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