Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence

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In 1931 Molly led her two sisters on an extraordinary 1,600 kilometre walk across remote Western Australia. Aged 8, 11 and 14, they escaped the confinement of a government institution for Aboriginal children removed from their families. Barefoot, without provisions or maps, tracked by Native Police and search planes, the girls followed the rabbit-proof fence, knowing it would lead them home. Back cover blurb


There, too, [in Jigalong] are Maudie and Nellie [sic], the two little half-caste girls that, having been taken south by boat to the Moore River Settlement near Perth, never having seen a map in their lives, ran away the first night and found their way back across 1,500 miles of unknown desert. Ernestine Hill, The Great Australian Loneliness (1940)


The author, whose European and Aboriginal names you may see on the cover above, was the daughter of Molly, the heroine of this story. She is now deceased (SMH obituary). The book is based on interviews with Molly and Daisy, newspaper reports and material from the files of the infamous WA Chief Protector of Aborigines, AO Neville.

The three girls whose story this is – Molly, Gracie and Daisy – were, in Aboriginal custom, sisters, in fact the daughters of sisters, living at or near Jigalong on the headwaters of the Fortescue and the edge of the Great Sandy Desert 1300km north of Perth and about 300 km inland. They were of the Martu, one of the language groups making up the Western Desert people of Central Australia. Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis, who comes from even further inland, provides detailed explanations of Aboriginal kinship and Western Desert culture in Pictures From My Memory (2016) which I recently reviewed (here).

The author begins by imagining first contact between the British and the Noongar of south western Western Australia in the 1820s – the subject of Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (2010) – then uses the oral history of her people to describe the movement of the girls’ family in from the desert in the 1920s to Jigalong, established as one of the main depots along the 3,000 km long ‘rabbit-proof’ fence (there were reportedly more rabbits on the western, settled side of the fence than there were on the eastern, desert side) in 1907. The government supplied rations, mainly flour and tobacco, to people in Aboriginal settlements, perhaps at the urging of graziers who preferred them out of the way. In any case Jigalong quickly became the Martu people’s main centre.

The girls, who seem to be the only children with White fathers in that place at that time, were to some extent ostracized by their fellows and were under the notice of the Police, based further north at Nullagine, who were obliged to report the movements of all ‘half caste’ children to the Chief Protector.

In mid 1931 the three girls were taken by the police, without resistance from their families, by car via Ethel Creek, Roy Hill and Nullagine north to Marble Bar, and so by train to Port Hedland, then back down south by sea, which of course they had never seen before, to Perth. There they were held at the East Perth Girls’ Home (the author says this is now the Jack Davis hostel, to which I cannot find any reference, though Jack Davis seems to have been an Indigenous writer and activist whom I should follow up) where they meet, briefly, older girls Nora and Eva who expect shortly to return home.

But what none of these girls realised was that their fate had already been decided by their new guardians, the Commissioners of the Native Affairs Department. Sadly, in only a couple of weeks from then, Nora and Eve would find that instead of returning north as they hoped, they would be sent further south to work as domestics on dairy farms. This would also be their introduction to exploitation and deception … As for returning home to their loved ones, well, that would not happen for many, many years.

The next day Molly, Gracie and Daisy were taken up to Moore River Native Settlement, 135 km north of Perth and about 50 km inland, near the township of Mogumber (map). Throughout, the author imagines scenes and conversations, and although these will have been based on interviews with Molly and Daisy half a century later, and on her further research, they must necessarily include some guesswork.

The Settlement, both the school and the nearby camps for mixed-race Indigenous people  (see also Kim Scott’s Benang (1999)) was in fact a prison or concentration camp. The Settlement was fenced, the windows of the children’s huts were barred and the doors were padlocked at night. Molly determined at once not to stay, and with only crusts of bread to eat and thin dresses to protect them from winter chills and rain, the girls snuck out before nightfall, crossed the flooded Moore River (rivers in Western Australia are not very big and often only run at all after rain) and so began their epic journey home.

Molly was familiar with the rabbit-proof fence, because it was Jigalong’s raison d’etre and because her father worked on the fence and talked to her about it. Running more or less due north-south across the length of the state, from Mogumber the fence was about 150 km inland. But rather than setting out for it directly, Molly led her young sisters north into hilly coastal heath country between the farms of the wheatbelt and the sea. A kindly farm wife supplied them with tucker, heavy ex-army coats and wheat bags to wear on their heads to keep off the rain. She also did her duty and reported them to the police, but by heading north rather than directly towards the fence the girls evaded detection.

