Proper Parenting, With Lizards


Here we go again: grandpa's going to scruff us and shove a raw lizard in our mouths. Craig laughs at the memory, but he's quoting it as an example that now, as a father and grandfather himself, he's keen to follow: hence the two kangaroo tails he brings to our campfire.
He's appeared through the drifting mulga smoke at Oak Valley, 100 kilometres south of Alice Springs, a raffish figure with long hair tucked inside a yellow beanie, a gold earring glinting in the low sun, his light blue eyes making a striking contrast with his Aboriginal features; and he could talk the hind leg off a dingo. He tells us that his name, le Rossignol, his light skin and blue eyes were inherited from a passing Frenchman several generations back; that he has Irish blood too, but his Arrernte and Luritja heritage are what define him. His people have been in the area for millennia, as he'll show us later.
But first there are the roo tails to deal with. In a perfect example of what we're to learn is one of Craig's major challenges, his nephew and one son crouch by the fire, turning the tails in the flames to singe off the hair, while the other son sits hunched over a pocket video game, face pale in the screen's light. The smooth and blackened tails are then wrapped in foil and thrown into the glowing embers: When you can smell them, they're done.
Comfortable on our rolled-up swags, we ring the fire under a sky full of stars and listen as Craig explains the difficulties of keeping tradition alive in young people seduced by computer games and KFC. You have to make them go out and throw stones these days, he says. I keep telling them, you gotta be ready for if the car breaks down. You can just sit there and dehydrate, or you can knock a kangaroo on the head and survive. He takes the boys out of school periodically to go bush and educate them in the old ways, believing them as essential still as ever. Life won't always be as easy as it is now but if you can find your own food, ride a horse and disappear into your country, you'll be all right. He speaks admiringly of the boys cousins, growing up old-style: Big and strong, they can handle themselves in the bush. They never fell prey to the hamburger.
We have one of the roo tails for smoko the next day, and it's nothing like a Big Mac, but the meat is tender, once we've fastidiously separated it from the skin, fat and sinews, while Craig leaves only the bare bone for the dingoes. He takes us up a broken hill for a view of red sand dunes, scrub and desert oaks, bounded by a distant horizon of low purple hills under a vast blue sky: That's my back yard. It's an ancient land, and the evidence is in the tumble of rocks right under our feet, where every stone we pick up contains some sort of fossil from pre-Cambrian times. Craig, self-taught since primary school, is knowledgeable about the geology, but for him these rocks and this view have another, deeper, meaning.
Tucked into a small gorge between shiny orange cliffs that bounce his voice back mixed with the rustle of grasshoppers and the beeping of zebra finches, he tells us the story of his country from before time began, explaining how the hills, the waterholes and even individual rocks were formed by the serpents and other animals of Aboriginal legend. Kneeling, he draws the illustrations in the red sand with his finger: circles, spirals, dots and squiggles, the song-lines told over and over in the same words for millennia. Further up into the valley, in a shallow cave under the cliff, we find a line of small stencilled hand-prints left by children who sat, agog, listening to these very words about 2,000 years ago.
Craig uses water to show how the stencils were made, the dark orange outline of his hand beginning to evaporate almost at once. It'll be gone in 20 minutes, he says, and we remember his mantra: preserve the land, and leave it clean. When we get back to camp, that's clean too of the second roo tail. The boys have been through and snaffled it, disappearing into the bush to eat it down to the bone. We reckon they're going to be all right.

P Wade

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