The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 19

In the Grip of the Drought

As the years passed, I was more and more convinced that it was impossible to leave these people, to be deaf to their appeal for human kindliness, and of the hopelessness of any movement except one of help and comfort to the individual, and personal example. So savage and so simple, so much astray and so utterly helpless were they, that somehow they became my responsibility. All along the thousand miles of railway, there was no other sanctuary, no half-way house, as it were, between the white man’s traffic and the native intelligence, five thousand years behind.

I did my utmost to arrest the contamination of civilization. Many times I sought facilities to pitch my camp at Boonja Water, sixty miles north, or at Wandunya Water, 140 miles north-west, where I might have retained many of the natives about me, to lead their own natural lives without clothing and without cunning. At Ooldea, not wishing to interfere in their associations with the white people, who were always kind to them, I could do no more than think for them with my “black-fellow’s mind,” dispensing my Kabbarli wisdom for what it was worth from the knowledge gained through half a lifetime, and my Kabbarli comfort to the very limit of my means and my physical endurance. I could not keep them long enough with me to hope for the humblest results, for even when I had plenty of food for weeks, they would still go on, up and down the line, wandering for any reason or noreas on. “Koorda kombinyil” (Heart getting hot!) they told me, and, clambering on the trains, would be off, in their nomad eagerness, to Tarcoola, to Kalgoorlie, to anywhere between.

Apart from the effects of malnutrition and epidemics and disease, death-magics and bone-pointing had always to be combated. When they believed that the bone of a dead man had been levelled at them by an enemy, they would lie down in their little beehive bough-shelters and refuse all food unless I took the magic out of their bodies. I was generally successful in my treatment of these purely psychological but often fatal illnesses, and would solemnly remove and burn and bury the offending magic, gaining a great reputation as dhoogoor maamw ngangarli (doctor of old-time witchcrafts).

Death quickly claimed the weakest of the newcomers. It is sad reading in my diary of the deaths of young people in those days at Ooldea. Some had been but a few months in touch with civilization when they turned aside from their groups to die, and those who had drifted away came back always with their numbers lessened.

There were a few who assimilated easily and survived amazingly. Nyan-ngauera, who came down with the first group in 1920, is still on the line, a case-hardened beggar. With another group from the border was one little girl, Nandari, about nine years old, of marked intelligence and spirit. After a few days she set off by herself on a goods train to Cook, where she changed for Kalgoorlie, and was so delighted with the adventure that she spent most of the next three years travelling up and down on every train that would give her a footing.

My work, as always, was confined to attendance upon the sick and feeble, the very old, and the very young. For the full-grown healthy male natives I had neither rations nor blankets. I encouraged their hunting-crafts and the subsistence upon their own foods, which were to the natives plentiful in good seasons, nourishing and suitable.

In that grey and apparently barren bush, where a white man would starve to death if left to his own resources, the healthy native could find food in plenty, mulga apples, acrid but sustaining, quandongs white and red, kalgula and koolyoo, a potato-bulb creeper trailing over the jam-wood trees, fruits and roots and berries innumerable, edible grasses and beans. Kangaroo and emu had become rare, but the white man’s rabbit had taken their places in myriads. There were mallee-hens in the valleys and frogs in the swamps. A harrowing thing it is to see them squeeze the water from these frogs and throw them on the coals. Everything is eaten half raw, save the rabbit, which is well cooked, and every bird and beast and creeping thing provided a meal, including the banded ant-eater and the barking lizard. Many of the interesting botanical and reptilian specimens that I have forwarded to Australian and British Museums were rescued from annihilation in the natives’ evening fire. The only living thing they conscientiously objected to devouring was the marsupial mole, that quaint little creature of the Nullarbor Plain so seldom unearthed that the natives believe that it never brought forth a baby. The mawgu, or witchetty, a delicate white grub found in the roots and bark of mallee and mulga and other trees, with its creamy almond flavour, was the favourite dessert, but, though highly popular throughout Central Australia, it was eaten sparingly by the wise, who found it rich to biliousness.

