The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage listed site and the rain forest that is located along the shore here is as well. We didn’t need to see the name to know that the George Daintree Rainforest at Mossman was a rain forest. We have had good luck with the weather so far on this entire trip, but today it just poured. We were scheduled to go on a walk through the forest with a guide, but instead he took us a short way into the woods under a tarp and told us the same things that he would have said while walking. It poured so hard, it was challenging to hear what he said at times, but he was so knowledgeable and personable, that we soon forgot the weather and hung on every word he said. He is a member of the Kuku Yalanji tribe and he welcomed us with a smoke ceremony. He put wet pieces of bark on the fire and each of us walked through it and twirled around while he chanted words of welcome. There was a small tableau of objects in the corner and by the time he told us what they were for and how they were used by his people who live in the rain forest, a good hour had gone by. We have had a number of talks from Aboriginals and those that are the most effective are from people that have spent enough time with white people that they understand how we think and can convey this totally different lifestyle to us in a way we can understand.
First he talked about food. In rain forests on other continents about 80& of the seeds, fruits, leaves are edible by man. Here only 20% are. He attributed this to the fact that there are no other primates on this continent. In South American and India, monkeys eat pretty much the same vegetation that we do. Over time they eliminated much of what is poisonous to us, because it was also poisonous to them. Here the Aboriginals had to discover by trail and error how to process the fruits, nuts and seeds to eliminate the toxic elements. Some were boiled and then cooked in the fire. Sometimes it was vice versa. Sometimes salty ocean water was used; sometimes a soaking in fresh rain water to leech out the poisons was the method. It is amazing to contemplate all the people who must have died until this was all figured out and codified.
Fruits, flowers, vegetables and animals were also used to chart the passage of time. If you saw a mullet returning from the sea to spawn in the river, this was the beginning of a new season. If you saw berries on a palm tree, you knew it was time to hunt for honey. And so on. These tribesmen were the only ones in the world who never used bow and arrow. They had a variety of throwing tools and spears, but boomerangs were not useful in the thick forest.
They used minerals like zinc, iron and calcium to paint objects and to color their bodies. They pounded rocks containing them into paste and smeared it on their bodies to keep the mosquitoes off. If you put a certain leaf in a bucket of water and squeezed it, the water foamed like soap and you could clean everything off again. During the one hundred year period when the Australian government institutionalized Aboriginal youth, much of this knowledge was almost forgotten, but today they are taught in their language and knowing how to live off the land is regarding as a valuable skill once again. Then he played the didgeridoo for us. Termites eat away the wood in the center of small logs and these become the instrument. The breath control required to make all the sounds a hollowed out piece of wood can resonate, is mind boggling.
After a lunch resplendent with local fruits most of which I have never heard of and never seen in our grocery store, we went to the river to hunt for crocodiles. The last time we did this the crew baited a long pole which hung off the back of the boat and the croc leaped out of the water with almost his entire body to get it, a performance I’ll never forget. The folks here decided it was not a good idea to get crocs to associate boats with food, so we motored along the banks of the river peering into the mangrove roots and eventually found two hidden amidst the jungle vegetation, which we could sort of see. As cold water creatures, they place their bodies where they are closest to optimal temperatures. They are easier to see in the winter when the water is colder than it was today and the lay in the sun. The vegetation was so thick, it was impossible to imagine how early explorers could hack their way through.