One of the highlights of my Outback Adventure with Contiki was an Aboriginal bush tucker tour just outside of Alice Springs.
We rocked up in a patch of remote bush in the early hours of the morning and were immediately greeted by an impossibly friendly man called Con. He ushered us under a canopy and we took our seats on wooden benches, grateful for the brief respite from the burning sun.
Immediately, Con launched into an animated presentation on the history of the Aborigines in Australia. He showed us a map of approximately 3200 segregated Aboriginal clans spanning the width and breadth of the country. The Aborigines had originated from the north of Sri Lanka and south of India 40,000 years ago, he told us. Whether it was in part due to his enthusiasm I’m not sure, but the next hour flew by as we learned many more fascinating facts about the Aborigines.
Who needs a home when you have the outback?
Until just 30 years ago, Aborigines were living the same nomadic lifestyle of their ancestors. It has only been during the past few decades that they have begun to reside in sheltered accommodation and shop in modern stores. Many of the older generation still prefer to sleep outside because they find houses claustrophobic.
What’s that funky smell?
Aborigines would never shower – ever! This was a survival mechanism. Water was scarce and only used for drinking. When there was a natural source, bathing in it would have meant leaving human odours behind that would scare away the animals the Aborigines hunted for food. Besides this, they all smelled the same so it was less noticeable. Con told us that the Aborigines once described him as smelling like ‘wet chook’ when he was wearing aftershave. He hasn’t worn it in their presence since.
Sharing is caring
When food had been collected, it was shared among the group. This was the only way to ensure survival and there were very harsh punishments for anyone who tried to steal food for themselves. A barbed spear would be jabbed into the thigh, twisted and then drawn back out. This caused a great deal of damage, usually puncturing an artery, and would often prove fatal.
When an Aborigine passes away, the other members of the group move into a phase of grieving known as ‘sorry business’. Women will cut or dye their hair and sit together and wail, while men will cut their arms in the belief that it allows grief to flow out of the body. This is called a ‘sorry cut’. Sorry business lasts one week, after which no one mentions the deceased ever again. Possessions are dumped and buried. It’s like they never existed. TV programmes in areas of high Aborigine populations will show a warning if they include images of Aborigines who may have passed away, so that their people can switch channels.
What was your name again?
The aborigines have eight different names each for girls and for boys. They developed a system to ensure that when marriages takes place, the newlyweds are as unrelated as possible. This helps avoid the spread of inherited conditions.
Traditionally, due to the difficulties in maintaining a nutritional diet, girls would lose their ability to bear children very early on in life. For this reason, they would marry as soon as they reached puberty at 12 to 14 years of age. Men would be around 22 years old when they married. The mother of the girl would choose a suitable husband, after which she would not be allowed to make eye contact with her son in law. This was because they would often be quite similar in age and might be tempted by one another.
Survival of the fittest
When people were injured and it was unlikely they would recover, the rest of the clan would hold a small ceremony for them with singing and dancing and then simply walk away. Again, this was the only way to ensure the group’s survival in the harsh outback conditions.
Have you met the neighbours?
Aborigines are traditionally a very nomadic people. It had to be this way to ensure that there were enough resources. Aborigines would move around the land in small groups of 15 to 18 and relocate to new areas when they’d hunted and gathered what they could. Every person needed 4 to 8 km2 per day just to survive. As a result, about 1750 people would occupy an area the size of England.
Where are your manners?
Aborigines are often perceived as rude and ungrateful because they don’t say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. The reason for this is that, traditionally, they shared everything. It was the only way they could ensure their own survival. Why waste time with pleasantries when giving and taking is a natural process of everyday life?
Witchetty Grubs and Kangaroo Tail
After the talk, we were treated to a delicious breakfast of damper. This traditional Aboriginal bread tastes more like fruit cake and is served up with a warm mug of tea heated over a small fire.
Afterwards, we relocated to another patch of bush and formed a semi-circle of fold-out stools. Con set about passing around a collection of local fruits and spices before holding up a scythe-shaped grey object that turned out to be a kangaroo’s tail. He skinned it as we watched in awe and then sliced the fatty lump into small chunks. Once we’d discarded the gristle and wobbling globules of fat, the remaining meat was surprisingly tasty.
Next up was the moment I’m sure we’d all been dreading. Con prised open a rotting branch to reveal a fat, wriggling witchetty grub. ‘Who’d like to volunteer to try this?’, he asked expectantly. To everyone’s relief, a young American in our group jumped up enthusiastically. We crowded around with cameras in hand as he dangled it between his fingers, before devouring it as though it were the world’s best chocolate. There wasn’t even a glimmer of disgust on his face.
As the rest of us tried to keep our damper down, imagining what it must feel like to crush the rubbery skin of an ill-fated witchetty grub between our molars, we made our way over to a group of Aborigines who were sheltering under small canvas awnings.
Con walked us though, introducing us to each of the locals and showing us their spectacular paintings. He explained what each of the patterns represented.
Many of the pieces depicted everyday life for an Aborigine, including women sitting in small groups, wallaby footprints, the spiritually important rainbow serpent and many different types of bush tucker.
Their art ranged in price from $10 for a bookmark to $100 for a large painting. Not only were these very reasonable prices compared with most vendors, but we had the privilege of having our photos taken with the artist and waiting as they inscribed their name and a brief description on the back of the canvas.
Throwing the Boomerang
Our final activity was to learn about the various weapons used by Aboriginal men when hunting, before having a go at throwing a boomerang at a brightly painted wooden kangaroo.
Con showed us spears, clubs and a multitude of boomerangs. It’s a common misconception that boomerangs always return to their handler. In fact, most of them are not designed this way. Returnable boomerangs used to be used to scare off animals such as birds without the need to go searching in crocodile-infested waters to get them back.
The boomerangs we threw at the yellow kangaroo were heavy wooden items. With a loose flick of the wrist, the majority of us sent them sailing towards the vague vicinity of little Skippy, although one or two finished up flying in a totally different trajectory and landing in the bush. I’ll leave you to speculate on which category I fell under.
The Aboriginal Dreamtime and Bushtucker Tour has been running for 32 years and their wealth of experience means they are ideally qualified to provide you with an introduction to Aboriginal life. Their close connection with the Warlpiri tribe near Alice Springs means that you will be able to enjoy an informative and highly entertaining tour while helping to sustain the local community.
My Outback Adventure was sponsored by Contiki. While they requested that I write about my trip, the choice of topics has been left entirely up to me. Any opinions expressed are a genuine reflection on how I felt about the experience.