The Passing of the Aborigines, by Daisy Bates

Chapter 18

My Friends the Birds

Even in the wilderness of Ooldea, I could yet gather wealth to my mind, find solace in the solitude. Those who have passed the siding in the west-bound express know all there is to know-four little boxes of fettlers’ huts in an arid, monotony of sand-hills and low scrub on the rim of the desolate Plain, yet not so desolate, for I found my recompense.

I might be solitary, but I was never lonely. The breakwind that enclosed my garden of sand was a veritable sanctuary of wild life. The birds and the quaint little burrowing creatures of earth were all my friends. They, too, came to Kabbarli.

I invariably rose at sunrise, when the days are at their most glorious, and the whole world is full of beauty and music and dreaming, waking from its slumbers under the mists. I made my toilet to a chorus of impatient twittering. It was a fastidious toilet, for throughout my life I have adhered to the simple but exact dictates of fashion as I left it, when Victoria was queen-a neat white blouse, stiff collar and ribbon tie, a dark skirt and coat, stout and serviceable, trim shoes and neat black stockings, a sailor hat and a fly-veil, and, for my excursions to the camps, always a dust-coat and a sunshade. Not until I was in meticulous order would I emerge from my tent, dressed for the day. My first greeting was for the birds.

In myriads they came to the water-vessels ranged about the camp, ready for the showers that never came and daily replenished from my water-cart. All through the fourteen hours of stark daylight there were visitors to my crumb-ground, for which I saved every morsel. To my 120 native dialects, I now added the language of the birds. I welcomed them in their own sweet accents, and knew them always by the aboriginal names that in many instances are a triumph in onomatopoecia, infinitely more delightful than the stilted English or the sonorous Latin of the ornithologists.

With a flash of bright wings and an excited chattering they were all about me. Melga I loved above all. These little spotted and chestnut-backed ground-thrushes became tame chickens, and would walk sedately through my tent as I sat reading and writing, and preen themselves in the sunny doorway until Jaggal, the bicycle lizard, came along. Miril-yiril-yiri, the blue-backed, black-backed and white-backed wren, and Minning-minning his wife, were other cherished friends. These three separate wren families lived with me in perfect harmony, and allowed me to feed their babies with white ants and other writhing morsels. Nyid-nyiri, the finches, came in hundreds drinking four kerosene-tins full on a hot day, and taking shelter beneath my stretcher. Jindirr-jindirr, the wagtail, and I sang duets together. Burn-burn-boolala, the Central Australian bell-bird, was a gifted ventriloquist. He could stand on the top rung of my ladder observatory, and pretend to be miles away. Juin-juin, the babbler, was insulting. “Yaa! see! Yaa! see!” he would call in derision, then fall into a recital of cheap slander. Koora, the magpie with its liquid throaty warble of extraordinary beauty, was a rare and welcome visitor; Beelarl, the pied bell-magpie, with his wild double note and his quaint impatience with his greedy lazy son; and Koolardi, the butcher-bird, ringing the mellow changes, set me a task in musical exercises-while Gilgilga, the love-birds, and Baadl-baadl, many coloured parrots, all the smaller varieties of parrots furled their gay wings on the “boggada” mulga above me and made cave-shelters from the heat in the shaded sands. Geergin and other hawks I discouraged-they were a menace to the little birds; and I was not too friendly to Kogga-longo, the white cockatoo. Kalli-jirr-jirr, the black-breasted plover, lays four speckled eggs in a small shallow place on the Plain with no cover-the speckles are its protection in that mottled limestone-but the fussiness of Kalli-jirr-jirr drew the attention of hawk and butcher-bird, and she would appear at my tent-flap with a shriek, “Come and save my eggs!”

Weeloo, the curlew, had more than one group totem all to himself throughout Central Australia, but, saddened by his weight of legends, he was ever mournful, and there was that about the hard cold eye of Rool, the sacred kingfisher, that is fatal to the natives. A lone pilgrim, he wanders where he will, and is the Bird of Death.

My reptilian friends were many, and they, too, gave me joyful hours.

Among the fauna peculiar to the Australian region there are two species to which early observers applied the condemnatory term devil-the Tasmanian devil and the York or mountain devil. The Tasmanian devil well deserves the name bestowed upon him, but the little creature known as the mountain devil [It is known to the aborigines of the inland areas by three native names: “Minjin,” from the Murchison and Gascoyne rivers to the goldfields of Western Australia; “Nai’ari” on the borders of South Australia and Western Australia and Northern Australia’s southern and south-western borders; and “Ming-ari” in the south central area and all around the edges of the Great Australian Bight. As ming-ari is the most widely known term amongst the central aborigines, I suggest its general adoption, especially as the name signifies its principal and only food, the little black ant. The word is derived from minga, small black ant; ari, many, belonging to, full of.] is sadly misnamed, for it is one of the most harmless as well as one of the most useful creatures in Australia.

