Ni­co­las Roth­well on what the Can­ning Stock Route means to mod­ern Aus­tralia

A his­tory of the Can­ning Stock Route cap­tures Aus­tralia’s tran­si­tion from colo­nial to mod­ern times, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - CONTENTS - Ni­co­las Roth­well is a se­nior writer on The Aus­tralian, based in Dar­win.

IT was the north’s bold­est dream; it was a fron­tier fan­tasy. It changed the maps; it de­stroyed a world. It was both a tri­umph of en­durance and a fi­asco of over­reach. It opened up the last, lost quar­ter of the in­land, it failed in its aims, it faded away.

All these con­tra­dic­tory-seem­ing things are true, in some de­gree, of that ex­igu­ous, un­du­lat­ing 1850km strip of fine red sand, the Can­ning Stock Route, con­ceived more than a century ago as a life­line to link the trop­ics and south­west, un­used for long decades, eroded, over­grown, only to be abruptly re­vived and re­sus­ci­tated in re­cent years, and much trav­elled as the fo­cus of a fer­vent four-wheel drive cult.

What, then, is the great stock route of the desert now: a mem­ory road or a piece of liv­ing her­itage? Who shapes its sto­ries? And what of its land­scape, at once beau­ti­ful and dis­qui­et­ing, Western and Abo­rig­i­nal, stereo­typ­i­cally fa­mil­iar and barely ex­plored or known in depth?

At long last the Can­ning has its keen-eyed Herodotus, in the form of the all-chron­i­cling Phil Bianchi, an ad­ven­turer and a lo­cal his­to­rian, a “mas­ter of the com­plex­i­ties of nav­i­ga­tion”, a con­stant desert trav­eller who has made the de­scrip­tion of Aus­tralia’s re­motest out­back track his life’s chief task. Bianchi’s vast and richly il­lus­trated Work

Com­pleted, Can­ning is more than just “a com­pre­hen­sive his­tory” and record of the route’s ini­tial con­struc­tion and grad­ual de­con­struc­tion in the course of the century just past. It traces the ideas and hopes sur­round­ing the project, it brings to life the scheme’s ar­chi­tects, and gives brief por­traits of the drovers who led their mobs of cat­tle down the sand-dune track.

In its scale, en­cy­clo­pe­dic cov­er­age and nearob­ses­sive at­ten­tion to de­tail, it is an en­ter­prise quite in har­mony with the grand am­bi­tions of the CSR — there is a ded­i­cated sub-chap­ter list­ing the state of preser­va­tion of the route’s many blazed trees, a re­port on present well con­di­tions, even a full ap­pen­dix on the Great Sandy Desert’s var­i­ous species of poi­son bush.

Above all, Work Com­pleted serves to si­t­u­ate the CSR project at a cru­cial hinge point in time, and in the set­tle­ment of re­mote Aus­tralia. The stock route was the last trail-blaz­ing scheme of the far north­west, de­signed to close the fron­tier, to do­mes­ti­cate and adapt the in­land wilder­ness. The track was sur­veyed and com­pleted be­fore World War I: the last cat­tle went down barely a decade af­ter the end of World War II. It was a tran­si­tion pe­riod. Moder­nity was dawn­ing in Aus­tralia, tech­nol­ogy was putting an end to the long isolation of the bush. This is a hard time to get right: to de­scribe in the round, and hold in fair judg­ment in the mind.

When sur­veyor Al­fred Can­ning rode out on camel­back through Cue and Day Dawn in May 1906, the deserts were still realms of dan­ger where white men pen­e­trated with a prayer on their lips, well aware their lives were in the bal­ance. Wa­ter for the stock route wells was the ini­tial ex­pe­di­tion’s chief goal, and in “that heart­break­ing coun­try” it was best found with the help of bush Abo­rig­i­nal guides: fig­ures met with on the way who proved, in Can­ning’s words, “ex­tremely use­ful to us through­out, show­ing us their na­tive wells freely and thus prob­a­bly sav­ing us months of search­ing”.

Ex­plo­ration in the last reach of the hard back­land: it was a heroic ven­ture in the old style but one mounted at the out­set of the new age of mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion and in­ten­si­fy­ing pub­lic scru­tiny. On re­turn from his suc­cess­ful first probe, Can­ning’s dis­af­fected camp cook, Ed­ward Blake, ac­cused the ex­pe­di­tion of mal­treat­ing desert Abo­rig­ines. There was a me­dia storm. A royal com­mis­sion en­sued, as a re­sult of which we know a good deal about Can­ning’s meth­ods. He con­strained some of his guides in neck chains to pre­vent them ab­scond­ing — but he did so only in ac­cor­dance with pro­ce­dures ap­proved by the Wiluna po­lice sta­tion. He built his wells de­lib­er­ately near Abo­rig­i­nal soaks, but he mod­i­fied them with the aim of en­sur­ing a con­tin­u­ous wa­ter source for all.

