A VERY favourite game of the old men was skipping--Brambahl, they called it.
They had a long rope, a man at each end to swing it. When it is in full swing in goes the skipper. After skipping in an ordinary way for a few rounds, he begins the variations, which consist, amongst other things, of his taking thorns out of his feet, digging as if for larvæ of ants, digging yams, grinding grass-seed, jumping like a frog, doing a sort of cobbler's dance, striking an attitude as if looking for something in the distance, running out, snatching up a child, and skipping with it in his arms, or lying flat down on the ground, measuring his full length in that position, rising and letting the rope slip under him; the rope going the whole time, of course, never varying in pace nor pausing for any of the variations.
The one who can most successfully vary the performance is victor. Old men of over seventy seemed the best at skipping.
There is great excitement over Bubberah, or come-back boomerang throwing.
Every candidate has a little fire, where, after having rubbed his bubberah with charred grass and fat, he warms it, eyes it up and down to see that it is true, then out he comes, weapon in hand. He looks at the winning spot, and with a scientific flourish of his arm sends his bubberah forth on its circular flight; you would think it was going into the Beyond, when it curves round and comes gyrating back to the given spot. Here again the old ones score.
Wungoolay is another old game.
A number of black fellows arm themselves with a number of spears, or rather pointed sticks, between four and five feet long, called widyu-widyu. Two men take the wungoolays, which are pieces of bark, either squared or roughly rounded, about fifteen inches in diameter. These men go about fifty yards from each other; first one and then another throws the wungoolays, which roll swiftly along the ground past the men with the spears, who are stationed midway between the other two a few yards from the path of the wungoolays, which, as they come rolling rapidly past, the men try to spear with their widyu-widyu; he who hits the most, wins the game. It looks easy enough, but here again the old men scored.
For Gurril Boodthul, if a bush is not at hand, a bushy branch of a tree is stuck up. The men arm themselves with small boodthuls, or miniature waddies, then stand a few feet behind the bush, which varies from five to eight feet or so in height at competitions. They throw their boodthuls in turn; these have to skim through the top of the bush, which seems to give them fresh impetus instead of slackening them. The distance they go beyond is the test of a good thrower; over three hundred yards is not unusual. As practice in this game is kept up, the young men hold their own.
There is another throwing stick somewhat larger than the gurril boodthul, which only weighs about three ounces, and is about a foot in length. The other stick is thrown to touch the ground, then bound on, sometimes making one high long leap, sometimes a series of jumps, as a flat pebble does when thrown along the water in the game children call 'ducks and drakes.'
Yahweerh is a sort of sham trial fight. One man has a bark shield, and he has to defend himself with it from the bark toy boomerangs the others throw. Here again the old men win. Their games, which old and young alike play, are distinctly childish.
Boogalah, or ball, is one. In playing this all of one Dhé, or totem, are partners. The ball, made of sewn-up kangaroo skin, is thrown in the air; whoever catches it goes with his or her division--for women join in this game--into a group in the middle, the other circling round. The ball is thrown in the air, and if one of the circle outside the centre ring catches it, then his side namely, all his totem--go into the middle, the others circling round, and so on. The totem keeping it longest wins.
Goomboobooddoo, or wrestling, is a great Boorah-time entertainment. Family clan against clan. Kubbee against Hippi, and so on. A Hippi, for example, will go into a ring and plant there a mudgee, or painted stick with a bunch of feathers at the top. In will run a Kubbee and try to make off with the stick; Hippi will grapple with him, and a wrestling match comes off. Into the ring will go others of each side wrestling in their turn. The side that finally throws the most men, and gets the mudgee, wins. Before wrestling matches, there is much greasing of bodies to make them slippery.
Wimberoo was a favourite fireside game. A big fire was made of leafy branches. Each player got a dry Coolabah leaf, warmed it until it bent a little, then placed it on two fingers and hit it with one into where the current of air, caused by the flame, caught it and bore it aloft. They all jerked their leaves together, and anxiously watched whose would go the highest. Each watched his leaf descend, caught it, and began again. So on until tired.
Woolbooldarn is an absolutely infantile game. A low, overhanging branch of a tree is chosen, and as many as it will bear, old and young, men and women, straddle it; and, holding on to the higher overhanging branches, they swing up and down with as much spring as they can get out of the branch they are on.
Whagoo is just like our I hide and seek.'
Gooumoorhs, or corroborees, are of course their greatest entertainment, their opera, ballet, and the rest; only they reverse the usual order of things obtaining elsewhere. The women form the orchestra, the men are the dancers, as a rule, though women do on occasions take part too. The dancers rarely sing while performing their evolutions, though they will end up a measure at times with a loud 'Ooh! Ooh!' or 'Wahl Wah!'
There are two dances they think very clever: one a sort of in and out movement with the knees, while keeping the feet close together. Another, which they called I shivering of the chest,' a sort of drawing in and out of their breath, causing a vibratory motion.
Then they give a sort of Sandow performance all in time to the music. They first start the muscles of their legs showing, then the arms, and down the sides of the chest. I am afraid I was not educated up to be appreciative of any of these special wonders, though Matah and others said their muscular training was marvellous.
From a spectacular point of view I thought much more interesting a corroboree illustrating the coming of the first steamer up the Barwon.
