Friday, the thirteenth day of October, 1922

WHILE EATING his breakfast next morning, Strehlow was still full of happiness about Bob Buck’s offer of the previous night and the obvious sincerity of his warm words of personal appreciation. Throughout his twenty eight years of office Strehlow had often passed through moments of deep depression when indulging in reflections on his completely isolated position at Hermannsburg. To the dark people he had always been the ingkata, or chief, and the ajua, or old man, and to his white mission staff he had been the stiff-necked manager and eagle-eyed superintendent; and while he had in a very real sense enjoyed his position of supreme authority in both the spiritual and secular spheres, he had known also that he had been, except for the love and companionship of his devoted wife, a completely isolated and lonely man. His very power, and the duty which it had imposed upon him to make all the final decisions, had constantly served to alienate men’s affections from him: he had always been respected and often admired, but he had rarely known men’s friendship and just as rarely heard even any guarded expressions of affection.

During the whole of his term at Hermannsburg he had towered above his community in lonely aloofness. He had been keenly conscious of the fact that behind his back many of the white mission workers had criticised him in harsh and resentful terms. Sometimes these criticisms had been relayed back to him by the very persons to whom they had originally been addressed in confidential conversations or in private letters.

Thus only two months earlier a former Hermannsburg stockman had sent back to him a letter written by Heinrich, in which the latter had bitterly attacked him as the incompetent mission boss who was interested only in seeing the “lazy station blacks watering a few cabbages in his garden”, while the hard-working white employees on the run were vainly battling to get their worthless dark stockmen to carry out their all-important station duties. These stockmen had been vilified in the strongest possible terms: “They are like the hammers of hell, and nothing but a bullet will stop them.” Strehlow, of course, had been forced to conceal and to swallow his rage, since the letter had been sent back to him under cover of secrecy. But it had been a bitter pill for him to have to continue entertaining Heinrich in his home.

For the bitterly critical man who sat at his table and shared his meals with him continued to address him to his face in terms which would have led outsiders to think that Heinrich was Strehlow’s greatest admirer and most trustworthy associate.

The Finke River Mission Board also had, so he felt, been far too prone to take the part of the white mission workers against himself. This had happened on several occasions in the case of the white stockmen. The Lutheran Church had never numbered any big graziers or cattlemen among its members; and the men sent up to take charge of the stockwork involving thousands of half-wild cattle and horses on the Hermannsburg run had never possessed any previous cattle-run experience. The most that any of them had ever done before their arrival at Hermannsburg had been to look after a few tame dairy cows and draught horses on some southern wheat farm. Their stock musters had hence tended to be rather inefficient, and their droving of the Hermannsburg stock mobs on the long road to the railhead at Oodnadatta had long since come to be regarded as a standing joke among the vastly more experienced cattlemen of the Centre.

When one of these white mission stockmen, on one occasion, had had the audacity to arrange, without Strehlow’s knowledge, a sale of several hundred branded young cows as breeders to a neighbouring station, Strehlow had been forced to foil this disastrous deal by having the yard gates opened by the dark stockmen and the cows turned loose once more.

In spite of this lucky escape, the Board had been slow to approve of their superintendent’s honesty and foresight; and he had had to put up with his nasty-tempered subordinate for a further seven months before a successor had been sent up. The church people down south had often failed to appreciate the fact that Strehlow, who had grown up in a farming village before he came out to Australia, had always taken a keen interest in all stockwork done on the mission station. He had thereby acquired a much better insight into the stock problems of Hermannsburg than most of the inexperienced wheat and dairy farmers who lived in the Barossa Valley and adjoining areas. Through listening to the experienced cattlemen of the Centre and through watching keenly the methods of the skilled outside drovers hired from time to time to take the mission cattle down to Oodnadatta, Strehlow had also gained a far better appreciation of efficient stockwork procedures than the so-called southern stock experts among the Mission Board members; but these had, quite naturally, disliked admitting their somewhat pitiful lack of grasp of the unique problems of Central Australia – a country so completely removed from their own spheres of experience.

The financial difficulties encountered by the Hermannsburg Mission had been far too often ascribed without any evidence to Strehlow’s alleged lack of business acumen. But any knowledge of the local conditions would have revealed to the Board members the all-important fact that most cattlemen in the Centre who lived on holdings ranging from one thousand to two thousand square miles were rarely well-to-do men, even when all the profits of their runs flowed into their own pockets. Hermannsburg, by contrast, had always had to support from its funds several married white staff members, and a native population of rather more than a hundred people.

