Deep in Dreaming: Foraging in the Australian Outback

James Fisher

Journalist and author Shane Mitchell joins Aborigine sisters Phyllis and Nora Thomas on an adventure through sacred ground in Purnululu—a site usually off-limits to nonindigenous visitors.  

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this article may contain images or names of people who have since passed away.

 

The silly season was off to a hot start. That’s how Aborigines describe the time of year when the temperature rises so unbearably a person might risk swimming in crocodile-infested billabongs to cool off. Spontaneous wildfires glowed deep in the night, visible for miles in every direction. The parched earth caked the windshield of my camper van with an arc of fine red dust and swirled across the shimmering asphalt whenever a truck convoy (or “road train”) rumbled past in the opposite direction. It clung to clothing, boots, sunglasses, my hair, the insides of my nostrils.

I’ve always been drawn to locations far afield and the Outback is certainly one of those places. Especially the Kimberley, a 163,521-square-mile section of Australia’s Top End that stretches across some of the world’s least populated, but most climatically diverse zones: saltwater estuaries, arid savannah, hidden thermal springs, and impassable peaks. It’s also home to the oldest living culture in the world. Aborigines have claimed this country for almost 50 thousand years. The chance to experience their singular worldview was what brought me here—and the sacred ground of Purnululu National Park, a World Heritage Site deep within the region, was nothing if not back of beyond. 


Shirley by the fire. Photo: James Fisher

I stopped for fuel in Warmun (population 400), a modest collection of corrugated tin ranch houses with scraggly front yards. Almost 640 miles outside the regional capital of Darwin, it sits on the verge of the real bush with its bottle flies, blackened stumps, and searing light. Families of the Gidja language group settled here in the 1970s after generations of dispossession and battles for native title land rights, establishing one of the largest Aborigine communities in the Kimberley and a lodestone for indigenous culture. In an empty lot opposite the gas station, a group of women elders was teaching young girls a joonba, a dance ceremony. It was really more of a sing-a-long as unruly kids kept peeling off to kick around a soccer ball and cadge ice creams from anyone willing to treat them. I wandered across the highway and joined them with a grudging invitation from sisters Phyllis and Nora Thomas, plopping down at their campfire as they sang about a barramundi fish that swam through a nearby mountain range, scraping off its sparkling scales in the process.

According to the Aborigine genesis, the Ngarrangarni, known as the Dreamtime or Dreaming, mythic beings traveled the nascent landscape, scattering a trail of musical notes that doubled as geological markers. These become songlines of trees, rocks, creeks, patches of desert, whole mountains. All have metaphysical resonance, each has its own origin story, and every creature—human or otherwise—is connected for eternity to a specific aspect of this sacred geography. Imagine being taught generation after generation, in an unbroken line back to the Stone Age, to navigate the world with only a song in your heart.
 

***
 

The singers told me, in the end, that the actual location of the Barramundi Dreaming no longer exists. Those proverbial scales turned out to be pink diamonds. The Gidja woman who helped show prospectors where to find the Dreaming in the 1980s pulled from a suitcase a faded photograph of a huge gem to show me. Since then, the gap named for this spirit ancestor has been methodically stripped and gutted as an open pit mine.


The Kimberley. Photo: James Fisher

Not all Dreamings end in a nightmare. Luckily, another sacred site, west of Warmun, deeper into the Outback, escaped this destruction. Until recently, few outsiders knew about the existence of Purnululu, an erratic cluster of beehive domes banded in rust and ash (in Gidja, purnululu means fretting sands). The sandstone range rises up from the plain against a horizon of spectacular sameness. In 1983, a white man stumbled on the 20-million-year-old formation and showed it to the Department of Environmental Conservancy’s chief ranger. The Australian government declared a national reserve four years later, adding another aspect to the complicated politics of land rights in the Outback. At the time, few gave much thought to the traditional custodians, but in 1995 the Kimberley Land Council, a native title advocate whose responsibility was to “get back country,” filed a claim on behalf of the Gidja in the Western Australia high court. Purnululu, more than one million acres, was in play. Why anyone would wrangle so long over such barren, wildfire-burnt scrub with a giant jumble of rock in the middle was the real mystery—unless you were a geologist prospecting for uranium. 

Yet on closer inspection, the terrain isn’t barren at all. Tucked among tall, dry grasses are fragile mauve flowers and a species of olive-green eucalyptus with yellow starburst blossoms. Survival in the bush depends on knowledge of wild edibles, a more diverse and nourishing diet than anything available in most Outback grocery stores with their takeout menus of fried chicken and microwave pizza. Foraging has been a role assigned to women since prehistory, a highly refined skill that requires an uncanny eye for ripening berries and, on occasion, a strong stomach for road kill. Aboriginal foragers hunt for the holes of fat goanna lizards, harvest wattle seed and billy-goat plums, dig for long yams, brew leaves of lemon ironbark for tea. Honey, known here as sugarbag, is one of the greatest prizes for its natural sweetness and remarkable expression of the bees’ own territory. 