The steamer was made--for the corroboree, I mean--of logs with mud layered over them, painted up, a hollow log for a funnel in the middle. There was a little opening in the far side of the steamer in which a fire was made, the smoke issuing through the hollow log in the most realistic fashion. The blacks who first came on the stage were all supposed to represent various birds disturbed by this strange sight--cranes, pelicans, black swans, and ducks. The peculiarities of each bird were well imitated; and as each section in turn was startled, their cries were realistically given. Hearing which, on the scene came some armed black fellows, who, seeing what the birds had seen, started back in astonishment, seemed to have a great dumb-show palaver, then one by one, clutching their weapons, they came forward to more closely examine the new 'debbil debbil.' Here some one would stoke the fire, out would belch through the funnel a big smoke and a lapping flame, away went the blacks into the bush as if too terrified to stay. But you can't describe a corroboree, it wants the scenic effects of the grim bush: tapering, dark Belahs, Coolabahs contorted into quaint shapes and excrescences by extremes of flood and drought, and their grotesqueness lit up by the flickering fires, until the trees themselves look like demons of the night, and the painted black fellows their attendant spirits stealing into the firelight from what seems a vast, dark, unknown Beyond.
The sing-song seems to suit it, and the well-timed clicking of the boomerangs and thudding of the rolled-up rugs. The blacks are great patrons of art, and encourage native talent in the most praiseworthy way; although, judging from one of their legends, you might think they were not.
This legend tells how Goolahwilleel had the soul of an artist, and when his family sent him out to hunt their daily dinner, he forgot his quest and perfected his art, which was the modelling of a kangaroo in gum. When his work was finished, with the pride of a successful artist he returned for applause.
His family demanded of him meat; he showed his kangaroo.
His masterpiece was unappreciated. Even as did Palissy's--of pottery fame--wife, so did Goolahwilleel's family revile him.
His freedom to wander at will, seeking inspiration and giving it form, was taken from him. He was driven out: daily to slay, that his family might feed, and never again was he let go alone--a crowd of relations went with him!
Figure to yourself what a damper to inspiration must have been that crowd of relations; how it must have slain the artist in Goolahwilleel.
How the old legend repeats itself, and now as then, how often the artist is woman--slain that she by the caterer may live. Surely in the interests of intellect was the prayer made: 'Give us our daily bread.'
Perhaps the old legend of Goolahwilleel was originally told with a moral, and that may be: why black artists are so well treated now.
A maker of new songs or corroborees is always kept well supplied with the luxuries of life; it may be that such an one is a little feared as being supposed to have direct communication with the spirits who teach him his art. A fine frenzy is said to seize some of their poets and playwrights, who, for the time being, are quite under the domination of the spirits--possessed of devils, in fact. When the period of mental incubation is over and the song hatched out, the possessed ones return to their normal condition, the devils are cast out, and the songs are all that remain in evidence that the artist was ever possessed.
Some songs do not require this process of fine frenzy they come along in the course of barter, handed from tribe to tribe.
Ghiribul, or riddles, play a great part in their social life, and he who knows many is much sought after.
Most of these ghiribul are not translatable, being little songs describing the things to be guessed, whose peculiarities the singer acts as he sings--a sort of one-man show, pantomime in miniature, with a riddle running through it.
Some which I will give indicate the nature of others.
What is it that says to the flood-water, 'I am too strong for you; you can not push me back'? Ans. Goodoo, the codfish.
What is it that says, 'You cannot help yourself; you will have to go and let me take your place; you cannot stay when I come'? Ans. The grey hairs in a man's beard to the black ones.
'If a man hide himself so that his wife could not see him, and he wanted her to know where he was, yet had promised not to speak, laugh, cry, sneeze, cough, nor move his hands nor feet, how could he do so?' Ans. Whistle.
'The strongest man cannot stand against me. I can knock him down, yet I do not hurt him. He feels better for my having knocked him down. What am I?' Ans. Sleep.
'I am not water, yet all who are thirsty, seeing me, come toward me to drink, though I am no liquid. What am I?' Ans. Mirage.
'What is it that goes along the creek, across the creek, underneath it, and along it again, and yet has left neither side?' Ans. The yellow-flowering creeping water-weed.
'Here I am, just in front of you. I can't move; but if you kick me, I will knock you down, though I will not move to do it. Who says this?' Ans. A stump that any one falls over.
'You cannot walk without me, yet you grease your body and forget me and let me crack, even though but for me you could neither walk nor run. Who says that?' Ans. A black fellow's feet, which he neglects to grease when doing the rest of his body.
With riddles ends, I think, the list of the blacks' amusements, unless you count fights. The blacks are a bit Celtic in that way; some are real fire-eaters, always spoiling for a row. But in most everyday rows the feelings are more damaged than the bodies.
An old gin in a rage will say more in a given time, without taking breath, than any human being I have ever seen; it is simply physiologically marvellous. From the noise you would think murder at least would result. You listen in dread of a tragedy; you hear the totem and multiplex totems of her opponent being scoffed at, strung out one after another, deadly insult after deadly insult. The insulted returns insult for insult; result, a lively cross fire.
It lulls down; the insults are exhausted, quietude reigns. Some one makes a joke, all are laughing together in amity. From impending tragedy to comedy the work of a few minutes. A mercurial race indeed, but not a forgetful one. A black fellow never forgives a broken promise, and he can cherish a grudge from generation to generation as well as remember a kindness.
Though, when high pitched in quarrels, their voices lose their natural tones, as a rule those of the blacks are remarkably sweet and soft, quite musical; their language noticeable for its freedom from harsh sounds.