Because of the Board’s failure to grasp the specifically Central Australian problems, certain reorganizational proposals which, in Strehlow’s opinion, were impossible wildcat schemes that could end only in complete financial disaster for the mission, had been urged with strong persistence on him from time to time; and his honest resistance to these so-called “rehabilitation schemes” had been castigated severely as the wilful obstinacy of a man interested far too much in spiritual matters and in the tenure of his own personal power.

What had given Strehlow his deepest sense of hurt during his final years at Hermannsburg was the fact that, as his knowledge and experience increased, the Mission Board, and in particular its newest members, seemed to place less and less confidence in him. Not only were his critics listened to with surprising readiness, but even the occasional malicious tale-bearer received an attentive hearing if he came from the ranks of the church – an institution never noted for its firm rejection of irresponsible or malicious gossip. This was something that Strehlow could not understand: in his eyes talebearers, calumniators, and spreaders of malicious gossip had always been the lowest kind of vermin in existence. He considered that they were unworthy creatures who had allowed themselves to become, either foolishly or wittingly, agents of the sinister Prince of Darkness – of that mysterious “fallen Morning Star” of the patristic writers, who had turned, as Satan, into the great and privileged Adversary of all mankind. For it was Satan who had been depicted in the Bible as the malicious calumniator whose constant aim it was to spread lies, and as the hateful accuser who spoke the truth before the throne of the Almighty only when it was his purpose to bring about the punishment of sinners. It was this Satan who had been permitted by God in His unfathomable wisdom to bring down upon Job those intolerable trials of pain and suffering that had been devised to break the sufferer’s spirit and destroy his faith. And the promised era of eternal peace and joy for mankind in heaven was, according to the last book in the Bible, to be ushered in by the expulsion of Satan from heaven: the final victory over the forces of evil could be expected only after the implacable Accuser of mankind, who had been accusing even the elect before God unceasingly both “day and night” since the beginning of time, had been evicted and cast down himself. In short, during his final years at Hermannsburg Strehlow had experienced to the full both the envy and the malice of lesser men. He had come to know something of that supreme loneliness which is the normal lot of men of outstanding capacity and the invariable burden of men of genius. All persons of more than average mental stature tend to be envied and disliked by those individuals who, upon entering into their presence, experience feelings of acute inferiority.

Strehlow had always been a logical, clear-headed, and well-informed thinker, and a man with a very forceful personality. He had never put up gladly either with muddled thinkers or with honest, well-meaning fools. But many small-minded men had discovered that they possessed the advantage of superior numbers over him. If they could not defeat him in an open battle of wits, they could at least, by sneers and tales uttered behind his back, damage his image in the eyes of those whose personal knowledge of him was only limited.

Church boards could be used for attacking his policies, and even for delaying or preventing their practical application.

Unsatisfactory subordinates could be supported, at least temporarily, against his complaints and protests. Finally, whispered sneers and masked attacks readily commended themselves to that large number of little men who enjoy the spectacle of seeing outstanding individuals of a greater stature than their own being dragged down to the rather more commonplace levels of average humanity. Heroes and saints have too often won their tributes of appreciation and praise only in the writings of posterity; and some of them have been unable to avoid persecution, and even death, at the hands of their own envious contemporaries.

Few of the people who knew him had ever realised that there was another side to Strehlow’s nature – that this man with the blazing amber eyes, who was universally regarded as a stern and unbending, if completely honest and upright, authoritarian, was one of the most humane of men during his moments of relaxation when he considered himself to be unobserved. His warm, human sympathies had a habit of showing up at the most unexpected times. Thus he had been known to swallow hard and to brush tears from his eyes when reading aloud moving passages from authors such as Fritz Reuter or Sir Walter Scott to his wife and son in the privacy of his home during the long winter nights. Try as he might on such occasions, he had not been able to control his voice; and sometimes he had been compelled to pause for several seconds before he had been able to read on at all. He had not sought out the supreme loneliness of his position either among his white staff or among his dark congregation: circumstances and his own inflexible principles had combined to force it upon him. He had always felt that he had been appointed by God to his position at Hermannsburg; and God had demanded from him that he should always exercise his powers in accordance with what he believed to be God’s ordinances. There were many times when this belief had cut across some of his own inclinations, even some of his personal desires; but he had then told himself that God demanded absolute obedience from His servants in all things.

Brought up in a sternly Lutheran household, he had at times become almost obsessed by a strong sense of sin about many of the things that ordinary men did and thought as a matter of course. One of the results of this inflexible attitude had been his failure to develop strong friendships with any of the members of his dark congregation. He had watched over their behaviour with the eyes of an eagle. Smaller misdemeanours had been rebuked sternly, and major offences punished by dismissal from the station. Church penance before the altar was vigorously enforced for all sex offences.

