We were not here first

Journal: 012

Nifty Road Sept '13 (1)

We were not here first. It seems self-evident now and was in fact acknowledged by writers from Watkin Tench onwards. Unfortunately though, our behaviour and in particular our legal system, was based on the conflicting ideas that there was no one here in 1788; or that there was but their perceived failure to build houses, engage in intensive agriculture meant that their presence didn’t count; or that there wasn’t a war but they lost anyway and Australia was ours by right of conquest.

That was all swept away, theoretically at least, by a combination of the (Commonwealth) Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Mabo Case (1982-90) in which the High Court ruled (1) that states – in this case Queensland – could not pass laws which conflicted with the Racial Discrimination Act; and (2) that wherever the rules and customs of the indigenous inhabitants – in this case the Mer people of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait north of Queensland – have continued without explicit extinguishment by state law, then the land remains theirs.

The Native Title Act of 1993 which was meant to give effect to the Mabo decision in fact interpreted it as narrowly as possible, in order of course to give the greatest possible advantage to grazing and mining interests, with near impossible definitions of continuing occupation for example, when so many indigenous people were forced onto reservations or had drifted in to provincial centres. My own opinion is that all crown land, including leasehold – which is to say, most of outback Australia – should be acknowledged as belonging to the original inhabitants and that we should only then negotiate a treaty for its ongoing use by all Australians. That is, that the Aboriginal Land Councils instead of being supplicants should be able to negotiate from a position of relative strength.

As part of my own, belated education about what it means to live in a shared country I have been increasingly careful to identify whose land it is that I am talking about/driving on in my reviews and journals. But in my last post ‘The Heaviest, Longest Run in the World‘, in concentrating on the driving experience (and the word count!) I said nothing about whose land it was and I want to rectify that here.

In general, because this is where I live, I am best informed about the indigenous nations of Western Australia – though I still have a long way to go! – but as I go on I will do my best to learn and write about everyone whose land I cross.

As I’ve written previously, Perth, the south-west and the wheatbelt (except around Geraldton) are Noongar country. Going north from Perth on the Great Northern Highway we cross the Moore River at New Norcia. The infamous Mogumber Moore River Settlement is just a few kilometres west. I have written about it a few times, in Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence of course, but also in relation to Kim Scott and Jack Davis. Molly, Daisy and Gracie, the Rabbit-Proof Fence girls headed north from Mogumber before striking east and would have crossed the Highway (if it existed back in 1931) a bit south of Wubin. You don’t see many Aboriginals in these little wheatbelt towns and I imagine they have mostly drifted in to Perth or to provincial centres like Northam and Moora.

Since reading Scott I have also become conscious of the different language groups within the Noongars. The AIATSIS map says the language spoken in the area up to Wubin is Balardung.

Separating Wubin and the Murchison goldfield towns of Mt Magnet, Cue and Meekatharra is 300 km of scrub and desert. About 100 km up, the Irwin River rises near Mt Gibson and flows down to the coast at Dongara south of Geraldton. I wouldn’t be surprised if this marks the border between Noongar and Yamaji country. The various language groups within the Yamaji nation occupy the land from south of Geraldton to north of Carnarvon, on the coast, and inland to the headwaters of the Murchison and Gascoyne Rivers (as best as I can ascertain, which applies to everything I write here).

I wrote about the Yamaji for the first time in my review of Papertalk Green and Kinsella’s False Claims of Colonial Thieves. The Yamaji are bordered to the east by Western Desert people. Mt Magnet, Cue and Meekatharra aren’t big towns and they all have active gold mines, but they also have substantial Aboriginal populations, which are probably these days a mixture of Martu from the north, Yamaji, and Ngaatjatjarra from out towards the NT and SA border. There used to be reports of ‘trouble’ in the towns but I haven’t heard any in the last decade. Lizzie Marrkilyi Ellis, a Ngaatjatjarra woman, writes of her family’s move, in the 1960s, in from Docker River on the NT border to Wiluna, east of Meekatharra, from where she was sent to school at the mission at Karalundi, on the highway 50 km north of Meeka.

The rest of the trip, except that we detour via Port Hedland (map) to avoid the atrocious Nullagine Road from Newman to Marble Bar, is Martu country. The Martu are the northernmost of the Western Desert peoples. Daisy Bates who owned a station near Jigalong, north of present day Newman (see Ventured North by Train and Truck) learned elements of the Martu language there and was surprised to find it useful when she later settled amongst the southernmost of the Western Desert peoples 3,000 km away at Ooldea in SA. Jigalong, one of the main camps for maintaining the rabbit-proof fence, became the centre of the Martu people and was of course the home which Molly, Daisy and Gracie were heading back to. The northernmost limits of Martu country include Nifty, my destination, as well as the Woodie Woodie and Telfer mines, in the Great Sandy Desert where I imagine the border with the Walmajarri (see Two Sisters) is fairly fluid.

There are two separate language groups on the coast north of Yamji country, one south of Port Hedland, probably once centred on the Fortescue and Ashburton Rivers but now at Roeburn, and another between Port Hedland and Broome. I can’t tell you anything about them so I’d better do some homework!

SONY DSC

Recent audiobooks

PD James (F, Eng), Shroud for a Nightingale (1971)
Hetty E Verolme (F, Aust), The Children’s House of Belsen (2000)
Masaji Ishikawa (M, Japan/Korea), A River in Darkness (2000) DNF
Michael Veitch (M, Vic/Aust), The Forgotten Islands (2011)
Carole Radziwill (F, USA), The Widow’s Guide to Sex & Dating (2013)
Julia London (F, Eng), The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount (2013)
Richard North Patterson (M, USA), Loss of Innocence (2013)
Michael Connolly (M, USA), Trunk Music (1997)
Tim Winton (M, WA/Aust), Eyrie (2013)
Stuart Woods (M, USA), Paris Match (2014)
Jay Stringer (M, Eng), Runaway Town (2013)
Gregory Randall (M, USA), Venice Black (2017)

Currently reading

Helen Garner, Honour & Other People’s Children


Housekeeping: I started using the Journal heading so that readers who were only interested in book reviews could see the journal emails and press delete. Don’t worry, you still can! But I’ve moved the journal designation down a notch so that while it is still clear in the email it is not so obtrusive.

The photos are mine, from the Nifty and Woodie Woodie roads in the Great Sandy Desert.

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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

References:

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