The sign said Chillagoe. For nearly 300
miles I had seen nothing in my rear-view mirror beyond a
trailingcloud of bull dust and nothing in front except for
the chrome-covered grill of a passing "road train"
dragging along its own dust cloud, enveloping everything
in its path.
These trailered trucks pound across the
Australian Outback with scant regard for anything that gets
in their way.
Chillagoe, with its post office, pub and
petrol station, was a welcome sight, apart from the two
white police cars straddling the road and the patrol man
waving me to the side.
He sidled up to the window and produced
an alcoholometer, the Australian version of a breathalyser.
"Just blow into this, please," he said.
The road was deserted. Just me and the
two patrol cars. It was three in the afternoon and I had
been eating bananas. Lots of them. I thought bananas would
be good survival food should the car break down. It hadn't,
so I ate them anyway. I still had a jar of Vegemite and
16 litres of water in reserve.
There was nothing to fear but I could not
suppress an irrational thought about fermenting bananas.
The meter was clear.
"We're checking everybody," said
the patrolman. "There's bull-riding just up the road
tonight so a lot of people are coming into town." The
phrase "a lot" in this case meant more than a
"There's just 250 (inhabitants) here
and 50 of those are dogs," said Bernie, his podgy fingers
clasped around the neoprene cooler that held his can of
lager. There was still a way to go before I would reach
Cairns, Queensland, but the bull-riding had sounded interesting
so Ifound myself sitting next to old Bernie, waiting for
the action at the Chillagoe Bushman's Carnival.
"You paid to get in? Look at this,
the Pommie's paid to get in," he said to the crowd
at the bar while pointing to the mark left by the rubber
stamp on my wrist.
The bar-propping evening cowboys, dressed
uniformly in denims and 10-gallon hats were only interested
in each other, ignoring persistent pleas from the organisers
to pay the entrance fee. They had ghosted in before the
ticket booth had been set up. The real cowboys, the bull-riders,
were down by the bull-pen waiting for their rides.
The sun had hardly set before the sky was
speckled with fruit bats flocking together after leaving
their daytime roosts. Country and western songs rang out
from a single speaker and floodlights bathed the enclosed
circle of freshly turned red earth. Young children straddled
the fence, poking their legs into the arena, ignoring the
announcer's warnings with the same nonchalance as the crowd
at the bar.
Bernie said he liked most Pommies. Fought
with them in Korea. Went in to relieve the Gloucesters on
the Imjin River. "Now watch this one, he bucks like
a good 'un," he said as the stall gate sprang open
and a ton of meat, muscle and writhing cowboy bounced briefly
in unhappy unison until the rider thumped into the dirt,
scrambled to his feet and limped towards the fence while
other cowboys, dressed as clowns, distracted the bull.
"They get paid well, those clowns,"
said Bernie, whose pale, freckled features were pocked by
the tiny scabs you sometimes notice on the faces of habitual
drinkers. "I'm not from here but I'll die here,"
He came to Chillagoe 12 years ago from
a cattle station farther north. He had been the security
officer. "But I shot a man so I had to go. I caught
him stealing." He made it plain the victim had been
I don't know why I was shocked. I had left
an Aboriginal community only that morning and their stories
of shootings and maltreatment were fresh in my mind.
The long drive had been to see some of
the older people in Kowanyama, near the west coast of the
Cape York Peninsula. One of them, Jerry Mission, was a member
of the Yir Yoront, a tribe so remote they were still using
stone axes not much more than 100 years ago when they first
came into contact with white missionaries.
The missionaries tried to influence the
younger tribesmen by offering them steel axes after the
tribal elders had shunned their initial approach. In what
is regarded as a classic work, anthropologist Lauriston
Sharpe described how possession of the more efficient steel
axes had undermined the social fabric of the community.
My own interest was stirred by another
of Sharpe's observations - that the Yir Yoront language
made no distinction between work or play. If this were true,
then perhaps these people really had enjoyed a form of utopia.
