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Journey to Borroloola
By Nicholas Jose
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2002 Nicholas Jose
All rights reserved.
BOOZE AND BLOOD
They say it's as far as you can go in Australia without a passport. On a national remoteness index it's the remotest place in the country after somewhere in the desert where there's no settlement at all. A thousand kilometres from Darwin on the Northern Territory side of the Queensland border, and another 1,000 kilometres from the mining town of Mount Isa, which is already 1,000 kilometres inland from the populated east coast, it is out of reach of the centres of Australian life. It has about the same latitude as Lusaka and La Paz and, going north, the same longitude as Osaka and Khabarovsk in Siberia. It's almost as close to the equator as Bangkok. I'm sure it's not visible from space.
Borroloola. The word drips from the tongue like honey. Mellifluous. Redolent of bees in pollen. Maybe that explains why it stuck in my memory, with Roger Jose's name flown from its mast like a pirate's flag. The town sits upstream from where the wild waters of the McArthur River debouch into the Gulf of Carpentaria. The river flows during the winter Dry and bursts its banks in the summer Wet – November to March. At its tidal limit there's a rocky bar where Aboriginal people have been crossing for centuries. The water is fresh and game abounds as bush tucker – or used to. Downstream the river widens into a salty estuary thick with mangroves and crocodiles. Further up the banks turn to rugged gorges. The place where the unpredictable river could be forded was a camp and ceremony ground for Aboriginal people. When the original people were wiped out by the depredations of colonialism, responsibility for the land passed to kin and neighbours, whose descendants make up most of today's community of about 1,200 people.
Borroloola has had about the worst press of any place in Australia. Its beginnings were rough for Aboriginal people and tough as far as the white man was concerned. In 1886 it got its notorious tribute as 'the resort of the scum of Northern Australia'. For most of the century that followed it retained that reputation. The Lonely Planet guide describes it as 'a dirty, unpleasant place – part town, part rubbish dump – with expensive accommodation and no redeeming features'. The guidebook urges travellers to hurry on, warning that the road out is no better, 'a potholed, decaying beef road with blind rises and few places to overtake', which makes even the leaving an ordeal. It echoes an old complaint about the town before the road went through, when it was cut off from the outside world for weeks at a time. Locals said that the only way out was to die. Ernestine Hill, an itinerant journalist who first visited in the 1930s, called Borroloola 'the hardest place in Australia to get to, and the most difficult to get away from'. The policeman remembered it as an unpopular posting, 'a dead-end place, on the road to nowhere'. It was Australia's loneliest ghost town, the place where roads turn back, the end of the line.
The first European to document a journey through the Gulf Country was Ludwig Leichhardt, who followed existing Aboriginal footpaths to cross the McArthur River at the ford near Borroloola in 1845. The obsessive naturalist was finding a way through to the north coast from south-eastern Australia. He disappeared out there. Forty years later a wild white man emerged from the bush being carried by two Aboriginal women and speaking German. Before his identity could be confirmed he was killed by a white shooting party who mistook him for a black. Maybe he was one of Leichhardt's men. A tree carved with the letter L is displayed in the Old Police Station Museum at Borroloola today, another relic of Leichhardt's last expedition.
In Tales from the Austral Tropics, the explorer-novelist Ernest Favenc wrote of an ancient Dutchman who, discovered in an inland gorge, revealed the secret and curse of a paradise of gold. Favenc imagined a ghostly castaway from one of the Dutch East India Company's ships that explored the Gulf of Carpentaria in the seventeenth century. Variants of the Flying Dutchman and the Wandering Jew recur in this unwritten terrain, where objective reporting shades into a more fantastical gothic topography, as fact and story feed each other. Later the Prussian tragedy of Leichhardt would inspire Patrick White's epic novel Voss.
When the Overland Telegraph was going through from Adelaide to Darwin in 1870–72 – 36,000 poles and 5,000 kilometres of singing copper wire – Borroloola became a depot for bringing materials in by sea that were then hauled by bullock team to the line 400 kilometres away. Borroloola dreamed of becoming a major port, thriving on the cattle industry, mineral riches and the trade that would flourish between Australia and the Asian lands to the north. But the dream was an illusion. Arriving in Borroloola in 1919 after four years away at the war in Europe, bush yarn-spinner Bill Harney found merely 'a decadent river port for small craft in the Gulf of Carpentaria' and no more.
To the west the telegraph line followed the route from south to north that John McDouall Stuart had forged in 1860, straight as a rule on a map. But the land tracks and water routes that link Borroloola with other camps and stations across the region follow Aboriginal contours to this day. From the late 1860s drovers came through with cattle from Queensland to stock the Northern Territory, inspired by Stuart's optimistic report of country' of the finest description for pastoral purposes', and later went as far as the Kimberley in the top corner of Western Australia. They watered their stock where they crossed the McArthur River, at the bar near Borroloola. When the gold rush came to fields around Pine Creek, south of Darwin, in the 1870s and 1880s, prospectors, many of them Chinese, followed the same cattle route in their rush across from the east, again retracing those old Aboriginal paths.
