We are staying in Katherine with Paul and Sam for another night. We met them when we visited son Tim in Numbulwar, an Aboriginal community on the east coast of Arnhem Land. Sam was a teacher at the community school with and Paul was a Mr Fixit, turning his hand to anything that needed fixing or doing on the community.
Our first visit to Numbulwar was in 2007 and it was our first contact with the saltwater people of Arnhem Land. Prior to this our association with traditional owners of country in the NT was with the desert dwellers to the west of Alice Springs at Yuendumu and Nyrripi.
During our visits to Numbulwar we got to know the locals especially well. They, like the Groote Eylandt mob, took to us and we to them. On most weekends and during school holidays they took us out bush, fishing and hunting. Through Tim we spent considerable time with his friends, Moses and Marrawuy and Henry and Mara. They were proud people and anxious to show us their country.
Numbulwar is located on the sea where the Rose River flows into the Gulf of Carpentaria. The riverine estuary is pristine and every time we drive into Numbulwar and see the aquamarine waters we understand why the locals of Numbulwar think there is no other place to live and why they are so attached to their land.
Holding onto their land has not been easy. Their ancestors fought hard and they had wins and losses. The big win came when native title was granted over their lands and they were recognised as original custodians. It may be difficult to believe but until 1962 Aborigines were officially considered part of the flora and fauna of Australia! Moses’ grandfather was shot at when swimming across the Rose River as he attempted to escape whitefella clutches. When the first white pastoralists came and took over the land so there was understandably conflict. The Aborigines found it hard to accept the fact that the whitefellas simply moved in and took what they wanted. This was contrary to their law where a very strict protocol existed. If members of one clan wished to pass through another clan’s land they came to the boundary and lit a fire, which warned the owners they wished for a meeting to discuss their movements. Another accepted aspect of Aboriginal law is sharing so naturally they took a cows for the meat, it was hard for them to understand why they were hunted down and killed for taking a few cows, they couldn’t understand that one person could own a thousand cows and not be prepared to share one. One pastoralist decided to cure the stealing problem by befriending the natives and giving them horsemeat to eat, which was very much appreciated. They thought relationships were looking up but on one subsequent occasion the pastoralist fed them horsemeat laced with arsenic; the consequences need no further explanation. Moses told me this story after I asked him if he ate horsemeat. My question was prompted by a mob of brumbies crossing the road in front of us during one of the hunting trips he took us on. Before getting to know the people of Arnhem Land upon whom these terrible atrocities were committed I wondered why they have not rebelled against the white-man invasion. After our time in Numbulwar I now know the answer. It’s because they are fatalists, they accept the fact that ‘this is it, this is how is’. Once I suggested to a blackfella friend that if he didn’t stop binge drinking in the ‘long grass’, a term used when they go to town to drink, he would end up in an early grave. His reply was that his brother died young and he expected that he would too!
Hunting in the Numbulwar area means shooting wild pigs, buffalo or redskins. Redskins are descendants of cattle from early white pastoralists and they provide fresh meat for community members. When a blackfella goes hunting and shoots one they share the spoils with families and friends; it’s their way.
Buffalo in the northern parts of Arnhem Land have almost been eliminated. As an introduced species they have detrimental effects on the environment but in the eastern sections they still wander in numbers. If they were eradicated many community members would go hungry.
Our other friends, Henry and Mara, took us to their country on a number of occasions. One trip was an attempt to get to a WW2 Japanese airstrip further north. Unfortunately we never got there because of flooded roads, however we did glean a lot from him relating to AIF and RAAF activity in the region. On one occasion Australian soldiers who instructed them how to report Japanese troop movements visited his people. They were also instructed how to make underground air raid shelters although they couldn’t understand how you fight your enemy from a hole in the ground. There is a story about two Aboriginal men who killed a Japanese fisherman for molesting one of their women. The perpetrators were jailed but when the war broke out they were released from jail and told to go back to their country and if they see any Japanese to kill them: white man thinking is sometimes hard to fathom.
Mara was an active voice at the time of the Howard Government intervention. Henry, Mara’s husband, told me at the time that he and a few of his mates sent a curse down to Canberra and the curse was centred on Howard losing government. He was right, Howard lost miserably. However intervention is still in force and as with most interventions, it has its pros and cons.
It is believed that some of the Japanese aircraft used in the bombing of Darwin came from the airstrip north of Henry’s country and a property owner closer to Darwin reported aircraft passing overhead in a direct line with Darwin, so there could be some truth in the fact.
Our days spent with the Numbulwar mob were great days. We had experiences that very few Australians have had. It was an experience of a lifetime and a privilege to be escorted through the lives of the indigenous people there.
OUR NIGHT SLEEPING IN A TINNIE. During our stays at Numbulwar we had many unusual experiences. Probably the most unusual was when Tim and I went fishing late one Saturday afternoon. It was a last minute decision and we were heading for a special spot where Moses told us to go. We set off in Tim’s 3m long tinnie and travelled about four kilometres down the coast. We were running about two kilometres off shore so as to avoid sand and mud shoals. When opposite the special spot we turned and headed for the shore. But, alas, the tide was receding quickly and we grounded. There we were, stuck in what felt like the middle of the Gulf for the next twelve hours with little food and no bedding, it was going to be a long night. Our movements were restricted; we couldn’t go ashore as walking in knee-deep mud left a lot to be desired, being stuck in mud would be easy pickings for a croc. Fortunately we had a satellite phone so we rang Bev and Sara and told them we wouldn’t be home until around 6-00am the following day and not to worry as we had a boiled egg and two Sao biscuits and sufficient water to last us.
