a chance to make some of the cut), our 4x4 came to a crossroads, and Pat recognized two women coming towards us. "How you goin'?" he asked. Sitting shotgun, I noticed as he and the ladies talked that there was a teenage boy in the back seat. After chatting for a minute or so, Pat waved goodbye and continued onward toward Darwin. "Crazy," he said, "the woman driving is me friend's ex-wife. One day she just told him she preferred women over men." 

"Man, that's crazy," I said. 

"Yeah, not an easy thing to hear, I reckon." 

"Not at all," I said. 

"Yeah, she took her son along as well. Now the kid is living with his mum and her partner. Me mate isn't happy about that either. Gotta sting him, I reckon."


"But," he sighed, "life is too short to live for anyone but yourself. Might hurt but..." 

And at that moment, a wave of elation came over me. He was right. Pat, the bushman, was fucking right. You can't live for anyone but you. And his statement really burned deep, because about two weeks prior to flying to Australia my girlfriend at the time told me she was into girls. Granted, she was dating a girl when I met her, but she dumped that girl and hooked up with me, and we were in love for quite some time. We'd had our run, no complaints, a good run, but things were changing. I mean, I knew on many nights with her that something was wrong, but I just waited because I think I felt I knew the answer. And it hurt when I had to hear that she was unable to stop thinking of being with women and was considering dating women. It was a heavy load to carry with me on the "break" we would take on our relationship. Conveniently, I was headed to Australia for six weeks and she to Vietnam and Singapore with her college program soon after she told me. 

And yet, it took a journey into the Outback, long walks through desert, relaxing dips in residing flood pools, some eerily similar Floridian reptile feeding and four days with a bushman I would never see again, to happen upon two lesbians out in the desert only to hear this bushman say something that, somewhere deep down inside I knew already but couldn't muster myself. My relationship would be over soon, and to many others it would seem like a brutally devastating reason as to why. But to me, it made perfect sense. What was her alternative anyway? 

Those few words of Pat's reflect the beauty of travel, that you've got to escape your routine to gain new perspectives. It's a shame too, that none of those other kids in our group got that one integral moment of perspective or philosophical insight as I did, but that's their problem. Good on ya, Pat. Those years out in the bush roping water buffalo had benefits most folks will never experience. Afterward, I flew to Adelaide to meet up with my friends, and meet new friends, and from some of them I would hear the "that's gotta fucking suck, mate" or the "you turned her gay?"But it was easy to shrug off. I mean, I was happy to help her and see her go on to pursue what she wanted in life. Wasn't I already doing the same?