At the same time, Strehlow refused to keep records of any church offences, and he regarded every case as closed once the offenders had accepted their reprimand or their punishment.

No past misdemeanours were ever raked up a second time.

In addition, Strehlow was too much of a man to stoop to spying tactics in order to keep himself informed on the living habits and morals of his dark congregation. He spoke with scathing contempt about one of his fellow missionaries on a different settlement, who had walked around in the aboriginal camp on dark nights, ineffectually trying to hide his storm lantern behind his overcoat, while snooping around in the hope of catching offenders against the church’s moral code. In Strehlow’s opinion, a minister might well have to be a stern disciplinarian, since he was a responsible servant of the Almighty. But God was no friend of spies and snoopers: these were men on the pay-roll of Satan.

Strehlow’s fear of God’s displeasure had also led him to refuse all invitations to attend the aboriginal folk-dances (or corroborees) or to be present at performances of the Western Aranda sacred ceremonies, even though his study of the Aranda and Loritja sacred songs and myths had evoked in him a great admiration for certain elements of aboriginal religion and culture. To attend any of these performances would have been, for a missionary as conceived by Strehlow, a deliberate act of condoning paganism; and his God would not permit him to do so. Even old Loatjira, the ceremonial chief of Ntarea who had honoured Strehlow not only by giving him most of his store of the Western Aranda sacred traditions but also by revealing to him at least some of the Western Aranda death charms sung for purposes of black magic, had not been able to induce Strehlow to witness one single Western Aranda ceremonial act. Nor had Loatjira ever been able to win any permission for himself – a man who still believed in and clung to the faith of his forefathers firmly and passionately – to practise any of his own aboriginal ritual openly on the Hermannsburg mission run. Strehlow had, of course, been aware that the Western Aranda, the great majority of whom had not yet been converted to Christianity in his days, were sometimes engaging in their sacred acts secretly outside the immediate station precincts; and he had refused to encourage any spying by informers on these activities. Indeed, he had privately often longed to see performances of the Western Aranda sacred acts. But his personal attendance, he had felt, would have been taken as tacit approval of these things by members of his congregation; and such an act on his part would accordingly have blurred that clear-cut, black-and-white division between activities labelled as sinful and activities permitted by God that he had tried to inculcate into his converts. Unable to win any counter-concessions from Strehlow after revealing to him some of the deepest secrets of the Western Aranda sacred beliefs, the ageing Loatjira had finally left Hermannsburg in despair. He had spent most of his remaining years on the Glen Helen Station run, where the practice of the old religion was not frowned upon as long as the sacred ritual was not being carried out near the main cattle waters. Strehlow had been painfully aware of the breach between Loatjira and himself, and he had personally regretted it deeply. He had also been aware that even his most loyal converts were unhappy at the long absences of the venerated ceremonial chief of Ntarea from his own conception site, and he had known that Loatjira had always been greeted like a loved ruler returning from exile by everyone at Hermannsburg whenever he had come back on his infrequent visits. Strehlow and Loatjira had always met on such occasions. Loatjira had brought him some tjurunga objects, and Strehlow had given him liberal supplies of rations which were debited to his private account. But their later meetings had been characterised by politeness rather than by friendship: there had been no real warmth in the relationship between the two most important men at Hermannsburg. Their long estrangement had continued till the day of Strehlow’s departure; and Loatjira had not been present at the mission when Strehlow left. But Strehlow’s God was a jealous God, who brooked no whittling down of His holy commandments; and Strehlow had felt that any other course of action would have been both wrong and sinful in the eyes of his Master.

It was the same fear of giving offence to God that had made Strehlow so uncompromising in his stern attitudes towards the unconventional morals and the general way of life of the Central Australian white station folk and stockmen; and he had rarely failed to attack sin vigorously from his pulpit on the occasions when any of these white visitors had been staying at Hermannsburg for any length of time. Strehlow’s sermons were, of course, always given in Aranda; but a fair proportion of the white station folk understood many of the remarks that had some special application for them.

Some of them were perfectly well aware of the Aranda words for the particular sins that were being castigated so uncompromisingly from the pulpit. Among the more knowledgeable white listeners on several of these occasions had been men like Alf Butler and Bob Buck; and these men had been sufficiently interested in the sermons to ask their dark women after the services for more detailed explanations of Strehlow’s warnings and castigatory remarks.

