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The apex of our adventure: our week on Guugu Yimithirr country

Not surprisingly, for a people who depended for their existence on a detailed knowledge of their surroundings, Guugu Yimidhirr people were (and still are) marvellously observant and well-informed about the physical environment, master bushmen who note subtle differences between species of plants and animals and who know how to take advantage of their particular properties or habits. –– John B Haviland, 1980

It is thirty-five years since the anthropologist John Haviland spent time with his family on the red dirt (durrbil) of Hope Vale, staying with their friends the Jackos, working with Tulo Gordon to write down the old stories and archive some of the old people’s knowledges. Now we too have had the priviledge to stay with a generous local family and meet the next generation of elders and knowledge holders. These past eight days spent with the Guugu Yimithirr people, guests of senior elder Tim McGreen and community elder Elaine McGreen, have been the pinnacle of our trip, not only because Hope Vale is our furthest point north, but because of what we learnt and what we shared with this remarkable community.

Wherever we cycled we were joined by a critical mass of Guugu Yimithirr kids, taking it in turns to ride on the tandem.

Tim and Elaine’s grandson Zaymon and his friend Muundhu are knowledgeable spear fisherboys and they showed us how they dive (nguurmal-dudaa guuju-wi) in the river (birri) holes looking for crayfish (yilnggurr), jewfish (biguthirr) and bream (barrbal). Zaymon’s sister Irie was never far from the action.

Tim spoke to us about the ecological importance of eels (biganh) in the upper catchments of rivers and said that Guugu Yimithirr people do not hunt biganh there as they ‘keep the river flowing’. Only down stream should biganh be caught, he said. Tim also taught us about fire management. Small spot fires, burning-off grass (dulngga) and excessive fallen limbs, patiently carried out over many weeks and under the right conditions will reduce fuel load while regenerating and enhancing the bush, he told us. We saw evidence of this burning practice around Tim and Elaine’s, 4 km east of Hope Vale.

We met Dora Gibson who runs the Hope Vale Knowledge Centre and she took us out to see the community orchard,

where we sampled Brazilian cherries (Eugenia uniflora) for the first time,

and witnessed the effects of Cyclone Ita in how they applied to this soursop (Annona muricata) tree.

We harvested a few mulberries (Morus) and collected mulberry leaves,

and the leaves of purple snakeweed (Stachytarpheta cayennensis), a common weed found around the town that we first encountered on Palm Island.

When we got back to the knowledge centre we made up a brew of the mulberry and snakeweed leaves and let it steep. We then handed out cups to several people working in the centre and we were each impressed with the taste of this refreshing concoction. The plants are reported to treat a differing range of complaints, but both tackle diabetes. Dora mentioned that the Great Morinda or cheesefruit (dugunyja) is juiced in the community to also treat diabetes. Dora’s brother Clarry Bowen is another community member who carries an interest in and practice of, plant medicines. Patrick filmed him making up two of his regular bark brews:

We were also fortunate to met the wise and witty retired pastor, George Rosendale, at the age care centre,

and he spoke to us about three other medicines that were once commonly used. The first was dugong (girrbathi, munhaarri) oil, a traditional food-medicine which was also administered daily by the Lutheran pastor Schwartz (Muni) at the original mission at Hope Valley. The second was green ant (thinggan) juice, full of citric acid and administered to treat colds and flus and also used as a natural antiseptic whereby a host of ants are rubbed into the hands of spear and woomera (babaar) makers when working with the poisonous ironwood (biniirr). The third was fruit bat (thulgu, thiibuul, jungginh, gaambi) soup, which was administered to children for a range of health issues; the Guugu Yimithirr version of chicken soup (when chickens were happy free-rangers, ate a diversity of seeds, grubs, grass grains and insects, and were not caged, pumped full of hormones and bathed in chemicals). The Guugu Yimithirr know that fruitarians, such as fruit bats, make excellent food medicine.

Pastor George lamented that much of the old peoples’ knowledge was becomming lost, but we saw in the younger generations something quite different. We met Neville Bowen, Clarry and Dora’s brother who holds the knowledge of fishing spear (banyjarr) making and hunting. We were impressed to learn about the exacting science and art to making a Guugu Yimithirr spear, each one weighted to the spear thrower’s arm reach.

The babaar is made of the extremely hard timber ironwood and is also used as a fish scaler and a hatchett for opening coconuts. The tar from ironwwood root (ngurran) is used as a glue on both spear and babaar.

