Call of the Outback, Marianne van Velzen


Ernestine Hill (1899-1972) was a remarkable woman and Call of the Outback, a biography of Hill by Marianne van Velzen does not do her justice – or if it does, only in the sense that van Velzen whose writing, as was Hill’s, is based in journalism, also like Hill has a tendency to romantacise, to gild the lily, to make stuff up.  At the end of the book there is an Author’s Note, the last paragraph of which reads:

Some parts of my narrative are romanticised versions of the truth, because there is no one left to provide an actual account. They are my versions of what could have happened. Most of the text, however, is based on the known facts.

This might even be bearable if a) her book was a novel based on the life of; or b) the sources of her facts were documented and the inventions were noted. However, sadly, this is not the case. Instead we are asked to follow Ernestine’s ‘life’ in a steady flow (260pp) of breezy journalese. Then, at the end we are given, instead of numbered end notes, or even an index, a long list of page no.s and phrases with their sources, which might have been informative if only we could have referred to them while following the text.

Compare this with my gold standard for literary biography, Brian Matthews’ Louisa (1987):

Story is what comes naturally, and story is the enemy of the record, the bane of documentation, the subverter of historical truth in favour of the truth of fiction. Biography is an unnatural act. (p.7)

Louisa, the life of Louisa Lawson (newspaper publisher, suffragist, and mum of Henry) is written with its bones showing – all the author’s research, his guesses, his dead ends documented and discussed with skill and humour. Call of the Outback is just the opposite, smooth, glib even, a story, and a story whose accuracy it is not possible for us to judge.

Ernestine Hill was a journalist, a documenter of life in outback Australia, an author. But Ernestine was also Catholic, resolutely single, and a mother. Born Mary Ernestine Hemmings, she adopted (Mrs) Hill as a sop to suburban sensibilities. Ernestine was born and brought up firstly in north Queensland and then on the death of her father when she was 10, in Brisbane. She won a scholarship to All Hallows (Catholic girls) School where she began to write, and had poems and essays published in the Catholic Advocate and, in 1916, a book entitled Peter Pan Land and Other Poems . From All Hallows Ernestine went on to Stott & Hoare’s Business College to learn typing and shorthand, and then, as top of the class, to the Queensland Public Service. Boring! And within a year she and her cousin Coy Foster-Lynam were on their way to Sydney to join the staff of Smith’s Weekly, a new satirical newspaper being founded by Claude McKay and Robert Clyde Packer, Coy as a junior journalist and Ernestine as secretary to Literary Editor, J.F.Archibald who in 1880 had co-founded and then edited The Bulletin through all its glory years with Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson.

On the death of Archibald (aged 63) after only 5 months, Ernestine was promoted by Packer to sub-editor. Although Packer was 20 years her senior, Ernestine later admitted to Coy (according to van Velzen) that Packer, who was married with 2 children, was the love of her life. In any case within a few years she was pregnant, and in Oct. 1924 a son, Robert, was born in Melbourne. Ernestine took up a job, as Editor of the women’s pages, at The Examiner in Launceston, where she was joined by her mother and, intermittently by her mother’s sister Kitty, and with her son they formed her only family for the rest of her life.

In Tasmania, Ernestine took lessons from a professional photographer and bought herself “a little foldable Zeiss Ica” camera. She became a fine photographer and it is a shame that only a very few photographs are reproduced in this biography.

By 1929 the Great Depression had begun but Ernestine was feeling restless. Packer, now General Manger of Associated Newspapers, found her a job, and more importantly, a monthly retainer, with the Sydney Sun, as a feature writer with a brief to file copy from the remotest corners of central Australia. With Aunt Kitty and Robert, she moved first to Perth and then to Carnarvon, then, leaving them behind, by steamer to Shark Bay where she was stuck for a month, then on to Cossack (near present-day Karratha) before gathering up her family again in time for Christmas in Broome. “She stayed there for most of 1930, collecting enough stories [about pearl diving mostly] to keep her editors happy for a while.” Then in Feb. 1931 she flew to Derby, hitched a ride in the mail truck to Hall’s Creek and eventually, on to Wyndham where she met, and travelled onwards into the Northern Territory with, Michael Durack, father of Mary and Elizabeth with whom she was to be, sort of, life-long friends.

If these travels sound familiar it is because they are the basis of Hill’s famous book of Australiana, The Great Australian Loneliness (1937), in the Foreword of which Hill writes:

It was in July, 1930, that I first set out, a wandering ‘copy-boy’ with swag and typewriter, to find what lay beyond the railway lines. Across the painted deserts and the pearling seas, by aeroplane and camel and coastal-ship, by truck and lugger and packhorse team and private yacht, the trail has led me on across five years and 50,000 miles, a trail of infinite surprises.

(I’ve driven Perth-NT-Cairns-Pt Augusta-Perth a couple of times and it’s 12,000 km the round trip, so “50,000 miles” – 80,000 km – might be an exaggeration). In an earlier post I wrote that Ernestine Hill was a single mum but that her son was never mentioned in her writing and was almost certainly not with her. In fact, although van Velzen claims Ernestine was a good mother, Robert was mostly with his great aunt or grandmother in Broome, and later in Perth, while Ernestine was travelling. Though it is interesting to glimpse the breaks in her travels, not mentioned in the book, where she flies home to spend time with them.

