Departure: caretaker’s diary

On departure day, as I watched the group prepare to leave, they packed nothing at all. They took only a few handmade possessions which they habitually carry or wear: their dilly bags woven from Mangrove string containing personal effects such as churingas (totemic identity badges); their Wood and Grass carrying bowls, coolamon, sported on heads, shoulders or against bellies; their custom-made digging sticks slung across shoulders with ornate Kangaroo straps; beautifully crafted decorated boomerangs for hunting; and perfectly cylindrical Hollow Log coffins containing Bones of their deceased.

Churinga. Coolamon. Hollow Log Coffins. I remember how strange theses names were to begin with, but how now they have become the objects they describe. They are so beautiful, so practical and of course hand-made using only the materials the Desert provides.

If only you could have been there to see them go. Ninija’s tribe, leaving the disorganised collection of tin-roofed huts, each with its rubbish heap outside. All naked and all barefoot, now all indifferent to white man’s comfortable way of living!

They are mostly advanced in years, weakened by a cultivated dependence on ‘Easy’ supplies of ‘civilised’ bags of white sugar, flour, pre-packed snacks, tea-bags. Modern medical assistance and intervention was forced on to them at the settlement; their own natural remedies and healing practices kicked aside as voodoo.

Ninija, leading the exodus, tall and broad. Her strong frame stooped to carry the extra weight gained as a result of unaccustomed starch and lack of exercise. Her hair a flaxen thatch cropped short by sharp ‘white fella’ scissors. She carried a large Grass dilly bag slung over one shoulder, a digging stick of the Pelican clan across the other. And held loosely down by her thigh the perfect wooden cylinder of her treasured Bone coffin, decorated as distinctively that of a Traditional Landowner. This would soon contain the precious remains of her son ginger.

At her side was small gina, her granddaughter, ninija’s successor to be. She was strapped up with her own digging stick of the Porcupine clan. Her grandmother’s coolamon, carrying bowl, balanced perfectly on her small head. Gina spiked the sand as she walked with a black tightly furled umbrella, outsized for her, its crook and ferrule of lacquered wood now flaked by strong Sun.

The party of shiny black skins with their blond and red topknots of wild hair was joined occasionally by competing Kangaroos. On one side they were flanked by a massive flock of high Emus, great scratching Bird of the Lands, and on the other by a troop of wild Camels. I had been so surprised to come across wild Camels in the Australian Desert. Apparently, they were once imported by Arabian explorers and have now become naturalized. Above the whole assembly, white Pelicans flapped their slow Wings through an indigo Sky, muttering to the full Moon.

The shimmering tribe was walking away from civilization, from ‘security,’ from ‘safety,’ without compasses. Away from health care and education. Away from the culture of ‘the thinking’ stuffed with words and ideas.

Following them, at some distance, was the party of newly arrived white workers adorned in multiple protective layers. They were led by the tall blond rifca in her loose-fitting blood red dress. Rifca. She was to help in much greater ways than the practical work of building shade shelters assigned to her and her group. Like me, she was to become a link between ancient Desert knowledge and wisdom and modern People. But that’s another story for another ‘here’ and ‘now.’

To read more of my extraordinary experiences with Australian indigenes, please read my book: Easy-Happy-Sexy: on the Twelfth Day U38k

                                               images courtesy of Linden Thorp and


Moment 4: collectors


rubbish treeheaps of junkAs I look around outside, from one rubbish heap to the next, it nowadays seems bizarre to me that the so-called ‘developed’ human species has a compulsion to collect material objects. And then, to sequence and sort them, arranging them in heaps like these, or on shelves, inside custom-built drawers and cupboards, or in albums or boxes. With time, the collections become the entire identity of the collector. In fact, the collectors think they are nobody without them. I too have stood in the ranks of these collectors, for most of my life as an anthropologist until recently.

This ‘dog-box’ I am presently standing in was once walled with stacks of meticulously ordered green notebooks, written up every day since my arrival. Then, there were wads of photographs, taken religiously, sorted into wallets and numbered to correspond to passages in the notebooks. Stacks of cassette cases containing taped conversations with ninija and her People, their counter numbers indexed with the main body of notes. All this data was rigorously cross-referenced and clinically collected. Any subjective observations were censored out to give clear insight, evidence and finally proof of the tribe’s ancient lives.


This collection would one day be presented to the intellectually curious, becoming the intellectual property of the ‘Foundation for Indigenous Peoples,’ known for short as FIP. It was this organisation which sent me to this Desert to make these studies. Yes, there is no doubt now that my own data had come to represent my entire identity too, and that without it I was nothing or nobody. My brief as a salaried anthropologist was to study in depth the “tolerance of pain assisted by magic and other non-chemical means” of these Desert People.


To explain further, there are no chemical medicines or mechanically assisted treatments out here in the Desert, so traditional folk medicines and cures are highly developed by aboriginals. But my research interest was how the aboriginals, indeed any ancient Peoples, use magic or shamanism (the communication between the spiritual and the human world performed by medicine man) to cure and deal with pain.

My subjects were:

  • a female aboriginal Traditional Landowner named ninija (mentioned above)
  • her granddaughter gina, and their People.

The location of my field work:

  • 1100 miles deep in the centre of Australia, reached by land-cruiser surfing the Desert, or ‘flying-doctor’ planes if the money was available.


Ninija calls land-cruisers, ‘white fella’s silver Goose,’ and aircraft, ‘white scratching Bird of the Sky.’ The Desert People have never known these modes of transport until very recently.

desert cruiser

Wisdom tip: Aboriginals are not collectors. They are momentarily attracted by unusual material objects, but soon they lose interest and discard them. That is the reason for large rubbish dumps scattered around settlements. Indigenous peoples living a traditional life, have very few possessions, which are usually handmade of natural materials. All man-made items, such as airplanes and road vehicles are slotted into creature categories, as that is all the desert people know.