The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 12

Across the Bight by Camel Buggy

I remained at my Eucla camp till 1914, when an invitation came to attend the Science Congress to be held in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. To get to that heaven of contact with my own kind, I hired from the local storekeeper a substantial camel buggy and a pair of camels. I left my tent and its contents in care of my native friends, instructing the storekeeper to supply them with my usual rations. The initiation parties had dispersed, and only a few families remained. As we should pass many little groups on the 240 mile journey, it was a problem to load sufficient to provide hospitality along the Great Australian Bight, and also to select my travelling companions, everyone being eager to come. At last I chose Gauera and her latest, and fourteenth husband, who had bought her a few weeks before from his brother Ngallilea for two shillings and a well-seasoned pipe.

We started one fine morning along the sheep road that had been the old track of the Bight Head and Nullarbor natives for generations. The track up to the cliffs was called Yeergilia, from which the name Eucla had been distorted by the white men. It was a steep and dangerous road for vehicles and the camels concentrated all their viciousness into the pulling. Soon we were on the crest of the cliffs, the southern edge of the Great Nullarbor Plain, that stretches for 450 miles east and west, and about 250 north and south at its widest. We paused for a moment to send a smoke signal of farewell, receiving an answering smoke wishing us good luck, and to look back upon the little telegraph station on the sandy rim of the great blue Southern Ocean.

Nullarbor was named by the surveyor Delisser from the Latin, nullus arbor, for the great plain is utterly treeless, covered with salt-bush and blue-bush and other low and inconspicuous herbage. The natives believed it to be the abode of a mighty magic snake called Ganba or Jeedarra which ate any human that entered his territory. None of them ever ventured far out. They might chase kangaroo or emu some twenty miles from the edge, but invariably returned to their camps at eventide. The Nullarbor is a series of subterranean shelves, with many caves, underground lakes, and possibly rivers. Scattered over the surface are numerous blow-holes through which the ocean winds sweep violently and hot gusts of summer are sucked down with a loud roaring. According to the natives, the blow-holes are the gates through which Ganba passes to his sea home.

The Plain has yet to be surveyed. From the shelving nature of this old sea-bed, it will not be surprising to find that the sea runs for many miles under the lowest shelf, and perhaps the course of the two lost rivers east and west of it may also be located, and their waters tapped for pastoral purposes. The cliffs are precipitous and there are but five possible landing places in some 200 miles.

Balgundra, who belonged to the Balladonia opossum group, was paying his first visit to the Bight, but Gauera had been backward and forward with various husbands. Our daily journeys were lengthened and shortened as we came to good patches of camel-feed, and at night my travelling tent was quickly slung between the buggy and a mallee-bush, and while Gauera put on a breakwind, Balgundra went exploring for possible food. One evening he returned with a tawny frog-mouth, which he called munnarn. While he told me the munnarn legend he had heard from his father, Gauera cooked the bird for his tea. Our camping places were often ten miles and more from the cliffs, and yet as I lay on the ground I could hear the monotonous beat of the sea as if beneath me.

Our first welcome from the eastward was a smoke from Koombana, forty-five miles from Eucla. Here, in a small group, we met Ngallilea, Gauera’s former husband. He invited himself to join our party. Here I had occasion to mark the nice sense of honour that exists among these people. Ngallilea had sold, not lent Gauera, and though she built his breakwind, he lit his own fire and took his food alone.

For about sixty miles the coast is fringed with gnarled and twisted trees in which road and track are easily lost. Here and there we found little mounds of the edible ant, its totem mate, kailga the lizard, and the land-snails mentioned by the explorer, Eyre.

All four in the buggy, we wiled away the hours singing the songs of the Wanji-wanji, about thirty all told, the words of which I had written in my notebook for reference, and discussed native matters that could be spoken in the presence of Gauera. At the men’s camp at night we whispered the secrets which a woman must not know.

A few miles from Koombana, we came upon Goonalda Cave, with its big underground lake, and descended with the aid of a rope for water, and then to our first vermin fence near White Wall Sheep station, set like a toy house on the treeless flat surrounded by towering sandhills moving in every wind. Here I was able to replenish my stores. At Ilgamba, the head of the Bight, I found but one representative of the dingo group left, a fine wiry old fellow named Koolbari, who was glad to meet Kabbarli and tell her another legend of Munnarn, a pillar of rock on the crest of the sandhill, a dreamtime man who had once stolen two boys and drowned them in the sea nearby, and also of Bai-ongu-mama, father of all porcupines, who was now changed into porcupine grass. Three of the five landing-places along the cliffs are dangerous climbing, but Koolbari and his people had scaled them frequently, to catch seal, penguin and other sea-creatures. The old man told me that the sulky magic snake of the Plain had pushed up the land with his shoulders so that he could swim along under the cliffs.