As each group came and went, it left me the legacy of its derelicts. Veiled from the flies-and the flies of the Ooldea mallee in the summer season are a monotony of torture-I threaded the camps in some miles of difficult sand-walking, with the day’s provisions slung over my shoulder in calico bags. The frocks I distributed to the new arrivals were frequently burned in a night from ignorance or carelessness at the sleeping fires. The food would be shared with all who laid claim to it. There was a terrible instance of this in Ngannana, a woman who came in with six or seven men, all naked and very primitive. I showed her how to make a damper and gave her a bag of flour. Next day I found her savagely mutilated, and learned that the men who could lawfully do so had taken all the food from her. When her great hulking son had come in to find none spared for him, his fiendish revenge was the act of a wild animal.

When Mooja–Moojana’s mob came in, some semi-civilized relatives showed the man a tomahawk. It was such a vast improvement upon his old flint yabu that Mooja felt its edge in wonderment, kept it near him as a treasure, and when his woman returned from the day’s reptile hunting, almost cleft her buttock in two as an experiment. I confiscated the tomahawk, spent the morning refining the subtle differences between “waijela” and “waddi” in this regard, and threatened to call in waijela policeman (baleejeman) should he offend again.

In November, 1920, an epidemic of sandy blight broke out among the natives young and old, and in attending them I developed the complaint myself, a very painful granulation that resulted for a time in almost total blindness. The nearest doctor was at Port Augusta, 427 miles away. I dared not venture beyond the confines of my breakwind, but I could thread the well-known tracks within it without injury, and grope my way to the pipe-line for water. By covering all the things I used most with white tops, I could manage to attend to my own needs, and to feed the natives, who daily brought me firewood. They were amazed at my affliction and looked upon me with “Physician, heal thyself!” written very legibly upon their faces, for was I not ngangarli, doctor of all magic hearings? The recurrent attacks of this malady that I endured alone in the ensuing years were the most difficult periods I have known in all my life. Not once but several times, bending over my open fire-place to make my cup of tea, a smell of burning has been my only warning that my clothing was on fire. So grave and so prolonged was this first attack that I believed I was threatened with permanent blindness, and early in 1922 made the thousand-mile journey to Perth to consult an oculist. That was to be the last holiday-if holiday it can be called-for twelve years of so much increasing difficulty and disheartenment that, had it not been for the guiding light of my ideals of service, and my deep love and sympathy for the natives, I could never have lived them through.

Twenty-five, and sometimes forty at a time, would come to me for food and clothing. I loved to hear them chattering outside the breakwind, and if I had recently received a cheque for an article, there was plenty for all. There was an eclipse of the sun on September 21, 1922, and the natives ran to me in fear. They told me that the hand of maamu-waddi, the spirit man, was covering the earth while the sun and moon were guri-arra-husband and wife together. They believed that it presaged disaster, and clung to my clothing as I sat with my smoked glasses, quietly observing the phenomenon.

“You see,” I said, “Kabbarli gathers the maamu to her, so that it cannot hurt you,” and they were quietened.

Nevertheless, disaster was on our track.

In 1922, two bores put down at the Ooldea Soak resulted in an outgush of-salt water. It was the beginning of the end of this magical Yuldil-gabbi that had not failed its people in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of generations. In the few brief years since the white man’s coming, 52 wells had been sunk, providing 70,000 gallons a week for the railway. The late H. Y. L. Brown, one of Australia’s greatest pioneer geologists, had advised that no boring should be undertaken, but in continual experiment the blue clay-bed that formed a natural reservoir had apparently been pierced. The waters became brackish, injurious to the engines, unpleasant to the taste, and gradually seeped away. In October, 1926, Ooldea Soak closed down. The two towering tanks at the siding, from which supplies had been freighted up and down the line, were now useless. A number of 400-gallon tanks were installed at each siding and the fettlers’ weekly supplies were brought from Kingoonya over 100 miles eastward, and Kalgoorlie, 600 miles west. The natives were forbidden access to these tanks and forced to procure their water direct from the Soak three and a half miles away, where one well even yet yields a limited supply. The valuable pumping machinery was guarded against them, and they had to beg for their water.

