Aboriginal life in Oak Valley

by Pamela Wade / 25 August, 2011
On a remote Oak Valley property, an Aboriginal is sharing with visitors – as well as his own family – the joys of a simpler life before PlayStation and KFC.

‘Here we go again: Grandpa’s going to scruff us and shove a raw lizard in our mouths.” Craig laughs at what is obviously a vivid memory. Far from recoiling from it, though, he quotes it as an example that now, as a father and grandfather, he is keen to follow himself: hence the two kangaroo tails he brings to our campfire.

He has appeared through the drifting mulga smoke at Oak Valley, 100km south of Alice Springs, a raffish figure with long hair tucked inside a yellow Hawthorn Hawks beanie, a gold earring glinting in the low sun, his light-blue eyes making a striking contrast with his Aboriginal features.

We’ve been expecting him: when Shona welcomed us to this remote property at the end of a long, dusty road, she explained we would have the opportunity to ask whatever we wanted about Aboriginal culture, regardless of how sensitive the question. “If you can get a word in edgeways,” she warned finally.

Wise counsel: from the moment he arrives, it’s clear Craig could talk the hind leg off a dingo. He tells us that his name – Le Rossignol – light skin and blue eyes were inherited from a passing Frenchman several generations back, and that he has Irish blood, too, but his Arrernte and Luritja heritage are what define him.

His family have worked this property for 30 years, since it was returned under the Land Rights Act, after being appropriated by graziers for 100 years or so: a mere blip of time in the millennia that Craig’s people have been in the area, as he’ll show us later.

But first there are the roo tails to deal with. In a perfect example of what we come to learn is one of Craig’s major challenges, his nephew and one son crouch by the fire, turning the tails in the flames to singe off the hair, while the other son sits hunched over a portable PlayStation, face pale in the light from the screen. The smooth and blackened roo tails are then wrapped in foil and thrown into the glowing embers: “When you can smell them, they’re done.”

Comfortable on our rolled-up swags, we sit in a ring around the fire under a sky full of stars and listen as Craig explains how hard it is to keep tradition alive in young people seduced by the lure of computer games and KFC.

“You have to make them go out and throw stones these days,” he says. “I keep telling them, you gotta be ready for if the car breaks down. You can just sit there and dehydrate, or you can knock a kangaroo on the head and survive.”

He takes the boys out of school periodically to go bush and educate them in the old ways, which he believes are as essential as they ever were. “Life won’t always be as easy as it is now, but if you can find your own food, ride a horse so you don’t need fuel, and disappear into your country, you’ll be all right.” He speaks admiringly of the boys’ cousins, growing up old-style: “Big and strong, they can handle themselves in the bush. They never fell prey to the hamburger.”

We have one of the roo tails for smoko the next day, and it’s nothing like a Big Mac, but the meat is surprisingly similar to tender lamb shanks, once we’ve fastidiously separated it from the skin, fat and sinews. There’s no such fussiness for Craig, who leaves only the bare bone for the dingoes.

He takes us up a broken hill for a view of red sand dunes, scrub and desert oaks, bounded by a distant horizon of low purple hills under a vast blue sky: “That’s my backyard.”

It’s an ancient land, and the evidence is in the tumble of rocks under our feet, where every stone we pick up contains some sort of fossil – ammonite, trilobite, brachiopod and more – from Precambrian times.

Craig, self-taught since primary school, is knowledgeable about the geology, but for him these rocks and this view have another, deeper, meaning.

Tucked into a small gorge between shiny orange cliffs that bounce his voice back mixed with the rustle of grasshoppers and the beeping of zebra finches, he tells us the story of his country from before time began, explaining how the hills, the waterholes and even individual rocks were formed by the serpents and other animals of Aboriginal legend.

Kneeling, he draws the illustrations in the red sand with his finger: circles, spirals, dots and squiggles, the song-lines told over and over in the same words for millennia. Further up into the valley, in a shallow cave under the cliff, we see a line of small stencilled hand-prints left by children who sat, agog, listening to these same stories about 2000 years ago.

He uses water to show how the stencils were made, the dark orange outline of his hand beginning to evaporate almost at once. “It’ll be gone in 20 minutes,” he says, and we remember his mantra: preserve the land and leave it clean. When we get back to camp, that’s clean, too – of the second roo tail. The boys have been through and snaffled it, disappearing into the bush to eat it down to the bone. We reckon they’re going to be all right.
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