It is nearly 400 miles from Cairns, where
I was staying, to Kowanyama. Most of the route is on dirt
tracks, criss-crossed by creeks. The last community, the
last petrol station before Kowanyama, was Chillagoe, a remnant
of the 19th century gold rush.
After that there was nothing but scrub
land, kangaroos, cattle and water holes with their assortment
of wading birds - grey herons, jabiru, brolga and the rarer
Chasing the cranes for a photograph, I
came close to needing my bananas. All four wheels spun momentarily
in the soft mud by the side of a pond, but they came clear.
Jerry Mission was not surprised to see
me. Linguists and anthropologists are regular visitors.
Why not journalists? "Sure we have a word for work,"
he said, when I pressed him.
I had discovered as much before setting
out but wanted to check it anyway. Sharpe had been wrong.
"Whenever you find some sort of outlandish statement
like this it generally emanates from an anthropologist and
it's nothing but pure bullshit," said John Taylor,
himself an anthropologist, who lives and works at nearby
Like others among the older generation,
Jerry, now in his 80s, can remember the way Aboriginal people
were treated as a lower order of human by many white settlers.
The catalogue of massacres and systematic killings carried
out on Aboriginal communities is an indelible stain running
through the short history of white settlement.
Many killings arose out of misunderstandings.
One group of troops was confronted by a display used as
a tribal greeting. The troops interpreted this as a hostile
act and shot the welcoming party.
Such sorry tales are recalled in the introduction
to the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in Cairns. It tells
how the Aboriginal children of mixed race were taken from
their mothers and fostered out. It was nothing short of
cultural genocide, an attempt to expunge a whole way of
In atonement for the past the Australian
government has returned some land to Aboriginal communities.
But in general conversation it is clear that a gulf in understanding
Time and again I heard white Australians
refer to Aboriginal people as troublemakers or "the
Aboriginal problem", sometimes with a well-meaning
sigh and sometimes with resentment.
A belief prevails that white European society
was a big improvement on the tribal lifestyles of the indigenous
people. Some improvement. As one white Australian said:
"We gave them all our vices and they took them wholeheartedly."
Today there is widespread drunkenness and
welfare dependency in Aboriginal communities. It was the
same in Kowanyama. Almost the entire community went on a
binge as the welfare cheques arrived.
A truck with a cage on the back was roaming
the streets. At first I thought it was for stray dogs until
later I saw there were people in it, being carted off to
spend a night in the cells.
How should we judge such scenes? The drunkenness
was more widespread but far less violent in its consequences
than the Friday night pub drinking in my own home town.
But there is a difference in attitudes
to drinking. The cowboys propping up the Chillagoe bar displayed
a white European male bravado that takes pride in tolerance
to drink and falls under alcohol's spell with a sense of
Aboriginal people do not tend to invest
alcohol drinking with any kind of moralistic concerns or
Protestant guilt. If they decide to get drunk, they get
drunk and that's that.
We can lament Aboriginal poverty, but how
do you describe a people, who will tell you they had everything,
The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins was
right to call Aboriginal lifestyle "the original affluent
Theirs was a different society, with different
values. It had no great hierarchy.
A tribal elder was respected for his knowledge,
experience or particular skill, not as someone in command.
"Jerry was a great spear-thrower when he was young,"
said Raymond George, one of his friends. Raymond's sister,
Vera Dick, nodded in agreement.
The faces of these elderly Australians
speak more than words. They have witnessed so much in their
lifetimes but they do not condemn.
Mission tried to tell me one of the old
stories but his words were drowned by a ghetto blaster owned
by one of the younger generation across the street.
Sharpe was probably too narrow in his belief
that the steel axe was "hacking at the supports of
the entire cultural system". It was more than an axe.
It was a different value system, the Protestant ethic that
still hacks today.
Aboriginal people - they call themselves
the Bama, which simply means "people" - were no
more impressed with European lifestyles than Adam was impressed
with life after the fall.
They had the land and it was all they needed.
The British took it. They were people like Bernie, people
like the cowboys. They didn't pay to get in.
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