In the first months of telegraph settlement, when Eucla’s mails depended on the irregular visits of the little steamer Grace Darling from the west, Koolbari’s services had been enlisted as postman from Fowler’s Bay, 480 miles on foot to and fro, and he never failed to deliver the bag intact at either end. On one occasion, however, meeting a large group of his friends and relations coming in for their ceremonies, he cunningly hid the mail-bag until the visitors had departed, arriving three weeks late. He and Beenbong his woman were the last of their respective groups, and were well provided for in their old age by Government and white settlers.

Ilgamba is an Arabian desert in little, its sands, of hour-glass fineness, continually encroaching and changing the landscape, sometimes completely obliterating the old telegraph lines and posts. From there we travelled eastwards through country thickly timbered with malee and other eucalypts. Birds and animals were plentiful, but Koolbari called the area “orphan country” because its own native gooseberry and kangaroo groups were extinct. Ilgamba was also orphaned ground.

In these undulating hills, my camels travelled easily. I sometimes walked beside them for exercise, as did the native men, seeking lizards and grubs and edible gum, while Gauera sat aloft in the buggy cursing the camels and feeling very important. We now resumed our smoke-signalling, to tell the tribes of our coming, choosing always a tree with a pile of dead leaves beneath it. With every group, or rather the remnants of every group, landless and listless, I camped and asked questions. One of the old civilized men, surprised at my sudden appearance, hastily buttoned himself into a pair of ancient trousers, wrong side before, in his eager haste to greet Kabbarli.

Rabbits and sparrows were then making their way across the Plain into Western Australia, and the fox had reached this timbered country. I saw sparrows at White Well Station. They had taken ten years to reach there from Fowler’s Bay, where they had been seen in 1905, but it took them only three years to go from White Well to Eucla, a good season or two helping them along. The rabbits easily acclimatize themselves to any conditions. In the worst droughts they devoured the bark of sandalwood and other trees, and dug up the roots of the smaller bush plants. I myself saw them climbing the mulga to nibble off the young shoots.

Both fox and rabbit gave good meat food to the natives, but none were so sweet as their own natural fare, lizards, snakes, grubs, and the sweet white manna from certain eucalypts. Their methods of cooking kangaroo, emu, wombat, wallaby and other large game are to me unequalled in bringing out the flavour. They cooked me a delicious meal, a wallaby tail, with the skin left on, thrown into the ashes, and a long fat carpet snake called goonia rolled into lengths and roasted. Several wombat snakes called moolai-ongoo, and wombat itself, were also eaten. Balgundra’s excitement when he handled the first wombat he had seen was amusing. His sharp eyes took in every detail of the strange beast; then he turned it over, pressed its hind foot into the ground, and shouted with delight, “Look, Kabbarh! the track of a baby!” That wombat was four hours in the hot ashes before it became edible-tender and tasty as roast pork.

At Fowler’s Bay, at the kindly invitation of Mr. and Mrs. George Murray of Yalata Station, I remained for a few weeks. Yalata was a shining example of the old-time outback hospitality. Everyone was sure of a greeting, and every derelict native of the eastern and northern edge of the Plain found sanctuary there. Men of the district came back to it to live and die, and new groups were constantly arriving from the central areas. Old and young sat behind the wool-shed or round the wood-heap off and on for years, mostly gossiping and loafing, always sure of a sympathetic understanding with plenty of good food and kind treatment from Boonari, as the Big White Boss was called, notwithstanding the fact that the native dogs played havoc with the sheep.

There I left Balgundra and Gauera to return to Eucla with the buggy, while I journeyed down the West Coast of South Australia by boat. How vividly I can still remember the vision of green beauty of those Adelaide hills as we entered the river in the early morning, lovely as a series of Constable pictures to eyes weary with the glare of the sandhills.

Members of the Congress-the Association for the Advancement of Science-leading men of their day from the leading universities of the world, were due to arrive, and I was busy with the compilation of my notes and deep in the joys of anticipation when one day, as I walked along King William Street, my attention was struck by the newspapers announcing the declaration of war-England and Germany, Russia, France and Belgium, the whole world, in turmoil. My own thought had been so remote from international concerns for so long that I stood aghast.

For a little while the daily routine was undisturbed. The scientists arrived. There were German and English Professors of great attainment among them, and in perfect amity the congress was opened in the Town Hall, Adelaide. Among the visiting anthropologists were men of the standing of Professors Bateson, W. H. R. Rivers, Haddon, Malinowski, Sir Everard im Thurn, Graebner, Hartland and many others, leaders of thought in their own countries, seekers after knowledge in Australia. I accompanied the congress to Melbourne and Sydney, a happy and exhilarating association from beginning to end, and then returned to Adelaide, where I was asked to deliver many lectures. This aroused the interests of the women’s organizations in my work, and a deputation was made to Sir Richard Butler, then Minister in control of the Aborigines’ Department, that my services be retained for South Australia in the same capacity as they had been in the West. Pending his decision, I returned to Yalata, and made the return journey by camel buggy for my camp equipment at Eucla.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31