Monthly Archives: January 2009

The search for Bush Medicine continues… Beagle Bay

After a week of driving, we have made it to Broome, WA.
As planned, and only to make the drive up from Perth less boring, we fed the wild dolphins off Shark Bay, snorkeled on Ningaloo Reef, camped in an eco-retreat in a national park, discovered the best kept secret in the Southern hemisphere: the gorges of Karijini, faced the biggest spiders in the world, broke down in the desert and drove on dirt roads.

Today, we had planned to drive our trustworthy 4×4 campervan on the dirt road from town to Beagle Bay, some 100km North. It is wet season at the moment, and it rains a lot… but the locals assured us the road was practicable.
So we engaged ourselves on the track, the girls back on the road with music blaring out of the grunty vehicle’s sound system. We were confident and felt elated, and I was exceptionally happy to be heading towards the aboriginal community I have been looking forward to visiting for over a year now.

That is exactly the moment it started raining. Just a drizzle at first. Nonetheless, the atmosphere in the camper changed. The music was turned off after we skidded across the path the first time.
Lauren, who was driving, held her breath as the wheels lost grip on the dirt. We came to a gentle halt. And resumed our breathing.
After a short stop, I jumped out the car to lock the front wheels and engage the four wheel drive. As we started up again, we tried to convince ourselves that we were still just as confident.
The road became more boggy as rain poured from the dark clouds overhead.
After a hill and a couple of turns, the heavens opened. A tropical thunderstorm as I had witnessed in South Thailand was upon us. At this point, the vehicles wheels lost any grip they may have had and Lauren lost all control. We slid sideways gently at first, and then faster as the red mud softened under our weight. Lauren swore as she attempted to regain control. We swerved the other way, and violently resumed our skidding. I held on to Sophie’s arm as we slid dangerously close to the ditch. In the back, our carefully stored bags fell down, the cupboards opened and the mattress on the top bunk fell onto the sink and fridge.
Then, as suddenly as it had started, we came to a halt and the rain coincidently stopped also.
We revved the engine up to move forward and attempt to park in a drier area. As we did, we noticed a car coming in the opposite direction.
I got out to stop them, and asked how the road looked like ahead. “It is much worse than here” was the unfortunate answer we had not wanted to hear.
They confirmed our suspicions, and shook all remaining confidence out of us. My legs were shaking as I climbed back up to my seat.
We decided to turn around and get back to town. It promptly started pouring down again. My wise words of wisdom were: “let’s get the **** out of here”. My two terrified friends agreed.
I jumped out again, this time equipped with my amazing hiking boots (who have now walked/hiked/trekked on 4 continents) and walked in the red mud to find a decent place to do a three point turn on. A spot of hard sand did the trick. I was drenched the second I got out of the cabin.

We were turning back, defeated by the appalling road condition and the disastrous weather, and shaken up by the sliding incident. We drove slowly in second gear, avoiding the gigantic puddles that had formed since it had started raining, all the way back to the tarmac road.

As I was manually unlocking the front wheels again, I faced my own disappointment. It was just not safe for us to continue, but I deeply regretted not being to get there. “So close, yet so far” as they say.

As we got back to town to check in for accommodation, Lauren and Sophie told me the best piece of news I had heard in a few days.
One of the teachers working in the local school is driving from town to the community, and would gladly take me along for the ride this Tuesday!
I will be able to go after all. Not sure how or when I’ll get back, but that’s not important right now.

I am delighted to say that I am continuing my journey of learning and discovery on Tuesday, where a local will drive me safely to Beagle Bay in their sturdy four wheel drive.
Once there, I will not have access to modern forms of communication such as telephone or email, and I don’t yet know how long I will be gone for.
But for sure I will update my blog as soon as I return to town.

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The search for Bush Medicine… Port Keats

Visiting Australia was for me the highlight of my project, when I was designing it from France. The risk was that there was always a chance that once I got there, I would not find what I wanted or needed for my research. Of course, I used to reply to that I’d just surf and soak up the lifestyle instead.
So far, I have visited one Aboriginal community, called Wadeye in Port Keats, which is an hour’s flight South West of Darwin. I was warned that the place was run-down, poor and generally a third-world country in Australia.