Neville’s medicine tree that he prepares in the same way as Clarry is the rubbertree or bally-gum (gundaar). He uses this bark medicine for toothache, high blood pressure and broken bones. Each day we were more and more impressed with the knowledge holders in Hope Vale and the seed was planted for us to one day return to make a film archive of all the diverse knowledges people hold in the community and to honour the likes of Pastor George and the Guugu Yimithirr ancestors (muguulmuguuul) by demonstrating that ecological culture and knowledge remains strong, as we also witnessed at the Hope Vale Arts and Cultural Centre. A traditional axe (warrbi) was one of many things exhibited.

Dilly bags (ngunyin, bayji) and other woven bags for either collecting, straining or for leaching toxins out of plants are still made in the community. Tara Zaicz is the business mentor at the centre, and is also a passionate advocate of new cultural forms and expressions in the community.

We went on many walks and discovered a number of plants that Guugu Yimithirr people use for both sustenance, medicine and culture, such as these bloodroot lilies (tandai, jijiran). The roots were dug up, peeled and boiled to produce a brilliant red dye used to colour grasses for basket and bag making.

We also sampled Bloodwood (babatha) apples (Cystococcus sp.) for the first time. A delicious bush tucker that’s out in the bush in abundance. You take the top off the ‘apple’ of this little woody parasite to reveal the sweet jellied larvae (insect gall) that you can eat with the moist inner lining, which is a little like coconut flesh.

Over the weekend Tim and his family went up to his father’s country at Jack River (barranhtha), north of Hope Vale for a few days and we stayed back and looked after the farm and hung out with the family’s dogs (gudaa, ngaatharr), including Jimbo the dingo (gudaa yinil, ngamu ngaatharr).

When they returned they brought back a wild boar (bigibigi), a newcomer species that has joined the long list of local bush tuckers Guugu Yimithirr people regularly eat.

On our walks we also discovered evidence of more traditional foods consumed in the near coastal community; the dogs leading us to a site where we found sea turtle (guugu) shells (digirr).

We also learnt that termite mounds and ant hills (bugul) were prised open, the eggs were eaten and the termite dirt was used as fish burley.

All of this food and all of this knowledge enacts lifeways that are health giving, economically independent and non-polluting. In the Hope Vale store, as we found in the government owned Palm Island store, the exact opposite takes place:

Western food (leached of any significant nutrition and thus requiring the purchase of synthetic medicines to accompany it) is probably the greatest threat to the Guugu Yimithirr people, as it is throughout indigenous (and non-indigenous) communities worldwide. In the face of billion dollar ad campaigns and the addictive nature of refined sugar and other impurities, local food and medicines have lost their cultural status, so that directly-picked local foods, such as these delightful satinash (Syzygium fibrous) berries,

and the slow ripening Native Monstera (Rhaphidophora pinnata), have become strangers to young people, such is the legacy of economic and cultural assimilation.

On our last night Patrick was invited to go along to the men’s group. After being shown the various things made in the workshop and speaking with the men about bush foods, fire management and the NRL, Pastor David arrived and got us all singing a hymn. He then announced that the subject of discussion for the night was to be ‘fear’. He proceeded to talk of the possibility of terrorist attacks in Australia and, remarkably, even Hope Vale, he planted the seed of the possibility of public beheadings, he spoke of trucks carrying fertiliser that could be used for making bombs and he spoke about placing our faith in Jesus to protect us from all of this evil. Fairly soon it became clear that fear wasn’t the subject but rather the intention of the meeting. Patrick was not sure who this informal sermon was really for.

While some folk want to continue to manipulate Aboriginal people, it is our intention to be wholly manipulated by Aboriginal lifeways, especially as they apply to land, more-than-human kin and non-monetary economics. As one bama said to us a while back, Adam and Eve could not have been blackfellas because Adam would have eaten the snake before the apple. Our intention for visiting Hope Vale involves our attempt to rebuild our own ecological heritages within our household and freely share our findings. We wish to reinstate the principles of indigenous regenerative (ecological) economics and transition away from extractive (pollution) economics. In the space of a relatively short time we were treated to a rich trove of knowledge in Hope Vale, and were lucky enough to be welcomed and trusted by many in the community. Woody was given a barrabarra bean (yulnga) shaker, one of the things some of the men make in the workshop. It delights him daily, then after the men’s group, Tim and Elaine put on a farewell dinner for us with some friends and family.

Meet (from left) Bryanne, Christine, Rick, Elaine, Deltone and Tim. We invited our lovely hosts (mayi-gujin) to come and be our guests in our community when we return. We hope they do. And as we have found pleasure in geebungs and wompoo doves in Guugu Yimithirr country,

we hope our new friends will experience the delights of yam daisies and blue wrens in Jaara Jaara country. Leaving Tim and Elaine’s home and the community of Hope Vale meant that we were finally turning south after ten and a half months of northerly transiting. Thanks Tim and Elaine, our week with you has been a highlight of our trip.