On the other hand, Strehlow’s personal position towards the white population on the surrounding stations had been a much easier one than that which he had felt obliged to maintain towards his aboriginal congregation. The station people who came on visits to Hermannsburg were not church members entrusted to his care, and he was hence not directly responsible to God for the welfare of their souls. Nor was he a spiritual blackmailer who strove to frighten people into the fold of his flock by threats of God’s wrath and by hellfire sermons. Once he had fulfilled his duty by making it clear in his sermons that God hated all manner of sins among both the dark and the white sections of the population, he had been able to relax in his private conversations with the white folk who had come to visit him in his home. He was surprisingly well-informed about their private lives: everyone in Central Australia knew the personal business of most people with whom he was acquainted. Strehlow was a hospitable man who enjoyed the company and the conversation of visitors. All persons who came on business matters, too, were made welcome. In addition, the Horseshoe Bend mailman used to eat at Strehlow’s table unless there happened to be a married white stockman at Hermannsburg who was willing to take him in. Station men passing through Hermannsburg were similarly afforded unstinting hospitality. Strehlow had even possessed enough consideration for the Moslem susceptibilities of the Afghans to allow them, after they had brought up the mission loading from Oodnadatta on their camel teams, to go up to the Hermannsburg stockyard, and to be present at the butchering of bullocks for their own meat supply. Moslems were not permitted to eat the meat of animals unless these had been slaughtered according to the instructions given in their Holy Koran; and so at Hermannsburg the Afghan would leap into the killing pen as soon as the beast had been felled by a bullet, in order to cut its jugular veins and pronounce over the dying animal the traditional words – “Bismillah Allahu Akbar” – “In the name of Allah, Allah is the Greatest of all”.

Always keenly aware of his isolation, loneliness, and remoteness in the human world of Central Australia, Strehlow had been affected almost as much by Bob Buck’s totally unexpected tribute as he had been by the parting from his dark congregation on his last morning at Hermannsburg. He had now become a man who needed human sympathy more than ever before; for his physical condition was rapidly worsening with each day of travel. He had always been aware of the kindliness of bush folk towards persons in trouble. But it was the rich warmth and the complete sincerity of Buck’s tribute that had come as a most gratifying surprise to him. Strehlow could not help comparing Buck’s practical attitude, and his generosity in helping him out, unasked, with the station donkey team and an experienced donkey driver, with that useless message he had received from the Mission Board a few weeks ago. His fellow churchmen had provided him with no practical help whatever. They had only told him to apply for help to the Almighty; and he certainly had not stood in need of any advice of that kind.

“Frieda,” said the sick man to his wife over the breakfast meal, “I’m afraid that I have far too often thought in the past that we who call ourselves Christians were a superior folk to those who neither pray nor read the Bible, nor bother their heads about God and the life to come. I have always striven to educate my flock to walk in what I believed to be the Christian way of life. But during these past weeks I have come to reassess some of my beliefs. It is when you are down and out that you begin to think most clearly about the ways of men and the ways of God. It was the publican who dared not lift up his eyes to God in the temple who went down to his house justified, not the pious Pharisee who had given thanks to God so arrogantly for being infinitely superior to all people whose lives were not as blameless as his own. Christ himself dined with the publicans and the sinners and the harlots, with men and women who were regarded as renegades and outcasts by the pious sections of the community of his own day. I am beginning to understand why he condemned the Pharisees, the most upright and fiery fundamentalists of his own day, as a bunch of arrogant hypocrites and as whited sepulchres, full of dead men’s bones and of all uncleanness, and why he said to the chief priests and the elders of the people at Jerusalem, ‘The publicans and the harlots go in to the kingdom of God before you’. Piety without love is useless; for God is love; and these hard-swearing, hard-drinking bush folk, living with lubras whom they have not married, are the people who are always ready to show love towards their neighbours when it is most needed. Again, it was the priest and the Levite that hurried away and left a badly-injured fellow countryman lying in his blood; and it was the outcast Samaritan who picked him up and took him to an inn for medical help, even though the injured man was his national enemy.”

As soon as the horses arrived, the van was pulled up to the station buildings. Here its horses were taken out, and their harness was loaded on the back of the vehicle. The four unharnessed horses were driven back to the buggy. While this was being done, Bob Buck, Alf Butler, and most of the population of Henbury walked down to the buggy to say farewell to Mr and Mrs Strehlow. It was a warm-hearted farewell, and a very sad one; for all those who were present knew that they would never see each other again. Then the whip cracked, the horses began to move, and the buggy climbed to the southern river bank. After that it turned east and hit the wagon road to Irkngalalitnama. Jakobus as usual followed on with the loose horses. He had left six of them behind at the camp since they were unfit for any further travelling. These horses remained standing in the shade of a big gum tree, hanging their weary heads, and looking after their receding mates with sad and tired eyes. Two of them moved till they stood head to tail – a stance that made it easier for both of them to combat the cruel flies which were forming thick rings around their eyes and lining both edges of their mouths. These horses had already reached their journey’s end. They were to stay at Henbury and await the return of their mates from Oodnadatta.

