Faces of the fence

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY BRUCE NEW­TON PHOTOGRAPHY BY THOMAS WI­ELECKI

Meet the peo­ple who keep the legacy of WA’s Rab­bit-Proof Fence alive.

Stretch­ing for thou­sands of kilo­me­tres across Western Aus­tralia, the Rab­bit-Proof Fence is part of Aus­tralia’s his­tory that marks bound­aries and de­fines lives.

He sur­veys a sun­set made all the more dra­matic by smoke haze from fires smoul­der­ing to the west. John, aged in his 60s, has lived here on the Rab­bit-Proof Fence all his life. His par­ents were born here: they met here, mar­ried here, farmed here and died here. His grand­par­ents came from Eng­land as free set­tlers when east of the fence was wild scrub and to the west was just be­ing turned into farm­land.

“See those trees down there?” John asks, point­ing with one hand and shield­ing his eyes with the other. “That’s where Mum’s par­ents came and set­tled and took up vir­gin ter­ri­tory in 1911.”

John is a de­lib­er­ate man who thinks deeply and speaks slowly. He re­calls his par­ents telling him sto­ries about the pa­trol­men who worked along the fence in those days. “There were very strict con­trols,” he re­mem­bers. “You couldn’t go through the gate and leave it open or you would get f ined. It was il­le­gal to bring a rab­bit to this side, dead or alive.”

He re­mem­bers the fence’s jam tree and white gum posts be­ing re­placed by fresh posts and steel spikes in the 1970s and he knows that soon it will be his job to re­new the rust­ing, gal­vanised hexag­o­nal wire with a ring-lock fence. “I dare say that won’t last 100 years,” he says, laugh­ing.

John is one of thou­sands of peo­ple who live along the three fence lines that make up the Rab­bit-Proof Fence. Span­ning more than 3250km in to­tal, the fences were built dur­ing the early 1900s in an at­tempt to hold back the rab­bit plague that had be­gun sweep­ing across east­ern Aus­tralia.

Hear­ing sto­ries such as John’s about life on the Rab­bit-Proof Fence is the rea­son pho­tog­ra­pher Thomas Wi­elecki and I have come to this sparse and harsh land­scape. We’ve ven­tured east­wards from Perth with no more plan in our minds than to find the fence, fol­low it north and record what hap­pens.

John Lynn stands on a wa­ter pipe next to Rab­bit Proof Fence Road, just north of Cun­derdin in Western Aus­tralia’s south­ern wheat­belt.

OF COURSE, THE Rab­bit-Proof Fence is best known for the 2002 film of the same name that fol­lowed the epic 1931 jour­ney of three Abo­rig­i­nal girls along the fence, from conf in­e­ment at the now-de­funct Moore River Na­tive Set­tle­ment near Perth back to their homes in the Pil­bara, in north­ern WA. In fact, those girls fol­lowed all three fence lines.

The f irst fence ex­tends the length of WA, di­vid­ing the state in two. It be­gins at Jer­da­cut­tup, on the south coast, and stretches all the way north to Eighty Mile Beach, cov­er­ing 1834km. At the time it was com­pleted, it was claimed to be the long­est fence in the world.

By the time the first fence was fin­ished, rab­bits had al­ready got past it, so fence two, which stretches 1165km, was con­structed fur­ther west. Shorter than fence one, it starts at Bre­mer Bay on the south coast, and runs due north par­al­lel to fence one, be­fore veer­ing north-east near Yal­goo and even­tu­ally in­ter­sect­ing with fence one near Wiluna, in cen­tral WA.

Fence three, which at just 257km long is the short­est of the three fences, was com­pleted in 1907. It runs east–west from an in­ter­sec­tion with fence two near Yal­goo to the coast at Kal­barri.

In to­tal, the three fences took hun­dreds of labour­ers six years to build and cost more than £330,000 in the process (not in­clud­ing sur­vey­ing or main­te­nance). How suc­cess­ful the fences were at keep­ing back the rab­bit plague is de­bat­able.

Rab­bits were in­tro­duced to Aus­tralia by the very ear­li­est Euro­pean set­tlers. They ar­rived in New South Wales with the f irst f leet but only be­came a pest when they were later re­leased by a gra­zier in Vic­to­ria for sport. They have since run amok, eat­ing na­tive bush­land bare and de­stroy­ing crops, com­pet­ing with na­tive an­i­mals for food and even tak­ing over the homes of bur­row­ing an­i­mals such as bet­tongs.

The fences that make up the Rab­bit-Proof Fence were ac­tively pa­trolled and main­tained be­tween the wars, but more re­cently, bi­o­log­i­cal con­trols such as the dis­ease myx­o­mato­sis, in­tro­duced in 1950, and cali­civirus, in­tro­duced in 1995, have been the main weapons aimed at re­duc­ing wild rab­bit pop­u­la­tions.

