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HomeIssue 2Time in the Gulf country

Time in the Gulf country

p2206-Latz-damper_BingBongSBy PETER LATZ
During 1986 I took long service leave and travelled to the Gulf of Carpentaria with my three sons. One day we found this nice camp spot, above a rocky gorge, next to a clean-water spring trickling down under nice big shady trees. After supper that night I told my boys that I felt like some time alone, and so left them to put their swags by the car while I went off and camped near the spring. Some peace at last, I thought, and proceeded to enjoy my solitude.
It didn’t last long. Lying awake at this seemingly idyllic spot, I could not get to sleep, and instead was invaded by an incredible feeling of gloom, bordering on sheer terror. From idyllic it quickly turned into a place of ‘evil in the air’ – a unique experience for me. So I quickly gathered up my swag and moved as close to my sons as I could, where I eventually fell into a fitful sleep.
Although I have not been able to substantiate my suspicions, I am sure that this is a place where something awful occurred in the past, probably a massacre of some sort.
During our holiday I became aware of the depth of our lack of knowledge of the flora and fauna of this region. On my return to work I managed to convince Ken Johnson, who was now my boss, that we should do something to rectify the situation. It turned out that at the first place I led him to he found a new species of Rock Rat, which is now considered to be one of the rarest animals in Australia. This and new plant species discoveries provided enough motivation to lead us to conduct more extensive survey of the region.
In 1987 Ken and I left Alice Springs to go to the Gulf to liaise with the traditional owners of our next survey region. Ken brought his special ‘box of tricks’ with him, which contained a number of stuffed rare and extinct animals. He had been using this collection with good results in the desert, and we were going to see if it would also be effective in the Gulf.
Most of the old Aborigines with knowledge of these important animals had bad eyesight, so the most efficient way of getting to recognise these animals was to have something in their hand. Once we had a local name for the animal, it was then relatively easy to obtain information about their presence or absence and their behaviour, and so on. Ken had got onto a real winner here, obtaining much valuable information, including information of extinct animals that otherwise would have been lost forever.  (I shouldn’t have to say this, but other researchers subsequently stole this idea from Ken, and have never given him the credit that he deserves.)
Well, we got half way up to the Gulf when Ken got a message to say his wife was sick, so he caught a bus back home and left me to carry on. I was a little apprehensive about my future prospects, because I was a ‘desert rat’ and wasn’t quite sure about the customs of these ‘salt-water’ people. Anyway I soon arrived at Borroloola, and after inquiring around, was sent out to an Aboriginal outstation some distance away. Throwing caution to the wind I turned up at the outstation and explained my mission.
“Go and talk to those two old codgers over there,” I was told, “they should be able to help you out.” So I drove over to where they were sitting, and pulling out my box of tricks, I asked whether I could ask them a few questions. The expression on their face said, “not another white man eager to steal our secrets”, but they grudgingly agreed.
“Before I begin,” I said, “I must write down your names” and pulled out my notebook.
“I’m Johnnie Stockman,” the first man volunteered.
“But what’s your real name?”
“Jupurrula,” he replied.
This I could not believe: “But I’m Jupurrula too, you’re my brother, how can this be, we live so far from each other.”
Immediately the whole atmosphere changed as they realised that I was not just another ‘city’ whitefellow, and in fact, because he was my ‘brother’, Johnnie was obliged to tell me all I wanted to know. (As it turned out Jupurrula was the only skin name that stayed the same all the way from the centre to the Gulf.)
Anyway, my ‘brother’ was a retired stockman, and because he had learned his English in the stock-camp it was rather colourful, to say the least. They were both lovely and knowledgeable old men who were only too keen to pass on their knowledge.
So I pulled out an animal and Jupurrula would give me its name and say, “I know that one, too pucking good, can’t gib it away.”
With the next animal came the same resort: “Too pucking good, can’t gib it away.”
Then I realised what he meant. “Oh,” I said ,”you mean it’s so good you want to eat it all by yourself.”
“That what I said, brother,” was his impatient reply, “why don’t you listen?”
Then we came to the brush-tailed possum.
“That’s our mother,” he said, “and he’s a naughty bugger, ’cause he all the time looking for jigi-jigi.”
