Travel: Australia: Taking in an outback experience

It is a balmy December night and Australia’s sky is a thicket of stars — the Southern Cross seemingly at arm’s reach.

A marmalade moon has risen over a cluster of gum trees.

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In a clearing before me, an enormous campfire crackles, spitting pinpoints of light into the darkness.

I am in New South Wales, visiting a tiny town on the fringe of the Blue Mountains.

It would seem as though the entire population has turned out tonight, their children romping hand-in-hand around a bonfire.

Teenagers huddle in groups around the fringes. Adults, ranging from 30-something couples to seniors, gather to clap their hands to the rhythm of a band on a small stage.

A lone crooner belts out country and western ballads, a few Christmas carols and gospel music as the audience joins in.

It’s a big, happy party — Aussie-style.

It’s not quite what I had expected to find. I had come to this event after spotting an advertisement in a local newspaper; I was expecting to see an aboriginal music and dance festival — a corroboree.

It’s an event seldom staged in an urban setting and one I am curious to see.

As the evening progresses, Elvis impersonators give way to amateur talent from the audience and I grow restive.

I think to myself, maybe the word “corroboree” has been used in a broad generic sense to denote an Australian community celebration.

Then, the stage lights dim and go out completely. Kids settle down with their parents and the night, apart from a light breeze rustling among trees, is silent, expectant. The lone sound is the distant call of a night bird and the whine of a mosquito chasing my ear.

Light from a bonfire throws the circle of faces into relief. The thrum of a didgeridoo — whum, whum, whum, wah — pause-whum, whum whum, wah… swells across the darkness.

Figures emerge, feet stamping in rhythm.

At first, they appear as black silhouettes against orange flames and then, as they draw nearer, I see more clearly — faces dotted mask-like in white chalk, torsos decorated with circular designs and hand imprints, orange loin-cloths and string fringes tied around their legs.

This is an aboriginal hunting ritual. The men move slowly in rhythm, joining in a circle around an iguana — a large lizard that inhabits the Australian bush.

The “iguana man” moves on his belly, creeping forward, retreating apprehensively, his movements smooth and reptilian. Hunters crouch, waving their staves and boomerangs and uttering high-pitched calls of encouragement to one another.

The rhythm accelerates and, suddenly, it is over.

The iguana, pierced, lies dead as hunters leap, then crouch, knocking their knees together in a jubilant dance.

The audience goes wild.

A woman next to me explains that in aborigine dream world mythology, the iguana is regarded with respect because it brings sustenance to their people living in the arid outback.

I want to ask where I can verify her story, but my attention is drawn again to the clearing.

This time, the dance troupe, now impersonating a flock of emus, delicately picks its way around the flicker of firelight.

Hands clasped behind their backs, their elbows akimbo, the dancers flap their “wings” and occasionally raise an arm, Z-like before their faces, capturing the pecking movement of a bird’s head. The crowd claps in rhythm to the drone of the didgeridoo.

A young boy is irrestibly drawn into their midst. Not missing a step, the dancers surround him, urging on his efforts to imitate them.

For the next hour, I am drawn into a different world — a world of myth and spiritual rituals, a world as simple and as complex as the creation of Earth and its creatures, a world of tribal loyalty, rivalry, initiation rites and survival in the raw Australian outback.

There are no words, no songs, no explanations during this performance. Only the movement of lithe bodies, facial expressions, gestures and whoops of joy or sorrow enacted in shadow play against the flames and primordial glitter of stars.

My absorption in the performance is so intense that I have blotted out the audience on the fringes.

It is only when the final act brings a roar of applause and dancers wave their spears above their heads that I find myself reminded I am part of this urban audience — spectators to a staged show.

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