Averaging around 20 km/day, the girls survived on handouts and, after being supplied with matches by two Martu men a long way from home, on rabbits and other small game that they were able to roast in camp fires. After a few days they did veer east, keeping to the edges of the northern-most farms of the wheatbelt, to near the small township of Ballidu where they were reported again and where they must have turned north once more as they did not finally strike the fence until they were well into the scrub country up towards Sandstone, 4 or 500 km into their journey.

I have not been able to Trove any reports of the girls, though the author reports that on 11 August 1931 a story appeared in the West Australian beginning:

The Chief Protector of Aborigines, Mr A.O. Neville, is concerned about three native girls aged from eight to fifteen years of age, who a week ago, ran away from Moore River Native Settlement, Mogumber… “We have been searching high and low for the children for a week past,” added Mr O’Neville [sic], “and all the trace we found of them was a dead rabbit which they had been trying to eat.”

Near Meekatharra Gracie, hearing that her mother was at Wiluna, 180 km east, left Molly and Daisy and joined a family camped at a siding along the rail line. The other two continued north, with 400 km still to go, but they were soon in home territory, and running into people they knew, hitched a ride on a camel for the last leg of their journey.

The Chief Protector of course was notified, but the families took the girls out into the desert and Neville didn’t have the money to spend on their pursuit. The saddest part is the Afterword. Gracie was recaptured almost immediately at Wiluna and returned to Moore River. In 1940 Molly, married with two children, was arrested after coming down to Perth for an appendectomy and was also taken back to the Settlement. She absconded again and returned to Jigalong, leaving behind one child, the author. The other child was also soon taken from her and sent to Sister Kate’s in Perth. At the time of writing, forty something years later, Molly had not seen her again. Daisy was able to stay with her family. Coincidentally, she was working at Karalundi mission near Meekatharra when Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis went to school there in 1972.

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The rabbit-proof fence in 2005.

Doris Pilkington Garimara, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, UQP, Brisbane, 1996


If you have come to me from ANZ LitLover’s Indigenous Literature Week, coinciding with NAIDOC Week, 3-10 July 2016, then you might want to see other posts I have done in the area of Australian Indigenous Literature over the past year: –

Kim Scott, Benang (here) – Miles Franklin Award winning novel

Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis, Pictures From My Memory (here) – Autobiography

Anita Heiss, Dhuuluu-Yala (here) – Who should write Indigenous stories?

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light (here) – Short stories

and from Michelle at Adventures in Biography –

Larissa Behrendt, Finding Eliza  (here) – How histories of White/Black interaction are framed to reinforce White privilege.

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13 thoughts on “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence

  1. What in interesting story. It sounds like a lot of it describes their travels, specifically where they are going. Was a snooze to read, or did the author keep it interesting? Also, I was surprised that the girls headed home when their families put up no fight to keep them. Perhaps they were too young to realize that their journey wouldn’t mean they could stay. So sad…

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  2. I wouldn’t say it was a literary book, but it’s easy enough to read. The emphasis on geography is probably a fault of the reviewer rather than the author. The problem is this is home territory for me but not for most Australians (other than Whispering Gums who has worked for the Martu), let alone non-Australians. The story though is known to everyone and was made into a popular movie.
    The families’ lack of resistance arose from the fact that they believed the girls were being taken to Moore R. for their education. Some families sent children to this horrible place voluntarily. Australia is still attempting to deal with the fact that thousands of children -‘the Stolen Generation’ – were taken away and never saw their parents again.
    I can’t believe the girls would have gone anywhere except home, and their families did their best to keep them safe when they got there.

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  3. The footy’s over and I’ve just set up a spreadsheet of dates and people. Now I have to relocate all those sources and document them. And by matrix I mean not just that these indigenous stories overlap with each other but with Daisy Bates and Ernestine Hill, and with our ‘first families, the Duracks and Drake Brockmans. Very small place Western Australia.

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  4. I watched the film last night and was gripped by it. So sad that people’s lives are determined by others’ narrow views. Molly’s determination and care for her sisters was admirable.

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    • Thanks for dropping by. It’s a great story, well told, and I think the movie will make it an indelible part of our history. Not that the unfair treatment of indigenous people has stopped, not by a long shot!

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