Updated: Mar 26
In 1999, I travelled the coastline of Australia for 9 months and headed West through South Australia, Western Australia and up into the Northern Territory. I was a fearless twenty-two year old, in search of myself and trying to escape an overwhelming situation that had been brewing for years in the family home. I had a thirst for adventure, knowledge, experience and wanted to go explore what was out there. Recently, my daughter found some old photos of her father and I travelling around Australia and asked me about it. She said that she hoped one day she would get to do all the amazing things I've done. Back then we didn't have digital cameras or social media and these few photographs were developed from film on the few times I did have a camera with me. I have decided to archive my stories for my children and anyone else who wants to hear them and one day might even compile them into a book.
This particular story starts in 1999, after several months on the road. We were finishing a long afternoon walk through Katherine George, in the Northern Territory of Australia. I was feeling tired and noticed the car park was emptying out. As dusk fell, we decided we would stay parked there for the night. We were travelling in a motorhome and were completely self-sufficient. I prepared some dinner and walked over to a table in the nearby picnic grounds. The surrounding bushland was alive with the sounds of nature welcoming in the nightfall and it was a really magical place to be. Some English backpackers joined us for dinner - they too were travelling in a van up to Darwin. Later on that evening, an aboriginal women wandered over and sat down beside me. She was waiting for her husband, who was an English expat and drove the boat tours up through the Gorge. We shared some travel stories and got to know one another, as we so often did with new people we met on the road.
The women was elderly and quite drunk; I remember her walking only about a few meters away and urinating standing up, all without breaking conversation. The English backpackers were pretty shocked and didn't know what to think - they quickly packed up for the night and decided to drive on to Darwin. Despite her rough exterior, this woman was interesting and had a very charming way of sharing her stories - so I listened. We talked about family, and I remember her talking a lot about her husband whom we later met briefly before they headed home. I asked her about aboriginal culture and the girls father told her he wanted to make a didgeridoo. She insisted we go visit her community and drew us a map and told us to ask for Eric Fortimer when we arrived. The next morning we headed off on the National Hwy, travelling north towards Darwin. We picked up a young hitchhiker from Rhode Island. We told him our plans for the day and he was really keen to join us, so the three of us drove to the community (which I can't recall the name of). When we arrived at the compound four and half hours later, there were lots of houses all within close proximity; I remember there being many dogs and children roaming around. I spoke to someone who walked towards us and said we were looking for Eric and they pointed us to a house over in the distance. When we got closer to the house, I saw lots of dogs lying about on the porch and several different people gathered inside. The house was ramshackle and appeared to have no walls inside. Again we told them we had come to speak with Eric and that his sister had sent us - we actually had no idea if this person existed, but I was young and trusting and just assumed it was true. They said he'd gone walk-a-bout to Shady Camp and gave us directions to get to Mary River. From there, they said, park the car and go by foot to the edge of the river and call out for him and he will appear.
The three of us set off with a spirit of adventure and a little uncertainty about what was ahead; it was a combination of fear and excitement and perhaps youthful exuberance and curiosity that pushed us on. I distinctly remember I was a wide-eyed 20 year old, wearing this short, cheesecloth dress with shoestring straps from India with my bikini underneath and thongs on my feet and zinc on my nose - hardly ideal bushwalking gear. It was outback Australia and it could be days before you even see another person and I have since read in N.T. there is on average five crocodiles every km but in Mary River it's fifteen! Then there was this hitchhiker dude - we had previously not picked up any hitchhikers, but for some reason that day we did and I just remember he talked a lot and had even less experience in the bush than we did. I guess when you're young you don't think of the risks involved in some of your actions ,but looking back I know that it was such a rare experience to be part of and if wasn't for our nerve and willingness to take a risk the following events would never have happened.
