Chapter 7
Duck Song

Towards sunset a party of Nalliae arrived, big mob, about 50. The men were plastered with red ochre and clay and a smelly sort of oil, probably emu fat and had wonderful designs worked on their chests in line or feathers stuck on with blood. these people were the real untouched variety of native and very friendly, one boasted that he could talk English, but it was a rumour. We kept them amused in various ways and managed to persuade them to camp the night, which they did.

Aboriginal men with chest paint

We also shot a few more rabbits and gave them to them, and in the evening we organized a sing-song in which we led off with a few and then listened to some of the corroboree songs, the duck song and many possum songs. Some of them posed for pictures and others brought in animals.

The barriers were broken down, by our inharmonious and raucus efforts to give them the idea. Our common repertoire was pitifully limited and off key and ran little beyond one verse of God Save the King and Waltzing Matilda. I wished I had brought my gramaphone and some Bach, Mozart and Schubert songs to watch the natives reactions. However our efforts gave them the idea and reduced them to almost helpless laughter. We heard one of the most fascinating and unforgettable nights entertainments possible. Their corroboree songs or whatever they were, were so old that some of them were sung in a different language. It seemed that some songs were common to all tribes, and they could all join in. Others were purely tribal so that only the tribal groups knew them and the rest just listened. The older

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language ones were by far the best and had a repetitiive form almost like a sonata or canonical form. These songs were not usually accompanied by action, whilst the rather tedious noise of the local ones were explained by an appropriate dance mimicing animals, war, hunting etc. In many cases the sounds had lost any meaning for the singers, and were either archaic or distorted beyond their own recognition but each song had a meaning and there was no need to tell even the white man what it was.

We heard amongst many others the 'duck flying away' song. It is impossible to describe but it was rather frighteningly effective. Rhythm was paramount and the pitch tended to rise to a crescendo while the pace quickened in most of the verses. Forms were inverted and the character of the black mans voice gave it all something undescribable, at any rate we all knew that the ducks were resting on the water, were surprised, and took off clumsily then flew off and away but returned with a swoop at terrific speed to disappear into freedom again and peace.

When it was over I made it clear to the leader, a man of over 50 (as far as one could tell) that I knew what it was about, by signs, and gestures, flapping elbows, duck noises etc. He was delighted and I presented him with a stick of tobacco and went and woke Hezekiel, after some toing and froing he found a spectator who could talk to the old man then back to Hezekiel, then Hezekiel to me. All this took a long time and there was always a high chance of misunderstanding. In a nutshell I gathered that this song and a few others, was in a very old 'dream time language', that they did not understand the words, but that all the tribes knew the old words and the song. The implications of this are very profound to me and raise many questions. Were the blacks once a uniform people? How long does it take to develop a new language? Why are there so many quite different languages in such a small area? Did all the common laws and customs come from the dreamtime? etc

We made them sing it (the duck song) again and again and raucus, primitive and unpolished as it was I am sure no music ever told a story more vividly or charmingly. Of course once having shown our real interest the blacks were quick to know it and on and on they went into the small hours song after song rhythm after rhythm working themselves up until they were dancing with it in the light of the fire.

After this night I will always respect the blacks as the custodians of a real culture, wherever it came from and however debased it is today. As they left the camp fire they all took a burning stick and walked through the grass back to the lubras, swishing it about their ankles to keep off the devils that come with the dark. During the night I tried hard to get some knowledge of how they managed to call a corroboree and arrive at the right time and how, if at all, they used the stars and moon, but the results were sparse and so unreliable that they are worthless. Hezekiel was bent on sleep and soon left, and my 50 year old could not grasp what I was after.


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Next morning we amused them by organizing sports at which they showed little ability. Murch painted a few of their faces and sketched them, which he is very clever at, and some of them brought in animals for Larnach to cure and preserve. We gave the king a medal painted by Murch which seemed to please and honour him. He strutted around vainly and certainly seemed to get much kudos and admiration from those around him. They nearly all went away in a mob to show it off to the larger gathering further off.

Aboriginal with King-plate

In the afternoon we shifted camp again in order to join up with Tetus. The move was a matter of two miles across the plain to another bend of the creek. The Nalliae soon joined up with us and we were surrounded by the full grown men and boys all carrying their tools of war and all quite naked. During the whole trip they were running about throwing their boomerangs and spears at bushes and trees and little birds. The spears were thrown mainly along the ground, whizzing along for over a hundred yards through the porcupine grass whilst the boomerangs were also made to run along the ground although it seems a practice to make the boomerang hit the ground hard in front of them and jump off into a long flight. Throwing sticks also appear to be used in much the same manner as the boomerang. Very few implements were thrown through the air but sometimes the boomerang is thrown flat-wise and makes its whole flight about four feet off the ground for a considerable distance.