After the departure of the buggy Theo went up to the station buildings with Bob Buck and Alf Butler. He was accompanied by Ettie and by two or three dark Henbury lads, all of whom were talking to him in animated Aranda.

He had secretly felt relieved at the prospect of travelling to Idracowra separately. For a month or more he had been an unwilling listener-in to far too many of his parents’ conversations. These had ranged from discussions on God’s purposes in sending down sicknesses and disasters on those that loved Him to harrowing examinations of the whole nature and meaning of human pain and suffering. His father’s sudden desperate plight had come as a terrible shock to him. He had been roused to deep resentment, indeed to quick youthful hatred, by the failure of the Mission Board to help the father whom he had secretly admired in his pleasant moments as much as he had feared him in his dark fits of anger. The boy had been involved far too intimately in his parents’ agonising problems; and the spiritual and bodily troubles that were testing his parents to the very limits of their endurance were matters from which Theo was only too glad to have a chance of escaping for a while, even if it should only be a matter of two days. For the first time since his father had gone to bed the boy could move about again with a cheerful spirit.

He had about an hour to look over Henbury Station while the gear of the two donkeys that were to be harnessed to either side of the steering pole of the van was being adjusted, and while all the chains and collars of the other six donkeys were being inspected and quickly repaired where necessary.

The scenery around Henbury could not be described as beautiful. The station had been put up at this site only because the fine permanent waterhole of Tunga provided an ample water supply both for the local stock and for all station needs. This waterhole marked the last resting place of a tjonba or giant goanna ancestor, who had gone down into the ground at this spot in order to escape from an ancestral hunter. The latter had, however, grabbed the goanna’s tail and broken it off, in a vain attempt to dislodge the gigantic creature. A particularly high river gum which grew close to the waterhole symbolised the broken tail. The waterhole was overlooked by a cluster of great boulders, called Arilintara, which had seemingly grown out of a high sandhill crest rising several hundred yards north of the waterhole. These boulders marked the spot where a group of ancestral tjonba had raised themselves upright on their hind legs while they peered north-westward at smoke rising high into the air from another tjonba campsite called Utjoalindama, which was situated in the Finke gorge between Alitera and Irbmangkara. Henbury Station itself stood in heavy ground between two great sand-dunes. The dune crest west of the buildings was as high as a low hill and bore the name of Ilbirbeia. With cattle and goats stripping these dunes of their spinifex cover, the soil had begun drifting years ago; and the station area had long since turned into a light orange-brown sea of soft and very heavy sand.

While the donkeys’ harness was being got ready, Bob Buck took Theo for a short walk and showed him over the few buildings that constituted Henbury. Like Hermannsburg, Henbury had been founded in the late 1870s. Two of its earliest founding pioneers had been the two Parke brothers, Edmund William and Walter. These two men had belonged to the landed English gentry, and they had come to Australia for the sake of colonial adventure. Edmund Parke had arrived some years ahead of his brother, and had taken up his first blocks in the Finke Valley in partnership with a young stockholder called Charles Harry Walker. But it was the elder Parke who had been the main driving force in the establishment of this huge cattle property. A man respected by all, he had, unlike the other cattlemen of the Centre, never been called by his Christian name but had always been addressed, and referred to, by both his dark and white contemporaries, as “Mr Parke”. According to the older aboriginal stockmen at Henbury, he had been a very fair-minded boss who had had considerable regard for the human rights of the local Upper Southern Aranda group. After spending almost two decades at Henbury, the elder Parke brother had decided to return to his English estate, and had taken his younger brother with him. It was believed locally that “Henbury” had been either the name of the English family estate of the Parke brothers or that of some village nearby.

