Tropic Days, by E. J. Banfield

The Bush Track

“They trade with Nature and the earth — a trade by which all that breathe upon the earth live.”— RALEIGH.

It has no beginning. It ends — who shall say where Every high tide smooths away the footprints of those who use it now, just as it did the erratic tramplings of the host of the past. In those free, unregulated days piccaninnies sprawled and scampered hard, glistening beach; young men and girls there; men lazed and fought on its convenient spaces; women wandered on the serious business of food-getting. The camps stood a pace or two above high-water mark in the meagre shelter of sighing casuarinas, and were often changed, for there were six miles of gently curving, ripple-embroidered shore on which to rest. To this day most of the traffic is regulated by the tide. High water drives the wayfarer to the loose, impeding sand, over which the great convolvulus sends its tireless tentacles, to be thrown back twisted and burnt by salt surges.

The ebb discovers a broad space, firm and wellnigh unimpresslonable. The barefooted traveller may walk for miles and be trackless, so tough and elastic the moist sand. It is not an officious thoroughfare, made formal and precise by coarse hands working to plans correct to a hair, but subject to economic deviations of some soulless contractor. It was not laid with the foundation of the earth, and compacted by heat and stress. It is still in the making, and sand, coral, and shell-grit ground to pollen-like fineness and certain chemicals from the reef outside are among its component parts. One other element invokes perpetual thanksgiving — the flaked mica, which glistens delusively with hues of silver and gold, and gives to the tide-swept track that singular pliancy which resists the stamp of passing generations.

Midway between high and low water is a zone sensible to the airiest tread, being fitted for such temporary effect by a mechanical operation. Millions of the smallest of crabs, sand-tinted, delicate, apprehensive and alert, possess this area, working out their destiny by digging circular shafts. Obedient agents in the execution of the imperative ordinances of Nature, they have the quality of compacting the almost fluid spoil and carrying it to the surface in pellets complementary to the size of the individual, and such pellets retain their rotundity. They are scattered about, not without design, as may be seen if the industrious workers are closely observed, and in such profusion that the feet of the user of a crab-infested zone must press them flat. Then it is that the track becomes visible as far as the eyes reach. But the incoming wavelets, babbling in unison, dissolve the myriads of laboriously lifted pellets, effacing the record of the passing of man. As the tides ebb, the crabs begin their work again, preparing for the next-coming wayfarer. There is something almost incomprehensively great in the tireless activities of the nervous crabs, for not only do they carry compacted sand from their burrows, but they seem to spend odd moments in forming similar globes from material gathered from the surface. Digging, furrowing the surface in stellate patterns, moulding pellets which to the tenderest ripple are but the plaything of a moment, so are the lives of the shy crustaceans spent. What may be the motive for the perpetual labour, as useless, apparently, as the rolling of Sisyphus’s stone? For part of the year the beach is the resort of the red-necked sandpiper, which has an enormous appetite for the small, live things of the sea’s margin. To bewilder the birds and so reduce the risk to life, Nature imposes the task upon the crabs of forming replicas of themselves not readily distinguishable in size and tint, which represent labour unconsciously expended as life insurance, and serve the subsidiary purpose of detecting the passing of man.

What material has been left by the wayside for the history, not to be altogether despised because of its rusticity, of the unstable ways of one of the ancient peoples of the world, now few in numbers, forgetful of the past, estranged from the customs of their fathers, and dying without mourners and without records? Search the sites of camps the track passes, and there is naught to tell of the manner of those who recently occupied them save a tomahawk or a rare domestic implement of stone, and such stones do not preach thrilling but distinctive sermons. Why hurry along this pleasant way? Is not the one domestic appliance of the long-deserted camps worthy of passing notice? There it rests, half buried in the sand — a worn stone, with two others complementary to it to be had for the searching. It is meet that the most primitive of mills should be examined, and that one of the several and slow processes by which a poisonous, repugnant, and intractable nut was wont to be converted into food should be cited to the credit of the economic forethought of the most thriftless of people.

On adjacent flats and slopes grow survivals from one of the most ancient of all plants — a Cycad, that botanical paradox, combining some of the characteristics of the lie palm and of the pine with the appearance of a tree-fern, while being of distinctive order, which flourished during the age when the Iguanodon and the Polacanthus and other monstrous and ungainly reptiles roamed the land.

Let us rest awhile reviewing the earlier operations by which its nuts were rendered innocuous, and while the ghosts of the past make and bake their bread.