My only recourse was to carry my supplies a little over a mile across the steep sand-hills in two four-gallon kerosene tin buckets twice and sometimes three times a day. The unaccustomed strain on my arms led me to try all sorts of ruses. I first adopted the old English dairy-yoke method, but my digging-stick was unsteady and galled my shoulders. I tried a series of billy-cans and more frequent journeys, very wearying in the hot sun. I even emulated the natives by balancing a kerosene-bucket on my head with a monguri-a circular head-pad stuffed with hair and fur-string-but stumbling and stubbing my toes often sent the bucket flying, deluging me with my supply. I could never accomplish more than eight gallons in one journey, and when a thirsty native came out of the wilds and pointed to his lips, I would give him a gallon in one gulp. Restrictions were rigid. I was in honour bound to give my water only to the weak, and had to watch till they finished it, otherwise it would be wolfed by the others, or poured on their heads for coolness.

Water-carrying became more and more strenuous, and as I approached the allotted span I sent a request to the railway workshops at Port Augusta, asking that a little go-cart to carry two tins might be made. The cart duly arrived, in the nineteen-thirties, and the makers refused payment, a kindly gesture that I appreciated. The weight of water over the rough track twice broke the wheels in the heavy sand, and eventually iron wheels three inches wide had to be fitted. The empty cart was heavier than the full cart, a matter I have never been able to explain. To the very last week of my camp life I trundled this heavy load over the sand-hills, in the summer making three and sometimes four two-mile journeys in the day.

The failure of the water-supply coincided with the commencement of an eight-year’s drought, perhaps the worst in South Australian history. Year after year, little or no rain fell upon the parched earth. The mighty Plain was but a shadow of the pale empty skies. Native foods dwindled and vanished, fruit and root and berry. All the rain-songs were in vain. Now and again gabbi-jean (the rain clouds) mercifully covered the sun for an hour or more, but before their promise could be fulfilled a barbed spear of wind would send them flying across the scattered hills of Wilba-thali, kicked up helter-skelter in the dreamtime by Wilba the Wallaby to confound and confuse his enemy. Raging winds scoured the plain, coming together with a dash in the visible combat of the whirlwinds, at which the women, in fear, threw handfuls of sand lest it should give them a baby. When they saw me whirled round and about in these opposing forces, with no evil results, “What big magic belongs to Kabbarbi!” they said in wonderment.

Summer temperatures soared to 114 and 120 degrees for weeks, even months, at a time, culminating occasionally in a shade record of 126 degrees. At ordinary times the average rain in a year was less than four inches. I have often watched heavy curtains of rain falling from a cloud high up, to evaporate somewhere in the hot dry dome above the plain, and many a heavy oncoming storm mill away in the wind like the steam of a railway engine.

Sand-storms raged for hours at a time, and the world was darkened. When the heaviest gusts threatened to rob me of house and home, I clung frantically to the ridge-pole of my tent, pitting my slender weight against the strength of the elements, and when they abated crept in exhausted to find my stretcher, my table and everything else within covered in nearly a foot of sand. I built my breakwind up to twelve feet high in order to protect my tent in these ruinous winds and sweeping sands, but it was of little avail.

To write the newspaper articles that meant the sustenance of so many under such conditions was at times impossible. My first typewriter became a ruin. The second baffled me in that my hands were so painfully burnt and blistered with the heat and dryness, the wear and tear of constant watercarting, and my years of attendance on the sick that at one time I essayed the art of typewriting in seven finger-stalls and failed dismally.

Only once, when tying up poor Jajjala’s arms and legs for burial at about 2 a.m., having had to hurry to their call, did I forget my gloves. A needle had run into a finger-nail that day, and into this tiny crevice poison entered. For about six months I kept up a counter-irritant by putting my finger into boiling water, healing and again blistering, and so saved finger and nail, so that today only the tiny needle-point route can be seen.

Many people, both in private and in the Press, have expressed amazement in that, in the heart of the Australian desert, I have always adhered rigidly to the incongruity of gloves. The explanation is simple. From the time of my first ministrations to the diseased-often repulsively diseased-natives of the north-west and the south-west of Australia, gloves have been my safety from contagion. I have kept dozens and dozens of the cheapest always ready, and immediately on my return from the anointment of sores, the bathing of eyes, and septic wounds, and other dangers of infection, both gloves and hands have been steeped in boiling water. It was a drastic safeguard but a very necessary one.