Can­ning’s en­try into that land­scape launched the con­tact phase in the far western desert: wary en­gage­ment, en­ticed or co­erced co-oper­a­tion. The com­mis­sion’s find­ings were handed down within a month. Can­ning and the mem­bers of his team were ex­on­er­ated, to the dis­gust of the news­pa­pers and the re­lief of the Perth es­tab­lish­ment: the main stock route con­struc­tion party was promptly sent out, and the chain of wells sunk, 51 of them, dur­ing the course of two years in desert coun­try, at a to­tal cost of 22,000. “Work Com­pleted” read the fa­mous tele­gram Can­ning sent from Wiluna to the Mines Depart­ment in March 1910.

In truth it was only just be­gin­ning. The first drovers were head­ing south from Billiluna sta­tion on the fringes of the East Kim­ber­ley al­most as soon as the last well was opened up. They were a tough breed and a fair few of them were yarn-spin­ners and em­bel­lish­ers. In­deed at times in Bianchi’s nar­ra­tive it seem as though the track was not so much a stock route as a space for tall tales. And sto­ries mat­tered on the track, al­most as much as skill and a gift for com­mand. There was more to drov­ing on the CSR than es­cort­ing mobs of cat­tle hun­dreds strong through sand dune waste­land for months at a stretch. You needed to be ca­pa­ble in com­pany.

Bush poets such as Mal Brown were pop­u­lar, as was the dis­ci­plined Ge­orge Lana­gan, who was up and down the track for 20 years and once even brought along his wife, Eileen. You needed to be re­silient, and have a stomach of cast iron. The food was al­most al­ways damper and salt beef, three times a day. “You got used to it,” re­mem­bers drover John Bee, who worked the stock route in his early adult­hood.

The track stayed in use un­til 1959, when the last cat­tle from the north went down, ac­com­pa­nied by David Rob­son, one of the rare drover diarists. Even in those days, five decades af­ter its wells were built, the pas­sage was still rough and led through for­bid­ding land­scape. It was win­ter when the team set out, as Rob­son recorded.

The weather was fine, the nights very cold. I re­mem­ber shak­ing the ice off the ground sheet be­fore rolling it up in the morn­ing and some nights the con­den­sa­tion in­side also froze. On some morn­ings it was nec­es­sary to warm at a fire be­fore re­liev­ing the body func­tions, as it felt like pass­ing frozen mo­tions. The wa­ter some­times so brack­ish it caused what we called the scalds and uri­nat­ing was like pass­ing barb wire.

Ra­tions be­came a chal­lenge: “If the meat was blown we re­moved the mag­gots or cooked them, and if the meat edge was green we trimmed it — there were no com­plaints.”

More than 40 such cat­tle­men fea­ture in Bianchi’s com­pen­dium, but the undis­puted king was the “bare­foot drover” Wally Dowling, self­ap­pointed “Desert Rat num­ber 1”, a mas­ter horse­man and racon­teur who gave his per­ma­nent ad­dress as “the land of long leads and short feeds”. He lived hard, died be­fore his 50th year and is buried in a bush grave on Mis­take Creek: it is dec­o­rated with plas­tic flow­ers to this day.

Dowling had rugged looks and sad eyes, and a very rugged frame. On one of his jour­neys down the track, near Well 14, he was rid­ing his favourite mount, Sandy, when they hit a thick desert oak at gal­lop. His leg was bro­ken in two places. His men killed a bul­lock for meat, then wrapped the green hide round the frac­ture as a splint: as the raw hide hard­ened it formed a bush plas­ter. Dowling com­pleted the trip on his rid­ing camel, Jackie. The leg healed, “not

straight, but near enough”. A wild story: a high­oc­tane char­ac­ter, like a fair se­lec­tion of those who crowded up and down the stock route in its hey­day and its more mul­ti­plicit af­ter­life.

And all this would seem like mere bush der­ring-do were it not for the re­cent shifts in met­ro­pol­i­tan ap­proaches to the out­back and the fron­tier past. As things now stand, though, Bianchi is writ­ing a counter-his­tory, and the Can­ning Stock Route coun­try is known to­day more for its Abo­rig­i­nal art than the ex­ploits of the old drovers. This is in great part the re­sult of an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­hi­bi­tion, Yi­warra Kuju, mounted by the Na­tional Mu­seum of Aus­tralia in Can­berra in 2010 and toured na­tion­ally.

The paint­ings on dis­play were the re­sult of a staged trip down the stock route, mounted by cu­ra­tors and art cen­tre man­agers, with a flotilla of old desert artists in their troop car­ri­ers. It was a pro­tracted “back to coun­try” mis­sion: the artists made a set of can­vases at paint­ing camps along the track, and the tes­ti­mony they pro­vided when in­ter­viewed about the pas­toral fron­tier and the com­ing of the stock­men shaped the show. The works they pro­duced were bright-coloured; the ver­sion of the past pre­sented as well. The stock route was “a long scar” on the land­scape, the meth­ods used to build it “cast an un­mis­tak­able shadow over its oper­a­tion”, the art project had at last “re­cov­ered the indige­nous his­tory of the re­gion”.