When I also asked him about the value of the fruit bat as food he told me that it was damm good tucker but that neither of us could eat it because it was our other ‘mother’. So I soon learnt that when I was in the Gulf region, being in the Jupurrula skin group meant that my two main totems were possums and fruit bats. (Sadly however, it appears that in both the Centre and in the Gulf region, the possum is a rare and endangered animal. The other sad fact is that I love eating fruit bats, but luckily there are two different species, and so I always eat the species that is not my mother.)
I told the two men that Ken and I would be returning in about a month, and if possible I would then like to talk to them about plant use for food and medicine.
“No worries,” replied my brother, “but talking about medicines, have you got anything to fix up my son’s thumb?”
When I examined the wound, I told them I had just the right medicine for it, namely some bloodwood tree resin that I had collected on the way up. They both looked a bit doubtful, expecting me to produce some whiteman’s medicine. But I assured them that this was a potent desert cure-all and showed them how to use it.
As I was leaving Jupurrula instructed me (in a typical traditional brotherly way), “Bring me two pucking boomerangs when you come back.”
On my return to the Alice I questioned one of my mates from the Top End about his request for boomerangs: “Surely this is bringing coals to Newcastle?”
He assured me that this was a normal custom; boomerangs from the desert were much-valued possessions in the north. So I bought two boomerangs, and before Ken and I returned to the Gulf, I put them behind the seat of our truck.
A month later, when Ken and I arrived at Jupurrula’s outstation, I introduced Ken to the two men and told them that Ken was a Jampijinpa. It took them some time to work out the equivalent term for their part of the world, but they got it. After they informed Ken of his local name, they pointed out a nearby woman and told him that she was his ‘wife’. (In other words, she was in the right relationship to him, to allow them to be married.)
Meanwhile Jupurrula took me aside and told me that I should be careful with Ken, as his ‘mother’ was a devil-devil. I jokingly told him not be worried for me, because I had always suspected that to be the case and that I was well able to deal with that side of him. Suddenly Jupurrula remembered his request.
“Where’s my pucking boomerangs, brother?” he demanded.
“Don’t worry brother,” I said, “I didn’t forget” and went to get them out from behind the seat of the car.
Proudly Jupurrula called over some nearby children and immediately sat down and clicked the boomerangs together to produce a musical accompaniment for his singing of a ceremonial song. I realised then why he wanted the boomerangs; produced from desert hardwoods they made a much better musical sound than their Top End softwood equivalents.
“Anyway, Jupurrula,” I enquired, “did your son’s thumb heal up?”
“Too pucking right!” he exclaimed. “Before you got back to Borroloola it was all healed up. Your desert medicine is too bloody good altogether. Give me some more!”
(Please remember, that for traditional Aboriginal brothers, saying please or thankyou is just not-on.)
During the next year, 1988, we conducted a survey of the Pellew Islands, to the north of Borroloola. We had several Aboriginal guides with us, and were transported by boat to our camp on an uninhabited beach that had a small hill above it. After supper that night, everyone but me rolled his or her swags out onto the beach. I decided that there was much less chance of getting bitten by mosquitoes and sandflies if I camped on the hill above the beach, so unseen by the others I went up there for the night.
I woke very early next morning, and decided that rather than get up I would play my didgeridoo for a while. Now our guides were unaware that I had brought this instrument to the island, and they were totally spooked to be woken by its sound wafting down from the hill above them. Panic reigned supreme for several minutes, until Ken assured them that it was “just that mad Latzi up to his tricks again”.
Aborigines love recounting this kind of situation, and I apparently gained quite a reputation in the town of Borroloola, for several weeks after the story was told.
PHOTO: Latzi breaking bread by KEN JOHNSON, taken at Bing Bong Station in September 1985, during one of their biological survey expeditions.  “I recall that he cooked two edible dampers during our camps,” says Ken, “although he threatened to cook many many more.”
MORE next week.
Tomcat and Turpentine Bush: adventures in the Tanami
Being a cowboy: not all it’s made out to be
Close shaves in the Top End
Dining like kings with a bushman of high degree
Learning from the hunter-gatherers
Changes in the air: landrights


  1. l am enjoying this series immensely. Their wonder, interest, humour and respect are all evidence of a life very well lived. It would make for an important book.


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