We went back to the camels, which were still browsing the scant vegetation, patiently carrying their front legs in the hobble position. Tagh released and hooshed them. We loaded the meat parcels onto the pack animals, and climbed into our saddles.
“Ahoy there! The cargo is loaded, we can set sail again!” Turnerstick announced.
“Hut-hut!” Tagh, and the other riders gave the camel command for the animals to move out.
Our odyssey could continue.
“So, tell me, Sepple: how did you come by the idea to leave dry land and try your luck at sea?” Turnerstick asked Sepple as we continued riding, picking up the thread of an earlier nautical conversation during the preceding days. Turnerstick liked nothing better than to talk about ships and the high seas, and sailing the one over the other, even if the subject was a small fishing boat sailing the waters in the harbour of Adelaide.
“I couldn’t really say,” Sepple replied. “But I think the flathead are to blame for it.”
“Flathead? What’s a flathead got to do with it?”
“That’s what we used to catch when we went out on the neighbour’s boat. One of my father’s friends, who lived next door to us, used to go fishing with his two sons on the river, and invite their friends as well. We were five boys, all crammed into a small dinghy. We used to have a grand time, though, and always caught plenty of flathead. I guess I liked being on ships,” Sepple said with a smile.
“Calling a dinghy a ship is stretching the seafarer’s imagination a bit, laddie,” the captain said and gave Sepple a wink.
“I know that you’ve got a much larger dinghy, but one has to start somewhere,” Sepple retorted.
“The Wind a dinghy? You call my clipper a dinghy? I’ll keelhaul anyone who insults The Wind in this manner!”
“It would be a little difficult out here,” Sepple grinned.
“It’ll keep for when we get back!”
“Aye, captain! We can go fishing for flathead then!”
“Fishing! The Wind is not a fishing ketch!”
“What good’s a boat if you can’t go fishing on it?”
“The clipper is not a boat, either! And what is it about the flathead? Is that all you catch in Adelaide?”
“Have you ever tasted flathead? There’s nothing better than fresh flathead over hot coals right there on the beach, a Lobethal beer on the side, and perhaps a damper to soak up the juices!”
“You’re quite the gourmet! But damper! I’ve heard about it! An English fellow, who had been to the colonies earlier, and who manned The Wind’s galley for a while, explained the wretched thing to me. Apparently one needs the stomach of an emu to digest it; it’s nothing but flour and water, and you mix it until it’s as hard as clay cut from a quarry. And this clay is then shaped into rounds and placed directly onto the coals, where it is baked until brick hard, like fired in a kiln. Whose teeth would want to put up with that?”
“The man didn’t know what he was talking about, Captain! Damper is a bush bread, and when done properly, that’s to say, the flour and water have been mixed to form a cake that is placed into the hot ashes, it will rise and brown.”
“There you have the brick!”
“It’s quite sweet and a good bread. You just wipe the ash off, and eat it as soon as it has cooled.”
“But baked like that—it would be as hard as rock!”
“On the contrary, it’s as soft as the best baker’s bun. My sister sometimes uses beer instead of water, because that’s got yeast in it, and the dough rises a bit more; but it’s very agreeable!”
“Don’t tell anyone, it’s her secret, because the folks would say she’d only waste good beer!”
“Hm, beer instead of water, I can accept that; I must try your sister’s damper—and the beer will be our secret!”
While Turnerstick and Sepple were comparing culinary oddities of the wild colonial kitchens, our camels had carried us quite a stretch closer to the red hill in the distance, yet not close enough to get more than a glimpse at it.
We were heading in a north-westerly direction, riding through country covered with porcupine grass, which is also known as spinifex. The desert oak trees became more prominent, and whereas individual trees had been standing as lonely sentinels in the wide landscape during the past few days, we had arrived in a region where they grew in larger groups, which also contained much older specimens. The distance to the red hill on the horizon did not seem to shorten. We pushed on over some scrubby and stony country, regularly passing casuarina trees. We were delighted to encounter several quandongs, or native peach trees, with early fruit. The quandong is an important food source for the Aboriginals, and the fruit is considered a suitable substitute for meat—especially when game is in short supply. Ripe red quandong are eaten raw, or dried for later consumption; apparently they keep for many years. The women would collect quandongs in bark dishes, pit them, and roll the edible fruit into a ball. The fruit ball would then be broken up and shared out among their mob.
Not letting an opportunity to gather fresh fruit go by, both Ginty and Sepple dismounted and picked a couple of hats full, for us to enjoy along the way. I would describe their taste somewhere between a quince, or perhaps red wine, and a mango, an exotic fruit that originated on the Indian sub-continent thousands of years ago, but had only recently been grown in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the Australian colonies. The mango had been grown in a few immense hothouses in England since the early years of the century, but it was not until about twenty years hence that cultivation had become commercially successful. We ate of the quandong as many as we desired, quenching our thirst somewhat, and packed away the remainder for later on.
Aboriginals also valued the quandongs for their medicinal properties, which included a form of tea, taken as a purgative; the roots were ground down and an infusion used for the treatment of rheumatism. The leaves were crushed and mixed with saliva, to produce a salve for skin sores and boils, and the rich, oily kernels were processed in like manner, and used for the same purpose. Some tribal groups used the crushed kernels as a hair beautifying agent. The kernel can be eaten raw, and Ginty cracked a few for us; they tasted not unlike almonds.
“Emu like them,” he said.
“The red peaches?” Turnerstick asked.
“Yes boss. They eat the fruit, then drop the seed; that way we know where to find the nuts.”
Turnerstick gave Ginty an incredulous side-glance.
“You mean to tell me that you collect the nuts in emu droppings, crack them open, and then eat them?”
“Yes boss, very good!” Ginty said with a grin that grew increasingly broader.
“I prefer to eat the fruit myself!” Turnerstick said. “There’s no accounting for some tastes, though!”
As we drew closer to the red hill in the distance, we came onto softer ground with a well-grassed plain. However, after we had traversed the plain, the ground regularly dipped away again, and together with the scrub obscured the landscape ahead continuously, until we cleared the jumble of colossal boulders that had blocked our view for quite a stretch.