The most dis­turb­ing fea­tures of Yi­warra Kuju and its as­so­ci­ated pub­li­ca­tions were the un­doc­u­mented tales of white vi­o­lence it set out. Sev­eral artists re­ported episodes of poi­son­ing or mur­der. Spi­der Snell of Fitzroy Cross­ing’s Mangkaja Arts claimed to have been un­know­ingly fed the salted flesh of one of his close rel­a­tives by a lone stockman on the track. Most spec­tac­u­larly, fa­mous Balgo pain­ter Eubena Nampitjin, who died last year, claimed in an ABC ra­dio in­ter­view that she had been sex­u­ally ex­ploited by the bare­foot drover him­self, the vi­o­lent, whip-wield­ing Dowling, and had borne him two chil­dren while trav­el­ling up and down the stock route. Bianchi has in­ves­ti­gated this story with zeal and can find noth­ing in the way of cor­rob­o­rat­ing tes­ti­mony or ev­i­dence.

The hand­ful of clashes and killings on the old track are, in fact, well de­tailed, and were the fo­cus of close po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion in their time. Must these two dif­fer­ent vi­sions and ver­sions of his­tory be in such ir­rec­on­cil­able con­flict?

In fact, taken to­gether, sifted and weighed with care, Work Com­pleted, Can­ning and the var­i­ous ef­fu­sions of the Can­ning Stock Route art project al­low a more in­trigu­ing pic­ture of the past to shim­mer into view, one in which the drov­ing track from Halls Creek to Wiluna was not the prod­uct of a straight­for­ward ter­ri­to­rial oc­cu­pa­tion so much as the fruit of a ne­go­ti­ated eco­nomic in­ter­min­gling. Far from be­ing a wound or cut into the land­scape, it can be seen as the mark of an in­for­mal truce or ac­com­mo­da­tion be­tween very dif­fer­ent peo­ples, given shape and pres­ence on the ground. It was an­nex­a­tion, and also counter-claim, in a realm that still re­mains fluid, both in the ac­tive codes of law that gov­ern it and in the en­coun­ters of those who move through it day by day.

The first drover down the Can­ning was an Abo­rig­i­nal man, and the key man­power for the great cat­tle jour­neys of the stock route’s golden times were Wal­ma­jarri and Wangkatjungka men born in the Sandy Desert coun­try. In a cer­tain fash­ion, the stock route was theirs as

IT WAS THE LAST TRAIL-BLAZ­ING SCHEME OF THE FAR NORTH­WEST, DE­SIGNED TO CLOSE THE FRON­TIER

much as it was an um­bil­i­cal for the sta­tion pro­pri­etors of Billiluna, Sturt Creek and Gor­don Downs. Here again is David Rob­son, re­flect­ing on his ex­pe­ri­ences a half-century ago:

At no time in the Wiluna-Kim­ber­ley cat­tle coun­try and the North­ern Ter­ri­tory dur­ing 1954-1960 were the words racist/racism used, it was not part of our lives. We worked to­gether, faced great dan­ger and pro­tected each other yet at the same time we did not live or camp to­gether. The sto­ries in­side the sto­ries re­main in the mem­ory. I am glad that I was part of it.

But this fu­sion of ex­pe­ri­ences that was so much a part of the far fron­tier in the tran­si­tion be­tween colo­nial and mod­ern days now seems out of reach, al­most be­yond imag­in­ing. Step by step, in mu­seum pre­sen­ta­tions and in richly funded in­sti­tu­tional pub­li­ca­tions, his­tory is be­ing re­drafted to em­pha­sise the fea­tures of di­vi­sion and con­flict in the record of the fron­tier dur­ing Aus­tralia’s foun­da­tion years. As a re­sult, the Can­ning is in­creas­ingly a sym­bol of a di­vide within Aus­tralia it­self. There are two stock routes now — men­tal stock routes — and they will not be eas­ily joined back to­gether.

One of these is the stock route seen and de­scribed by FORM, the state grant-sup­ported agency be­hind the NMA’s Yi­warra Kuju ex­hi­bi­tion, which has pro­duced a smart­phone app for trav­ellers down the Can­ning, de­tail­ing its indige­nous land­scape and the episodes of con­flict along the jour­ney, well by well. One is the Can­ning seen by ev­ery­day 4WD ad­ven­tur­ers who re­gard the jour­ney as a high­light in their lives and view the coun­try as the great­est trea­sure of the Aus­tralian desert out­back.

These two ten­den­cies in our cul­ture share the same ge­og­ra­phy, but lit­tle else. One road, two worlds.

Work Com­pleted, Can­ning: A Com­pre­hen­sive His­tory of the Can­ning Stock Route 1906-2010 By Phil Bianchi Hes­pe­rian Press, 696pp, $85

Can­ning Stock Route Coun­try, by Pa­punya Tula Artists

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