The fresh nuts of the plant (CYCAS MEDIA) known as Kim-alo, were roasted, and while hot bruised between two stones, the upper (Ookara) a sphere flattened at the poles into which the use of ages wore thumb and finger indentations, the nether (Diban) flat with a saucerlike depression. Fragments of the husks were carefully eliminated. The coarse meal was put into a dilly-bag and placed in running water below a slight fall, from the lip of which fluming, improvised from the leaf of native ginger, conducted a gentle stream. Two days were sufficient to leach the poisonous principle; but if the initial process of roasting the nuts was omitted — as in some districts — the meal was submitted to the purification of water for as long as two months, when it would be tasteless. It was then ground on the nether stone by the Moo-ki (almost a perfect sphere), used with a rotary action, until reduced to flour-like fineness, when it was made into flat or sausage-shaped cakes, wrapped in green leaves and baked. The intractability of the Cycad is such that if cattle eat the leaves they die or become permanently afflicted with a disease of the nature of rickets. To the human palate the fresh nuts-are inflammatory, and are said to cause intense pain ending with death. That the blacks discovered the means of converting such a substance into desirable food proves that they were often enterprisingly, daringly hungry.

Let us push on, there is far to go. Chance rather than principle, it has been said, turned the paths of old England into roads. Here may be studied the germ of the primal path worn by the tread of the least reflective and least mobile of human beings, the causes of its erratic course, and the transitions by which, with amendments due to the irrefutable facts of topography, it becomes formal and authoritative — a highway for the usurping race.

Leaving the shore, one branch of the track crosses the high-water fold, follows the bend of a mangrove creek, through which it Makes a muddy ford, and is firmly impressed through forest country where every tree is orchid-encumbered, and where the eager soil produces its own varieties. It wriggles up and along a ridge, with the glaucous spathes of grass trees standing like spears on each hand, and where wattle and tough she-oaks grow leanly out of hard soil, thickly strewn with buckshot gravel, rust-coloured.

Soon it descends into a low valley and through a belt of fan-palms and jungle bordering an ever-flowering stream the banks of which are knee-deep in fat, rich loam. Huge tea-trees stand in the water, where the fibrous roots are matted like peat.

Out of the moist coolness the track abruptly ascends to a pleasant forest, and thence drops almost imperceptibly to tea-tree flats intersected by Pandanus creeks, which bulge here and there into sedge-margined lagoons. In this “devil-devil” country it is barely the width of the foot, and it wanders sinuously like the trail of a lazy snake. Sometimes it is barely more discernible than such a trail, and again in the soft places it broadens and deepens, for the man with boots has taken the place of the original soft-footed traveller, and horses and cattle are ever fond of the short-cuts which their owners design.

Here a distinct branch is made towards a river, across which Nature, the first of bridge-builders, many a generation ago afforded an easy, dry passage by throwing down a huge tree. It spans from bank to bank, and the wood is worn to slippery smoothness by the passing of shoeless feet. Thence it leads through forest and jungle and mangrove belts to another river, and away south.

The western branch keeps to forest and jungle, following, generally, the ridges, for in the wet season the grass lands are flooded, when the track is but a silvery grey ribbon on a carpet of green. With careless indecision it trends west, with here an angle and there a curve, dipping and twisting, crossing gullies and creeping up slopes. The men whose feet made it in ancient days knew all the landmarks. Mostly it keeps to sound ground, albeit its wanderings perpetuate wayward impulses.

Imagination may follow the blacks of bygone days as they swung past, a fallen tree; where sportful youths wandered a few yards to throw grass-tree spears at white-ants’ nests on bloodwood-trees; where they turned aside for a drink from the palm creek. Possibly the track deviated to follow the run of a scrub turkey, or because the boys knew of a scrub hen’s mound, where the rich pink eggs were raked out by the gins. It was gin’s work to overhaul the mounds; the boys did not like to do the digging with their hands, for often little snakes bedded themselves in the warm compost — snakes, though they bite not to the death, make one’s hands big and sore. Why incur any risk when there was a well-disciplined woman to take it? There was a turn off (which was officially followed) leading to a huge tree where in the hollow bees had hived; and another straggled up the creek to the pool where eels secrete themselves in the moist, decaying leaves.

Six or seven miles from the beach, where the scarcely discernible crabs, with persistency as eternal as the sea, are strewing the way with millions of tell-tale pellets, the track, skirting swamps, following the bends of a river, passing through forest and jungle, is lost in vagueness and indecision.

When it was ordained that roads should be defined in the interests of settlers, it was natural that the original track as it then existed — broadened and amended and bridged by the good bushmen who had used it for practical purposes — should be followed. On the plan the formal road runs a strangely erratic course, for in many places it is faithful to the footpad. Some of the zigzags of the long past, some of its elbows and angles, its stringent lines and curves, have been copied and confirmed, for the bush track is one of the fundamental things, bearing the stamp of Nature, and no more to be obliterated by the trivialities of art than is the sand of the shore and the illimitable crabs.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32