Friday, January 27, 2017

Cape York

Termite mounds at Oyala Thumotang National Park, on the Archer River

[Image source: . The area was made a National Park in 1988 in order to forestall its sale to Aboriginal people; apparently an act of spite by the premier of Queensland Joh Bjelke-Petersen, after his original block on the sale was dismissed in the High Court of Australia. In 2010 some 75,000 hectares of the park were given over to the Wik-Mungkana people on a freehold basis.  See .]




Glenville Pike








Cape York Peninsula was the first place, so far as we know, where white men landed on the Australian mainland and encountered native Australians. That was in 1606, and the encounter was naturally bloody. The ship was the Duyfken, Captain Willem Jansz, and the Aborigines came out shooting (or rather, spearing). As the author concedes, this courage and hostility may well have preserved their homeland for at least another couple of centuries. The Cape York peninsula, at the north-eastern tip of Australia, is to this day an unpopulous, barely settled country, without proper roads.


Glenville Pike is not a lively writer but he has exciting material. From Tasman, Cook, Edmund Kennedy, Frank Jardine, the missionaries, the gold-rushes, the 1899 cyclone; to exploration, drovers and packers – he maps a melancholy, and of course broadly familiar, epic of pioneer generations.       


One misunderstands the economic nature of exploration by reducing it to a matter of names, but nevertheless, naming is a crucial component of the story that Pike has to tell, and so it is of the methodology that elicits the story. In the earliest days the naming begins with features seen by sailors: islands, river-mouths, and a few notable peaks. Inland exploration was much more confusing. The travellers were invariably cutting across the numerous rivers on their marches up and down the peninsula. But rivers inland are much more difficult to understand as unities, because they are seen only at crossing-points, and the grand simplicity of a coastal debouchment is the mingled water of numerous tributaries. Different explorers kept naming the same river twice, or misapplying previous names, and a good many of the oldest names ended up getting attached to the “wrong” rivers, i.e. different ones from those they originally referred to.


No unified grasp of the landmass could be exploited during this period (the second half of the nineteenth century). Only the concentrated local interest of flakes of gold could pay immediately. It’s extraordinary how gold-rushes always spring up at such times; extraordinary in contrast to the utter insignificance of the same locations once latter phases of civilisation have gridded the land. I suppose that’s why prospectors always end up being called “old-timers”.


At some point the myall, or “wild blackfella” disappeared. It was about the 1930s, just about when the first motor-car, a Baby Austin, was driven to Cape York by two enthusiastic New Zealanders. Tourism, even if at this stage of heroic dimensions, was a sure indication that the peninsula was becoming safe. Steady changes had broken down the barrier between wild populations and the new activities. These included missions, reserves, the repressions of the Native Mounted Police, the country being checkerboarded into grazing stations, and the pioneers’ use of cheap aboriginal labour; at first a few individuals from other locations (“Charlie” and “Jerry” – at last they too are becoming named), later whole tribes coming round to some local industry, e.g. stockmen or  sandalwood cutters. Glenville Pike also says, of the 1886 Cape Bedford Mission near Cooktown, that it “came rather late on the scene, however, as the tribes in the Cooktown area had already been decimated by white man’s grog and tobacco, and Chinaman’s opium.” The surprising reference to tobacco may be more acute than it sounds – any alien practice, long continued, must lead to oblivion of what it has displaced.    


The pioneer culture, in its turn, would become embattled and worn down. If (as I suspect) Mr Pike reflects the more enlightened attitudes of its last days, it came to admire the courage and to sympathise with the culture of the wild Aboriginals (these having now disappeared, however). Of the modern-day peninsula he writes: “Here is a country still as the explorers first saw it, a paradise for the Aborigines of long ago, and a land still unpolluted by white man’s civilisation.” However often you read that sentence, it seems to end up suggesting that the land is still a paradise for the Aborigines of long ago. Perhaps if you are a historian they still seem to inhabit it. (But of the Aborigines living in new kit-homes in Laura township, he can only say: “Once happily living on (cattle) stations, they have become urban dwellers attracted by the fortnightly unemployment cheques, white man’s tucker, and grog. With no work required, sufficient money, and homes provided, they ‘have it made’.”)


Cattle raising has been the lifeblood of the Peninsula since mining faded, and now it too is on the downgrade with some of the best properties, like Lakefield and Rokeby which once turned off thousands of head of cattle, becoming National Parks.


There may be something in what local cynics say – if most of the cattlemen are forced, by economics, to sell out to the Government, the best parts of the Peninsula will become a National Park and the Government will not then be required to build roads or do any further development work.


No doubt it would suit some politicians’ small Brisbane-oriented minds to leave the Peninsula as it is – an unpopulated wilderness that can thus be more easily forgotten.


In this way the conservationists, most of whom have never seen the Peninsula, can be appeased. The establishment of some National Parks has to be commended, but they should not be formed at the risk of further depopulating an already underprivileged area.


Those people who have their homes in the lonely Peninsula country are too few in number to have any influence at the polling booths, but their contribution to Australia, past and present, cannot be so heartlessly overlooked.


The Peninsula people are friendly – genuine bush folk who are ever ready to help someone they consider less fortunate. They love their region, where the way of life is slow and quiet...