And it was. The runway leads to the Airport terminal, which is a small shed. A sign on the gate warns that drugs are not welcome inside the community. We get on a 4×4 pick-up truck, to do a tour of the center of town. It’s a dirt road, with shed-like houses on each side. Most have broken windows, litter everywhere, broken-down cars, a take-away (only fried food available), a small shop (no fresh fruit or vegetable) and a church. This community was founded by a catholic priest, who landed on the beach and prayed for their salvation about half a century ago.
We are invited for lunch at the “white quarters”. All the expatriates who work in the community live bunched up together, and we share the food we have brought with us. It was just past noon, and they’re all busy drinking cans of beer and wine, whilst chain-smoking. All of them are over-weight, and seemed to be fundamentally depressed, money-driven and often racist.

As soon as we were done, we went to see the surroundings. It was beautiful: the lookout onto the old military base, the sacred waterfall and its pools of cool water, the beautiful long empty sandy beach, and the lush green tropical forest of the Wet season. This is Aboriginal land.
Or so it says. Actually is any of the owners of the land want to do anything on their land (including building their home, or refurbishing their existing house) they must get permission from the federal government. This can take months if you’re lucky, years most of the time. When permission comes, white workers are flown in to build and repair. The locals are not involved in this process.
When we get back to the community, we go to visit one of the teachers of the local school, who is also head of the primary school. She has actually moved into her new house, which she had been waiting for for over 10 years. Before, she shared a house with about 30 members of the family (the houses are designed for 5 to 8 people). The average age of the members of the community is under 18, and it is surprising to see so many children running around.

The children, of course, are very welcoming. They appreciate the attention, and I have to hide to get photos of them in their normal environment. They love posing, and they chat away in their language or in bits of English they have learnt at school.
We talk about what’s new in the community, the refurbishment of the school, and the latest gossip: who married whom, babies etc. It’s Sunday afternoon, and after church is Australian football time. There are only women and children left in the residential part of town, as all the men are on the pitch.

I walk down there and discover a great ambiance. There’s a big game happening. I’m told it’s a friendly, but the teams have brightly coloured kit, proper posts, and even a ref. The crowd is cheering them on, and I am shocked to see I am the only white person there. The others are too busy getting drunk or I guess would not even consider mixing.
I sit down and watch the men, as they kick and catch the ball.
Contrarily to popular belief, aboriginal men are generally tall (1m80), and can be very tall (giants over 2m). The young men on the pitch look very athletic, especially as they sprint up the pitch tightly grabbing the ball.
Suddenly, the ref blows his whistle. I don’t understand the local language, but it’s pretty obvious one of the guys is swearing, as he walks towards the ref making all sorts of hand gestures. The ref talks authorititavely to the boys, they talk some more, the angry player sulks off and play resumes. It is reassuring to see that  boys will be boys. Wherever you go, they shout at the ref and play ball on Sunday afternoon. I wish I could join them.

But time was up already! I was late to get back on the plane, we had to leave and land in Darwin before dark so I hurried back to the pilot, my head full of thoughts and questions. Unfortunately this time no one was around on that day to talk to me about medicine, and the health centre for women was closed. The Doctor was on holiday, and the guy who keeps the museum was on a walkabout.
Bad luck. I talked to other people, who said that in this particular community, Western medicine had taken over. Actually Bush medicine has no remedies against the modern diseases: obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Moreover, it has been discouraged by the Church and pushed out of mainstream ways.
Average age expectancy has fallen from around 90 years old (some say 110 to 120 was common 50 years ago) to about 40 years old in both men and women. Most of the old medicine men and women have died with their secrets. Some research has gone into the herbal part of the oldest surviving form of medicine in the world, as this knowledge would be directly applicable to our modern day medicine and be very lucrative, but the rest seems to have vanished (check out the “Australia” part of Background Research for more info on the different forms of traditional Aboriginal Medicine).

That’s the official story, i.e. to the eyes of the White Man. I am told that medicine as it has been practised over the last 40,000 years by the indigenous people of Australia is still alive in certain remote parts of the country. And even that some of these healers are happy to share some of their knowledge with those interested. And I happen to have some contacts along the Western Coast of Australia.

So this is the plan over the next few weeks: my friend Lauren (who was my Australian exchange student when I was at school) who lives in Perth, her sister and myself are renting a 4-wheel drive campervan, and we are going to road-trip from Perth to the Kimberley area (up North on the West Coast) to look for these places. On the way, we may go to stunning national parks, snorkel on the colourful reefs, and swim with dolphins; but it would only be to pass the time in between looking for traditional manual medicine of Aboriginal Australia.

For photos of my Australia trip so far, please check out this facebook page. You do not have to be a member of facebook to view it!!!

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