Depending upon the season, the palawa carried fire with them because of the wet conditions in which they had to survive. They were known as salt water people, which we honored by devouring huge "crayfish" (that's what they call lobster), pink ling white fish, and abalone. Bush tucker options included sagg, the oniony root of the nearby coastal grasses.
After a bit on crayfish trapping, I told the crew the only aboriginal word ever spoken in the U.S. was the last name of hard-working 1970's and 80's global tennis star Evonne Goolagong. It apparently struck a chord, Jake and Ben affirmed that their women still did all the work. Our conversation about labor continued as we stood on the beach in the midst of enormous, rolling dunes that were actually now sacred palawa-created shell trash dumps, where 10,000 years of shucked clam and oyster shells formed oceanside hills called middens. Ben picked something up and launched into a review on ancient tools that began with a rock carved into a hook, which was used to extract snail meat.
Aborigines couldn't vote in Australia until 1967. In the U.S., southern blacks couldn't vote until 1965. While the guides' referenced atrocities committed during the Aboriginal Genocide, most of the trek's commentary presented a more optimistic outlook. Also on the discussion block was the possibility that Aussies inherited part of the laconic and witty aboriginal personality during the era when aboriginals first became stockmen, also known as farm workers. As a result, Australians have an easygoing sense of humor that's unlike the stitched-up "poms" who settled these lands and were known for their weaponized take on language. A once derogatory slang term for Brits, pom is now accepted as a popular nickname. It may well be true that the Australian associations with the brave, understated aboriginal cowboys instilled the unfussy wit that now defines the Down-Under personality.
Aboriginal guides aside, what separates this trek from the famous Bay of Fires walk is access to otherwise off-limit and sacred areas like middens, intermittent inland trail detours, and overnight accommodations. Another highlight reserved only for wukalina walk guests is the food, which included homecooked beet root, baked wallaby, and an ancestral delicacy of barbequed mutton bird.
Back at the camp before sunset, we took part in spear-chucking practice and throwing animal trip-up clubs (the idea is to knock them down to make for easy prey) made from small tree trunks. The men waxed competitive while the women punched holes in leathery kelp found on the beach to create mini water baskets and ash trays. Back in the day, the twine used by the palawa was kangaroo tendons.
After two nights in the huts, the trek transitioned south into the ultimate shoreline ramble exploring the Bay of Fires, a seemingly endless stretch of pure-white silky beaches, rocky headlands, and offshore rocks cropping up from blue water, all glowing in a multi-hued orange color energized by lichen. The name Bay of Fires was coined in 1773 by a ship captain sailing in tandem with James Cook's second Pacific expedition, when seeing the fires of the palawa people burning on the beaches.
The trek's finale, the palawa-held land of larapuna, home to the Eddystone Point lighthouse (1889), is accessible only by this aboriginal-owned and -guided outfitter, which has VIP access to Mount William National Park. It was here that it dawned on me that the start and end point of this odyssey are often both in view. Another privilege reserved for wukalina walk guests is a final night spent in the newly renovated Lighthouse Keepers Cottage, a large multi-room granite house overlooking a lawn teeming with wallabies. The windswept land upon which it is set offers up spectacular views of the tumultuous ocean crashing into the sandscape.
The symbolic climax of this crusade happened while I was scaling the lighthouse via its interior spiral staircase. There, I wasn't alone in realizing that the aboriginal guides were relearning and resurrecting their culture as the trek unfolded, just like the participants. This mutual rediscovery added to the charm of the trip and made me scratch my nose in wonder. Jake whispered, "The palawa word for nose is munawara."
Bruce Northam's The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons shares the infinite goodwill of strangers through enlightening tales from his travels to 135 countries. He has spent decades navigating the globe in a continuing search for words to live by—and live for—in local mode. Visit AmericanDetour.com.
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