When Edmund William Parke and Charlie Walker had first taken up the Henbury cattle property, they had established their station rather higher on the Finke River, at a place called Nobmintangara, about three miles south of the exit from Parke’s Pass, where there were then, as at Irbmangkara, running springs in the Finke bed. A number of years later the present location had been chosen. There had also been an early outstation at Pmokoputa on the Ellery Creek, eight miles east of Hermannsburg. Walker had built a solid one-roomed stone-house with a thatched roof here for his residence – a rare thing at the beginning of white settlement in the Centre. This house had accidentally gone up in flames one Sunday night in April, 1880. Pmokoputa had then ceased being used as a Henbury outstation, and the Ellery Creek block north of the Krichauff Ranges had subsequently been sublet to Hermannsburg for sheep grazing. Early in 1882 Walker, who was now living with Parke at Henbury, had gone out on a lengthy trip with Dr Charles Chewings into the country west and south-west of Hermannsburg, and had been rewarded by having three geographical features Walker’s Pass, Walker Plain, and the Walker (the main tributary of the Palmer River) – named after him. Soon afterwards Walker had taken ill and gone south to seek medical aid. He had died at the Wakefield Street Private Hospital in Adelaide on 21st July, 1885, of a painful kidney and bladder complaint, aged a mere thirty one years. His name had been kept alive in the population of the Centre by his half-caste son Charlie, whose mother had been the Henbury woman Ilkalita.

Among the other names of the early Henbury pioneers those of the two Breadens, Allan and Joe, stood out; and these two men had been associated with this property for more than forty years. Bob Buck himself had come to Henbury around the beginning of the new century because he was a nephew to the Breadens. The present owner of the station was Joe Breaden, who had – upon the elder Parke’s death in England – bought Henbury, Idracowra, and Todmorden from the Parke estate in 1902. At that time the Parke estate was heavily weighed down with debts; and Walter Parke had been obliged to accept for these three stations an amount considerably less than their real value. Breaden had, in fact, apologised for the modest sum he had offered; but he had not been able to obtain a larger advance from financial interests in Adelaide. The total amount involved in the deal was, naturally, not divulged to the general public: even the official document relating to the change in ownership of Todmorden station, for instance, merely stated that its pastoral leases had been transferred to J. A. Breaden “in consideration” of a sum of £50. The actual final amount paid over by Joe Breaden was, however, rumoured to have been about £9,000. Breaden’s strong financial backer had been Mr John Barker, a member of the well-known pastoral agency conducted under the name of Barker Brothers.

Under the Breaden regime, Henbury and Idracowra had continued to serve mainly as breeding stations for cattle and horses. Whenever any stock was ready for the market, it was driven to Todmorden, if the season permitted it. Here the animals were fattened, and then taken the final short distance of sixty miles (or less) to Oodnadatta for trucking to Adelaide: the eastern boundary of Todmorden abutted on the western boundary of the town common, only about a mile from the railhead. It was the use of Todmorden as a fattening station which had enabled the owners of Henbury and Idracowra to earn considerably higher profits than most other Central Australian cattlemen. For the latter had been compelled to drive their stock over distances of up to three or four hundred miles to the Oodnadatta railhead, and then to truck them immediately, no matter in how poor a condition they might have been at the end of their road journey.

Even in the best seasons there was rarely much feed to be found for the travelling mobs of cattle and horses over the last hundred and fifty miles of the distance before they reached Oodnadatta; for the country south of the Northern Territory border consisted mainly of barren, stone-strewn gibber country.

How great the potential wealth of the Henbury-Idracowra run had always been could be gauged from the stock figures alone. According to a Report made by T. E. Day, former Chief Surveyor of the Northern Territory, in 1916, the Henbury-Idracowra run had at the end of 1914 carried 5,786 head of cattle and 1,211 horses. Since it was possible even for stockowners living up to three hundred miles away from the railhead to receive an average price of up to £12 per head in the case of cattle, and at least £10 to £15 per horse, the total potential wealth of these two stations far exceeded £80,000. The Todmorden figures were additional to this total: the latter station went in for breeding horses of a particularly fine stamp, many of which brought prices ranging from £20 to £50 each at a sale without even having been broken-in. Hence it was not surprising that the three stations together had been regarded for at least three decades as constituting one of the richest stock properties in the Centre. By 1922, however, a dark shadow had fallen on this property, as on all others that were situated in the interior: with the mechanisation of all army transport and all cavalry regiments, and the rapidly increasing use of motor vehicles in civilian life, horse breeding had become a doomed industry.