Borroloola's isolation ended when the all-weather road was finally put through in 1968, sealing part of the route with tar. It is marketed to tourists now as the Savannah Way, recommended for the caravanserai of young backpackers and elderly Australians from Down South, the blond nomads and grey panthers whose recreational vehicles proceed in file down the strip of bitumen during the holiday season.
Not all the old pathways are so honoured. There is another pattern of tracks that looks more like the broken map of lines on a hand. It has the living, breathing rhythm of land and water, connecting memory and history with the present world, with a seasonal sense of change and continuity, moving out from the mainland, along the shores of river and Gulf, and out across the islands. It involves working and wandering, 'sitting down', as Aboriginal people say, and letting the mind roam. By seasonal I don't only mean summer and winter, the Wet and the Dry, but also the larger weather of time, of generations, of changing perspectives and attitudes. It's a pattern that is less concerned with putting Borroloola on the road to somewhere else than with the net of local interactions that makes the place what it is, and what it will be.
But let's not get too fancy about Borroloola.
* * *
Like more illustrious places, Borroloola has a myth of origin. It became a white man's watering hole when it had been a place of water for Aboriginal people from time immemorial.
A Scot named Billy McLeod sailed across the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1883 with a 400-gallon tank of rum which he unloaded under a banyan tree on the bank of the McArthur River. The river may have been named by Leichhardt after wool and rum pioneers in faraway Sydney, the Macarthurs, who sponsored his expedition. (The spelling of place names was often wobbly.) The grog was intended to waylay drovers bringing cattle through on the Gulf Track. When the local Aboriginal people 'challenged the Scotsman's right of tenure', McLeod 'proved it with a shot-gun', according to one account.
A year after the giant rum keg was unloaded there, a part-Maori smuggler called Black Jack Reid crossed from Thursday Island off the tip of Cape York Peninsula on the other side of the Gulf with an illegal cargo in his schooner and baptised the place. 'A few days after we arrived,' an old-timer remembered, 'the Good Intent came up the river and made fast at the landing ... Her notorious owner [was] Maori Jack Reid. His first mate was a big buck American nigger. We never heard his name, but christened him "Smoked Beef" ... Reid boasted openly that on the way up the river had he got a chance he would have shot "Smoked Beef", his mate, so that he could give him a clean receipt for his wages. "Smoked Beef" heard of it and the result of an Oklahoma cyclone was nothing compared to what "Smoked Beef" did to Reid and his shanty ... So Borroloola was born.'
Maori Reid was a blackbirder, the name given to the slave traders who provided cheap Melanesian and Polynesian labour for the sugar plantations of northern Queensland. He and his crew
used to raid villages on [Pacific] islands, or coax a crowd of islanders on to their vessel for trade, set sail, and when out at sea cull out all the able bodied natives and make the unfit 'walk the plank' ... [Reid] loaded up a lot of provisions, not forgetting a big supply of whisky – square bottles, with green labels, named 'Come Hither'. Good God, what a havoc that terrible stuff did! It made a jack rabbit fight a bulldog. A man who got a few shots of that stuff under his belt would charge hell with a bucket of water! ... Eager hands soon helped him unload his cargo especially when they knew that whisky was part of [it] and then the orgy started. What a christening Borroloola got!
The old-timer's account of the town's beginnings is blunt but as selective as any novelist's: we can only guess what we're not being told. The motive, years after the event, is to engrave the teller's own version of things – heightened, apologetic, exculpatory. Few of us, it seems, are capable of holding on to the undoctored truth.
'We were one of the first mobs to form the herd of the McArthur ... We had a rough time, blacks as thick as hair on a dog, on the route, burning the country behind and ahead of us, and at Skeleton Creek driving six of our horses away in the night and spearing them ... [A cattle man] was, with a blackboy, speared up the river on the opposite side of town, both being killed in broad daylight in sight of a mob of cattle and men tailing them ... Borroloola came to light under tempestuous times.'
The town had earned its reputation as a Wild West sort of place. It was surveyed in 1885 and by the next year the essentials were in place – a police station, a store and a pub. In the gold-rush days of 1886, 1,500 people passed through with 3,000 horses. For a while Borroloola was arations and transport hub. The first race meeting was held and the McArthur River Jockey Club was formed. Then, in 1895, to raise the cultural tone of the place, the McArthur River Institute was established. But the gold ran out and the cattle bonanza faded. The Gulf turned out to be less than ideal cattle country. Herds were stricken with tick fever. Asian markets failed to materialise and domestic markets were small or too far away. The decade of the nineties proved catastrophic. Borroloola's glory days were over before they began.
