National Geographic : 1992 Apr
three decades on cattle stations. When I took a botanical walkabout with Tom to learn what was good cattle tucker (bluebush, woolly oats) and what could "kill them on the spot" (spotted emu bush), he bent down to gather some tiny purple flowers. "Gay loves these." There is a peacefulness to Atula. I sensed it with Gaynor in the evening when we fed an orphaned calf, and when Tom put out bits of meat for the butcher-birds, whose flutelike song drifts through the coolibah trees. Head stockman Gordon Cavanaugh is Arrernte, and I asked him if it felt different to work on an Aboriginal-owned station. "Yes," he said. "We're with our own people and help one another like family. And we can carry on tribal law and teach the kids." The young men are, in turn, teaching Gordon, who has spent most of his career on horseback, to muster on a motorbike. Between the highway and the homestead, houses are being erected to make a small community called Akarnina Well, where the station's traditional owners can live. I spent many hours walking with one of them, Mabel Smith, 70-something, who gave me a glimpse into the old Aboriginal ways. Bush tucker is her preferred diet. Stick with Mabel and you'll never go hungry. She has walked this country since the days when they had "no billycan, only kangaroo water bag." She knows where to find the bush bananas and wild onions and the best places to hunt kangaroo, emu, and turkey. She uses a long crowbar to dig for goannas and the spiny echidna, a mammal that resembles a hedgehog. One afternoon, when our clothes were beaded black with flies, Mabel took me to a valley she had known well as a child. In Aboriginal belief this valley is linked to the peren tie, the largest lizard in Aus tralia. During the creation period called the Dream time, it is said, the giant per entie ancestor sang the valley's features into exis tence on a walk through the northern Simpson. We climbed one of those features, a broad rocky hill. Mabel, barefoot and far in the lead, paused to tell me that these rocks could be "Something different," is what city-raised Louise Edwards hoped for in her year-long teaching job on Anna Creek. "I didn't know this world existed," says the Adelaide native, taking a break in the stockmen's kitchen. "Some times they thought I was a bit weird-and I thought their views on women went back 50 years-but people here accept each other for what they are. It's quiet, but there's always something happening-and we play a lot of canasta."