At Titus's camp there were getting on for two hundred blacks, mainly Luricha and Nalliae with a few Pintaby. The water was fair, though dirty and had to be obtained from a soak. In the evening I went out after rabbits but had to walk a long way as the natives had dug out most of the burrows near by. The others employed the evening taking in churingas made of wood from the Nalliae for a little tea, flour and sugar. The evening meal again consisted of damper, (now quite good) rabbit and tea, the rabbit being cooked native way; whole, except for the guts, on the ashes.

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Before starting off next morning the usual casualties began to pour in, mostly minor except for one man with a very nasty looking burst abscess on the angle of the jaw. As he wore a full beard and had followed the native practice of rubbing dirt into the afflicted spot, the job was not nice but I cut away the beard, washed off the dirt with warm water and potassium permanganate and put on a dressing. When we saw him last, the thing was nearly recovered and he hung round for a couple of days in gratitude.

I went across to another camp to inspect a woman whom Hezekiel said was very sick. He came to interpret for 'the great white doctor'. I took a bottle of aspirin and some iodine. They were my total medicines apart from some potassium permanganate. She seemed to be in the last stages of pulmonary T.B. and she knew as well as I did the value of the aspirin I gave her. There was an immediate rush from all the women for the magic aspirin, and I doled out one each to quite a few. One woman with a very large baby at breast, was obviously pregnant. I asked what happened if twins were born, and Hezekiel got into a long discussion. The upshot was that the head man of this group was called in. There was much more talk then Hezekiel said that twins were no good. One always one had its brains knocked out. If a woman had a baby within two years of the last it was nearly always killed, particularly in a drought. There was much acting by the head man to confirm the bashing out of brains on the rocks, accompanied by a fierce sort of laughter. Some of the women covered their faces and seemed to cry and wail. It was a sore subject and one woman in particular, maybe 35 years old, seemed to have had the experience twice and was rather the butt of some of her female relatives, making her very irate, she screamed insults at everyone. On the whole their attitude to death was very matter of fact and ephemeral, and Larnach had no trouble getting skulls. Close relatives went off and brought back skulls of quite recently dead fathers etc for a stick of tobacco. In these parts they were wrapped in bark and put up a tree.

I then went off to the north in the middle of a very hot day taking the gun and rifle, but only two cartridges for the gun. On the slopes I found many traces of rabbits, and tried to put something up from the tussocks and spinifex and bushes. I caught two rabbits by running them down. Although they ran uphill it seemed that I stood the heat better than they did.

The chase led me up the slopes from where I could see the smoke of a large grass fire to the south-east. Quite a few small groups of blacks were scattered about round the fire and in a number of other directions. The natives were deliberately spreading the fire. It was obvious that they were hunting parties using the fire to chase out small animals and larger game, though the smoke and distance hid a view of the results. Around mid-afternoon the fire died down and I could see that many of them were carrying kangaroos, emus and smaller catches. I started back and shot two more rabbits on the way down and saw places where the blacks had been digging out burrows. There was a lot of noise coming from the main blacks camp and we heard bull roarers start up in the late evening. Most of the

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women and children, making a great noise, started running away from the camp. The noise died away as the sun set. then all of a sudden a great outburst of singing and beating of sticks came from the camp. I went over with Larnach and we could see a crowd of painted figures lined up in the light of many fires and stamping around in a circle. Larnach was keen to go closer but Hezekiel came after us and said we should come back as the bull roarers meant that we should go, as well as the women. I was all for discretion so we went back to our camp and I loaded the gun and the rifle, just in case.

The noise increased as the dancers worked themselves up, but after an hour or two some sort of row started with angry shouts and turmoil interspersed by single voices haranguing. A couple of particularly strident voices were obviously playing a very heated part in all this. It all came to a climax, there was a sudden pause, followed by great shouts, and then we heard laughter once more. The 'music' started up, the fires got brighter and then voices of women and children started to drown out the men. I sneaked over to a safe distance and saw a dance in progress and counted at least five hundred natives at the party. There was a very strong smell of roasting meat even though the wind was blowing from the north. The fires were flaring up with the burning fat. An argument broke out while I was watching and it looked and sounded very fierce for a few minutes. It was enough to make me feel safer back at our camp. I woke several times during the night and heard sounds of quarrels and much belligerence. Perhaps Pitchuri was responsible for this behaviour. The site of the corroboree seemed almost completely deserted by the time it was light enough too see clearly. One party came straight past us along the creek bed as though we were not there. Hezekiel was away until quite late, the camels having scattered more widely than usual.


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