Traditional Aboriginal culture
IN A DESICCATED WEST Australian landscape, where hunting has been a way of life for more than 5000 years, a rifle pokes out the window of a four-wheel-drive. In a marriage of the old and the new, the rifle sight has been expertly attached with kangaroo sinew.
CRACK! A shot rings out across the burnt-sienna sands and the chase is on. The 4WD accelerates, weaving wildly in and out of the mulga and bucking over ruts. "Having a nice ride everyone?" yells Hamzah Taylor, 17, his iPod plugged into the car's stereo system, blaring rock music.
Although hit, the fast-moving quarry only slows to a trot when it thinks it is safe behind a big wattle. CRACK! Another shot hits home and the chase is on again. With nearly all the other prey out here – kangaroos, emus or the much sought-after turkeys or bustards – the .22 would have finished the job by now. But this is a feral camel, bigger than the 4WD itself and as strong as the desert sun. Three more times in 10 minutes, bullets hit home in the head and neck before it slumps to its knees.
Barefooted Hamzah, wearing a Snoop Dogg baseball cap, springs out of the car and slits the beast's jugular with a small axe. Dark, crimson blood pools on the terracotta ground as he and shooter Burchell Taylor begin the hour-long butchering process. The young blokes take turns grunting and panting as they chop away at the carcass, while one of the senior Martu lawholders, Waka Taylor, sits quietly in the shade and watches. Every so often he gets up and shows them precisely where to cut, achieving fast results with an economy and expertise born of a lifetime out here.
The rich, beef-like taste of camel has only been on the Martu's regular menu for the past decade or so. Camel numbers have grown exponentially in recent years, and there's an estimated 60, 000 now living on their native-title lands of 136, 000 sq. km.
Even though the dromedaries drink from and foul the few precious waterholes, and eat vast amounts of vegetation, the animals are not often hunted by the Martu. Some of the older people won't eat the creatures, even crying when they see one killed. They say they feel sorry for them - as an introduced species, the animals don't feature in any Dreaming stories so some Martu feel uncomfortable killing and eating them. And, watching the effort as the meat is cut into manageable chunks and manhandled onto the roof of the 4WD, you can see that a camel kill creates a lot of work.
THE WORD "MARTU" MEANS "person with black skin", but since the 1980s it has been the label applied to the indigenous people of the Pilbara deserts - those with traditional lands around the central part of the Canning Stock Route in WA. Known as some of the last Aboriginal people to "come in from the desert" and adopt western ways, they have a strong culture, particularly here on their native-title lands, where about half their 1000 or so number live in a sprinkling of small communities around Karlamilyi National Park. Most other Martu are settled in Port Hedland and Newman.
In the village of Parnngurr I meet ever-smiling elder Nyalangka Taylor, in her mid-60s. She remembers her childhood, which was at about the time of the Martu's first contact with whitefellas. She enjoyed hunting and gathering, and unimpeded travel with a family group of nearly 20. Reliable waterholes and soaks were up to a day-and-a-half's walk apart, and Nyalangka says they would often travel at night, particularly in the summer when temperatures can regularly soar higher than 45ºC.