In 1925 Ardana brought in his contingent, all young men and all orphans, their fathers having been killed and eaten before their initiations. Mirnaambula came with the men, women and children in his group, and others from east and west with boys for the manhood ceremonies. The transcontinental and its traffic clashed noticeably with these age-old rites. The old men and brothers-inlaw sometimes arrived by train, wearing felt hats and calling themselves “dokkatur,” with the initiation knife, whittled from a glass bottle, a pointing-bone, some hair-string and various magics carried in a “doctor’s bag,” an old suit-case they had picked up along the line. Their fees, in the matter of food, were high, and for the most part provided by me. Occasionally a boy, if closely associated with the white people, was completely overlooked, and I have seen an uninitiated boy daring to take a woman-a matter of instant death under the old law-actually daring to throw his spear into the camp, demanding that she should come to him, regardless of marriage restrictions, which no longer existed.

In the midst of Juginji’s blood-drinking period, when he was isolated from his group between my camp and the Soak, some excitement carried those responsible for the boy’s sustenance away to some other siding, all save his brother, Waueri. I accompanied Waueri to where the boy was hidden, and swung the big bull-roarer over the two, while Waueri tied a ligature about his arm, dripped the blood thereof into a wooden scoop, and gave it to the boy to drink. I then produced a big damper and a billy-can of tea and gave them to the famishing initiate. It was against the ceremonial law that the boy should have any other sustenance than human blood at this time, but there were none who dared to question Kabbarli.

I kept religiously to their prejudices and tabus, and was as mindful of their tribal restrictions as they were themselves. By attending their totemic and initiatory ceremonies I tried to keep alive in them the will to live.

The totem ceremonies had also degenerated. One early morning I was called out by the usual native sign — a sort of insect buzz. On the hill-top three natives were sitting beside the huge effigy of a snake and its eggs, the snake fastened to a straight pole, about ten or more feet between its curves. It was made with grass and covered with dirty rag in lieu of the human hair which is its proper decoration, with ochre, pipe-clay and birds’ down, its eggs, two concentric circles, ochred and outlined with white down. The men scooped out a long narrow hole in the sand and we all stood round as two of them reverently lifted the snake and set it standing on the hill-top. Behind us the deserts of emptiness, and a mile south civilization and the railway. The female of the jeedarra was then produced, the woman emblem an ancient motor tyre, also on a pole, ochred, with its circles covered with down. I was asked to take charge of these sacred totems, and keep them from the women and children.

My funds were low indeed through these years of drought, and there is many a famine noted in my diaries, and few are the records of our feasts.

My success throughout all my camps in tending them in sickness was that I never attempted to alter their natural habits and environment. White medicines are not in harmony with the native constitution, and the white man’s hospital only aggravates their sickness. Whenever a native feels ache or pain in any part of his body, he lights a tiny fire and keeps the affected part close to it. This course I followed, keeping them in their own little bush shelters under the branches they loved, with their own people about them. For diarrhoea I gave them the edible gum from the jamwood tree, and for constipation a cooked iguana liver and as much of the reptile as they cared to eat, and a few bardie grubs, with other homely remedies for various complaints, and no patent medicines. Their own methods were crude. A tightened head-band allegedly alleviates headache, and a magic string would be expected to cure most other complaints. To amputate a limb they made a small bright fire and, placing the broken and probably gangrening wound on top, they burned off the leg or the arm, cauterizing the ragged bones still attaching to the upper limbs.’

I had subsisted for a month on porridge . . . warm in the morning and made into a damper-cake for my supper-when two unexpected cheques endowed me with sudden wealth. One was for the amount of £7 10s from an American university for a detailed survey of the “Sex Life of the Australian Aborigine.” The other, from the University of Adelaide for a series of anthropological notes compiled, was a generous grant of £60. I immediately allotted £40 of this to the replenishing of native food supplies, and devoted the other £20 to recuperating my own health with a series of nourishing, well-cooked meals purchased with the consent of the Commonwealth Minister of Railways from the dining-saloon of the passenger expresses passing four days weekly. I enjoyed those luncheons and dinners with the appetite of a healthy child. I had not realized how hungry I was! The water-carrying was no longer a bugbear, nor the drought a dragging nightmare. For the first time in years Kabbarli herself was jooni boolga. The old joy of life and delight in service came back to me. I could wake to face the day with a sense of well-being and a full heart.

