Perhaps no white man, hunter, or fisher, was so clever at catching any sort of game as the blacks, and perhaps no "native race," not even the red men of America, about whom we have read so much, who were so painstaking in their snaring, their stalking, their lying in ambush, so shrewd and stolid and picturesque, showed the patience, the cleverness, the agility, the keenness that were the universal attributes of our blackmen. Clever writers about the Reds of the West have told how they rode, and how they ambushed, and of their relentlessness, but not one story shows that they had the bushcraft the equal of that of the Australian aborigine.
This story deals with the catching of fish. No lines, no hooks-just rush nets and bare hands, and spearing, and the spearing was only done when the fish was big.
Of all the fishers of the Shoalhaven people none was so clever as a certain Krubi. She left it to other women to dig the yams. She caught fish.
The camp was a permanent one. Its location was somewhere near the site of the bridge of Nowra. High rocks sheltered it from the southerly winds, and a deep forest prevented the westerlies from reaching it.
Krubi caught fish with her hands. She used a bait of meat (too bad, by the way, for us to have handled), and this she hung between her own shapely black feet. When the fish were ravenously fighting for the food, Krubi simply drew her feet up and up. But this "simply" is just the requisite thing, and therein do we white people fail. True it is, though, that our superior knowledge and inventiveness have given to us means whereby we can catch as the blacks did not; though the very ease with which we may get big hauls is the undoing of our catching, for we caught to waste. Blacks never caught more than filled their immediate need.
Slowly but surely Krubi drew the bait. The movement was so uniform that not a tremor disturbed the meat, and not a ripple appeared on the water. Then Krubi's supple arm straightened. The hand entered the water wonderfully cleanly, and it was gently lowered with the long black fingers closed on a fish. There was no escape for it. Quick as a flash it was drawn up and the dexterous toss that landed it was the acme of cleverness.
The men of the tribe made bark boats. They carved a great ellipse of bark from the turpentines and from certain gums, and wrenched it free without a crack. Yet never did they ring a tree, for they knew that the bush of Australia was their living.
We are cutting our living out.
The blacks caught the ends of the piece of bark -two men to each end-and rapidly see-sawed it over a smoking fire. The best smoke was that made by throwing the branches of the Callitris calcarata on the fire. When the 'piece had been smoked sufficiently they placed a heavy log in the centre, the smooth side of the sheet being uppermost, and bent it to form the sides and the gunwale. Then the ends were easily drawn together and sewn with rawhide or sinews of the kangaroo. The tiny crack was caulked with rushes and mud, and as a last means of making the ends watertight they were smeared over with beeswax. Tingles and thwarts bound with rawhide were fixed, and the whole craft was constructed in less than three hours.
Krubi stood by one day watching the boatbuilders, and as she had become noted for her success at fishing she was allowed to show her interest in the work. Immediately the boat was launched she sprang lightly into it.
The other women of the tribe were aghast; never did they dare to enter a boat uninvited. But the men seemed pleased to allow Krubi to take advantage of the admiration so plainly bestowed upon her, and together they set off down the river in great glee.
Somewhere near its mouth there was a deep hole, and there the yabbies were unusually big. When this place was reached and the boat was beached the men set to work to fashion a net. Krubi remained in the craft and tried for yabbies. She had the usual piece of putrid meat, and breaking a part off she tied it to the end of a long stick. This she put into the water close to the big stones, and when it was bristling with clinging yabbies she drew them, clinging to the bait, right out and into the boat.
Catching yabbies was easy work. But in one haul there came up one bigger than all the rest. Amongst yabbies he was a giant. Krubi faltered when she picked him up, and a little spine on its head pricked her finger. The warm blood flowed upon the wet fish and it spread all over him.
This warm blood was a new and startling thing. Yabbies are not accustomed to anything as warm as human blood, and this one, startled as he was and being so big, jumped high in the air and landed with a splash back in the river. With great kicks he drove himself through the water, every now and then giving himself a mighty shake in an endeavour to throw off the warm liquid that was strange to him. On and on he went, down to the sea. The black men heard the splash and asked Krubi what had caused it.
Krubi excitedly told the story and showed her wounded finger.
Shortly after the net was set the people decided to pull further-to pull and sail on the current of the river right into the sea should the weather remain calm and the sea smooth.
They went round the point and into a sheltered cove, and there they hove to. Krubi was gazing over the side, when what did she espy but the big yabbie!
However, in a moment it had disappeared. She told about it, and many were the expectant glances and long looks that were sent overboard, but it did not again come into sight.
Many times afterwards fishermen of her tribe rowed round the spot, but it was not for some years that anyone again saw the curiosity. Krubi had grown middle-aged and had given up the pranks that she indulged in when she was young.
One day a son of hers caught a red yabbie. It was with intense delight that he hastened to the camp to show his mother the wonder.
She spat her disgust. It was not nearly big enough. It was red certainly, but it was far too small to be the one that had pricked her finger those long years ago. She said that there must he others and that this one came from them. She saw that a race of red yabbies, big and strong, was brought into being, and she knew that the first had been reddened with her warm blood.