And many thanks Hope Vale for having us on your country, teaching us your language and sharing your knowledge.

Our last leg north: Daintree Village to the Aboriginal community of Hope Vale (via the dreaded Bloomfield Track)

We left Daintree Village rested and ready for the ominous Bloomfield Track. We had met so many lovely folk in the village and a crowd gathered to cheer us off. But despite this warmth, racism was also around us; sometimes blatant, sometimes inverted or blind. In the face of this, local elder Linda Burchill, whose ancestral country we camped on, showed us her resilience, love and (as mentioned in the previous post) a handful of her haul of freshwater mussels.

On the way to Cape Tribulation, just before we crossed the Daintree River, we stopped to munch on cotton tree (Hibiscus tiliaceus) flowers, which are great eating and are out and about throughout the year. The internal bark of the tree was traditionally made into a poultice to dress wounds and used as a cure for ulcers.

Just over the road from this medicinal bush tucker is the opposite story. Conventional western farming using harmful chemicals to grow a plant that is not necessary in our diets, costs money and is harmful to people.

Nufarm, a member of the powerful chemical agriculture and GMO lobby group CropLife Australia (along with Dow, Monsanto, Bayer and co), produce the chemical drum on the right. Glyphosate is the active constituent in many herbicides, most notably Roundup, and used extensively by conventional farmers, conventional gardeners and conventional councils. It permeates western food and environments and is linked to gut flora collapse and the myriad inflammatory diseases that stem from it. Every year more evidence stacks up against this chemical, but so far Australia’s regulatory bodies are asleep at the wheel.

We crossed the Daintree by ferry,

and rode into cooler forest country, finally leaving behind the sugarcane monocultures that had begun in Lawrence in NSW many months earlier. We sensed relief.

We camped the night under this Blue Quandong tree, which provided food and shelter for us and some delightful others.

We rode quietly straining to eye a cassowary, only spotting orange-footed scrub fowls (Megapodius reinwardt),

and what we suspected were cassowary droppings. You can see how they make excellent forest regenerators, lightly spreading seed and manure like best-practice forest gardeners.

In a post-oil world these remote bitumen roads could gradually become road-bergs, break up and disintergrate into a geological layer that people are calling the Anthropocene. After this era it will be the seeds and manure, mushrooms and leaf litter that will transform the polluted world’s worlds as we know them, a toxic layer will be embedded representing this age of intransigence. Obama and his neo-con arms dealers, Abbott and his ISIS marriage of violence and we and our way of life that determines such violence will be mere composted remnants of a stupid age of fossil-fuel damage, there will be nothing left of the strangler fig’s host.

Fan palms (Livistona spp.) may well be eaten again, but only in a survivalist manner. When the cabbage or terminal bud is removed for food the palm dies.

By the time we began the Bloomfield track the sun was high in the sky and the 4WDs were loaded up with Middle-Eastern resources – one planet fuelled by one continuous oil war since Iraq 1914.

We were pretty chipper with ourselves getting to Emmagen Creek so spritely. So far so good, perhaps this track will be a breaze afterall. We had a swim and carried on.

Then the real work began. Photographs always flatten the picture plane making this steep incline look horizontal. Believe us, it wasn’t. Meg’s bike with Woody on it weighs 70 kgs and Patrick had to push his bike up the hill and then return to push Meg’s. Killer hard times!

We went into a time warp on that track as we heaved and huffed up and down the Owen and then the Donovan ranges. We have never perspired to the degree that we did and were extremely grateful for the intermittent shade across the track.

You might think it ridiculous that we were spruiking a bicycle bumbag political message on a road so remote, but the world’s most powerful and damaging were also travelling these roads.

On our first and only night on the Bloomfield Track we collapsed into this little dusty hidey hole,

and woke early the next day to beat the heat.

We no longer had fresh muscles or the stamina that had propelled us the previous day and we struggled with the heat, dust, motorised encounters and general discomfort.

But we made it! And where the road came down to meet the Bloomfield River we stopped and had our picture taken by friendly 4WD anthropocenes.

We soon arrived in Wujal Wujal at low tide, observed the fire reduction burns, rode the spanking new bridge over the Bloomfield River,

and headed to the Bana Yirriji Art and Cultural Centre where we met community elder, Sharon Walker, who showed us custard apples (Annona reticulate) that had naturalised near the river. Wow, what a delightful free food. Thanks Sharon!

