National Geographic : 2013 Jun
First Australians 69 foliage. With a partner, heave the turtle onto the fire, upside down, and cover with coals. A turtle comes prepacked in its own cooking container, like Jiffy Pop popcorn. Heat just ten minutes, then remove. With the turtle still on its back, use your knife to carve open the flat bottom shell. Slice out large chunks of ivory-colored meat and rib- bons of bright green fat. Collect the blood in a container. Distribute to everyone in the village; dogs get the flippers. Feast. Sunset in Matamata is the time of the sand flies. Percussive slaps, palms on skin, sound from every front porch. There are five houses in Matamata, all in a rough line perpendicular to the shore, fronting the dirt runway. The modu- lar homes, provided by the government, have corrugated-steel exteriors to thwart termites and are divided into three simple rooms. Cooking is done outside over an open fire, though each house does have a sink with run- ning water as well as a refrigerator. For the Yolngu, all the world’s a canvas—boulders, trees, bedroom walls, the exteriors of houses. They’re typically adorned with cross-hatchings or petroglyph-style human and animal figures. In Matamata even the refrigerators are painted; one is festooned with a spray of red and yellow palm prints and kiss marks. Between the homes are small groves of mango inscribed in caves and rock shelters. They are one of the most durable societies the planet has ever known. But the traditional Aboriginal way of life is now, by any real measure, almost extinct. Almost. There remain a few places. Foremost is a region known as Arnhem Land, where Mata- mata is located, along with a couple dozen other communities, all connected by rough dirt roads passable only in dry weather. Arnhem Land is not fully insulated from the modern world. It has solar electricity, satellite phones, aluminum boats, and flat-screen televi- sions hooked to DVD players. But it is impen- etrable enough, rife with thorns and snakes and bugs and crocs. If the new generation chooses the supermarket over the spear, then the end will have truly arrived. I wondered what the likeli- hood of survival was. So I called Batumbil. She surveyed my bags of supermarket food and asked if they were really for sharing. I as- sured her they were. Moments later—I don’t know what signal she made—people congre- gated around the groceries. I’d brought steaks and vegetables and cans of ravioli and boxes of fruit juice. Matamata is basically one extended family, home to Batumbil’s children, grandchil- dren, nieces, brothers. In a flash, everything was pocketed, even the snacks I’d purchased for my- self. A few empty green shopping bags rotated in the breeze. The look on my face must’ve given it away: Batumbil asked if I was hungry. I admitted I was. “Go with the boys and get a turtle,” she instructed. Here’s how you eat a sea turtle. First dig a very large fire pit. Collect firewood. Ignite. Place a few fist-size rocks in the fire, then drag the turtle over, plug the spear holes in its shell with bits of twig—this prevents the blood from spilling out while it’s cooking—and decapitate with an ax. Save the head; turtle cheek is delicious. Pull out the long white fire hose of intestines. These will be cleaned and boiled and eaten as well. Using two sticks as tongs, remove the rocks you’ve heated in the fire and drop them in the turtle’s neck hole—this helps cook the meat from the inside—then stuff the hole with freshly cut Ganyin pulls out a thick white worm about a foot long. “Eat it,” he says, eyes alight. I do. Not bad, like a salty calamari.