The drought dragged on and on, until in 1929 the dry earth was tinder in the heat. Food was always scarce. The fruits and berries had shrivelled, the succulent mawgu grubs were no longer to be found in the withered mulga and mallee; mallee-hens and their nests had disappeared from the valleys, and the white man’s rabbits were rarely to be seen on the sand-hills they had infested in their millions.

The natives travelled miles upon miles in their hunger hunting for lizards. It was Dhalberdiggin, the son of old Jianawillie, one of the skeletons of the desert whom I was at the time endeavouring to restore to some human semblance with all the nourishing foods at my disposal, who brought upon us the menace of the bush fire-evil genius of the Australian drought. He had chased a long-tailed iguana into a low dump of bushes at Inmarna Siding, twenty-one miles east of Ooldea, and had begged or stolen a box of little fire-sticks from a fettler, ran the firestick (match) along its “magic board” and set fire to the bushes. Dhalberdiggin got his iguana, all ready cooked, sat down to eat it, and lazily watched the flames spreading and running all round the compass with the playboy winds.

The temperature was 110 degrees at, Ooldea, and it was a few days before Christmas. We saw a great bank of smoke on the horizon, too low for the deceptive rain-clouds that always so dishearteningly passed us by. Next day came the sound of section cars moving rapidly up and down the line. Panic was afoot.

On Christmas Eve the fire was raging round us, a fury of smoke and flame on the nine hills and valleys of withered mulga that lay between the Soak and my Camp. The ganger came to warn me of its steady approach along the line, realizing that my little tent was in danger.

For myself I knew no trepidation, and my personal possessions were few. It was for my precious manuscripts that I feared, the thousand notes and note-books that represented a lifetime’s ethnological work, accumulated through 35 years and thousands of miles of wandering.

On Christmas morning the camp was surrounded by a dense haze of smoke in heat so intense that I thought it was already too late. One spark meant ruin. It seemed that in a few hours my life’s work would be nothing but a little heap of ash.

Yalli-yalla, Mooja-moojana, Mooloor and others who were watching the onrush came to my assistance. The sand was our salvation. In a frantic effort to save the manuscripts, we dug a pit six or seven feet deep and buried the boxes, covering them well. Then all hands set to work clearing every bush and tree on the sand-hills near until we had a fire-break of 50 yards and more. Luckily my years of gathering fuel in the neighbourhood of the camp had thinned the bush and made our frantic task a possibility. With perspiration streaming from our faces and the roaring and crackling of the fire-fiend coming steadily closer, in a fury of choking smoke and flying cinders, the natives and I worked grimly against hope and against time.

The fire burned itself out only after it had climbed the hill directly north of my tent, within a very few yards, and just on the edge of the railway line to the south. We had a thanksgiving Christmas feast when danger was over. Dhalberdiggin ran away with his woman along the line, and dared not approach Kabbarli for many moons, although I had no intention of reproaching him.

A little while later the drought broke, after nearly eight years. On a day of scorching wind, 106 degrees in my tent, I looked out upon the amazing phenomenon of a great grey mountain range moving slowly towards me across the Plain, a cloud range hundreds of feet high with many clefts and crevices, blue and glacial or dark and cavernous, with out-jutting ridges exactly like weather-worn granite. The contours never changed, although within it a ground wind whirled and spiralled horizontally. The natives were terrified at this moving mountain.

Suddenly it was upon us. The mountain became a whirling mass of sand and wind and rain. I clung to the ridge-pole and shut my eyes in a tornado of blowing canvas and lashing branches and corrugated iron, while the thousand and one water-vessels beat about me in pandemonium.

There followed many gusty showers, and after the parched years, a vision beautiful. Green returned to earth, and the world was filled with the sweet fresh scent of herbage. On my way from the Siding, I now gathered armfuls of flowers, the slight rare glories of that barren bash.

