Photographers' Blog

On patrol with Australia’s indigenous soldiers

July 31, 2013

Gove, also known as Nhulunbuy, Australia

By David Gray

It’s around 10pm, and we have just entered the ‘Malay Road’, so named by English explorer Matthew Flinders to commemorate his meeting with “Malay” fishermen during his circumnavigation of Australia in 1803. Captain ‘Dusty’ Miller gives his patrolmen their final briefing in the bow of a landing craft sailing west along the coast of Arnhem Land. His indigenous soldiers seem extremely calm and relaxed to me, but then one, who is from an Aboriginal community located a long way from the coastal regions, asks to be excused and is violently sea sick for the rest of the journey. ‘He is simply not used to riding in boats’ is the explanation from a fellow soldier, who can’t help but laugh at his mates’ discomfort. ‘Dusty’ continues his briefing, and explains that the patrol’s orders are to look for signs of any illegal or unusual activity, which usually involves illegal fishing boats, in the area encompassing what are called The English Company’s Islands (named by Flinders after the East India Company). They will be part of Operation ‘RESOLUTE’, the Australian Defense Force’s contribution to the government effort to protect Australia’s borders and offshore maritime interests.

Captain Miller and his four patrolmen, 33-year-old Lance Corporal Danny Daniels, 24-year-old Lance Corporal Vinnie Rami, 27-year-old Private Jonah Thinglere and 24-year-old Private Drew Perry, are Australian Army Reservists serving with the North West Mobile Force, the Regional Force Surveillance Unit better known as NORFORCE. Formed in 1981, this infantry regiment conducts reconnaissance and surveillance patrols in remote areas of Northern Australia, including the indigenous Aboriginal reserve known as Arnhem Land. It consists of 600 soldiers, which includes 60 regular army officers, and around 240 indigenous soldiers from remote Aboriginal communities. These indigenous soldiers are really what make this unit unique. Their local knowledge about the terrain, the flora and fauna, and the means to which these can be used to sustain their time out on patrol in the ‘bush’, make them an invaluable part of an army that performs active patrols in the largest area of operations of any military unit in the world – some 1.8 million square kilometers (695,000 square miles) – that includes some of the most remote areas on earth.

I learn that the landing craft we are travelling in is officially called an LCM8. Its bow ramp is finally lowered after a slow and bumpy five hour ride to our drop-off point. Looking at the small boats rocking on the swell, I am now glad I took the Army swim test before embarking, which involves swimming 100 meters, and treading water for five minutes, fully clothed (and that includes hiking boots). The patrol’s two inflatable boats, called Zodiacs, are pushed down the ramp, and we clamber aboard. We are now trying to find our way using just the illumination of a half-moon, and millions of stars. The destination is still some 30km (18 miles) away – a small beach on what’s called Astell Island. Our first attempt at landing is a somewhat scary experience. With visibility extremely low, and with less than 50 meters to the beach, we are suddenly caught on the crest of a wave that up until just seconds before, was impossible to see. Sixty-year-old Dusty, with his many years experience having joined the Australian Navy in 1968 and serving during the Vietnam War, calmly advises his driver to turn around, as he ‘doesn’t want to go surfing tonight’. After checking several more beaches for waves, we finally find a calmer beach shortly before midnight. The greatest worry now becomes saltwater crocodiles. Dusty leads the exodus from the boats, with his soldiers sweeping the sea and shoreline with torchlight, looking for the telltale red eyes. Fish are jumping at the beams of torchlight, when suddenly just a few feet from the boats, something splashes on the surface of the water, and I ask ‘Is that a croc?’ Two of the soldiers, who have already entered the water, dive rather unceremoniously back into the Zodiac, much to the delight of the rest of the group. But it turns out to be nothing more than a sting ray, which of course is not exactly a comfort, but compared to a ‘croc’, it will do. Once all the equipment has been brought ashore, we set out our sleeping bags, and after a quick meal, it doesn’t take long to fall asleep.

