Living in a Marsupial World
 
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On our way to Udialla Springs, we camped at a cliff top rest area where the wind was strong but the sunset was spectacular. We took this opportunity to air out our damp gear from the Bungles. 


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 On the drive in to Udialla the next morning, the rapidly changing Kimberly wilderness around us hinted that this WWOOF experience would be completely unique. Pink cockatoos (Galahs) began flying with us as the unsealed road changed from brown dirt to red sand, and we grew more excited about reaching the property. Udialla Springs is owned and managed by an Aboriginal man, Neville Poelina, along with his wife Jo and their kids Simon and Angelina. They run a non-profit business called ‘Uptuyu Aboriginal Adventures,’ a corporation that runs tours of the local Kimberly region through an indigenous lens. Neville and Jo are also currently readying their property for use as a permaculture center and wilderness camp. It will soon be a place of learning for not only establishing and sustaining a nationwide network for indigenous tourism, but also for positive exchanges between cultures and between people and the land. Needless to say, we were ecstatic about any help we could provide for his project. 


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Newly finished Eco Tents for the Wilderness Camp
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Neville and his new touring 4WD bus!
Jo first greeted us as we arrived on their property, and she immediately welcomed us to join in the delicious fried rice lunch she had just prepared. Soon after we met Neville, whose first task for us was to take a wander around his land. In the late afternoon we began our walk and Neville joined us so that he could gather bush medicine for Phil, the kids’ live-in teacher (the kids attended School of the Air: an Aussie education system for children in rural areas to attend school via radio transmissions and now the internet). As we meandered through Neville’s beautiful property, he took the time to pause at various plants and trees to teach us their medicinal and practical uses, which his people have known about for thousands of years. 


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Devin bonds with Paddy the dingo mutt
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Neville shows Julia the uses for Acacia Soap Wattle
“This is really the land of milk and honey,” he said with a proud smile. “Come over here I’ll show you what I mean.” Just off trail Neville led us to a fairly innocuous tree where he pointed out a tiny hole in the bark no wider than a pencil. “Put your ear to the hole.” We all looked at him to see if he was serious; maybe we were about to experience an Aboriginal practical joke initiation. One by one we timidly placed our ears on the hole, and were amazed to hear the sound of tiny bees buzzing. “Those are honey bees. That tree limb is full of honey.” We all let out a collective “Whooooaaa.” At another tree, an Acacia Soap Wattle, Neville demonstrated how the curled seedpods created a frothy soap when rubbed together with the smallest bit of water.


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Barbeque at the sunset picnic hill
We quickly learned Neville’s WWOOFing guidelines at Udialla: a hard days work for a good days feed. He and Jo were incredibly flexible on when we could work; we could even work at night and relax and fish all day if we wanted to. The “good days feed” part became apparent immediately. On the first night we were fed flame-roasted duck, curried eggs, fresh green beans, and salad. Every night was different; we never ate the same meal twice. Jo made several mean curries over the course of the week. One evening we had the freshest beef we’ve ever eaten – ribs from a young feral bull that had been hunted that very afternoon. The mornings were pretty low-key and we mainly ate cereal, though the family seemed a bit disturbed by how heavily we pounded the cereal and milk. Being American cereal junkies, we couldn’t help but feel that we were completely depleting their milk and cereal resources. 


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Ben and Paddy stare in awe at the fresh leg of beef
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Mar tests the bush shower
The work to be done at Udialla was pretty variable and depended solely on whatever projects came to Neville’s mind each morning. There were a ton of projects, so there was no shortage of work for the three of us. One of our first assignments was to help Julia, another wwoofer from Ukraine, make an outdoor shower enclosure out of spinifex and chicken wire. Spinifex is a small, spiky shrub that grows all over the desert regions of Australia. According to Neville, Aboriginals favored the waxy plant as a kind of wall insulation and weather guard. We spent the better part of the next few days digging a 100-meter long trench for a much anticipated phone line between the main house and the schoolhouse. We finished the project much faster than they had anticipated, so we were able to begin our stay with a good first impression. 


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Heading to Skeleton Lake for some firewood - in style.
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In Memoriam: Neville's Ironwood Tree
As the days progressed, however, it seemed more and more like we had used up all of our competence for that trench. Our next project should have been an easy morning job – Neville wanted us to cut down a specific dead gum tree just down the dirt road from the homestead for firewood. What we didn’t realize was that “just down the road” in Neville’s mind meant about 7-8 km down the road. Instead we found a dead looking tree about 700 m from the property that seemed to fit the description. Turned out that very tree was a 150-200 year old ironwood tree that held special significance to both Neville and his extended family. And we had just chopped it into little pieces with a chainsaw. Just the other day, Neville had told us a number of such stories where people mistreated or did not respect the Aboriginal land of Australia and were thus subject to vengeful spirits and other mysterious forces of nature. We were obviously mortified. 


