|"When it came to starting the damper, there was nobody who knew how to do it".|
Damper is fairly ordinary fare, and "Any one using damper when yeast bread is available may be set down as a fool", thus wrote the eminent geologist and genuine Central Australian explorer, Dr C.T. Madigan in 1927, while travelling through the Macdonnell ranges by motor vehicle. Madigan goes on to say that while he saw no romance in making or eating damper, he made a thorough study of the subject, (as he would) and was prepared to match his skill in the most select company.
Perhaps the C.A.G.E expedition could have used, in more ways than one, an expert like Madigan; Pastor Albrecht, in his 1964 letter to the Lutheran Almanac, recalls a conversation with Alan Crombie, who worked for Archie Giles, to the effect that on the expeditions first night out they discovered that they didn't have any bread and no one knew how to make a damper, Crombie enlightened the men but it did leave them wondering how was it possible to cross the country and not know how to make a damper, apparently Lasseter was ignorant of the art. The story is probably apocryphal and more an indication of Crombie's perception of the general incompetence of the expedition.
However, according to Idriess, Sutherland saved the expeditions reputation, at least in this bush art, by making dampers "so light they were in danger of blowing away", and Sutherland had not made one 'sod' during the entire trip, Blakeley records that Sutherlands dampers were extra good and always palatable, although by the time the expedition reached Ilbilla the men were thoroughly sick of them and Blakeley took the first opportunity to make yeast bread and when baked, "didn't hit the ground", such was the men's craving for the genuine article, no doubt Madigan would wonder why yeast bread wasn't on the menu every night.
Sutherland did have one misadventure with a damper, apparently while mixing and kneading the dough for a large damper in a camp oven, a willy-willy lashed the camp with wind and sand, sending billycans and dishes flying, and depositing sand and ash in the oven along with the damper, Sutherland decided that a little sand wouldn't hurt the men and proceeded to bake the damper, later Blakeley tried to divide the damper with his sheath knife, he swore the blade gritted sand and "it's like cutting the Pyramids", on investigation Sutherlands small deception was exposed and Lasseter commented that if he couldn't bake a better sod than Sutherlands effort he would fry himself, Micky dubiously accepted the taste test, spat out the sandy damper and declared it "All same plurry grindstone".
A sod is a failed damper, either refusing to rise and remaining a sticky doughy mess or, due to overenthusiastic application of heat, turning into a charred brick, tyro bush cooks have been known to bury the former to hide the evidence of their failure, and when some unfortunate sinks his foot in the buried dough usually loudly and profanely exclaims his discovery of a 'mudhole' the resulting aroma is not pleasant, on the other hand Madigan has been known to take a rasp to a burnt damper and turn it into quite a nice loaf.
© R.Ross. 1999-2006