The next day, the surveillance and reconnaissance activities begin in haste. A ship is spotted at dawn sailing just over the horizon, and it is viewed and reported to command immediately. The men are then told by Dusty to clean and check their F88 Austeyr rifles for a patrol around the island. Within just minutes of setting out from camp, we come across tracks of an estimated 3-meter-long crocodile. I ask myself if I am glad we found this out this morning, or would it have been better before we went to sleep? But it’s best not to ask such questions. Either way, it’s an ominous sign of just how dangerous this area is. The patrol makes its way through thick bush land, along a dried-up creek bed, up a ridge, down the other side, up another ridge, across a swamp, and finally, down another hill and into camp. And during all this, we are constantly pestered by nasty green ants that hang from low-lying branches and make their way into your shirt, hat and worst of all, your pants. However, Lance-corporal Danny Daniels shows me my first ‘bush tucker’ trick, and what he calls ‘revenge’. If you grab an ant by its head, you put the rest of its body into your mouth, and bite. Not exactly a substantial meal, but a sweet and nutritious one that can be useful when walking for hours. Once sitting back at camp, the soldiers tell Dusty that they spotted a ‘spear tree’ not far from camp. He is more than happy that the guys might be able to catch a fish for lunch, and so we head out to retrieve it. Without even a slight deviation, we come across it within minutes. They chop down the thin, 7-foot-high tree, and carry it back to camp. But on the way, we stop at some mangroves to dig for mud clams, and then we stop at some rocks along the beach for some fresh oysters – just another day in the bush with the locals. The spear tree is shaved of its bark, and slowly roasted over the fire to remove what remains. At one end, a small notch is made to tie a sharp metal spike that the soldiers obviously carry with them for such an occasion, and within just 30 minutes, a perfectly straight and smooth throwing spear is ready for hunting. Meanwhile, the clams are roasting on the fire, and the most amazing and perfect thing about them is that when they are ready, they magically open, and can be easily removed from their shell. And let me tell you, they were better than any mussel or scallop I have ever eaten.

Vinnie, Danny and Jonah then take the spear down to the beach, and begin wading through the shallows, searching, and occasionally spotting, a fish swimming along. Before long, and after just a few throws of the spear, they excitedly yell in delight after successfully hitting something. Danny first pushes down on the spear, and then pulls it up to reveal what looks like a small shark or sting ray. It turns out to be what’s known as a Shovelnose guitarfish, and it’s simply thrown on top of the camp fire, covered in sticks for 30 minutes, and then dragged off and eaten. Fresh fish and a taste that again cannot be forgotten.

The patrol must move on, and after less than an hour, we are speeding off again along the coastline, heading to another island in the chain of The English Company’s Islands. This time, we are headed to Cotton Island. Once a camp is set, Dusty decides to check the rocky headland at the end of the landing beach. After checking under boulders and crevasses for any suspicious items, the patrol comes across the entrance to a small cave. With the best intentions of fulfilling their duty of reconnaissance and surveillance, the soldiers enter the cave. What happens next made me realize just how strong the traditions of Australia’s indigenous people still are. The cave turned out to be a burial site, thus an extremely precious and sensitive area known as a Sacred Site to the local people. Quickly realizing this, the NORFORCE soldiers bid a hasty retreat and are visibly shaken and upset. Dusty’s experience at dealing with such an issue becomes obvious at this moment. He sits the soldiers down, and explains to them that their mission is to investigate and report any possible places that illegal activities could occur, and a cave is one such obvious place. He adds that the cave would now be marked as a Sacred Site, and NORFORCE would keep away from it during any future patrols, unless accompanied by a local elder. Then, very quietly, Private Jonah Thingle walks back to the entrance of the cave, and speaking in his traditional language, apologizes to the spirits present within the cave for having disturbed them. The indigenous soldiers were so shaken and uncomfortable after this incident, that it wasn’t until we had left the island, did they start to relax and become their cheerful selves again. This experience showed me that such significant and spiritual places are of extreme importance to the Aborigines, and as someone who is basically still a newcomer to this ancient land, it reinforces just how important it is to leave such significant places alone.

Once we pack and load the equipment onto the boats, we head towards our next destination called Wigram Island. Here the patrol discovers literally thousands of items discarded by passing vessels littering the beaches and rocky coastline including fishing nets, plastic bottles, cups and containers, countless flip-flops, buoys, channel markers, rope, boots, clothing, buckets, eating utensils, a light bulb, and even, an entire refrigerator. These extremely remote and once pristine beaches and coastal cliffs are being buried under plastic junk. We find a place to set up camp, and just minutes after doing so, Lance Corporal Vinnie Rami comes running over to me explaining he has discovered a turtle’s nest. He takes me to the spot located close to the water’s edge, and starts digging. I have no idea how he knew the eggs were there, as there were no tracks or markings nearby. He digs about two feet down, and removes a dozen or so eggs, leaving another dozen in the ground. He gleefully cracks one egg and eats it raw, before taking the rest back to camp. I am told they taste similar to a chicken’s egg, but much more bitter. It once again reinforces the unique and extremely useful skills that these soldiers possess.

The Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve was established in 1931, and it allows the population to continue their traditions, that include hunting and eating the wildlife, as they have done for more than 40,000 years. A lot of the areas that NORFORCE patrol are inside this reserve, and as a result, the Aboriginal soldiers are able to continue these traditions. With the knowledge and ability to do this, these soldiers are able to spend extended periods of time on patrol without the urgent need for re-supply, making them one of the most unique fighting forces in the world. The mix of what they call ‘black and white fellas’ working together, wearing their army uniform that the indigenous soldiers call their ‘green skin’, can be used as a rare and wonderful example of Australia’s first people and European settlers working together.

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