Theo the neo-Aborigine

Sep 17, 2009
*Special to asia!

A 24-year old aborigine from Arnhem straddles the differences, benefits and challenges of the "old" world and the new.

We'd pulled into Kakadu National Park's North entry station along Arnhem Highway. Just two-hours out of Darwin, I walked into the shade created by a parliament of Torresian crows perched in a leafless tree. Their white scat created patterns on the red-brick pavement that was baking in the hot, dry sun. Some signboards along the stop gave an introduction to the people and environment in Kakadu. It explained the six seasons of Kakadu - Gunumeleng, Gudjewg, Banggerreng, Yegge, Wurrgeng, and Gurrung, the hot and dry season that lasts from mid-August to mid-October. It is the season that we're in, when tourists numbers are low. The signs said that this is the season to see Magpie (Pied) geese in the thousands that gather in the parks' inland water ways to feed, and the time that the Aboriginies hunt file snakes and long-necked turtles. Basically, the signs summarised whatever was in the Kakadu booklet that we'd picked up at Darwin airport, which was a summary of what was at the Kakadu website that we trawled through while back in Singapore. So, finding nothing new on the sign, I walked back to lean against the door of our Land Cruiser and swigged some cold water as hip-hop music drafted down from the myrtle-coloured hatchback that was parked infront, two black-boys sitting in its open boot with a can of beer in hand and legs hanging over the cars' licence plates. One of them waved hello, we waved hello back.

"There used to be a gate here." One of the boys who was sitting in the boot had walked over. His dark skin contrasted beautifully with his cyan-coloured singlet. The bleached ends of his cropped hair hung as tiny braids. He was tall, and extremely lean.

"Cars would stop here to pay the entrace fees. But now, no more." The other boy remained seated in the boot. When I smiled hello, he smiled back shyly before turning his head down to look at his feet. I'd read that some Aboriginal people are not accustomed to being looked directly in the eye and may talk to you with their eyes toward something else.

As we looked toward the area that used to be the park gates, a flock of Red-tailed black cockatoos flew off from the dry and burnt ground they were grazing upon and into the lowland woodland trees. "Now it's just these birds here," he interjects.

He points toward the white-eyed Torresian crows and asks, "You know these birds here? The other birds don't like them. In the past this land was one [he referrs to the islands north of Kakadu], and all the birds lived together, catching fish from the rivers. But the other birds they don't like these birds and they don't want to share the fish with them." And then he pauses. "I could tell you stories all day." His eyes transfixed in the crowns of the trees as he speaks.

"Do you need to go?" He asks.


"I can tell you some stories if you have time."

He started on a story about the Long tom fish, and the story of the arrival of white man and the flour they brought along with them, and how the aborigines found it very peculiar. He shared that his parents used to spend days walking to Darwin to fetch flour, when it was introduced as a staple, but today they have life easy, no one walks for days anymore. They just drive out to the city when they need to.

"I used to be a guide at Jabiru, but no more now."

"Why not?" I ask.

"I don't know. They just don't want anymore."

In the midst of his story-telling, an older man, with greying, fizzled hair and a well worn winter-blue T-shirt that possibly used to be indigo, emerged out the backseat of the hatchback.

"That's my dad." our story-teller announces, "He's a REAL aboriginie."

His dad hears him, and turns to wave at my friend and I. He walks toward us then past us to drop a drink can in a recycling bin.

"Have you met a real aborigine?" the young black-boy asks.

We shake our heads.

"I'm a real aborigine." the old man declares, as he begins to lift up the front of his faded T-shirt. "See these tattoos?"

Scarrification was practised widely amongst Australia's aborigines, but is now restricted almost entirely to tribes in parts of Arnhem Land. Scarring is like a language inscribed on the body, where each deliberately placed scar tells a story of pain, endurance, identity, status, beauty, courage, sorrow or grief.

"Yeah, he's a real aborigine," the young man affirms, "I haven't got any."

A lady with a loud voice yells something out of the hatchback. Our young man turns his head toward the car and yells back.

"That's my mom. She wants us to get going."

Long ago, women would get scar tattoos too. "The cuts are made when a man or woman is around 16 or 17. They make them with a stone knife, made out of a special type of rock like jasper." I read off the Australian Museum's website.

Yidumduma Bill Harnie of the Wardaman Aboriginal Corporation in the Northern Territory explains in an interview with the Australian Museum, "This rock is like stainless steel, very sharp so you can't feel it cutting. After the cut is made, they put a little burnt wood on the cut. We call it conkerberry and it's bush medicine - stops the cut from bleeding.

These cuts on our bodies relate to the rock paintings. The maburn on the rock are like a letter that tells people they are in Wardaman tribal land."

I wonder what story the tattoo on the young man's dad was about, and if the mother in the car might have a tattoo too.

"We have to go." the young man says rather anxiously, "my mother she's angry. She's tired of waiting. You wait."

As he turned to run back to his car, I left the shadow of our Land Cruiser and entered the searing rays of the Outback sun to toss my empty carton of milk coffee. I was doleful that our story-telling session had come to an end. As I returned to the car, I saw him bounding back toward us.

"This is my name, Theophilous." He slides his driver's licence out of his black leather wallet, "my friend's call me Theo. I'm from Oenpelli." He reaches out to shake our hands, "Enjoy your stay. Enjoy the land. Drive safely."

"So this is my car," he rolls his shoulder as he turns back to point at the car that now had a loud woman's voice instead of hip-hop emanating from it.

"Remember the number. If you see it Darwin, say hello."

We turned to walk back to our respective cars.

I was glad we stopped to read the signs.

debby ngDebby Ng forayed into journalism following failed attempts at becoming a world-class equestrian. A wildlife crime investigator, underwater photographer, dive master and founder of a marine conservation organisation, she spends what remains of her time writing about the environment, its wildlife, and its people.

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