Flyabouts are the airline equivalent to the walkabout. Flights into nowhere, returning to the same airport they left just two hours prior. Disdaining almost everything about the white culture, Aborigines have embraced only one of civilization's perks: airplanes.
Their fascination does not include a destination, only the opportunity to fly, which they do often. For the fastidious, this presents a problem: Aborigines rarely bathe. Government officials thought showers in the airports were the answer; the showers stand unused. So flyabouts were created, and every flight is filled to capacity with dusty, mostly naked and definitely odorous passengers.
The eight hundred Aborigine tribes are a worrisome problem for the government of Australia, especially those who still practice their ancient culture. Each tribe, consisting of several family clans, speaks its own language. Without homes or material possessions, their numbers remain unknown. Census counting is futile because they change their names upon every remarkable event. A girl might carry one name in childhood, another upon puberty, still another when she gives birth, her mother dies, or lightening strikes nearby. Marriage is unheard of, and girls are pregnant within their first two or three menstrual cycles. Fathers may be any of several lovers. The clans don't seem to care, with each member helping to raise the young. The men indulge in walkabouts, an aimless wander through the Australian outback, which keeps them unemployed. Gone for months, they walk hundreds of miles, sometimes ending up on the other side of the continent. Some claim the walkabout is a spiritual experience. Others say it is simply a way of life.
I tried to imagine myself as a young woman with her tribe. Although I would enjoy the safety and caring of the many, would I long for the accustomed touch of one special lover? Would his absences be unbearable?
Would I raise my children primarily alone, wishing for their father to return? Without the means to write, how would I record my life for my children's children? What would I think of the white woman who came as a tourist? Would I think her lifestyle too strange to understand?
My first encounter with an Aborigine was along the highway out of town. Wilderness begins at the city limits, unlike U.S. suburbia. Long fascinated with the animals of Australia, I planned to spend my time visiting the wilder parts of the country. My expectations were soon met.
I was filled with excitement, stopping to photograph each new kangaroo, most feeding on grass just off the tarmac. As the miles wore me down, so did the sheer number of animals. They were everywhere, in all forms, at all distances. I never imagined peacefully petting a wild animal, but here I was, scratching the tender belly of a female gray roo, who was content to lay on her back and guide my hand to the itchiest spots. The males were different. Standoffish and dangerous, we went our separate paths.
Wallabies and kangaroos weren't the only wild life. I stayed at an inn where parrots flocked and took a guided detour into koala territory. A farmer shared his concerns with the overpopulation of rabbits, not native to this land but thriving without natural enemies. The country around Darwin lured me with its lush forests, as did the Kakadu National Park. A pleasant surprise was my proximity to the sea. Wedge tailed eagles soared over my head at times. I was leery enough of crocodiles that I prefered the company of another guide.
Back on the road again, it wasn't long before I happened across a fellow traveler, on foot, with the long easy stride of a man accustomed to long journeys. He was wearing a loincloth and carrying all of his worldly possessions--a roll of kangaroo skin, a spear and a boomerang. Forewarned that some cultures object to cameras, I didn't stop the car, just watched his lithe, agile frame as it grew smaller and then disappeared from my rear view mirror.
My journey by car ended where the outback began. A horse lover, I wanted to see the brumbies, Australia's version of the mustang. Just as tough and hardy, they too are losing the war with civilization and are being pushed further and further into the outback. If that is where they are, then that is where I must go.
Domesticated camels have the gentle patience of the dairy cow, soft, not quite cuddly, but content to be close. They are the only method of transport across the formidable terrain of the outback, which jeeps, horses and mules can't conquer. Their patience lends the confidence needed to clamber aboard, sitting precariously atop the hump on a saddle made mostly from a thick padding of blankets. Riders mount as the camel lays quietly chewing its cud, its favored activity. Any feeling of safety is soon dispelled as the camel rises, straightening its hind legs first, creating a tremendous living slide. Saved only when the front end lurches up, full thrust, tossing the beginner like a rowboat upon a great ocean wave, the unwary rider's neck suffers whiplash before the graceless maneuver is complete.
To one used to the shorter neck of the horse, the camel's head seems a long way off, the shambling gait of the gallop too rollicking and uncontrolled. Even the walk reels, the rider swaying to and fro with every long stride. Camel riding soon takes its toll as the back stiffens, then turns sore. Nothing pleases me more than dismounting from a camel after a full day's ride.
About an hour before arriving at our camp, we stumbled across a family of Aborigines who were settled for the night. They weren't there the day before and wouldn't be there the day after, desert nomads who never sleep twice in the same place. They'd already dug their shallow wallows, using a kangaroo skin to cushion the makeshift bed. Another pelt was nearby, kept close in case the night grew colder. Naked, they sat upon their haunches, carefully dusting six-inch grubs before popping them into their mouths, raw and wriggling. They refused to look at me, not because I am female but because I was a member of the disdained white culture. They weren't content with simply averting their eyes but turned their entire head away, which I found more disconcerting than eating live insects. We didn't linger, wanting to use the last of the light to safely navigate the hostile desert, so barren and primitive in places, it makes the Mojave look lush by comparison. Yet this red plain, stretching over the horizon, is filled with awesome beauty.
Moisha, my ship of the desert, is a blond, perhaps the reason she is ostracized by the other camels, a phenomenon the young women who jockey the animals cannot explain. I am currently Moisha's best friend, apparently because of the extraordinary treats I share. Curled up in my sleeping bag, I worry more about Moisha's unhygienic habits than wiggly things that crawl. She lays quietly nearby.
Bone weary, the quiet of the night and magnificence of the stars drew me away from my inclination to sleep, allowing my thoughts to drift over the day. The welcome of the animals contrasted sharply with the shunning from the Aborigines. Is this the result of cruelty between races, with mutual kindness reserved for other species? I came as a stranger to see their country. I left as a stranger who does not understand.
Loretta Kemsley is the president of Women Artists and Writers International, which publishes "Moondance: Celebrating Creative Women." Her sense of adventure began in childhood:
"Surrounded by the magical world of carnivals, circuses, rodeos, and movie stables, I took my childhood for granted, only learning how unique this atmosphere was after reaching adulthood. Mr. Ed lived across the street, Lassie two blocks away. Gene Autry was my first boss, at age eight, hiring me to ride as a double for Calamity Jane in The Buffalo Bill Jr. television series.
When your father's best friend, a ventriloquist, can make it seem like little people are stuck in a drain pipe; when Lassie barks a greeting as you pass each morning on your way to school; when the palomino which nuzzles your hair each afternoon is adored by millions, who wonder how he 'talks;' when your own best friend disappears behind clown's make-up, the power of magic is never doubted."
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