Mountain devils occupy a unique position in aboriginal stellar mythology, for they have a part of the sky belonging to them into which no man may enter. In the dreamtimes of long ago, mountain devils were women who never mated with men; they travelled to and fro over their own territory, always accompanied by big and savage dogs which guarded their camps from all men.

Mountain devils travelled all about, and wherever they rested they left babies behind them, telling their children that they must never speak or whistle, or the men would hear them and come and take them away. At Kallaing, Jalgunba and Bilgin waters they sat down and left many babies in the spirit stones within or beside these waters, which are called ming-ari waters today.

By and by, when the mountain devils were changed into the little creatures we mortals know, they were still voiceless, because their mothers in the dreamtimes had never allowed them to speak or whistle; and no one has ever heard a sound coming from-them. But they were given very keen eyes and their bodies were covered with thorns, so that they might keep their enemies away. [Little is known of the habits of the mountain devils. They have but one food-the pestiferous little black ant-and they will place themselves beside an ant “road” and eat and sleep and wake and eat throughout the day. The females are superior in intelligence to the males, and the adult female will scratch the surface of an ant bed if the supply ceases. They need special intelligence to cope with the intelligent black ant, and pit their wonderful eyesight against the ant’s wonderful hearing. When a number of ants make an attempt to hunt them away from their nest, they raise themselves on all fours and swell their bodies roundly, thereby putting into business trim every thorn on their many-thorned hide. The ants crawl all over them, but only very rarely get a “nip” at the only vulnerable part-the inner lower lip. When this happens the mountain devil raises its head like a racehorse and shakes it viciously, but after a while settles down again to passive resistance.]

Mountain devils are very tenacious of life, and will live a long time without food. Their chameleon-like quality of changing colour with their surroundings is interesting to watch. In times of great heat they dig themselves a little tunnel four or five inches long, where they remain during the heat-wave, but if exposed to the sun on a very hot day they quickly turn a bright yellow, with a few red-brown patches, and die. Excessive cold or cold rain will also kill them. They loved to lie on my warm palm on a cool day.

By their aid I keep my tent from the pestiferous little ant. They may consume anything up to a thousand ants a day. I have sat beside them for an hour and counted over a hundred ants caught and eaten by each one.

Jaggal, the bicycle lizard, was so self-confident that he would sit upon me and catch flies as I lay dozing in the excessive heat. These little creatures that live on insects were a valuable asset. I have given Jaggal a live red-backed spider, which he enjoyed, first tossing it about until he had subdued its fighting power.

The combat of these dimunutive reptiles was an epic. The males fought incessantly in mating-time. I often reflected that if the combatants could be enlarged to saurian size, the battle would make the most interesting prehistoric reptile film in the world. The manoeuvring and circling for the final rush, each aimed for the head and mouth of the other, the false clash and parting and manoeuvring again, the beautiful war-colourings-red, yellow and blue of bodies, black expanded throat, erected spikes along head and neck, quick angry movements of their orange-and-black banded tails, made these duels of the summer-time a spectacle to behold. Once a Jaggal had its wide mouth split and broken. I immersed it in warm Condy and fed him with flies and apple-crumbs and beetles until it healed.

These masterful little creatures were jealous of my birds, and would take the centre of the stage to frighten them away. Neither Jaggal nor Mingari has a voice, but their intimidating appearance, their fearsome attitudes and their angry darting were sufficient. Both go into deep sandy tunnels in the cold season.

Moordin is a little night lizard, snake-like in its sinuosity, with a brown skin patterned in swastikas. Both he and she would emerge from under deed-box and tucker-box, and go hunting by candlelight. Moordin males fought like Kilkenny cats, each with a firm grip on the other’s tail, which they ate if it broke off or they could bite it off, but they fed their young and acknowledged them, which Jaggal and Mingari never did. Beeburr, the grey gecko, was another camp-follower, clinging with his feet along the ridge-pole, wagging his cone-shaped tail and catching flies and eating tiny portions of apple, or a beetle which I would hold up to him, but perhaps the quaintest little friend of all was Wiru–Wiru, the dancing caterpillar, a small green species that in certain seasons miraculously appeared in myriads on the mulga. It was old Draijanu who showed me that, if you bob a little stick up and down in front of him, wiru-wiru dances to it, holding firmly to the branch and nodding his long horny head for as long as you care to stay. An army of these dancing on the low mulga was a quaintly funny sight.