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Fortunately, Neville was sublimely gracious about the incident and despite our insistence that we somehow atone for our deed, he told us simply not to linger on it. From then on we couldn’t seem to get anything right and definitely felt a bit cursed, especially when it came to cutting down trees. For another project, Neville wanted us to cut down some tall, skinny invasive trees for a shade shelter he wanted built. We ended up basically breaking both of his chainsaws. Devin was feeling especially cursed because he was the one who cut down THE tree and who was holding both chainsaws when they crapped out. In his defense, the chainsaws were not in the best condition and the trees we were cutting had incredibly sticky/wet wood, making the chainsaw work 10x harder than usual. Nevertheless, it became a running joke to keep all mechanical things away from Devin, lest they be inevitably destroyed.


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Neville displays a Legless Lizard we found in a tent
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Fishing on the Fitzroy
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Woot.
On a lighter note, when we weren’t destroying beloved flora and machinery, we had plenty of time to explore. Neville frequently encouraged us to go fish the Fitzroy River that ran through his property and happened to be a haven for barramundi, a prized fish of northern Australia, akin to striped bass of the states. Though I didn’t catch a barra, I did finally manage to catch A fish! After months of fruitless angling, I managed to land a nice little catfish in the moonlight. Devin, on the other hand, caught a beautiful barramundi using a simple handline and a Godzilla-sized prawn as bait, just as he was pulling his line in to call it quits. When the fish first jumped out of the water, the splash was so big and loud we all thought he had hooked a croc! Rather than immediately hate him, I chose the high road and lived vicariously through his joy and helped him net the fish.


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Bam. Barramundi.
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We decided to barbeque it whole the next night, stuffed with onions, garlic, ginger and a dash of soy sauce and lemon juice – flipping incredible. From now on, I am cooking my fish whole. No filleting, no scaling, just gut it, stuff it with deliciousness and throw it on the grill. Not only was this the first whole-cooked fish I’d ever had, I also took the opportunity to try fish eye for the first time. I felt like I couldn’t really call myself a fisherman until I’d had some eye. In case you’re wondering, it’s quite tasty – reminded me of sautéed duck fat.


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 To reach the fishing spots required another fun-filled feature of Udialla Springs – push starting or tractor-pull-starting the rickety Toyota Landcruiser that was at our disposal. What the lumbering vehicle lacked in mechanical reliability it made up for in serious character. The doors only opened from the inside, the rear gate was held shut by bungee cord, the headlights required some telegraph-style manipulation before they would stay on, and you could only push start it in third gear. Out in the remote fishing locations, far away from the tractor, it was often nerve-racking when deciding where to park it, as it required human brute force and a good bit of incline and gravity to get the thing started.


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Steve tests the waters
One of the greatest parts of living at Udialla was getting to know Neville’s family, as well as meeting all the fantastic people that passed through. For a large portion of our stay we had the pleasure of sharing the breakfast and dinner table with Jen and Alisdair, an ex-pat British couple from Melbourne. They spent much of their days wandering the property to help Neville document the local flora and fauna for his tourism business. Steve, an ex-pat Czechoslovakian (he left before it split) stopped by for a few days to test the water quality of the natural springs on the property and to upgrade their solar power setup. All had amazing life stories to tell and all were quick to offer a bed in their home if we were to ever pass through their towns.

The other great part was the water. All the taps on the property took water from a natural, mineral spring close by. It was some of the best water I’ve ever tasted, and we could drink it by the bucketful. All I could think about was brewing some beer with it--man it was good. 


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At the end of our stay we were reluctant to go but had to keep moving, especially since Devin’s departure date from Perth was fast approaching. On our last day at Udialla, Neville invited us to tag along with one of his professional tours he happened to be giving to a German couple that day. He took us to a shady spot amongst the gum trees and told us about the importance of Songlines in Aboriginal culture. These are oral storytelling devices that essentially outline a person’s life story and branch out from the Songlines of that person’s ancestors. These stories are complex and interconnected, as well as very practical. Family histories are preserved in the stories, and since there is such an interrelationship between the people and the land, these same stories can be used like oral road maps, providing information about that family’s traditional land – where one might find water or food in the area, for instance. 


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Angelina shares some wildflowers with Mar
Neville then told us a Dreamtime (creation) story of his people that explained why the blue-tongued lizard and snake are enemies intertwined with a Dreamtime story about how the Kimberly landscape of his property was formed. At one point in the story, the lizard leads two exhausted boys, who had been running from a snake, to a secret place where water can be found. At this point, Neville’s two children began removing loose pieces of paperbark piled at the foot of a gum tree to reveal a cooking pot-sized hole in the tree base. We were amazed to find it full of crystal clear water. Angelina scooped the water into a small cup for us to taste. This was some of the sweetest, purest water I’ve ever tasted, all the while in the middle of desert scrubland. Apparently if you were to dig a well anywhere else in the area, you would only find brackish water, yet here was this tree that somehow managed to maintain a small cauldron of pristine water with an essence of tea tree oil. It felt like for just a moment I was allowed into an entirely different world of knowledge, a kind of connection to the land that most of humanity has entirely forgotten. It was such an incredible privilege to bear witness to one of the innumerable secrets that Aboriginals have uncovered from the land.


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Angelina ties the knot for making Devin her pet. Ben pounds some cereal American-style.
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Morning scrunchy faces!
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Simon attacks Ben with his poison blowfish
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We drove out of the property heavy-hearted but enlightened and overjoyed to have left Neville feeling that we had been accepted into the family – as schmaltzy as it sounds, we felt our hearts glow.

 



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