Sunday, January 09, 2005

Welcome to Journeys with Jood

This blog is deditcated to travel -- adventures, wanderings, musings. The experience of travel, how travel changes us, how travel opens our hearts. Feel free to join in, and I welcome you!

Jood

5 comments:

DivaJood said...

I am sitting in the back of a truck that two days earlier held three dead bulls. I’m on a bench facing sideways, holding on for dear life as the driver finds every bump, rut and stone along the track. The driver is Aboriginal Elder Ydimduma Bill Harney, the last elder of the Wardaman People and he’s taking us to a rock art site on his traditional lands. The site is called Moon Lady Dreaming. The truck is, well, ripe. Blood from the bulls is splattered on the walls, flies are buzzing, it is blazing hot. This does not sound like heaven, but it is.

Bill Harney is the reason I’m in Australia for the 12th time. We’re on his traditional lands in the Victoria River region near Katherine, in the Top End of Australia’s Northern Territory. Bill is the keeper of his people’s laws, their stories, their traditions. He’s also an artist. He’s a cattle rancher. He’s a tour guide. He’s a businessman. He’s a great raconteur. And he’s the last of his people. When he dies, his people will die out.

Bill Harney, along with storyteller Paul Taylor, cinematographer Len Glasser, and Mike Keighley of Far Out Adventures, have put together this experience: go with Bill to remote rock art sites, document his stories and experience the real outback that most white people never see. Australia is the most urbanized country on earth, almost 90% of the people live in cities hugging the coasts, so it’s not just the rest of the world that doesn’t see this work. Australians don’t go here either. It is a region that is simply amazing, and my fellow travelers are friends of mine who, like me, believe that anything below a Holiday Inn is camping. And here we are, wild women sleeping in tents, our swags spread out on the ground. Talk about the princesses and the pea! However, we are all good friends, and the hugely decadent factor that sweetens the pot is that a friend of Mike’s, Joc Schmiechen, decided to join the group and he’s a gourmet chef and magician with food cooked over a campfire. I mean, Osso Bucco, it was amazing!

But this is a region that is not easy for the inexperienced to maneuver. I’m a city girl, and although I’ve camped, in this region I am out of my element. Still, I’m game. This is a landscape subject to monsoon rains which leave floods so severe the people are cut off from the rest of the country. Grasses are sharp, they cut the skin like knives. There are snakes, and saltwater crocodiles. It is a land of blistering heat and sweltering humidity. It also has incredible bird life and kangaroos, and wallabies, wild donkeys, turtles. It has a sky so blue it breaks your heart. At night, before moonrise, the stars are so thick you think you can touch them and you can easily see the dark sparklers that make up the Aboriginal sky. I love this landscape, my heart is there. It’s my second time in this region, it sings to me. I can’t really explain why.

But back to the truck. We’re bouncing along, and I’m trying to figure out how Bill got the three dead bulls into the back. The space is barely large enough to hold the seven of us who are squeezed together on the benches. When we finally stop and we fall out the back, I make a bee-line to Mike and ask him how Bill fit the bulls in. “Easy, he used a chain saw. I’ll email you pictures,” he said.

The bulls were to feed a mob: 250 Aboriginal delegates from various tribes across the Top End of the Northern Territory and into Western Australia were holding a meeting on Bill’s traditional lands to discuss land management, tourism, and their own autonomy and future. The location was an honor to Bill Harney and his people, and Bill loves a good steak, so why not butcher up three big ones, and feed the mob? However, at this moment, en route to Moon Lady Dreaming, I am seriously considering the benefits of becoming a strict vegetarian.

We’ve stopped at a riverside for lunch. Bill, Lenny and Paul will go ahead for a while so they can film Bill without our mob. Bill requests that the women put red ochre on our faces before we walk over to Moon Lady Dreaming. It is a women’s site, and we need to honor custom and tradition. (It is not a site dealing with secret women’s business, which is why Bill and the other men can go to it.) The three of them trudge off, lugging camera and tripod and microphone. The rest of us find shade and tuck into our luncheon buffet of cold cuts, cheeses and salad. Bill is going to film the full story, not the tourist version, so we’ll have time for a swim.

We’re all in the river except Joc, who remains laughing on the riverbank. Mike dives in to find the red ochre mud – he comes up with a huge pile of it, and we start to paint our faces. I feel a transformation come over me, a connection to place that city life denies. It was an extraordinary feeling for me. Here we were, a bunch of city women sitting in a river, with bottles of water; some of the gals had glasses of wine; we’ve been sleeping in tents, we’ve not seen a shower in two days, we’re putting mud on our faces, and it’s glorious.