We wandered up to the Bloomfield Falls,

and spent the afternoon cooking,


and swimming.

We stayed the night in Wujal Wujal, talking with local people about the range of public food in the town, including these star apples (Chrysophyllum cainito).

The purple latex glue of the fruit is to be avoided and can bond your lips together, but the white of the fruit is not only edible, it’s delicious.

The next day we followed the Bloomfield River north out of town where we spotted this little fellow taking in a spot of sun.

A little later in Ayton we met a loan bush-poet wanderer aptly called Bushy who encouraged us to try on his handcrafted crocodile vest. Good one Bushy!

But there was not much more smiling that afternoon. Hot and exhausted we hobbled into The Lion’s Den Hotel, a pub that doubles as a camping ground. The Bloomfield had completely ruined us.

It was at The Lion’s Den that we met Julie Frame, who was intrigued by our story and invited us to stay with her family in Cooktown. Thanks Julie, you anticipated we needed somewhere to rest for a while.

Wow! We rode our bikes from Daylesford to Cooktown along a very curly, zigzagging path and landed in a similarly sized and friendly town where we quickly got to work to catch some dinner gifts to take to the Frame’s.

What good fortune – two magnificent Spanish Mackerels (Scomberomorini) to share with this delightful family:

Meet Alistair, Amber, Savannah, Julie and Tess, the family pooch. We spent three nights with the Frame tribe, perched high up above Cooktown looking north,

The girls spoiled Woody with endless play, and Amber taught us all about the soap tree (Alphitonia excels) they had growing in their garden,

and how to crush up the leaves with a little water to create an instant bush shampoo.

Savannah taught us that the orange part of the broad-leaved native cherry (Exocarpos latifolius) is edible when it turns red. This plant is a sister species to our native cherry back home, Exocarpos cupressiformis, also known as cherry ballart.

We spent a few hours in the Cooktown Botanical Garden, which held a great collection of local bush foods, including Native Rosella (Hibiscus heterophyllus), otherwise known in the local Guugu Yimithirr langauge as Ya-bu,

and the Great Morinda or cheese fruit (Morinda citrifolia), known in the local language as Wuulabi or Dugunyja, which can be juiced and is supposed to be a cure for all things from cancer to AIDS. It remains a medicine food for Indigenous Australians.

While walking through the streets of Cooktown we came across our first ripe mango (Mangifera indica) of the trip. This little wind-fallen early bolter was a sweet jewel to our lips. We have been salivating in anticipation of mango season, which is still several weeks away.

While we stayed in Cooktown we went to the local markets and met this super-permie couple, Peter and Saeng,

who make a wicked green tea brew that includes pandanus, mulberry leaf, lime, ginger, tumeric and soursop leaf. We also met numerous other gardeners, permies and farmers all working towards a better food future in the region. When we left Cooktown on our truly last northern leg to Hope Vale, we stayed a night with farmer Cass and her pet cookatoo, Esme.

Cyclone Ita had ripped through the farm only five months earlier and we got to work helping clean up the damaged teak platation, from which Cass and her partner Rick had been able to salvage and mill a considerable amount.

The next day we rode on to Hope Vale, stopping off at Endeavour Falls for a splash,

and where we found the matchbox bean (Entada phasceoloides) known locally by the Guugu Yimithirr people as Yulnga, which was fruiting down by the water. The bark was traditionally used as a wound wash and a hairwash for lice and skin diseases. The seeds are toxic, but made edible through extensive preparation – roasting, pounding, leaching and baking.

On the way back from the falls we found the health giving naturalised herb, Gota Kola (Centella asiatica). We each ate four leaves for good measure.

The sun fried us savagely as we came into Hope Vale. Have we finally got to our most northern point on this incredible adventure? It seems fitting that Hope Vale, one of a number of Cape York Aboriginal Communities, is the place we stay, reflect, learn, commune and rest before we begin to head south.

We had earlier met Duncan Murray from the Cape York Institute and he arranged for us to meet several people in Hope Vale including senior elder on council Tim McGreen and Tim’s wife Elaine McGreen, a nurse and community elder.

Tim and Elaine invited us to stay in their home for a week where Woody immediately discovered Nonda Plums (Parinari nonda),

and we traded hunting knowledges with Tim and Elaine’s grandchildren and their community friends.

Tim and Elaine have been introducing us to many people in the community and we are learning much about traditional food and medicine here as well as new initiatives for developing community food resilience, which we will share with you in our next post.

Wherever you are, we hope that there’s plenty of medicine in your food and resilience in your community.

Much free food love from Artist as Family.