The next day, I became the Thomas sisters’ means to hunt for honey—and, quite possibly, an excuse for escaping the daily humdrum of life in a remote community. The journey required a car, and in exchange for a lift, I could travel a little ways with the land’s first wardens deep into their Dreaming country.


Phyllis, Peggy, and Nora. Photo: James Fisher

***
 

It took almost a full morning on the Great Northern Highway to get to Purnululu. We left the van in a parking lot nearest Echidna Chasm, one of several canyons etched by erosion into the sherbet-orange massif, and made our way into parts of the reserve off-limits to nonindigenous visitors. The Thomas sisters slowly navigated a riverbed as dry as chalk. Picking through the tumbled gray stones was tricky for the two elderly Gidja women. Phyllis, lumbering and bulky, wore black plastic Crocs. Her older sister Nora, more agile, plowed along in flip-flops. I followed behind in red lizard cowboy boots. 

Along the path we sought shade under a cluster of Livistona date palms. During the wet season running water encircled these trees—subtropical anomalies shaded from harsh wind and glare by the rock. Phyllis plopped down on a boulder next to a bristled trunk, gruffly complaining that Nora, arms behind her back and her head set at a determined angle, was going too fast. Then, surprisingly timid, the sisters asked me to stand sentinel, and using the slim palms as a screen, hitched up their skirts. Urine streamed freely down their legs and splashed on the rocks. It evaporated almost immediately. Nora passed her sister a plastic liter of water; Phyllis rinsed off her calves. That’s when I realized these tough old women didn’t wear underpants. And they didn't care I knew it. 

We entered a rift, walls narrowing on either side, until the glaring sun gave way to ocher gloom. The air swirled, cool. Phyllis paused again to wipe sweat from her face. I leaned against towering rock insentient to temporal claims. It was rough to the touch with what felt like a layer of peeling skin running in black bands down to the pale river stones. This little distance in the twilight revealed the sisters not as frumpy crones with lined faces and frizzy hair but as souls at home in a dimension alien to me. Perhaps it was just a trick of perspective, catching some abstract other on the far spectrum of vision. But they glowed in the womb of their Dreaming.


Phyllis and Nora / Purnululu National Park. Photo: James Fisher

For Aborigines, song is only one way of expressing their love of country. Some also paint their personal Dreaming. These artists conceptualize in a way like no other. Traditionally, paints were ground by hand from rock and berries and other natural materials found in the bush, so the basic palette—ocher, white, black, indigo, mustard—echoes the artist’s own Dreaming landscape. Splashed on cave walls, bark, their own bodies, the art was never meant to exist on canvas. Images appear out of swirls, ripples, blobs, dots. It takes a certain vertical shift in perspective to realize this is an uncannily accurate aerial interpretation—a topographic map of the collective soul—by painters who never physically fly over the landscapes they depict. The best artists are able to mentally calculate mass and shape as well as any survey engineer. 

One of the most well-known artists belonging to this genre, Rover Thomas, lived his last years in Warmun; his artwork was exhibited at the Venice Biennale and in the National Museum of Australia. Phyllis, his niece, paints bush tucker (wild food). 

I asked her, how she did this. Phyllis paused for a bit before tapping her chest with a gnarled finger.

“Think inside,” she muttered.
 

***
 

We never did find any honey that day—sometimes even experienced foragers don’t stumble across anything edible. But striped yellow bees swarmed my white shirt and I dodged about the uneven ground in my ridiculous boots to avoid attack by what turned out to be a stingless species. The insects ignored the Thomas sisters, which was all the more strange considering that between the two stretched a patterned field of blooms on on their mismatched skirts and blouses.

“Dungered up for tucker,” grumbled Phyllis, indicating she was famished. 

Nora sighed, agreeing. 


Foraging berries. Photo: James Fisher

Turning north again in the van, we raced against the night, one swoop of scarlet dividing the descending indigo sky and shadowed escarpment. Sore-throated crows roosted in the ghost gums. We made it back to Warmun after dark. I bought each a bag of groceries at the gas station to take home, a small consolation compared to the elusive sugarbag. My last sight of the sisters was of them crossing over the empty highway together, toting cans of coffee, squishy white bread, and Log Cabin chewing tobacco. 

A few years later, while I scrolled through images on an Aborigine art gallery website, Phyllis appeared again. Grayer, heavier, a little softer in demeanor, dressed much as when I’d last seen her. Her artist biography stated that her bush name, Booljoonngali, means "big rain coming down with lots of wind." She was holding one of her latest Dreaming paintings.

A date palm in Purnululu.