As many as 10 bil­lion rab­bits were thought to have in­fested Aus­tralia by 1920. The cur­rent pop­u­la­tion f luc­tu­ates ac­cord­ing to con­di­tions, but has been es­ti­mated at about 200 mil­lion. Se­lected sec­tions of the fences are still used to keep pests at bay. Wild dogs, foxes and emus are tar­gets rather than rab­bits.

The of­fi­cially main­tained sec­tions of what is now known as the State Bar­rier Fence are off-lim­its to all but main­te­nance crews. But great swathes of the orig­i­nal fences have also been taken over by farm­ers to mark their prop­er­ties, and other sec­tions have sim­ply fallen into dis­re­pair. That means a sig­nif icant piece of Aus­tralia’s his­tory is slowly dis­ap­pear­ing.

AL­LAN ROGERS WANTS the fences’ his­tory hon­oured. A life­time of farm­ing WA’s wheat­belt, south of Cun­derdin, be­side sec­tions of fence two has fu­elled his pas­sion. Al­lan is pres­i­dent of the Cun­derdin His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, a small group of lo­cals who have spent 10 years try­ing to gain off icial support and fund­ing for a memo­rial and mu­seum.

The f irst fence ex­tends the length of WA, di­vid­ing the state in two.

“Why did we take it up?” he asks rhetor­i­cally as we stand be­side the red gravel Rab­bit Proof Fence Road, me­tres from a rick­ety look­ing fence that sep­a­rates us from vast swathes of wheat fields. This isn’t Al­lan’s farm, but he does have two nearby. “Build­ing the fence was a huge pro­gram; it took a lot of men and a lot of very or­di­nary hard work in iso­lated places,” he says.

“They had to cut the wooden posts out of the bush­land that hadn’t been taken up for agri­cul­ture at the time. They had to erect the fence, put the net­ting on, and a sin­gle fur­row plough went along the fence to dig a trench so the net­ting was buried at least six inches down, so the rab­bits wouldn’t dig un­der it.

“That’s why we thought some­thing should be done to com­mem­o­rate it.”

Since the cen­te­nary of the fences’ com­ple­tion 10 years ago, support for a Rab­bit-Proof Fence memo­rial has been wide­spread but, so far, at­tempts to f ind fund­ing for it have failed. Grad­u­ally, as they have aged and wearied, mem­bers of the Cun­derdin His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety have re­duced their am­bi­tions. They had ini­tially hoped for a state-wide memo­rial, but would now just like some form of recog­ni­tion at Cun­derdin, which was where the head­quar­ters for the con­struc­tion of fence two were based.

“There should be a memo­rial where the num­ber two fence crosses the Great East­ern High­way,” Al­lan says, ex­plain­ing that the lo­ca­tions of gates were marked out in miles from this point. “There was a de­pot on the rail­way line; goods were trans­ferred to Cun­derdin and went north and south for num­ber two fence.”

“It was mil­lions and mil­lions of hexagons that kept out mil­lions and mil­lions of rab­bits.”

Char­lie Smith sup­ports Al­lan Rogers’ vi­sion and has been the one to give it form and sub­stance. A prom­i­nent sculp­tor best known for the HMAS Syd­ney (II) memo­rial in Ger­ald­ton, Char­lie was in­vited by the Cun­derdin His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety in 2007 to present his con­cept for com­mem­o­rat­ing the fence and the peo­ple who built it. He came up with the idea of us­ing a mod­u­lar hexag­o­nal struc­ture for the sculp­ture. “It was like the wire in the fence,” Char­lie ex­plains. “It was mil­lions and mil­lions of hexagons that kept out mil­lions and mil­lions of rab­bits.”

Char­lie’s in­ge­nious idea is that the size of the memo­rial could vary from town to town de­pend­ing on bud­get, rang­ing from one hexagon to 100, with each hexagon con­tain­ing a sculp­ture spe­cific to the lo­cal area’s Rab­bit-Proof Fence ex­pe­ri­ence.

“But no-one seems to be able to get grants,” he says, sigh­ing. “The prob­lem with the me­mo­ri­als we do is it takes a group of peo­ple or an in­di­vid­ual to drive them and ded­i­cate them­selves to get the grants, to get the per­mis­sions, to get the politi­cians be­hind it. It is a hell of a job to get it all to­gether.”

Even as the project has f loun­dered, it has be­come a labour of love for Char­lie and his wife, Joan Walsh-Smith. They have come to learn a lot about the his­tory of the fence and the sac­rif ices made to build and main­tain it.