When Baldwin Spencer and Francis Gillen visited Borroloola to study the local Aboriginal people in 1901, the only non-Aboriginal residents were the policeman, the publican, the storekeeper, a gardener and a Chinese tailor. Gillen wrote in his diary that 'the ghastly uninteresting reality is worse than anything we anticipated'. The white population was down to three by the next year and more or less stayed that way.
Some of the blame can be sheeted home to the administration. South Australia had annexed the Northern Territory in 1863 against the view of the Colonial Office that it was 'perfectly preposterous' for the northern parts of Australia to 'be governed from Adelaide from which they are separated by the whole breadth of the continent'. In the 1840s South Australia was the first Australian colony to experience a mineral boom. Rich from copper, its graziers and speculators were expansive in their lust for land and easily swayed by glowing reports of prospects up north. But the colony over-reached itself. It would have made better sense for all of tropical Australia to be run as one entity east to west, but that was not how people saw the continent. Development north of Capricorn suffered from ignorance and indifference, with Borroloola as an outermost limit. Eventually South Australia admitted defeat and in 1911 transferred responsibility for the Northern Territory to the newly federated Commonwealth government. The Territory owed South Australia more than £6 million, which included what had been spent on two ends of a transcontinental railway. (The track languished unfinished until 2001, when work began again.)
'The inescapable conclusion is that [South Australia's] fundamental blunder lay in annexing the Northern Territory in the first place,' judges the historian Ross Duncan. I wonder if a veil was drawn over the fiasco after that; if Adelaide turned her back. Certainly, growing up there, I had no sense of a connection, historical or otherwise, with the tropical north. The desert pressed down on the temperate belt of orchards, vineyards and granaries that surrounded our oasis city, kept green on precarious supplies of water. The train north, named the Ghan after the Afghans who had run camel trains on the route, headed up the tracks beyond the red Flinders Ranges across the dry country to Alice Springs and stopped. There was an extended boundary beyond that, a desiccation, a dissipation, an unravelling – if you wanted to disappear, that's where you would go. Unlike grand blue-stone Adelaide, there was no permanence up yonder. When Darwin was bombed by the Japanese in February 1942, most of the civilian population had bailed out back to Adelaide. The north was an outpost for fighting an offshore war. The casualties from those bombings have never been counted absolutely because the records of who lived there were unreliable. It happened again when Cyclone Tracy blew Darwin away on Christmas Day 1974. And if Darwin was like that, how much more so was Borroloola, administered after Adelaide relinquished it by a federal government located in remotest Melbourne and later in the new capital, Canberra?
In 1912 Borroloola received a grand visit from the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, who must have been bemused by what he saw of civilisation's trappings: a pub, a store and a police station. The Aboriginal population may have been around 300 at the time, allowing for seasonal variation as people moved about their country. The settlementdrew people who were struggling to survive the rupture of their customary way of life. Borroloola was an old camping place, after all. The handful of European residents, including the so-called hermits, were actually sustained by a substantial population of Aboriginal people. 'To this day,' notes geographer-historian Richard Baker, 'Europeans have outnumbered Aboriginal people on probably only two occasions. This occurred for the first time very briefly in 1886, when large numbers of gold-diggers passed through ... Aboriginal people would not have been outnumbered again until the government-sponsored Borroloola centenary celebrations in 1985 resulted in a weekend influx of Europeans.'
Government officials filled their reports with statistics, but were content to let numbers blur when it came to Aboriginal people. In the administrator's report for 1925–26 the population of the Northern Territory is given as '2,345 European and 1,040 coloured [mostly Chinese], exclusive of Aboriginals ...', while it is proudly noted that the cattle herds had increased to 970,342 head. Elsewhere the same report estimates that there were 'approximately 10,000 Aboriginals living in the coastal belt, and about the same number in other portions of the Territory'. Aboriginal people, who were mostly out bush, could not be counted with the actuarial precision of livestock tallies. Besides, cattle and horses were property. The Protector of Aborigines, Cecil Cook, noted that 'the figures are in many instances, owing to the nomadic nature of the Aboriginals, only an estimate, but it is hoped that by correcting the returns annually, a fairly reliable estimate will be obtained'. For the wider administrative district centred on Borroloola, the 1926–27 figures are given as 800 adults and 380 children, with 12 'half-caste' adults and 9 children, a total of 1,201 (of an overall total for the Territory of 20,542). By way of comparison, the 1996 census gives the population of the Northern Territory as 195,101, with 46,277 people identifying themselves as of Aboriginal descent. Aboriginal figures have doubled while non-Aboriginal people have increased fifty-fold. The occupation looks like being permanent.
Excerpted from Black Sheep by Nicholas Jose. Copyright © 2002 Nicholas Jose. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPrologue: Lost Steps,
I Booze and Blood,
II No Humbug,
III 'The Surf upon the Shore',
IV Border-land and Combo-land,
V The Revenge of the Oral,
VI The Fewness of His Needs,
VII The Fewness of Their Wants,
VIII Exclusion Zone,
IX Gulf Warriors,
X Mine of the Century,
List of Illustrations,