Our main concern was how to rig the tinnie so we would get a reasonable night’s sleep. The first thing was to get it level and the only way to do that was to prop it on the sides which we did with two steel-framed crab traps that we found nearby. Our bed was now level. The crab traps belonged to a Chinaman who carried out quasi-legal crabbing operations. The crabs are shipped off to Asian markets. It seems the local people tolerate these outsiders farming their resources in return for favours such as an unlimited supply of mud crabs.
Some people suggested that next time we go fishing where it requires crossing over sand or mud flats that we should consult the tide charts. This might sound simple but there are variations within the recognised tide movements and it is easy to get caught out.
With our bed level we attempted to make ourselves comfortable; it’s hard sleeping in a tinnie where there is a seat across the middle and, in addition, the only bedding is a cushion from the seat! To keep warm I put one foot in a plastic bag and wrapped the other in a tea towel. Prior to settling down we placed the esky on the forward section of the hull so we could stretch out. In the night the wind blew it off and the sound of it flopping into the mud was sufficient to make us both bolt upright thinking it was a croc coming over the side.
The night was a long one but finally around 5-00am we had sufficient water under us to float. Eventually we were under way and heading for the glowing horizon lights of Numbulwar but we were not home yet because halfway across the estuary the sea fog came in and we no longer had a fix. Fortunately Tim knew where he was heading and we made it to the boat ramp around 6-30. On the boat ramp there were two small sleeping crocs so, after hunting them off, we loaded the boat and made it home. Because the car and trailer had remained at the ramp overnight the locals knew we were caught out and they were suitably amused; we were told we should have taken a blackfella with us.
Regardless of the overnight discomfort, all was outweighed by the magic of the experience with a full moon, a cool breeze all night, no mozzies or sandflies. And how often does a father get the chance to sleep in a tinnie with his son? It was all good except we didn’t catch any fish.
It should be noted that it is not possible for outsiders to visit communities in Arnhem Land without a permit and a good reason for visiting.
MARRAWUY and MOSES VISIT OUR COUNTRY. In 2008, after spending three months at Numbulwar, we returned home taking Moses and Marrawuy with us. They often told us they wanted to go to our homeland. For them, the trip was an experience of a lifetime for they had never been out of the NT and for us it was a steep learning curve. When we made a free roadside camp they wouldn’t get out of the car until they were absolutely satisfied that we were not near any sacred sites and we had permission from the owners of the land that we were allowed to camp. I explained we were on public land and Moses, in particular, could not understand that the land didn’t belong to someone. In his mind there was no such thing as public land. This also applied to national parks. He could not accept that national parks belonged to everyone.
One of the most awesome experiences for them was visiting the Riversleigh fossil site near Lawn Hill NP to the north of Mt Isa and coming face to face with fossilised megafauna. I know that when Moses returned to Numbulwar the first story he told to his grandchildren related to crocodiles and emus being trapped in the rock.
It took two weeks of driving to reach our property near Tamworth. Moses and Marrawuy settled into a shack on our place specifically for weary travellers and they were overwhelmingly happy listening to country music CDs they bought at a cash trader on the way home.
On our property one night, when driving in the gate, a rabbit appeared in the headlights of the car. Moses had never seen a rabbit before and he jumped out of the car and threw an empty VB stubby bottle at it, scoring a direct hit.
When we were in Sydney with them a friend invited us to go cruising on Sydney Harbour on his yacht. We met at the fish markets wharf after giving them a tour of the markets. I thought a tour of the markets would interest them and when we came across the mud crab shop, Moses picked one up (contrary to the signs ‘Do not touch’) and said loudly ‘these come from my country’. Moses couldn’t believe that people would pay $60 a kilogram for food he gathers for nothing. The cruise was wonderful, under the Harbour Bridge past the Opera House and across to Watsons Bay.
The Opera House visit was an experience for them. As many know, there is always an Aboriginal musician busking with a didgeridoo at Circular Quay along the walk to the Opera House. Moses and Marrawuy sat next to him and chatted then Moses called to me and said “This fella wants to take me to his homeland”, the homeland being Redfern but I wasn’t too keen on Moses getting lost in the depths of Redfern. In the world of Aboriginal culture if something happened to him whilst in our charge we would be blamed and we would have to suffer the consequences. Every time we took Moses bush at Numbulwar I would always check that he had his medication.
Moses and Marrawuy attracted people. Somehow city folk recognised them as being fair dinkum blackfellas. Outside the QVB Moses was gob-smacked when he saw the height of Centerpoint Tower. He leant back against the QVB wall and appeared as if he was going to faint, a number of women came up to him and put their hands on his shoulder asking if he was alright. In Sydney there are few Aboriginal faces in the crowds and Moses asked where all the blackfellas were. I explained to him about how Captain Cook arrived and how Australia was declared British Territory and how from that day on Aboriginal people were forced off their homelands. It’s understandable that they both knew nothing of our occupational history, it would never have been taught in the mission school they attended.
There are a wealth of stories relating to the Moses and Marrawuy visit to our homeland and if the reader of this blog wants to hear more please post a message.
Tomorrow we drive to Darwin and after a few days there for shopping (mostly food) we head for Groote Eylandt and the start of Leg 2 of our Odyssey. Tomorrow night we will be on friend Steve’s outside deck.