But this pleasing quietness might, after all, be inseparable from the neglect. A more sinister quietness lay on Pine Tree in 1888, when Louisa Boyd came up after the massacre. (“The sheltered English girl was hardly prepared for the sight that met her eyes; the bloodsoaked blankets of Eddie Watson and the grave freshly dug to receive his body. She led the prayers at the graveside, then set to work to tend Jim Evans’ terrible wounds...” Louisa was recently married to Jack Boyd and, as the author with gentlemanly discretion claims, “previously had never seen blood other than a scratched finger”.)


In their hey-day the pioneers, though pursuing their own ends, felt totally at one with the development of their nation, epitomized for instance by the heroic construction of the overland telegraph line to Cape York. Epic development gave a pattern to their lives. So there is a profound disappointment in the unexpected loss of impetus. They believed that their lives manifested a destiny.


If Australia were to act more like one of the rich Western nations it tries to copy and less like one of the Third World undeveloped countries, there would be a bitumen two-lane highway connecting Cairns with Weipa by way of Laura and Coen, and the Mulligan Highway would no longer be a horror road. Cape York Peninsula would be able to fulfil the destiny for which its pioneers worked and dreamed a century ago. The dollars from less than one year’s production of Weipa bauxite could do it. A levy should be imposed expressly for Peninsula development, including road construction. The Weipa Aborigines already receive a substantial royalty.


Organizing 4WD parties that enable urban tourists to sample the thrills of the “horror road” was obviously not the destiny that was dreamt of.


In the Peninsula there is still gold; there is definitely tin, wolfram, bauxite, coal, and perhaps oil. There is a huge coalfield running inland from Bathurst Bay to Battle Camp. There is an artesian basin inland from Princess Charlotte Bay. There are a million acres of agricultural land, ten million acres of good grazing country; the balance, as big as all of Tasmania, can still be left as a wilderness area in National Parks to ensure preservation. Development and conservation can go hand in hand.


This heartfelt plea is a little confusing, set in apposition to the remark about “a land still unpolluted by white men’s civilisation”. I suppose, like many other people,  the descendants of the pioneers wanted self-contradictory things – the dream but also the dreaming, untamed grandeur transfixed in an eternal moment of being mastered, admiration but not displacement, to be left alone but not forgotten, and to bequeath to their children something whose value lay in being uninherited. One wants one’s life to have had a purpose. Or more realistically, one wants it to seem to have had a purpose.   




[It would be a shame not to give a sample of Mrs Lennie Wallace’s inspiriting narrative of a 1958 drove from Merluna to Mareeba:


Our plant was a very small one with two saddle horses and one packhorse per person. We had to do big stages to meet our delivery date, and with 100 F degree heat for twenty-three days, with no storms yet to make either grass or water, our once-fat horses turned to near skeletons. To cap it all, I developed dengue fever.


Meanwhile, Hardy [nb. her husband’s brother, organizer of the drove] was in trouble. One night out from Coen there was a yard available, but they rushed that night and took the yard. Some had bad horn wounds when we took delivery the next day.


Hardy counted them out. ‘One thousand one hundred’ as he tied the eleventh knot in his whipfall, then: ‘One, two’ – a pause as he looked back over his shoulder to a stag that was hobbling along well behind the mob – ‘and three. I think he has Three Day Sickness.’


Hardy was right. The whole mob got it. Some even got it twice and calves on their mothers suffered, too. It was the first outbreak for over thirty years, and nothing had immunity.


It didn’t help our task, and we shuddered each morning as the cattle were counted off camp. We broke all the rules and forced the sick ones on as there was no grass or water where we could leave them. Rarely did we do a normal eight-mile stage; most of our camps were dry ones, with the horsetailer and cook carrying canteens from the closest waterhole.


Calves born on the road had to be killed, but when near a station we gave them to the station kids to poddy on the milkers. Many a herd has been started from drovers’ calves.


Christmas Day was spent just north of Musgrave. The menu was dry salt beef, tea, damper, and syrup. I spent most of the day by a waterlily pool trying to get a bullock on his feet and rejoin the mob. I rode back down the telegraph line in pitch darkness except for flashes of lightning. As a Christmas gesture, Hardy Wallace did my watch for me, he having caught us up in a jeep.


The sister of John, the cook, lived at Musgrave and she gave him a home-made fever mixture for my dengue. It worked, but was horribly horrible in taste. The ingredients included quinine, Epsom salts, and gin. John had also been given some fresh eggs for me and he carried them in his saddlebag. The motion of the horse scrambled them in the shell before they were cooked, but that was only minor...]



[For a dramatically different sense of Cape York and its communities, visit the website of the Cape York Youth Network (* This is largely the work of young people from the aboriginal communities (with some discreet assistance in setting-up from the “Nerds”). Both book and website are mere pinholes into a large, remote land; yet their underlying preoccupations are after all complementary. For the outsider there is no possibility of savoir, but there are elusive beginnings of connaître.


* Unfortunately short-lived: I wrote these words in 2003 but the site had gone when I looked for it  again in 2005. ]


[See also: George Farwell, Cape York to the Kimberleys (1962).]




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