BOOK REVIEW / Beyond the witchetty grubs

Mark McCrum is unimpressed by a pointless Walkabout down under; Flight of the Kingfisher: A journey among the Kukatja Aborigines by Monica Furlong, HarperCollins, pounds 16.99
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Her interest whetted by an earlier, brief visit to an aboriginal community in far north Queensland, Monica Furlong returns down under and gets permission to stay at the little ex-mission of Balgo Hills, on the edge of Western Australia's vast and desolate Great Sandy Desert.

She is full of misgivings about the values of the West and eager for experience of an older, pre-literate society. Our culture, she feels, prizes ideas too highly; we have turned our back on the natural world which is our home. Will the Aboriginals, with their continuing sense of the sacredness of natural things, provide the answers she seeks?

Having spent most of last year trekking round Australia researching a book of my own, I had a particular interest in Mrs Furlong's quest. Often speaking only Kriol or pidgin English, the aboriginal people of the Red Centre are not an easy subject for study; at first harassed and slaughtered, then anthropologised and agonised over, they are no longer much bothered in helping even the most well-meaning of whites with their inquiries.

With time on her hands and a patient approach, Mrs Furlong makes a noble attempt to get to grips with her quarry. Her research is thorough and she brings the reader up to date with many aspects of desert aboriginal life. Here you will discover that "dot-painting" is less than 25 years old, that traditional punishment "spearings" still take place, that recent years have seen a resurgence of ceremonial activity.

She has a clear eye for the ironies surrounding a group of people who now sit under the stars by their camp fires watching American soaps on TV - a culture that was more graceful (in our eyes) when it had to live on berries, witchetty grubs and the occasional kangaroo, but has, hardly surprisingly, succumbed to the Western pleasures of over-the-counter service.

She is endearingly honest about her own feelings and discoveries. It takes courage to admit that you had no idea that the community you'd chosen to visit was a key centre for aboriginal art, and to own up to racism (even of her modest kind) cannot have been easy.

But as I read on I couldn't help wondering whether she herself was, deep down, satisfied with the results of her desert adventure. Although she is surrounded by Aborigines (as she calls them, bravely ignoring the more modern and PC usage Aboriginals) the number of times she actually gets to talk with them is few. And when she does, the exchanges are comically perfunctory - "Good. Good school" is one lady's summary of her education, "Mother country ... Granny country" says another, in explanation of a painting - leaving Mrs Furlong mired in rather pointless speculation.

She watches an Easter Mass, pays a visit to a clinic, drives out to a couple of out-stations, goes on a "bush-tucker" forage with some of the women, but this hardly constitutes the "journey" promised by the subtitle. And the more interesting descriptions, of ''increase'' ceremonies and terrifying initiation rites, are almost entirely second-hand, recycled from the work of CP Mountford, Ronald and Catherine Berndt, MJ Meggitt and other anthropologists and writers who've spent years, not weeks, alongside their subject.

Nor is there a particularly evocative picture of white Balgo. Perhaps such a thing wasn't her intention or she considered that her acceptance of hospitality (a perennial problem for travel writers) forbade a less bland picture. But I felt continually tantalised with action just out of the frame. We meet Damien, the dumb shaman; five lines later he's gone. We hear about the Desert Eagles, the aboriginal boys' pop group, but only in passing. The white houses are fitted with iron mesh and compound security devices, and before she arrives she is almost put off by a letter warning that "the problem of alcohol has reached a dangerous stage". Yet that, bar a guarded list of "rumours", is the last we hear of it.

There are other puzzling omissions. The economics of the situation are never touched on, yet the underwriting of aboriginal life by the Federal Government to the tune of over $3,000m a year is surely an essential part of the story. And it rather gives the lie to the idea that the contemporary aboriginal world is somehow not "complicit" in the vulgar, self-destructive, but ultimately irresistible stomp of Western progress.