Tales from The Land of the Light
ALICE – THE TOWN
Alice Springs, in the centre of Australia, has a signpost in the centre of town pointing in different directions:
Rome 15,000 km,
Chicago 15,000 km,
Rio de Janeiro 15,000 km,
London 15,000 km.
Sipping my excellent Machiatto, I realised that I was in another world – far, far away from everything.
Originally a telegraph outpost to connect the Australian overland telegraph line, Alice is now a town of 28,000.
Everyone is friendly here and my taxi driver tells me that he came to Alice after his marriage broke up to ‘have a fresh start’, finding Alice to be full of similar people therefore friendlier than most towns.
We drive out towards the restaurant of which the town is most proud – a Vietnamese restaurant near the airport that grows it’s own organic vegetables.
Traffic is bad as this weekend is the annual Alice show and the utes snake up the motorway on their return from the seven o’clock firework display.
SHIPS OF THE DESERT
“Are you going to the camel cup?” he asks. Never a dull moment in Alice, these camel races are possible as in 1840 camels were imported from the Canaries, India and Pakistan to work in this desert. More than 12,000 Dromedaries were imported for transport and pulling purposes. When no longer needed with the advent of mechanised vehicles, their keepers, told to shoot them but too fond, let them loose in the 1920s. Large herds formed, up to one million! Now a good business is made out of exporting them to the Middle East. In Australia there are wild herds of pure breds, something now needed in the East! Similarly camel meat!
The down side is that a camel, able to happily carry half its body weight without drinking for a week, can drink 100 litres of water in an hour! Goodbye cattle’s water troughs!
These early camel trains were lead by Afghan cameliers, who imported an unusual yellow-green fruit. The bane of every farmer, these ‘paddy mellons’ looked like mangoes with the plague. These foul tasting fruit are very moist and used as both camel food and a source of water for the beasts. Unfortunately, growing prolifically on vines across the ground, they stifle other growth. Farmers spend many hours removing them by hand.
After the camel cup comes the ‘Henley on Tod ‘ – the Tod river being a normally dry sand basin of river bed sneaking though Alice. Traditionally an aboriginal camping ground and desert highway, occasionally, with heavy rains to the north, it will flash flood.
‘Yes’ this is the only boat race I’m the world that will he cancelled “If there’s water” said the taxi driver proudly. “What do you mean?”
“It’s Flintstone style! They run, carrying the boats. Singles, pairs – the lot!”
Last week, prior to walking into the desert with our aboriginal guide, we all went to the ‘beanie festival’. This was the most brilliant and incredibly creative show of multicolour woollen and felt hats. All wearing them in the desert for the rest of the week, the trekking group looked like something from a Tolkien story! Some had pointy cone-like tops, some straggly bits hanging down from the ears, some- like mine- were in geometrical shapes.
STUART’S HIGHWAY- TO ULARU
Now we were trundling along on the bus down the Stuart (a Scotsman with too much liking for whiskey who mapped the road) highway from Alice to Ayers Rock. There are endless expanses of sage green bushes extending to the red-green MacDonnell Mountain Range at the far end of the horizon. This is used as cattle country, neatly organised by making sure water sources are 40km apart. This works, as the beasts only need to drink every second day, and won’t stray more than 18 km from a water source. However, in this seemingly unchanging landscape, some things have moved with the times. “The ranch on the left of the road would have had 300 horses with which to muster the herds. These horses competed for food and water with the cattle, so were replaced with modern methods” explained the bus driver.
“Now it’s run by four men on quad bikes.”
Whilst shopping in the multicultural and artistic ‘Leaping Lizards Gallery’ in central Alice, I’d seen elderly aboriginal guys in chaps and cowboy boots hanging out at a loose end. I should imagine that these had been ranch stockmen and musterers in the not too long ago past, and would give anything to get those jobs back.
FIRST GROUP TO STAY IN HERMANNSBURG
The last night of our trek we were to stay at Hermannsburg, originally a nineteenth century settlement which formed the confluence of three cultures. This was where German Lutheran missionaries worked closely with the local Aboriginal Arunda tribe. The two groups liked and respected each other, the Lutherans setting up schools, clinics and tanning businesses to help the locals. More than this, they were considered friends and protectors by the Arunda as they literally prevented their slaughter by the groups of encroaching whites who wanted their land.
A site of historical significance, Hermannsburg was where three completely different groups met – Lutherans, local Arunda and expansionist whites. Those missionaries truly were driven by God! They would get up at five in the morning, sit in their little rooms in which we now camped, get their books out and study the Arunda language. They would do the same after dark. The most famous -Pastor Strohler- made a hugely positive impact although his own health and family life suffered as a consequence of harsh living conditions and long hours.
THE MAGIC OF THE WITCH DOCTOR
That night, I was allowed to interview the local witch doctor – he was the very reason for bringing my new video camera!
So, after dinner I was taken to Lloyd Spencer’s bungalow, where he and his wife were contentedly sitting on a foam mattress on the veranda in front of a nice log fire. No furniture in this new-looking house, I saw some younger girls look after a baby in the floor of the main room. He was so welcoming and tolerant as I fumbled, for the first time, with getting some light for my new camera. I asked how he worked and to give examples, which he did in his own language of the spirit world. Of course this doesn’t really translate into our lexicon, however as I looked into his dark brown compassionate eyes I really felt I understood. This was a world of being connected to the land and utilising everything the land had given. He talked of entering desert animals, such as the snake, to use their spirit to clean the body.
“I’ll show you” he said, grabbing my wrist.
“You see they just go into the blood here, and clean up…clean you all over” he made a sort of munching sound and tapped my wrist. He was so sincere and caring, and very open. He explained that he was a seventh generation witch doctor, and so was guided by his ancestral spirits, which were so important to him. It was late, I was cold, and so after half an hour I made my apologies.
“Oh no! I was planning on sharing all my secrets and methods”, he exclaimed.
“Another time. I was honoured to meet you”.
All the time he had his wife sitting right next to him, who often answered on his behalf and intervened. He gave her a lot of respect, listening carefully till she’d finished.
I was so sad on leaving – he was apparently so fond of her, and yet she had diabetes, a kidney problem and had lost an eye because of this disease. Although he’d told me proudly how ‘he could cure anything’, it was very apparent that these complications of the western diet – diabetes – were something for which both his ancestral advice and animal totem could not prepare him. He had no tools for these modern illnesses. As a doctor I knew that diabetes really doesn’t exist in indigenous societies, being a product of obesity due to dietary sugars/refined carbohydrate such as bread.
Sadly, it seemed that whatever was left of the Aboriginal community after the white land grabbing slaughter then tearing apart of families, was now going to be finished off by their Western diet. It seems that like alcohol, whilst whites cope well, the aboriginals simply don’t.
“Like poison in a pure system” said Raymond, my ‘Into The Blue’ guide. The natural diet would have been mainly meat, with bush tucker fruit and herbs to supplement. Perhaps a little honey harvested from the back on a honey ant he most sugar.
Even in little Hermansburg, there was a new, small renal dialysis unit to combat this complication of diabetes.
I was so sad, remembering the trusting, old-soul look in Lloyd’s eyes, “My people used to be strong. We didn’t have these diseases”.
Enough for now!!
Love and Light from the Land of Light… Sue