"Eric......Eric!" we called by the riverside, and only after five minutes two men appeared on the other side of the riverbank. We mentioned his sister had sent us to see about a didgeridoo and he motioned us over to an area where we could cross the river and then invited us to follow him back to the camp. He told us the camp was their sacred aboriginal land but not set up by the authorities like the first community we visited which was considered "dry" - meaning no alcohol was allowed in the community. He said he lived between the two and the one he was taking us to was a lot more primitive and traditional. When we arrived there was a small mud building which looks somewhat like a circular abode with stones embedded in the mud construction and two open rooms on either side . There was lots of art stored under one side and they told us they were preparing the paintings and sculptures for the Sydney Olympics. The other side of the structure I assume was shelter to sleep under. There were several camp fires and they explained that each fire was used to cook a different animal and feed the community that was staying there. They'd recently had feasted on snake and wild turkey they told us pointing to their respective bonfires.
After some time passed getting to know each other they asked us if we were ready to go for a walk to find the didgeridoo. The younger man grabbed a spear he said he used for fishing "Barra" in the river and asked if we were scared of crocodiles. We seemed to walk for about thirty minutes and it struck me that we walked a lot those days and thought nothing of walking hours to get somewhere. The bush was dense and dry, and I ended up with lots of scratches and bites all over my legs. I heard a roar in the distance that was getting closer and we all stopped in silence. A mob of brumbies galloped through the bush, which was a truly awe-inspiring moment that took my breath away. We continued on and arrived at the deeper part of the river. Eric summoned the younger man into the water and he dived in a few times. I wasn't really sure what was going on at the time and then they said that the didgeridoo was soaking on the bottom of the river so they could strip back the bark and prepare it. He got out of the water and went over to my children's father and asked if he was willing to go in. He followed the young aboriginal man into the water. They went under together and he handed him the didgeridoo and said "now the river knows your sweat and you are part of this land." They never announced they were doing an initiation ritual - they just did it and it was their way of welcoming us as kin into relationship with the land and their dreaming. It was a very moving moment and I still get emotional reflecting on the generosity of their gift. We all walked back behind Cedric feeling humbled by the whole experience. Back at the camp they let the didgeridoo dry off in the hot afternoon sun and he explained to me that I was forbidden to use it. He handed me a massive Turkey wing and told me it was a gift for me. I remember they had used beeswax around the shaft of the feathers to make a handle, and encouraged me to use it as a fan to keep cool in the heat.
We sat on large rocks sharing stories as the girls' father ground ochre rock to begin painting the didgeridoo. They said traditionally they only paint the animals they hunt to honour their spirits and give thanks every time they use it. The colour was the familiar red dust of the outback and the paint went on evenly and dried quickly. We felt very welcomed there, Eric and his young nephew were very kind and they suggested we stay with them for a few nights. There was literally nothing there but you and the bush and I think we momentarily were considering it. The American guy just couldn't believe his luck to be having such a wild insight into ancient Australian indigenous culture. We changed our mind when a beaten up ute full of about five aboriginal men and one white man pulled up with loads of alcohol, music blaring and clearly all of them were already drunk to the point they could barely stand up let alone drive. The white man was speaking a mix between English and Koori language and had clearly been living with them for sometime and seemed a bit aggressive. We thanked them for their hospitality and Eric and his nephew walked us back to the van parked on the other side of the river. We traded some of our belongings to say thank you and I remember the young guy took some yellow lens black-framed glasses we'd bought from home. He was wearing them as he headed back to the bush and we drove on our way. I remember we couldn't stop talking and laughing about it on the whole drive up to Darwin until we dropped off the hitch hiker and wished him well on his way. Then the next adventure began and the whole trip was ripe with experiences just like this one. At the time I didn't really understand how significant the experience was in the larger scheme of my life and learning. I was somewhat lost and just blowing in the wind and even though I no longer live that way, I learned so much about life and the natural world. I can see now how it was one of the many seeds that inspired me to ask questions, live consciously and develop the spirit to wonder. The irony is twenty years later I have been doing workshops and retreats often by foreign teachers who learned from the native elders of their lands. I've been captivated by a book called "Braiding sweet grass", about a woman who rediscovered her indigenous roots after studying the science of botany. It's all been reminding me of the wisdom and reciprocity of giving and generosity and how this is our original relationship to nature. I am now old enough to understand how everything is leading you back home.