One day, in the heat of April, there appeared before my tent a naked woman and her crippled son. They had walked for a thousand miles, from Mingana Water, beyond the border of Western and South Australia, after having been abandoned in the desert by a mob of thirty wild cannibals. The woman’s husband was dead, and her name was Nabbari. She had a firestick, a wooden scoop for digging out animal burrows, and her digging-stick, pointed at one end. Her boy, Marburning, carried a broken spear to help him in his lameness, but Nabbari had carried him most of the way.

Following the tracks, as the mobs had turned hither and thither in their search of food and water, so Nabbari zigzagged with the boy, often forced to retrace her steps. Four seasons, each with its own special foods, had passed in her travels and never in all that time was her firestick allowed to go out; for it is forbidden to women to make fires.

Day after day small fires were lighted to cook snakes and rabbits and bandicoots, lizards and iguanas, and every living thing that provided a mouthful. They killed many dingoes, and even their pet puppies, but the little boy clung lovingly to the last one. When meat supplies faded, they lived upon edible grubs and honey, ants, and beetles, and wong-unu (a grass), the seeds of which Nabbari masticated before she cooked them when there was no water. In the arid areas she found moisture in the mallee-roots, and shook the heavy dew-drops into her weera from the small bushes and herbage so that she and her boy throve on the long journey.

Many times they came upon the scene of old fights, or the hidden places of the manhood ceremonies-of these they would make a wide detour-or an orphan water where, after she had drunk of it, Nabbari would set up her death-wail. But the live tracks of her relatives who had preceded her were always visible, and from them she gained courage to follow.

From the spinifex country the two travellers passed into the sand-hill country. Marburning was carried on Nabbari’s shoulders or across her back when his lameness became acute, and the dingo puppy hunted game, and was taught by Nabbari to share his kill. Soon they were in the wallaby country. Next they came upon the swamps, dried up but still affording some kinds of food, and here the tracks of her relations became fresher and more numerous.

At last they came to the jumble of hills in the hollow of which lies Yooldil-gabbi. From one of these Nabbari looked down upon Gondiri-the Plain, the home of the great man-eating snake-the transcontinental train. The little white dots on the edge of the railway-line that were the houses of the white settlers had no meaning for her, but knowing that she was near the camp of her own people, she made a little fire and made a “woman smoke” signal. Mindari and others at once went out in answer to the smoke, and as Mindari was the first to reach her, she became his woman. So that when Nabbari, naked, with bright red seeds fastened in the strands of her hair and hanging over her eyes like a fly-swish, came to my camp over the last hill, Mindari was not far away. With due regard for dramatic effect, he had sent Nabbari and Marburning to make their own acquaintance with Kabbarli the Grandmother. No questions were asked on this our first meeting. Food and clothing and a welcome were given: the big happy sigh that came from Nabbari was eloquent of the joy and relief at her long journey’s ending.

For the special observance of Christmas and Empire Day I always managed to save up and shepherd supplies, a more than usually generous provision of flour, tea, sugar and jam, with all the new clothing I could muster. This year big fires were made, and there was an Empire Day procession of Kabbarli and the men, carrying bags of flour on their heads, women and children following, in new clothes, eager for the division of food, tobacco and sweets.

Special invitations were issued some three weeks previously so that some crude idea of what “The Day” meant to these aboriginal wards of the Empire might be grasped by them. It was not “Kijmij,” for Christmas feasting comes in the summer. Then what was “Em-bai-de”’? There were several among them who had acted in the native display for the Prince at Cook, and as during that short period there was “lashin’s and lavin’s” of food, and the young “King–King” by his gentle manner and bearing had made a lasting and vivid impression upon them, it was easy to connect His Royal Highness with Empire Day, and to bring its aboriginal meaning to them.

Empire Day was the King’s feast day. White people and black people belonged to the King. A long time ago, when the white men first came over the sea to his country the King said to them: “Look out for all the waddi, koong-ga and gijjara (men, women and children) and tell them the King’s law; they are not to kill the white men and the white men must not kill them.” And the King said: “Give food and clothing to all the black people when they are hungry, and old, and sick!” By and by the King’s people said: “We will have one Empire Day every winter-time, and on that day every man, woman and child must have bread and meat, as much as they can cat, so that they will always speak of that day as the King’s Day, and a day of happy feasting.” Our King sits down far away over the sea, but he tells all his Governments to look out for his black people on Empire Day, and so Kabbarli was going to do what her King wished, and everybody in camp was to come-not before sunrise-and make big fires, and Kabbarli would give them flour to make dampers and tea, and sugar as much as they all could eat and drink, because it was Empire Day, and the King would be glad to know that his black children had feasted.

