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Queensland drought stopping Indigenous elder Steve Kemp from making Boomerangs

By Jemima Burt, Monday February 24, 2020 - 10:43 EDT
ABC image
This nulla nulla, a traditional weapon, cracked because of drought-affected acacia wood. - ABC

An Indigenous elder says he has been unable to make traditional weapons or instruments for months because the drought is causing the wood he uses to crack.

Steve Kemp, an elder of the Ghungalu people and former mayor of the Woorabinda Shire, crafts nulla nullas, boomerangs and clapsticks.

In 2019, the area in central Queensland received its lowest annual rainfall total in a decade — the 496 millimetres recorded was around half the annual average.

As a result, Mr Kemp said acacia trees had become too dry to use for weapon-making.

"This is the driest it's been. I've been out at Woorabinda for 30 years and you can nearly make boomerangs at any time of the year, but since winter we've got no rain.

"In the wintertime with the trees, the sap goes down to the roots and the trees lie dormant, and then when the spring comes along, the sap comes back up again.

"When you cut the tree, you can make that boomerang or clapstick, but we tried making some this last winter and they were splitting.

"If you went to throw it at something and it hit a tree or hit something really hard, it would just split."

Even traditional woodworking methods were not able to salvage the wood.

"When we get our clapsticks, we put them into water and that takes the sap out of them and then they don't split, but that didn't work last year, so we haven't made boomerangs all last year."

Mr Kemp is a community leader of sorts in Woorabinda, passing on woodworking skills to his nephews using a combination of ancient and modern tools.

"We're using modern tools now, we adapt. When Captain Cook came with his steel axe, we obviously threw our stone axe away.

"And now we use sandpaper that we buy from Mitre 10."

Trees and animals feel the dry

The drought has also impacted a huge range of traditional foods and medicines.

"It's killing them and killing all the creatures ... they just couldn't get enough food, not enough grass," Mr Kemp said.

"I've been out here 30 years and this is the worst year I've ever experienced.

"My dad said before he died that he believed the seasons have moved further south.

"Nature's buggered up. Nature doesn't know what's happening, the animals don't know what's happening.

"Some humans know what's happening, but most don't, most people don't understand."

Mr Kemp uses echidna, emu and goanna fat for medicine, but he said there was not enough food around to harvest fat from the animals.

"Because of the drought, the goanna wouldn't be eating frogs or grasshoppers or cockroaches, so he would be no good to get the fat off.

"Whatever the goanna eats is the quality of the fat."

Gumby Gumby trees, precious because of their healing properties, have also started to die, while the lemon-scented gum (Corymbia citriodora), which is used in traditional cosmetic making, is in survival mode.

"I usually make it over winter because I've got a wood-fired distillery to get the oil out of the gums," Mr Kemp said.

"When you're driving down the road and you can't smell them, then there's obviously no oil in them."

Hope revived but drought not broken

Mr Kemp said he hoped the recent rainfall revived the local flora and fauna populations, and that he would be back crafting within the next few weeks.

"Looks like they're going to recover, so thank goodness we got that rain — if we didn't get that rain now, we'd be in trouble.

"All the berries are out, all the medicines will be up, all the trees are ready to distil, so we're going to flat bickie right up through winter.

"We're right to rock'n'roll."

Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Gabriel Branescu said recent rainfall had not been drought-breaking but provided short-term relief.

"Still in an annual timeframe, we need more widespread, persistent, consistent rainfall to alleviate the drought that is experienced by the Central Highlands and Coalfields, especially towards Rockhampton, which was in the lowest 5 per cent of rainfall since 1969."

Walking Together is taking a look at our nation's reconciliation journey, where we've been and asks the question — where do we go next?

Join us as we listen, learn and share stories from across the country, that unpack the truth telling of our history and embrace the rich culture and language of Australia's First People.


© ABC 2020

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