Both are larger-than-life char­ac­ters. Char­lie speaks with a heavy Ir­ish ac­cent, and has a thick white beard. As he speaks, Joan, who is also a sculp­tor, twit­ters and f lut­ters like one of the many pet birds the cou­ple have on their bush prop­erty near Gidge­gan­nup, 90 min­utes west of the fence.

“The fence be­came a repos­i­tory of all sorts of peo­ple from all walks of life who couldn’t sur­vive in nor­mal so­ci­ety, es­pe­cially after the First World War,” Char­lie ex­plains as we sit in his li­brary, look­ing out over boul­ders and bush. “They couldn’t face liv­ing in so­ci­ety after the hor­rors of the Western Front,” he says. “I am sure there would have been a lot of sui­cides out there, it would have been very sad.”

RAB­BIT PROOF FENCE ROAD un­furls be­fore us, carv­ing a deep red un­du­lat­ing scar through the pale-yel­low wheat pad­docks that run end­lessly to the hori­zon in ev­ery di­rec­tion.

Plumes of dust drift into a deep blue sky, mark­ing the progress of squadrons of head­ers that march to and fro with geo­met­ric GPS guid­ance. This is a food bowl of epic pro­por­tions and the Rab­bit-Proof Fence and the road along­side it run “right up the guts”, as the lo­cals would say.

Thomas and I have been fol­low­ing fence two for sev­eral hun­dred kilo­me­tres. Along the way, we’ve seen oc­ca­sional ev­i­dence of at­tempts to pro­mote the fence and this route as a tourist drive. In Dal­wallinu Shire, about 200km north of Cun­derdin, green f in­ger­post signs de­clare this the Her­itage Rab­bit-Proof Fence Trail. Be­mus­ingly, an­other sign says the road is for lo­cal traff ic only.

Just east of Dal­wallinu, an­other f in­ger­post tells us to take a 90-de­gree right-hand turn to keep fol­low­ing the fence. Con­fused, Thomas and I pull over. We de­cide it’s got to be wrong. As we con­sider our op­tions, a ute roars up the hill to­wards us with lo­cal Keith Carter be­hind the wheel.

He pulls along­side us and says the sign is point­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion. That it’s there at all is a bonus, he adds. “I’m on the lo­cal coun­cil and I don’t know why they haven’t thought about sell­ing Rab­bit-Proof Fence signs in Dal­wallinu be­cause it wouldn’t be two weeks pass that this sign up here gets nicked,” he says, his voice car­ry­ing out over the rum­bling of his en­gine. “It’s be­cause of the movie, I think.”

We fol­low Keith up the road and he shows us an orig­i­nal gate from the Rab­bit-Proof Fence that now keeps sheep in one of his pad­docks. Look­ing back down the hill, all the farm­land we can see be­longs to Keith and his fam­ily.

It’s grown sig­nif icantly in size since Keith’s fa­ther f irst ar­rived from Vic­to­ria in 1928. The fam­ily now owns nearly 9000ha. For Keith, the fence is part of a land­scape he hopes his fam­ily will con­tinue to en­joy for many years to come.

THERE IS NO DOUBT the Rab­bit-Proof Fence is dis­ap­pear­ing. It has been com­pletely re­newed in some places while, in oth­ers, it is crum­bling into the salt f lats where no-one owns or cares about it.

When we cross the Great North­ern High­way east of Wu­bin, about 25km north of Dal­wallinu, we see a sign mark­ing the grave of a worker who died build­ing the fence.

It’s a sim­ple cross on the road­side. Back then, this grave would have been in a lonely and iso­lated spot. Now, trucks and cars roar past just me­tres away.

As we con­tinue north, the farm­ing land drops away and we be­come im­mersed in a sea of scrubby bush. A mine site, a de­serted farm, and even a ghost town oc­ca­sion­ally in­ter­rupt the end­less land­scape.

The fence rolls on, some­times in good con­di­tion, some­times sag­ging, some­times swal­lowed up by salt f lats.

We fol­low the fence north for an­other cou­ple of hun­dred kilo­me­tres. Up here, the heat is in­tense and the f lies swarm in plague pro­por­tions. The towns look tired, their main streets wilted, with many shops empty.

We reach the point where the fence crosses Ger­ald­ton-Mount Mag­net Rd near Yal­goo, a small town that brands it­self as “the place where the out­back be­gins”. Just north of here is where the junc­tion of fences two and three should be lo­cated. It’s some­where on the Pin­dathuna pas­toral lease, so we head to the homestead with the in­ten­tion of knock­ing on a door to ask some­one if they can help us f ind it.