During my sixteen years at Ooldea camp the procedure varied little. Long. before sunrise the camp was astir, I could hear the low murmur of voices in the still dawn air; and long before I had prepared and eaten my breakfast and tidied my tent, the procession could be seen filing along the hill-top to the little valley beside the tent, where the feast was to be held.

Each family made its own big fire for the damper-and tea-making, so that there were many fires, round each of which its own family group sat and waited. The young bachelors made a special little yard for themselves within which their fire was lighted and their billies tended by a young sister. The breakwind of bushes made their enclosure temporarily sacred from all except the children, who played unchecked round about all the fires.

Presently, to the cries of “Kabbarli na! Kabbarli na!” [Hurrah, Grandma] I went to see if all my guests were assembled.

Where’s Karrimu?”

“At the camp.”

“Call him, tell him to come and get Empire Day bread.”

Ensued a great shouting across the valley. Karrimu is a widower, self-made. Before he arrived at my camp in 1921, he had clubbed his two women “for talking too much,” distributed their cooked bodies, and then travelled with his son, daughter and nephew along the track blazed by his relatives into civilization.

Yagguin, a young initiate, being in Coventry through an unlawful love-affair, was not called, a sign or two from the men giving me the facts of his crime and isolation. Jajjala, another young bachelor, lay prostrate with the white man’s disease, contracted somewhere along the line. Separate food was taken to these two solitary folk.

The dampers were made on bags, no dish being considered large enough for the occasion. All had their billies and pannikins in readiness, and presently all filed over to the flour bags beside the tent, and stood round while Kabbarli asked them to repeat after her, “God Save the King,” which we all said three times. Then each representative of the families was given flour until they cried, “Alle jeega” (Enough). The billies were already boiling, and hither and thither Kabbarli moved with her tins of tea and sugar under each arm. How they love sugar! And how they beamed when it was helped in cupfuls, and not with a spoon as on ordinary days. All dampers were spread large and wide and thin over the ashes, so that they should be cooked more quickly. Gaiety and laughter and the play of children all about made the occasion a special one. There was abundance for all, and so there was no lingering thought among the women feasters that this or that portion must be reserved for brother, son, father or nephew. They ate, and ate in full content.

Forty pounds of meat, bought from the “sugar train,” was kept hidden from the men, and was cooked miri mawgoon (human meat) fashion. A deep hole had been dug in my open fire-place, and a big fire made therein. Cinders and ashes were partly raked out, and the meat was placed in the hollow oven, covered with the hot ashes and cinders, and left to cook for many hours. Little groups of two and three women, and the only two old men in camp, came along at frequent intervals and a huge portion of steak or well-covered meat-bone was cut off for them. This they devoured in quick secrecy. The men and boys had been given bullocks’ and sheep’s heads, legs, “arms” and entrails by the kindly sugar-train butcher, and so I had no qualms of conscience in reserving my Empire Day meat gift for the women. Jam was bought for the children and was also hidden from brothers, sons and fathers. Only those who live and work for years in native camps can realize the daily struggle of the poor women for the barest subsistence. They come behind the dogs in the economy of camp life.

Empire Day was made an all-day feast for every guest. Breakfast continued till dinner-time, and dinner till supper, and there was even a surplus for next morning (unless it was eaten during the night). When the children were filled literary-we played an aboriginal adaption of “Here we go round the mulberry bush,” which I had arranged “Not without some little fevers of the brow,” as Mr. Sapsea remarked, being rather hampered by aboriginal linguistic deficiencies in translation.

“Ring-a-ring-a-roses” followed, and then two of their own games-a sort of “hide-and-seek,” and a drama of impersonation of women wailing for the newly dead. The guests sat enjoying that “satisfaction of fullness,” and then, in their usual family group order, they feted back over the hill towards their ngooras, calling out “Balya, Kabbarli” as they passed.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bates/daisy/passing/chapter19.html

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