The Indian Army no longer required the thousands of remounts that it had always taken from Australia; and the next few years were to witness the shooting of horses by their thousands on all horse-breeding stations of the inland. Yet in spite of the wealth that the various station owners and financial backers had extracted from the huge Henbury run since the 1870s, there had never been any attempt made by them either to develop the property fully or to share its profits fairly with the dark and white stockmen whose toil had brought such riches to them. In the case of Joe Breaden, rumour had it that the heavy financial obligations he had undertaken in the “plucky purchase” that made him one of the biggest cattlemen in the Centre had proved a greater burden than he had anticipated. In good seasons the profits from the stock sales had run into many thousands of pounds; but there had been a number of poor years as well. Moreover Todmorden, the key cattle-fattening station, was situated in a particularly low rainfall area. Its pastures depended to a large extent on heavy floods in the Alberga and the Neales which then inundated the low-lying country along their banks. During normal years the stock had to depend mainly on deep artesian bores sunk at considerable cost. Whether it was the cost of the improvements on Todmorden – it possessed not only good bores but perhaps the finest homestead in the country – or the demands of the southern financiers, the fact remained that Henbury and Idracowra, the two stations where most of the stock was bred, had signally failed to share in the profits made from the sales of their cattle and horses.

Consequently Henbury, during dry seasons, had always depended completely on the natural open waterholes of the Finke: there was not a single well or dam to be found in the rich grass country along the middle Palmer River which wound its course through the Henbury run. The only station well on the property was the shallow one at Titra, some twenty one miles south of Henbury; but this had been an easy well to sink since it had been dug on the site of an old aboriginal soak. Consequently the six thousand head of cattle and the large herds of half-wild horses that grazed on the Henbury run were dependent in dry times on the relatively sparse feed that grew along the sandhill banks of the Finke and the hard plains that bordered upon them. This six-mile-wide ribbon of country through which the Finke flowed was as a result always grossly overstocked; and if drought conditions persisted longer than usual, the rapidly mounting stock losses soon assumed serious proportions; for the Henbury stock could not be moved to the much richer grass flats in the Palmer valley, since the surface waters in the latter dried up completely during the longer dry spells. The same parsimony could be seen in the failure of the owners to put up anything better than a few blockhouses for the staff and stockmen at Henbury Station. There were only three of these structures, and their walls consisted of huge, straight gum trunks piled horizontally one on top of the other. Mud plaster had been used for blocking the wind from whistling through the wide spaces between these piled logs. The floors of these houses, as usual, consisted of flagstones. Bathrooms and other kinds of conveniences were completely unknown at Henbury. But this was true also of most other stations in the Centre. When the Henbury stockmen wanted to take a bath, they sat in the galvanized iron washtubs normally used for laundry purposes. The water for all ablutions, and also for all kitchen purposes, had to be carried in buckets by dark women for a distance of several hundred yards from the Tunga waterhole up a steep and sandy river bank. Nor had the owners ever shown much liberality in the issue of the rations supplied to their employees. For the white employees these rations represented the major part of their wages. For the dark stockmen they constituted virtually the whole of their remuneration, except for some occasional handouts of small sums of money which enabled them to buy for themselves and their families from the station store such “luxury” items as jam, tomato sauce, lollies, large coloured handkerchiefs, and dresses. On these items – needless to add – the management made very useful profits: all of these supplies and stores were virtually impossible to obtain except from the station store. All Central Australian stations, including Hermannsburg, had to depend for the cartage of their supplies on camel teams which brought up their loads on the average only twice each year. Hence the only arrangement possible for the supply of food and rations was that the station should issue to each of its employees a fixed amount of flour, tea, sugar, meat, and jam (or treacle) each week or fortnight, and then count these items as the major portion of the wages paid to them. But some stations were sufficiently mean to depress the quality of the stores supplied to their employees. When the unprecedentedly heavy rains of the 1920-21 season had disrupted all camel transport in the Centre for some six months, and Hermannsburg too had been obliged to borrow rations from the neighbouring cattle stations, Strehlow had been startled to discover how many of these stations were supplying second-grade white flour, and brown, or even grey, sugar to their employees in order to prune down the cost of their wages to the station management. Henbury had been one of the stations run on these miserly lines. The stations with the worst reputations, however, had been those owned by Australia’s Cattle King. It was claimed throughout the Centre, whether truthfully or not, that Kidman’s managers received relatively good pay cheques on the condition that they kept down the remuneration of their dark and white stockmen and station workers to the lowest possible levels. For, as the bush phrase so neatly put it, “Kidman won’t take on any man as manager who doesn’t stand the treacle tin out in the sun for at least an hour before putting it on the kitchen table”. To do Henbury justice, it must be admitted that its reputation had always stood much higher than that. Some of the rations supplied might have been inferior-grade in quality, but the quantities issued had always been generous. Beef, too, was given out most liberally; and the comparatively large number of cattle slaughtered at Henbury annually enabled “Bob Buck’s tribe”, as Buck referred to the non-working dark people in the camp, to have some share in the food supply issued to the station hands. The Aranda local groups on the Henbury run had, on the whole, been fortunate in their treatment by the white pioneers from the earliest days. Unlike Mount Burrell Station, where stock had been introduced into the ancient tribal lands to the accompaniment of rifle shots fired by the first white cattlemen, Henbury had not witnessed any grim outrages by the early pioneers against the original dark residents. As a result even Mounted Constable Willshire had been compelled to admit grudgingly that, unlike Tempe Downs and certain other Central Australian properties, Henbury was “in a ‘quiet’ neighbourhood, as far as blacks are concerned – cattle spearing not being in vogue to any great extent there”.