Robert who, let me say it, ends up a bit of a mummy’s boy, doesn’t amount to much. He studies art and during the war (WWII), Hill, who has been appointed to the Board of the ABC, attempts to use her acquaintanceship with the PM, Curtin, to have Robert kept out of the army. When appeals fail they hide on a cattle station in the far north of SA. The army eventually catch up with Robert, but after 6 months he is invalided out on psychological grounds. Meanwhile Ernestine resigns from the ABC citing stress.

This is definitely a ‘life’ rather than a literary biography, but Hill does make some interesting literary friends during her restless moves from city to city around the country. During the travels which lead to The Great Australian Loneliness she meets Daisy Bates, and subsequently organises Daisy’s papers, providing linking chapters which are not used, which eventually appear as The Passing of the Aborigines (1938). Hill later writes a biography of Daisy Bates, Kabbarli (1973) which does not appear until after her (Hill’s) death. She is also friends with Mary Durack, with whom Robert is for a while rather too friendly, and with Henrietta Drake-Brockman.

After the war Robert and Ernestine purchase the ex-army 4WD pictured on the front cover (above) in which they travel from Mt Isa through the NT and down through WA to Perth. In 1947 Ernestine and Drake-Brockman then do a road trip across the Nularbor, stopping in Coolgardie on the way, to catch up with Katherine Sussanah Prichard.

Hill lived mostly on her journalism, van Velzen mentions a monthly payment which ceases  on the death of Packer in 1934, if so that was the only acknowledgement of Robert’s paternity, which Robert later, fruitlessly, attempted to assert. But she was also a popular author, most particularly of the historical novel My Love Must Wait (1941), an account of the voyages of Matthew Flinders.

A heavy smoker, she aged badly. Her mother and her aunt Kitty died in 1941 and ’43 respectively, and after the war her life and her writing both became more disorganised. In the sixties she promised her publisher another novel, Johnny Wisecap: Albino Aborigine, but (thankfully, probably) it was never finished.

Ernestine Hill died in Brisbane in 1972.

Thanks to Meg, a follower of Whispering Gums, for putting me on to this biography (here). I was wondering why I hadn’t noticed it in ABR, but their review, by Susan Sheridan, is in the current issue (April 2016).


Marianne van Velzen, Call of the Outback, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2016

Ventured North by Train and Truck

Northern Line east of Mullewa
Northern Line east of Mullewa

In 1927 Katherine Susannah Prichard, then living in Greenmount, outside Perth WA, ventured north by train and truck to stay with “a friend whose husband owned a cattle station”. And right there is the genesis of two related projects I’ve had in mind for some time. One is to travel along and photograph what remains of the old Northern Railway and the other is to document, and follow the travels of, in my trusty ute, a remarkable confluence of Independent Women in the Pilbara region of Western Australia in the first half of the C20th.

Commenced in 1890, the Northern Railway connected Geraldton on the west coast (400 km north of Perth) with the Murchison goldfields towns of Mt Magnet, Cue, Meekatharra and Wiluna. From Perth travellers could access the line via the Midland Line from Guildford to Geraldton or via the northern wheatbelt line from Northam, 100 km inland of Perth on the Kalgoorlie line, to Mullewa 100 km inland of Geraldton on the Northern Line.

KSP writes, “… so I travelled four hundred miles beyond the end of the railway to get the correct setting for that short story [The Cooboo]. There I found too the background for Coonardoo and Brumby Innes”. Ric Throssell, her son, adds the details, “With a four-year-old son in tow, she travelled to the end of the railway line at Meekatharra, and four hundred miles further on by truck, to Turee Station in the far north-west beyond the Ashburton River.”

The women of my ‘confluence’ are Daisy Bates; Molly, Daisy and Gracie, of the Martu people and the heroines of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence; Ernestine Hill and KSP.

The region they all variously lived in or passed through is centred on present-day Newman (built commencing in 1968 to service BHP’s iron ore mines), on the headwaters of the Fortescue River, and on the Tropic of Capricorn, about 1200 km north of Perth and about 300 km of still largely impassable country inland. These days Newman is the next town after Meekatharra on the Great Northern Highway and they are separated by 420 km of fairly bleak desert, gibber plains, acacia scrub and occasional ghost gum-lined creek crossings.

So “four hundred miles” (640 km) from Meekatharra would have put KSP well north of Newman and just a bit north of Roy Hill Station (120 km north of Newman) where Daisy Bates’ husband, Jack was an overseer in the late 1890s. But in fact Turee is south west of Newman, about 120 km, and so only 300 km, or less than 200 miles, north of Meekatharra. One guess I have is that KSP actually went by train to the end of the wheatbelt line at Mullewa and then went north by truck along the network of rough tracks servicing the stations of the Murchison known as the Woolwagon Pathway. The distance would be (roughly) right and further evidence is that when she left Turee she went on to Onslow, a port town which marks the northern end of the Woolwagon Pathway.

