How to survive in the wilds of Australia

How to survive in the wilds of Australia

A new tour gives a hands-on look at how Australia's Aboriginals once survived -- boomerang throwing included

Wiradjuri ranger Shane Herrington made this rope by hand, without any tools, in a matter of minutes.
With white picket fences and tree-lined streets, Tumut, 400 kilometers west of Sydney, is as quaint as a rural Australian town gets.

It also has a dark past. 

For centuries the Tumut River was a meeting place for members of the Wiradjuri, Wolgan and Ngunnawal Aboriginal nations. Sometimes they went to war, but mostly they lived in peace.

As expert hunter-gatherers, they rarely went without.

Their world came to an end in the early 1800s when white settlers streamed in from coastal settlements to clear land for grazing.

The tribes resisted, but the technologically superior invaders made short work of their foes.

Survivors were herded into Catholic missions where they lost the will to share the rich oral history and survival skills passed down for countless generations.

Wiradjuri ranger Shane Herrington also plays a mean didgeridoo. It may have been lost forever if not for a New South Wales Parks and Wildlife initiative that facilitated hundreds of hours of face time between rangers and Aboriginal elders.

Among the participants was 36-year-old Wiradjuri ranger, Shane Herrington.

“I was born in Brungle Mission, an Aboriginal settlement 20 kilometers north of Tumut, but I never learned anything about my grandfather’s people when growing up,” he says.

“I knew what a boomerang and clap sticks were, but nothing more than that.”

Today Herrington is a walking, talking encyclopedia on the Wiradjuri Nation and Australian bush survival skills.

He knows what foods they ate, what medicines they used, how they made tools, weapons, rope, nets, fire, shelter, boats and clothing out of possum and wallaby skins.

He’s the Bear Grylls of the Great Dividing Range -- and he’s willing to share his skills with anyone who joins the Wiradjuri Wonders Aboriginal Discovery Tour.

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Don't eat the mushrooms

Herrington is in his element as we walk down a fire trail in the Wereboldera State Conservation Area –- a 10-minute drive from Tumut, but a million years behind as far as civilization is concerned.

There’s nothing out here but trees. And they all look the same until he starts pointing out their nutritional and medicinal values.

If it's fluorescent, it's probably dangerous. “This is a curry bush,” he says, picking off a few leaves and crushing it in his fingertips.

“It’s an herb like rosemary for cooking meat, but if you boil it in water, the vapor helps clear congestion, coughs and colds.

“This is custard apple berry,” he continues, picking a small fruit from the next tree and giving it to me to eat.

It’s not all that appealing. It tastes like foam.

Herrington picks up a rotting berry from under the tree and gives it to me. This one tastes like raspberry jam.

I try false sarsaparilla and native cherry, but abstain from munching on a fluorescent mushroom.

“I am very skeptical of anything that is fluorescent in the bush,” Herrington says. “It usually means danger.”

So how was all this stuff discovered? Through trail and error on human guinea pigs, Herrington explains.

“I wouldn't have wanted to be a weak or sick person or someone who couldn’t contribute to the tribe," he says.

"They were the ones used to test foods to see if they were poisonous.”

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The art of war

We progress to the business of making weapons and tools.

“Nine times out of ten when my ancestors went to war, it was about women,” he explains. “Because women were hoarded.”

Visitors on one of the Wiradjuri Wonders Aboriginal Discovery Tours get to try that essential Aussie experience -- boomerang chucking. We get to work making an axe by grinding the edge of a round river stone against a larger, tougher piece of quartz. It’s a two-man job; I’m required to pour water to wash away the powder and filaments so Herrington can keep on grinding.

I pour from a "coolamon" –- a multi-purpose, canoe-shaped vessel made from red box tree and hardened by fire to give it a lip to retain water.

With our axe head made, we find a Kurrajong tree and start stripping the bark we then weave together to make string and rope.

It’s boring, monotonous work, but it’s a survival skill every indigenous Australian had to master.

“There’s a misconception that women did the weaving and men made axes,” Herrington says. “But men had to make rope to finish their axes and women had to make axe heads to cut meat before they cooked it.”

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After attaching our axe head to a stick using our bush-made string and sap from a green wattle tree, Herrington teaches me to use other weapons.

The boomerang is surprisingly easy to throw but aiming it is impossible –- a problem Herrington and his ancestors got around by practicing to the point where they could anticipate the boomerang’s trajectory.

Stencil images are found widely in Australian Aboriginal rock art, usually of hands or arms. We also throw spears using a "woomera" – a wooden spear-launcher that lets spears travel much faster and more accurately than if thrown by hand.

Herrington uses it to launch a spear 30 meters into the woods, though mine lands limply on the dirt not far from our feet.

Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on my aim to eat and lunch is delivered by another ranger in a hamper.

There’s barbecue kangaroo with bush peppers and small bush tomatoes, damper bread with wattle seed and a delicious radish-like salad made from the fruit of the Kurrajong tree.

It’d been prepared the day earlier, but it’s nothing Herrington couldn’t rustle up on his own.

“I can survive here indefinitely,” he says.

Wiradjuri Wonders Aboriginal Discovery Tours (+61 0 2 6947 7025), Tours are by reservation only and depart from the Old Butter Factory on the Snowy Mountain Highway, Tumut. Tours for up to 10 persons are A$188 ($171) for half a day or A$376 for a full day, with gourmet bush tucker lunch included. 

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Ian Lloyd Neubauer is a Sydney-based freelance journalist specializing in adventure travel. He has reported extensively across East Asia and the South Pacific and is the author of two travel novels, Getafix (2004) and Maquis (2006), which is being turned into a feature film in consultation with Fox Studios.

Read more about Ian Lloyd Neubauer