My childhood was spent in Cloncurry, a small town in north-western Queensland once known and locally celebrated as being the hottest in Australia. This was not really true. There were plenty of other places that were scorchingly hot to be found in the country’s remote regions.
I have fond memories of Cloncurry as a town of relatives and families. A town where closely connected families supported each other. Yet there was also the loneliness of being racially hemmed in and stereotyped in narratives based on racially divisive myths – the stories of the mind that defined the outback, about what it meant to belong.
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It probably did not help my mental wellbeing that the name of the town painted across the old water reservoir sitting on the top of a hill had been vandalised and changed from Cloncurry to Cooncurry. It remained there for several years. Years later, while visiting my mother, I found similar messages on the walls of the newly constructed dam. Hopefully, such offensive vandalism does not happen today. I remember my mother telling me at the time to not worry about it. Don’t cause any fuss.
I can also remember the time when I was very young, how I was often disappearing into dreams of wishing to be elsewhere and believing I was a failure, but I was unable to articulate why I yearned to escape.
What I longed for was a life in my grandmother’s stories of our Waanyi homeland in the Gulf of Carpentaria, a longing she talked about during our walks in the bush on Mitakoodi country. When with her, our minds stretched towards a freedom beyond all horizons – reaching the edge and walking away from the town I needed to escape.
I was not longing to be in a city. I had no idea what a city was. What I wanted was the wide-open spaces of our country – a dream of belonging that I imagined from my grandmother’s stories of our homeland, where I would one day be living in the bush, and riding wild horses like my Waanyi great-grandmother, or like my father who was a cattleman.
In my mind I still see my mother calling from a rise on a hill covered with dried-out buffel grass, (Cenchrus ciliaris). This is a drought-resistant grass introduced to northern Australia as pasture for the cattle industry. Since then it has become a tough-rooted infestation that will not be good news in a mega firestorm of global warming.
The hill was a short distance from my grandmother’s place, and my mother would continuously call for me to come home. She was disappointed with my grandmother for allowing me to roam at will around the country, but my grandmother was the family’s matriarch and was not to be challenged. She just continued tending her chooks, ducks and pet bush turkey, nurturing her garden of vegetables sown from seeds inherited from her Cantonese father, who had most likely come to Australia from southern China’s Guangdong province in the late 1800s. She kept an eye equally on her granddaughter and on the buffel grass pushing against the outside of her fence. She would yank out each and every blade of grass that sprouted in her yard from seeds that flew around in the air like a virus.
The sound of Mum’s voice was less than beckoning, so with my childhood buddies I disappeared from sight along the ancient riverflat potted with run-offs of sandy-floored gullies. We ventured far and wide along the gum-lined, dried-out riverbed, and learned to swim when it flooded. Sometimes we were living out the plotlines of the Audie Murphy movies we saw at the local “picture show” on free-for-children Tuesday night. This was the cinema owned by Bob Katter Sr, who was the longstanding federal member for Kennedy for the National party of Australia. His family was long established in the worn-out history of north-west Queensland. He supported the people of his electorate who derived a living from the cattle industry, and kids in Cloncurry got a free night of entertainment in the US-style country and western idiom of the outback.
I understand that my father, Jack Wright, was of English, French and Portuguese heritage. His father’s family initially arrived in New South Wales from the Sussex and Middlesex counties of the UK in the 1800s. Beginning with their haulage business, a part of the family became established in rural Queensland. My father’s father, John Wright, was instrumental in setting up Duchess, a thriving mining town in the early 1900s. My father was born on his father’s Fishers Creek pastoral property near Cloncurry, where he grew up in the drought-stricken cattle industry.
As an adult he was left the lease of the Oorindimindi cattle station (41,000 hectares near McKinlay on Kalkadungu land) by a man he worked with called Alex Murray. My father’s world evaporated from our lives soon after he died when I was five. It was left to my imagination to visualise his life, and I saw him as being a man of great inner strength, grown through his love of isolation on his cattle property that I never saw nor knew.
So where is the outback? There are many maps of the mind created from Australian myth-making about a fabled outback. These are the stories that Australia chose to tell itself and wanted to believe, about a land that had been stolen from Aboriginal people. This is how imagination works in storytelling narratives, and sometimes these imagined stories became embedded in the national mind.
You will not find a vast area of land that defines where the outback begins and ends on an official map of Australia. You need to see the country in a different way and understand its character and diversity. You need to know where the gulf is, or where to find the Diamantina, the channel country, the Barkly tableland, or the Mitchell grass plains, or the black soil plains, and so on, the Paroo, Warrego …
Murrandoo Yanner is one of the strongest Gangalidda wisdom leaders in the Gulf of Carpentaria. He is an architect for building sustainable long-term Aboriginal economies in a remote region, and nationally recognised for his stewardship in cultural land care practices.
When I asked him what he thought about what is generally known as the outback, he explained: “There is a ‘modern outback’ which is very much supermarkets, chain stores, Pizza Huts and everything else, and the big mining conglomerates, but the ‘real outback’ is dying within this space of a metropolis in an outback setting. The ‘real outback’ is Camooweal, Burketown, Boulia, Dajarra – all those places, as well as Doomadgee, Normanton in the land of the Never Never, or the last frontier, where things have not changed much in a hundred years.”
To Aboriginal people, the term outback is an alien concept that implies that someone is a long way from home, and home is somewhere else. We see our country as our home whether it is in the desert, the forest or by the sea. The whole continent is our homeland and the foundation of our wellbeing and our belonging.
Homeland is the correct term for this continent. Not outback, and certainly not wilderness – a land without its people. This continent consists of Aboriginal homelands. The word homeland means that there is a relationship between people and the land. Now, through the long drawn-out campaigns for land rights and native title, and reintroduced traditional land management practices, it is widely recognised that Aboriginal people have the right kind of scientific skills, developed and refined over thousands of years, to care for this fragile, fire-prone ancient continent.
Myth-making of the colonial era was about imagining the mysterious vast inland, and how to inhabit dry harsh landscapes and hot climatic conditions. Imagination is a powerful force, and this is what created the idea of the outback, and the bush literature of the time popularised and deepened the fantasy. The building of an Australian nation required myths about resilience to build a stoic psyche for surviving on a hard, hot, mostly drought-stricken land, popularised by the idea that this country needed to be ruthlessly conquered, tamed and exploited for its natural resources. This was the colonial romance: a much-needed powerful nation-building narrative of stories of struggling Australians, those of Henry Lawson’s despairing poem Out Back, for instance:
When a man is better away from home, and dead to the world, Out Back.
But this is not how we see our traditional homeland, our lands where, since time immemorial, we have maintained our cultural inheritance of caring for our country with everything it contains as if our close relative, and its archive of stories – the world’s biggest library as a self-governing legacy.
Read more of our Modern Outback series here