I taught my natives to consider my breakwind a haven for all bush creatures. “Don’t kill Jaggal,” they would say, “that is Kabbarli’s dog.” If a mingari were found with a little piece of red wool hitched to his hind leg, they promptly removed the wool and sold him to me as a new one. I bought one of my mingaris six times over, and at the sixth time I looked hard at the little chap. “Here you are again, Mingari,” I said. “Yalli-yalla always tells me you are some-body else, but Kabbarli knows.” The wise cock of the bright black eye greatly embarrassed Yalh-yalla.

In all my walks through the bush, my tracks were followed by the natives. On one occasion I went twenty miles, to Bimbalong and back, the highest hill in the Ooldea Ranges, and that less than 100 feet. Dingoes howled on the sandhills all night through, and sometimes came in to the siding and killed the fettlers’ goats and fowls: the natives told me that before the days of the white man, they had been known to slink in to the breakwind shelters at Uldilgabbi and attack the babies. When blood-curdling howls made night hideous, a shot from my revolver restored the silence and peace of the starlight.

Children, white and black, have always been a passionate love of mine, and to the little ones of every camp I was an ever-loving Kabbarli. Some were orphans whose parents had been killed and eaten, and until they learned to catch reptiles and rabbits to make propitiatory offerings to the men of the groups, these led a life of semi-starvation up and down the line, and became my particular care. Merrily we all played at “Here we go round the mulberry bush,” which I translated into their language, which just fitted the lilting tune:

Ngannana boggada yangula nyinninyi,
Boggada boggada yangula nyinninyi,
Ngannana boggada yangula nyinninyi,
Ungundha nyeenga aaru.

Their aboriginal games were much the same as children’s the world over, cat’s cradle, hide-and-seck and marbles being the most common. In cat’s cradle games with hair-string, they delighted to make turkey’s feet and kangaroo paws. Often have I joined in “Katta-gor-gor”— I spy — for the fun of watching the little things turn themselves into a log of wood, lying or standing, and looking so exactly like the bark of a tree that only their own playmates would have a hope of finding them. Marbles were played with the round kernel of the native peach and other fruits.

I obtained many an ethnological item of value by watching the children playing. Taken to all the ceremonial corroborees, and believed to be sleeping, they were unconsciously schooled into their place in the tribe. Almost as soon as consciousness comes into the baby boy’s life, he begins his mastery of women, and most of the terms of disrespect or reproach are couched in the feminine, extending to mother and grandmother. Yet the mother’s duty and love to her child, provided she has allowed it to live, never cease. There is nothing greater in aboriginal life than mother-love, a love of never-ending service.

A sad fatality occurred one day after a game between two little girls. I had watched their play. Gooburdi lay down under a bush to sleep, having first made sure that there were no tracks. Presently from behind the mulga came Boonggala, club in hand, watching lest she should tread upon a stick, and so warn the sleeper. Raising the club she struck Gooburdi just below the temple. Gooburdi quivered and lay still, while Boonggala made believe to light a fire, carefully dispersing the smoke. The game was then repeated with Boonggala as victim. Gooburdi’s blow was stronger than she knew. Boonggala’s ear and lower temple were affected, and she sickened and died. Gooburdi sat by herself. My little gifts of sweet and biscuit dropped out of her hands, and, mourning for her dead mate, she herself lived only a few weeks after Boonggala’s death. Gooburdi’s mother, Gowadhugu, a gentle, loving creature, went away to Tarcoola, where the curse of disease fell upon her, and she returned to die in my arms. Her husband, Munra-ambula, showed more of real sadness and feeling at her death than I have ever encountered in an aborigine. We buried her near my camp, with the wailing of the group. Because I had loved the gentle soul so much, I gathered bush flowers and put them on the grave. To my surprise, when Munra-ambula returned, he too brought flowering branches and placed them on the mound-a unique action, showing his love for his little wife. Another of his women succumbed to civilization a few weeks later.

So the years passed, and tragedy stalked with them. By the end of the great drought there were nine graves in the sand-hills about my tent, Marradhanu and Inyiga we had buried there in the first year, 1920. There was Joondabil, an old man, who had for his wives successively mother, daughter and granddaughter. And Gowadhugu and Draijanu, who died from trying to mix the white men’s medicines, for he sent his daughter Weejala to all the fettlers’ camps to beg from them, and drank everything hot, from cough mixture to embrocations.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51