When Bill, Paul, and Lenny return for us, we’re ready to go. The ochre has a shimmer to it, so we glow – we’ve become moon ladies dreaming. We go marching back to the site, and someone asks Bill how old the paintings actually are. He says “They from the creation. Before it came to still.”

When Bill Harney talks about the creation, the dreamtime, he explains it this way: nothing was solid, it was all a swirling vapor, all dreaming. When it came to still, he says it stopped moving and became solid (still) as it became the oceans, land, air. The dreamtime ancestors left their stories and songs in the rocks as carvings and paintings, and the ancestors became the animals, plants, birds, land, sea, people we are today.

Bill says that the paintings are the way they tell their stories – they repaint, retouch what was left behind, it is part of their ritual and tradition, in the retelling. So many sites have been lost, as the people die out. And he says there are new sites too, and took us to one such site: about 200 + years, depicting the story of the first contact with whites in his land. The painting showed white man coming with his guns; Kangaroo Man implores him to throw away his weapons; white man complies. Here Bill said, “that Aboriginie, he musta been pretty good artist. See them detail in them pistol and rifle?” He’s right, the guns are crude, but very detailed.

We spent three nights and four days with Bill Harney, the heart of our trip. We camped near a river which was our soapless bath; Mike does often rig up a Bush Shower for clients, but our mob didn’t feel the need. We sort of all went feral and loved every minute of it. It was a truly unique experience, a true expedition – we were doing this trip for the first, and only time, and there was and is a sense of urgency to it all.

The Aboriginal People of Australia are recognized as the oldest continuing civilization on earth. They’ve been documented as being here over 60,000 years. In the 200 + years of exposure to white people, their numbers have been decimated. They are on the verge of extinction.

These are a very sophisticated people: they understood the nature of flight and created a weapon based on the same principles that keep an airplane aloft thousands of years before the Wright Brothers trudged down to Kitty Hawk. The boomerang is accurate, and amazingly simple. Their view of creation is not all that different than science – a molten planet that eventually became still, solid, and evolved over time. They are earthy, gorgeous people and each tribe has its own customs and responsibilities, and they’re vanishing. They believe that their songs and traditions keep the earth healthy and alive; when they die, they believe the earth will die.

Bill has children, and grandchildren, but they are not trained enough in Wardaman traditions. They only recently got their land back, and life in town – exposure to Western Culture, drugs and alcohol – have undermined their way of life. These are people who should never be taken from their land, but they were. Bill is a half-caste, his father was Irish. His two sisters were part of the stolen generation, and after they were taken, he never saw them again. Bill told me that when his grandsons are with him in their community, they study, they’re interested, they follow the old ways. The second they get back to Katherine, they drink, drug and are hellions. Bill is trying hard to turn them around, but at 73, time is running out. So his solution is to let Paul Taylor document all the stories, all of it. Paul’s been studying with Bill for over 15 years, and while we were there, Bill gave Paul his Aboriginal name: Jalala, which means tall skinny white man, which describes Paul well.

After we left the Wardaman lands, Mike took us to another area, the Never Never. This area was made famous in a book, We of the Never Never, by Jeanne Gunn, describing life in a remote outback cattle station. This is the land of the Mangarrayi Aboriginal people, who actually have a healthier community than the Wardaman people -–there are some elders left who are able to train the children. Still, we saw how Western culture corrupts – when photographing the children, they all signified as seen on TV – actually on MTV. They all love the gangsta rappers like Snoop Dogg, Ice T, Eminem, and they make the signs with their hands. They’ve no idea what the signs mean but hey, it’s on TV. Still, the kids were wonderful and we spent a long time with them swimming in a river with three waterfalls feeding it.

Words can’t do justice to how beautiful this place was, or how beautiful these children were. Their laughter was like a song. I was standing in the river with one of the girls, Candace, splashing water and laughing. She tapped me on the shoulder and said, “We all family. Dem two over there, and hims and dem.” Mike had told us he was part of this community, and I asked if he was now Uncle, or Cousin. She shook her head, and made a circle with her thumbs and index fingers. “We just all family,” she said. I get it. We are just all family.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely awesome story --- sounds like the real deal -- how can I get there?

MK

DivaJood said...

Hey Anonymous, is that you Mike? You're already there, you yahoo! Miss you, wish I was there myself.

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