Daisy Bates (b.1859) joined her husband and 13yo son Arnold in Perth in 1899 after leaving them in NSW and spending five years away in England. Jack’s boss at Roy Hill had offered him support in taking up a neighbouring lease, 180,000 acres at Ethel Creek. Daisy was keen and apparently had the money. The following year she went by ship to Cossack (1,500 km north of Perth) where Jack met her with a horse and buggy. In her own account she says, “I then traversed in my buggy eight hundred miles of country, taking six months to accomplish it.” (Notice the ‘I’, she pretty well ignores Jack as much in her writings as she did in life). During that time they went out to Roy Hill, probably following the mostly dry course of the Fortescue River upstream past the wonderfully rugged Karajini Ranges, took a look at Ethel Creek and then returned to the coast at Carnarvon, probably dropping south (passing by Turee Creek) to follow the course of the Gascoyne River, 400 km entirely cross-country then of course and still only dirt tracks today. Daisy purchased Ethel Creek and renamed it Glen Carrick “in affectionate remembrance of a dear friend in England” (she probably didn’t tell Jack that she had represented to Carrick that she was a widow and had considered marrying him).

In her story Three Thousand Miles in a Side-Saddle she tells how she purchased 770 head of cattle near Broome and drove them south 1,000 km intending to rest them at Ethel Creek, and then, leaving 200 to form the basis of a herd, drive the remainder south to sell into the Perth market. Unfortunately there was a stampede when the cattle smelled water at Roy Hill and so many were lost that all remaining had to be sold to cover her costs. After a short while at Glen Carrick she hitched a lift back to Port Hedland and her ambitions of being a grazier were at an end.

Daisy came north one more time, in 1910-11, as part of the Cambridge University Expedition of A.R. Radcliffe-Brown to study Aborigines at Sandstone in the Murchison (on a branch line out from Mt Magnet) and on the Dorre and Bernier Islands in Shark Bay out from Carnarvon where the government had made an ill fated and short lived attempt to isolate ‘diseased natives’. By this time Daisy Bates was a well known and experienced chronicler of Aboriginal languages and customs but she didn’t get on with Radcliffe-Brown and he treated her as an amateur specimen collector and later stole her work which she was constantly struggling to collect into publishable form. On parting from the Expedition, she writes, “I turned my footsteps to the head of the Ashburton, Gascoyne, Murchison and Fortescue Rivers, once a great highway of aboriginal trafficking”. But what she means by this I am not sure.

Since the movie, Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), the story of Molly, Dasiy and Gracie is well known. The girls were of the Martu people and lived at Jigalong, near Ethel Creek, so it is possible Daisy Bates studied their grandmothers. The Martu Native Title area extends north and east into the desert from Jigalong and so far south that Daisy Bates said the language of the people at Ooldea, on the other side of the Nularbor, had some of the same elements. Although the Martu claim does not extend as far west as Turee Creek, KSP’s Coonardoo also, apparently, speaks a Martu language. The story of the movie and of Doris Pilkington’s (Molly’s daughter) book is of the girls’ 1200 km walk back to Jigalong in 1931 after escaping from detention at Moore River (100 km north of Perth). Of course the highlight of the movie for me was Gracie catching the train at Meekatharra to join her mother in Wiluna.

Ernestine Hill (1899-1972) was a freelance journalist and single mother (her son, Robert’s, father was rumoured to be her boss at Smith’s Weekly, R.C Packer, Kerry Packer’s grandfather). The Great Australian Loneliness (1937) is her account of the journey she undertook around northern and central Australia in 1930-32 and the people she met. Her son, who would have been 6 or 7 years old, did not accompany her and is not mentioned. She set out from Hamelin Pool on Shark Bay, hitching lifts with station owners, mail trucks and coastal cargo vessels up the west coast, detouring at one point down from Port Hedland to Marble Bar and then further south past Roy Hill to Jigalong specifically to meet Molly and Daisy (which implies that their escape had been written up in the newspapers). Hill continues on into the NT, then returns via Perth to South Australia where she meets Daisy Bates, now ensconced at Ooldea, and with whom she later collaborates in the writing of The Passing of the Aborigines (1938). Finally, she heads back north via Coober Pedy and finishes by riding a camel into Alice Springs.

Interestingly, although she doesn’t mention her, Robyn Davidson (1950 – ) in the journey by camel which is the subject of Tracks (1980) appears to mirror Hill, starting at Alice Springs and finishing at Shark Bay, seeking solitude in the desert where Hill sought ‘colour’, but like Hill, Davidson has an intense interest in and regard for the Aboriginal people.

Purple Mulla-Mulla, Austin
Purple Mulla-Mulla, Austin railway platform


Katherine Sussanah Prichard, Child of the Hurricane
Ric Throssell, Wild Weeds and Windflowers
Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines
Doris Pilkington, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence
Ernestine Hill, The Great Australian Loneliness