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2000, Chillagoe, Queensland, Australia

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 dozen.

"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 said.

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 an Aborigine.

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 sarus crane.

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 Pormpuraaw.

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 life.

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 remains.

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 denial.

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, as poor?

The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins was right to call Aboriginal lifestyle "the original affluent society".

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.

© Financial Times

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved