Scrub Hill

 

One person who knows the forests and swamps of Fraser Island intimately is Uncle Joe. Better known as Jo-Jo – or simply ‘Cuz’ – to his boss Norman at Scrub Hill Tours, Uncle Joe is certainly one of the best Aboriginal guides in Australia. He’s toured much of the country already Norman claims that he has been ‘head-hunted’ as a guide in the Top End where another mob was so impressed with his knowledge that they virtually tried to kidnap him. With his toothless grin and gnarled, oakwood features Uncle Joe’s infectious laughter also makes him a perfect guide.

Countries as far removed as Botswana, Guatemala, Algeria and Peru have trained many of their indigenous people to be spectacularly good guides but the Australian tourism industry in general seems to be overlooking one of its truly unique treasures: an immeasurably rich and mind-bogglingly ancient traditional culture. You can travel a long way across this great island continent without meeting an Aboriginal guide. Yet these are people whose ancestors managed the land so effectively for 50,000 years before the first white settlers arrived. Most tourists would be more impressed to hear the history of Uluru (once Ayer’s Rock) straight from an Aboriginal mouth. Recent Aboriginal history is perhaps even more astounding than tales of the dreamtime.

Uncle Joe has the rough, gnarled features that betray a hard life. Like his boss – and every other man on the community-run project – Joe has served time behind bars. “When we were kids there were very few corridors of life open to us,” says Norman. “Teachers ignored us and just naturally assumed that we would never amount to anything. So, of course, labelled like that it was very rare if any of us did. When Jo-Jo and I were teenagers we were automatically stamped as outlaws: every Friday we would head for remote beaches where we could hang out because if the police caught us around town on Friday they would just push us all into jail and keep us there until Sunday night. This was so the white people could enjoy their weekend without having to see black fellas around town. We were outlaws anyway so we began to look on jail as a trial we had to pass to be accepted.”

In effect jail-time became a sort of surrogate initiation to manhood. “Even today in this town it’s unusual to come across an Aboriginal lad who makes it to twenty without spending time behind bars. It’s a sad fact and something that we are still struggling to change. This was perhaps the most racist town in the country.” Norman tells a story of how he and some friends managed to catch three Klu Klux Klan members who were burning a cross in front of his Aunt’s house. Norman too was a boxer in his youth and the KKK men clearly had a bad night.

“Tensions run high at times. Our ancestors on Fraser Island were at the front line of the European invasion. It was our people who were among the first to die. Later we were sent away to missions. Few of us can be sure even of what our roots are. There were about five thousand Butchulla people when the Europeans came here. But after the stolen generation there were just two families here. My grandmother was the last of our people to be born in the old way, on the ground under one of the sacred trees.

Norman’s mother was one who, apparently, never doubted even after all this that her people still had a real future. A woman as tough as the harsh land that she comes from Auntie Francis, as everyone called her, seems to be the arch-typical Aussie battler. Among other things Auntie Francis was a prize-winning boxer in her youth who gave more than a few professional male boxers a thumping they didn’t fast forget.

Hearing from her son that teachers deliberately ignored Aboriginal kids she obtained permission to visit schools and sit in on classes to make sure her people were getting the education due to them. Scrub Hill Farm at the edge of the town of Hervey was her initiative too. She lobbied for a permit to buy the hilltop site which was then a poisonous aluminium mine and, with her sons, she worked to establish a bush-tucker farm that could not only offer tours and accommodation but also, eventually, supply home-grown Australian salads that could compete with introduced crops.

Walking around the project Norman shows me the sacred trees, the astounding variety of fruits and edible shrubs, the tree whose root is used to make boomerangs...His enthusiasm is infectious and I begin to wonder if I can change my itinerary entirely and learn more from Scrub Hill and some of the most interesting guides I had yet found in Australia.

But it was not to be. Norman had a community committee meeting to sit in on. More importantly, he reckoned that his mum was already there.

“...and she’ll probably thump me if I’m late!”