The sounds of the city outside my front window remind me I’m back in another sort of jungle. The palm tree outside the back window reminds me of the jungle I just came from. Booderee National Park, on the South Coast of New South Wales, was the latest trip we took as a program. We returned Sunday afternoon.
When I was a student, in 2009, we went to Canberra* during this time. This semester the ASC program director saw an opportunity to spend time in a very different sort of important place instead.
Booderee National Park is unique among most Australian national parks in that it is owned and operated by a local Aboriginal community. The Wreck Bay community is located near the park in their ancestral homelands in the Yuin nation. As one of the first sites of European contact, the Yuin nation has had over 200 years to figure out how to adapt and survive in a modern Australia that has looked violently different than the land they had known before.
In a historical moment in 1995, Booderee was handed back to Aboriginal ownership. In the co-op that has resulted, the community has ownership of the land, live on it, maintain their lifestyle (in a modern context) of hunting and fishing and have the right to protect it from poaching and environmental destruction.
Obviously the trip would have been very different had I gone by myself or with a small group. With 37, camping becomes a different ordeal. We rode a greyhound bus to the site. Our bus driver, Ian, was no less than a pro, maneuvering a behemoth of steel on wheels through twisted trees and vines over an unpaved dirt footpath. Once into the rainforest we set up camp at a site with all of the amenities that a group of over 40 would need. We rolled out a dozen safari tents and made camp. Michelle, the program coordinator, planned the trip, my job was to take heaps of pictures and video and help with logistics.
So when it came time for dinner, Joe (a student) and I ended up in charge of grilling burgers and corn. In the middle of the campsite sat this ancient iron grill. Chunks of rust flaked off of it in a strong breeze and I’m not convinced there wasn’t something living in the pile of wood underneath the grill surface. With no other choice we got to work.
I’ve never even pretended to be one of those guys who’s a pro at grilling so I learned quite a bit. 1) foil sticks to meat when its cooking. Not good. We abandoned this idea and ended up cooking straight on the flat iron surface (there were no grates to cook on). 2) when cooking on a flat iron surface, oil is very important. A group left to go get oil (from where?) and promised to be back soon. After cleaning the iron surface as much as possible we started cooking.
Now, one thing I did know is that beef turns brown when you cook it. We noticed these patties weren’t turning brown. They were still as red as if the cow had been moo-ing 5 minutes before. Strange.
I distinctly remember the guy at the butcher shop saying, “Oh yeah, mate, this is high class beef right he-ah.” After burning a few patties, we decided to cut them open and try them.
Italian Sausage, no joke. Spicy, hard, red, just shaped like a hamburger.
Long story short, the oil came after the sun had gone down, finally cooked the sausage-burgers and they were delicious. The corn was unreal.
As dinner ended, dancers from the community gathered around the campfire. Covered from head to toe in white paint and holding various implements of wood they began to share with us their music and movement. The Dancers from the Wreck Bay community have traveled around the world sharing their unique culture with other nations and indigenous people.
They were fantastic. Each dance was a story. Many dances resembled the actions of people or animals. One dance conveyed a sea eagle swooping down to catch a stingray in the shallow waters of Jervis Bay.
The movements and accompanying chants were simply amazing to behold. Campers from adjacent sites even crept over to watch the festivities. Before we knew it there were 50 or 60 people around the fire.
This was something very important to see about Aboriginal culture. According to cultural rules, everyone should belong; no one should be out of place. Welcoming complete strangers to enjoy music and food together is simply normal, polite cultural practice.
I think the students were very impressed with the Wreck Bay community, I know I certainly was. Some of the leaders in Wreck Bay hold honors that white Australian society respects (such as post-college degrees) as well as honors in their own community.
During our time there we were lead on hikes around the rainforest and the botanical gardens they created within the park. They explained some of the ways the bush had provided for their people for generations and even for them today. They explained how they are able to operated in a modern world, fight for their rights, respect and value and still live a lifestyle that is consistent with their culture.
As we leave the bush and travel back to the life in the city, the students wrestle with things learned on the South Coast. One thing is for sure; this semester we have a great group of students. They were essentially the guinea pigs for this trip and they rolled with the punches. Due to the heavy rain the night before we ended up having to make a detour to unload all the wet tents and camping gear. While a mob of ‘roos watched we hauled wet and sandy gear out of the bus. More memories.