Thursday, 21 January 2016

FURTHER TRAVEL TALES: Tanami Treasure

In a near forgotten past and in a life before children, there was a young girl who wandered without bags under her eyes but with a bag on her back. Here she returns to notes she made within the haunting beauty of the Australian outback, recalling an encounter with Aborigines.




Tanami Desert, Western Australia, June 1999.

Turns out, the only male is the driver. A red-haired tour guide named Blue - note the Aussie humour - who loves snakes and has obviously spent too long on the road for he's so bloody grumpy. Can't blame him I suppose, for the once white tour bus, now stained orange, is packed to the gunnels with women.

The eight of us have signed up for a two-weeks crossing of the north-west of Australia. The outback is what I expect it to be: Countless hours of Tanami track; red earth and blue sky the whole way, give or take a few serpents. It is far from monotonous though for the desert possesses breathtaking beauty. 

Finally, there's a change in gear and we gaze in wonder as we pull off the dirt track. It is not the sight of the long-awaited roadhouse which leads us to gawp, but the proud Aboriginal man, who now stands right in front of our van. He greets us by holding up a headless snake. I think Blue will be excited, impressed even, yet clearly his penchant for reptiles doesn’t extend to those that have been caught and killed.

The snake is longer than its captor, indeed, had been much longer before it had had its head ripped off. The Aborigine, arm outstretched, doesn’t smile. He stares right back at us all, through the red caked windows. This sort of place isn’t used to a van of women rolling up. It isn’t use to a whole lot of anything happening. The next stop in any direction is at least four hundred miles away. This is a place you fill the tank. And the canister. And then keep your fingers crossed.

The Aborigine’s other hand is bandaged; around the wrist and up his arm. The dressing takes on a copper tinge, thanks to the pindan sand. A thick black watchstrap is secured over the wrapped wrist, and the hand clutches a can of beer.  

A lock of uncontrollable curl swinging into one eye, meets an equally uncontrollable eyebrow. Standing so solidly, shadowed by the late afternoon sun, his blackness appears emphasised by the remains of light that have yet to creep away. 

The other seven women haven’t been traveling very long. Sydney into Alice Springs is a change of pace, and the sudden onslaught of flies takes some getting used to. Inexperience is the only explanation I envisage for their embarrassing behaviour. One by one, filing out the van, they barely look in his direction. Fair enough all in search of the corrugated silver roofed ‘dunny’, but how rude.  Intimidated perhaps? He is not the friendliest looking bloke.

I jump out of the van admiring his decapitated catch. I’m not stupid, I know a certain amount of possible hostility may be lurking. It is an unpredictable situation. I go with it all too aware of the pride I feel he wants to share.

I grin. “Did you catch that?” Eager to reply, he does with both a nod and a heavy accent. “Yes,” he says gruffly. I move in to get a better look. Up close, the suspended snake seems almost alive. Shining, it hasn’t been dead for long. The one torn and bloody end takes on a gritty dimension from being dragged along the ground and reveals its true state.

“Are you going to eat it?” I look at the man.
“Yes,” is his simple answer, which of course prompts my next question…
“What does snake taste like?”
“It’s a cross between chicken, and... cat.” Smiling at the nauseous surprise written on my face, he adds: “Not house cat. Feral cat.” I nod, somewhat at a loss, thinking to myself: ‘Does that makes a difference?’ 

We talk for no time at all and he invites me over to meet some of his friends. The area is open and instinctively I trust the Aborigine, so I follow him and his trailing dinner under a huge gum. Here are a group of about eight Aboriginals, all jabbering. Excited high-pitched shrills compete with one another, resulting in an overwhelming noise.  

I am introduced to the only man sitting on the floor.  As he speaks, an immediate hush falls over the rest of the group. Intuitively, I realise how this man of many years is revered. Unspoken, the respect the others hold for him is apparent and it dawns on me that this is the Tribal Elder.

I crouch to behold his face. Clich├ęd I know, but wisdom and serenity stares back. I am incredibly humbled. “Where are you from?” His kind voice possesses authority.
“The south coast of England: Portsmouth.”  He nods and I bet knows exactly where it is. “Big troubles in your part of the world right now.” He alludes to Kosovo; we speak of it for a while. The next words out of his mouth make us both smile: “Manchester United, good football.” 

Continuing to talk, I notice the other ladies of my group have formed a semi-circle and are staring over in our direction. I ask the Elder if he would mind if I invite them to join in. I want to share the experience in which I feel so very privileged and to realise that sometimes a smile and a little bit of trust can be the string that supports all the pearls. 

The semi-circle grows to a circle and white is interspersed with black. All are animated. The snake is the main focal point, and its proud owner enjoys the attention. Needing the dunny, and seeing that Blue’s almost done with his engine checks, I shake the Elder’s hand. He leans back against the paper bark trunk as I say goodbye. It’s not his firm grip that leaves me in no doubt of his greatness, but the way he wishes me luck. Talking only to my eyes, I feel a lingering protective presence.

In the van, excitement is obvious. Even Blue chuckles over the ‘cross between chicken and cat’ comment. We only have another hour or so to go before we reach the place we are to camp for the night and stare stupendously at the ceiling of stars. Contentedly, I sit back in my dusty chair and contemplate life’s rich wonders...