We drive in off the pub­lic road and park at a house that sits among a jumble of rust­ing ma­chin­ery and run-down build­ings. Damian Mor­ris­sey hears us com­ing and emerges from in­side, walk­ing to the edge of his veran­dah.

He re­acts with a bit of re­serve. It’s un­der­stand­able be­cause it’s Sun­day af­ter­noon and a cou­ple of strangers have ar­rived on his doorstep want­ing to look at a fence.

“There’s al­ways been rab­bits here,” he says, eye­ing us war­ily. “It was built as a rab­bit fence. But the rab­bits had got through

We have en­coun­tered many faces – friendly, weath­ered, pained, and strong.

by the time it was fin­ished. Now it’s used as an emu fence but there are just as many emus on the in­side as the out­side. They just breed up.” Damian, who is 62, wiry, and darkly tanned by the sun, has lived here close to the fence all his life. His fam­ily had the free­hold nearby at Noon­gal Sta­tion be­fore they moved in 1998 to Pin­dathuna.

Track back fur­ther and his an­ces­tors had farm­land in the lime­stone coun­try near the coast at Ger­ald­ton be­fore they moved up here. “They must have been brain-dead or some­thing,” he says, cack­ling, as he stands amid the sand and rocks un­der the harsh af­ter­noon sun.

He’s in­trigued when I tell him a tracker from Noon­gal was re­cruited by the po­lice to try and f ind those three Abo­rig­i­nal girls in 1931. “I’d heard a story or two about them over the years but didn’t re­ally know much about it un­til the movie came out,” he says.

We fol­low Damian’s di­rec­tions to the junc­tion. It’s easy go­ing for us in our air-con­di­tioned four-wheel-drive, but then we re­mem­ber that 85 years ago those three girls came walk­ing this way, fol­low­ing the fence to get home. For them, it would have been a des­per­ate jour­ney through an un­for­giv­ing land­scape.

WE’VE FOL­LOWED THE path taken by those small girls along the Rab­bit-Proof Fence as far as we can. Our time is up and we need to head home. From here, the fence runs on through the scrub im­per­turbably chart­ing its course, still def in­ing bound­aries, still def in­ing lives.

Back down south, as we make our way back to Perth, we fol­low road signs to the re­mains of what was once known as the Moore River Na­tive Set­tle­ment – the place from which those girls es­caped. It’s heart­break­ing. We drive up a hill to a bushy crest to find a ceme­tery where there are as many as 400 graves. Many of them are un­marked. Many of them are for chil­dren aged one to f ive.

“Gnalla Boodja, Gnalla Koor­longka,” the sign reads in the lan­guage of the tra­di­tional land own­ers, the Yued peo­ple. “Our Land, Our Chil­dren” is how it trans­lates. “As the tra­di­tional Own­ers of this land we ask that you re­spect our an­ces­tors, and do not en­ter the Ceme­tery be­yond this point.”

Of course, we obey.

Dur­ing our time fol­low­ing the Rab­bit-Proof Fence, we have en­coun­tered many faces – friendly, weath­ered, pained, and strong. But it is th­ese faces, un­seen, that will stay with us more than any.

Just be­fore go­ing to press, we heard that Al­lan Rogers had passed away. He worked tire­lessly for the cre­ation of a per­ma­nent mon­u­ment to ac­knowl­edge the legacy of the Rab­bit-Proof Fence.

The 2002 movie Rab­bit-Proof Fence told the true story of three In­dige­nous girls and their bid for free­dom from in­sti­tu­tion­al­i­sa­tion.

Smoke haze adds drama to a sun­set north of Cun­derdin look­ing across John Lynn’s fields.

Char­lie Smith and his wife, Joan, feed kan­ga­roos on their ru­ral prop­erty next to an ex­am­ple of the Rab­bit-Proof Fence hexag­o­nal sculp­ture that they de­vel­oped.

Rust­ing wire is a com­mon sight and nowa­days the con­di­tion of the Rab­bit-Proof Fence varies enor­mously (above left).

Al­lan Rogers is de­ter­mined the Rab­bit-Proof Fence and the peo­ple who built it be hon­oured in a last­ing way (top).

Rab­bit-proof fences two and three in­ter­sect in the bush north of Yal­goo (bot­tom).

Damian Mor­ris­sey says the rab­bits had al­ready ar­rived by the time the Rab­bit-Proof Fence was built (top).

Keith Carter’s fam­ily owns 9000ha of land along­side the Rab­bit-Proof Fence near Dal­wallinu (bot­tom).

More than 100 years on, the stur­di­ness of the orig­i­nal Rab­bit-Proof Fence is ob­vi­ous. But time wea­ries all things.

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