Canadian Rangers receive a warm Australian welcome

Article / November 25, 2015 / Project number: 15-0159A

The intent of Exercise SOUTHERN CROSS is to strengthen ties with Australia, an allied nation, and to allow the exchange of tactics, techniques and procedures between two units faced with similar challenges, roles, missions and tasks.  While not an Indigenous program per se, the majority of Canadian Rangers are members of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples, and therefore the exercise also provided an opportunity for cultural awareness as similarly, members of the Australian Defence Force’s North-West Mobile Force are mainly drawn from Indigenous Australian Peoples.  The exercise was successful in providing a challenging developmental opportunity for each country’s respective units and served to strengthen the bonds between the Canadian and Australian Armies.

Northern Territory, Australia —Members of the 4th Canadian Ranger Patrol Group recently participated in an exchange with some of their Australian counterparts in the North West Mobile Force (NORFORCE), an Army Reserve infantry regiment of the Australian Army, and visited the remote Northern Territory. This is the journey as experienced by Ranger Lawrence Charnell.

Have you ever wanted to go to a place where no tourists have been before? Walking on unspoiled beaches, living under the sun during the day and the stars at night, catching and eating local food cooked the way the locals do? These are the experiences Canadian Rangers and staff of 4th Canadian Ranger Patrol Group experienced in Australia in August 2015 while participating in Exercise SOUTHERN CROSS II (Ex SCII).

The Canadian Rangers were led on the journey by members of the Australian Army’s NORFORCE, one of three surveillance units that, like the Canadian Rangers, patrol remote areas. Aboriginal soldiers make up 60 per cent of NORFORCE’s personnel.

We arrived in Sydney. It was like any large city: hustle, bustle, people in a hurry to be somewhere. It was a comfortable 23°C as we arrived at our hotel near Darling Harbour and we were surprised to see many people wearing heavy coats. Being near the harbour gave us an opportunity to easily access many tourist and historic military sights on foot and also to get used to the afternoon temperatures in the 30°C range that we would encounter as we travelled north to our departure point, Darwin.

Once in Darwin we were given pre-deployment briefs, which included the schedules of events and medical training for snake and insect bites. Did you know Australia has very few non-poisonous snakes, and spiders can be the size of a pie plate? Also on the list of dangerous things are salt water/fresh water crocs up to five meters in length, water buffalo that can run you down, kangaroos that can kick you into tomorrow and birds two metres tall that can tear you apart with their claws. Sound like a fun place? You betcha!

Because we would be travelling by landing craft to some areas, a swim test was required. In full uniform, boots included, we jumped into the deep end of the pool, swam 100 meters and then floated or treaded water for five minutes. That was tiring but the thought of crocs motivates a person to move just a bit faster and push a bit harder to get it done.

We played a game of Aussie rules football. After a short introduction on the field to passing, kicking and some basic rules, we were set. Combined teams of NORFORCE and Canadian Rangers squared off. After two halves of running and sweating in the heat, the final whistle blew. The final result was a one-point difference between the teams.

A visit to Crocosaurus Cove in Darwin emphasized the danger of croc encounters. On a guided tour, we were shown a variety of sizes of crocs and heard about croc attack patterns and how to avoid them. Just what we needed as we prepared to head into the Outback of northern Australia.

Next we went to the Arnhem Squadron HQ in Nhulunbuy. Following  briefings and orientations, it was time to get acquainted with the NORFORCE personnel who would be taking us out to the bush. As we were acclimatizing to the hotter and more humid climate, we did a few local tours. We visited a culturally significant beach where stone drawings in the sand told stories of ancient Indigenous history. There, we met some of the local rangers.

We were about to head out into an area that very few people have access to. Special permits are required to travel in Aboriginal territory. Thanks to a great deal of preparation by NORFORCE, everything was in place for us to kit up, load vehicles and go. We very quickly moved from pavement to red gravel and, finally, dust. That red dust was to be our constant companion for the next eight days as we made our way from village to village on roads that in the wet season would be under a metre of water.

At each village, local NORFORCE personnel and Canadian Rangers met with our group and offered information about their areas and their tasks. They listened to our stories about Canada and the things that Canadian Rangers do at home. We had opportunities to visit local art galleries in the villages. Much of the artwork in the major cities comes from these remote areas, so it was an incredible opportunity to be where the stories told in the art originated.

Each night we camped beside a stream or river; the cool water soaked up some of the day’s heat. To set up camp, we each had a swag: a tent, mattress and sleeping bag combination that rolls out and is ready to use in three minutes. The term “swag” is Australian slang for bedroll or sleeping bag. At the same time, our cook was busy preparing dinner and we gathered a night’s supply of firewood.  Everything was so dry that starting a fire was as simple as pointing a lighter at a piece of wood. Yet the fire didn’t creep out of the fire pit; quite different from starting a fire back home in Ucluelet, BC. 

In the evening there was always time to share the laughs and sights of the day. We struggled to stay awake until at least 8 p.m., and at about the same time, the mosquitos made their presence known. Did you know that there are over 75 different kinds of mosquitos in Australia? And we must have been bitten by every one. They sounded like industrial strength electric shavers buzzing around us all night. One night, they were so severe that even the NORFORCE troops conceded defeat and hid in their swags.

Each day brought new adventures. We travelled to remote places with names like Dhimuru, Ramingining, Koolatong, Milingimbi, Jabiru and Kakadu. Trying to spell the names is hard, but saying them is harder. As we drove into the villages to meet the NORFORCE troops and the rangers, all eyes were on us, but once they recognized the trucks, hands were waving. The word was out that Canadian Rangers were coming to visit. We got these warm welcomes everywhere we went. Ramingining became sort of a hub around which we toured, a place where we stored the extra vehicles when we went out to sea to Rapuma Island.

Going to Rapuma Island was a special part of the trip. Departing from a barge ramp north of Ramingining on a NORFORCE landing craft, we travelled a short distance to the village of Milingimbi to meet with the Crocodile Rangers who would accompany and guide us to Rapuma Island.

Some of the Rangers were already there so when we arrived, they were waving us on from the shore of the most pristine beach I had ever seen. After introductions and camp set up, it was time to relax and enjoy our little piece of paradise in the Arafuru Sea.

Here was our chance to eat what the locals call “bush tucker.” Walking along the sandy beach, we looked for fish in the surf, crabs around rocky areas and searched in the mangroves for delicacies to have for dinner. In the mangroves, we found large snails called Longbums and also mud clams. Back at camp we added the snails and clams to a pot of boiling turtle eggs and waited excitedly.

Finally they were ready and we sampled each one, tentatively at first. The snails tasted like scallops and the clams were like large butter clams. The turtle eggs were different in that the white doesn’t harden so you have to peel a hole in the rubbery shell, drain it, and then eat the yolk. Yes, it tasted like an egg yolk.

To finish off the feast, a wallaby was seared on the fire to remove the hair, gutted and washed in the sea, then cut up and boiled in salt water for half an hour. The general consensus was that it tasted like squirrel. We would have other opportunities to sample bush tucker items such as geese and ducks as well as some local bush fruit when we visited other communities.

The time spent on Rapuma Island was the highlight of Ex SCII for me.

By Ranger Lawrence Charnell, 4th Canadian Ranger Patrol Group

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