While Bob Buck was showing Theo over the station, Alf Butler had been inspecting the harness, and repairing some minor breaks and tears in the leather straps. Theo had a great liking for both men and an even greater admiration for their skill in handling stock. He had seen them in action whenever boundary musters had been held jointly by the Hermannsburg and Henbury stockmen. Buck’s ability in directing half-wild bullocks in a drafting yard had seemed to him quite uncanny. He would stand in front of the cattle, whip in hand, facing the beasts on foot as they were being driven towards him by the men behind; and a light flick of his whip would determine whether a bullock went through an inner gate to another division of the yard or whether he was turned back into the milling mob behind him. Occasionally a bullock, excited by the shouts and whipcracks of the stockmen behind him, would rush forward and charge Buck with his horns. But Buck had never had any difficulty in evading him, and only rarely had he been forced to clamber up swiftly in his riding boots to one of the top rails. Butler, on the other hand, had built a reputation for himself as one of the finest drovers in the Centre. It was claimed that he never lost his temper with stock, and that he could drove a mob of half-wild horses just as quietly as though they had been sheep. These two men had been the best of mates for years, and their long, drooping moustaches even gave their faces some kind of a vague family resemblance. Butler’s moustache, however, was black, while Buck’s luxuriant walrus version was of a dull sandy colour, tinged faintly with red.

The most important permanent piece of station property at Henbury was a brass memorial plate bolted to a stout post standing in front of the main blockhouse. This was a valuable historical document, for it gave the names and the years of arrival of the early Finke River pioneers – that is, of the white cattlemen who had taken up the first properties on the Finke River and of the white stockmen and station hands who had worked for them.

According to this plaque, the first two of these pioneers had been Richard Egerton Warburton (commonly known as “Dickie” Warburton) and Allan Breaden, and both of them had come into this country in the same year – 1875.

“Dickie” Warburton, a son of the explorer Major Peter Egerton Warburton, had died some years earlier; but Allan Breaden was still living, and managing Idracowra Station. Many of the other names on this plaque, such as those of the two Parke brothers, Bill Stokes, Charlie Walker, Tom Norman, Ted Sargeant, Gus Elliot, Louis Bloomfield, and Bob Coulthard, were also familiar to Theo. He noticed that the list of names on this plaque excluded those of the early Hermannsburg pioneers. They had undoubtedly been omitted because of their association with the welfare of the aboriginal folk: this was believed by the cattlemen to be a lost cause since all the aboriginal lands had become “the white man’s country”. In any case, Hermannsburg would have needed a special plaque to itself; for no fewer than eleven men and eight women had resided there as members of the mission staff during the period 1877-90, and a considerable number of white children had been born to them in those years.

The final item on the plaque commemorated one of Joe Breaden’s proudest achievement – to have been driven up from Todmorden to Henbury in 1917 in his own car. The journey had taken many days; and donkeys had provided the pulling power over the worst Finke crossings and sandhills. Quite unintentionally, this concluding plaque notice foretold, to the people of Central Australia, the passing of an age – the age of the technically advanced peoples’ dependency upon the horse. Breaden had always been intensely proud of his fast, Todmorden-bred horses. Till the beginning of World War I he had used a buggy and pair when making his fortnightly trip of sixty miles from Todmorden to Oodnadatta to meet the mail train. Though the track went over rough gibber country and expanses of heavy sand, he had never taken more than nine hours to reach the railhead, where he used to arrive “like clockwork, on the strike of the hour”, at three in the afternoon. To maintain this speed, he used to effect changes in his pairs every couple of hours from the small mob of loose horses driven by an accompanying “blackboy”. But late in 1914 he had accepted a challenge made by Fred Budge, a “T model” Ford car agent employed by the Farina firm of J. W. Manfield & Co. Breaden had left Oodnadatta at six in the morning, with Budge following him four hours later. Though the little car had had to cut tracks for itself whenever the road went over sand, Budge had chugged triumphantly past Breaden at two o’clock in the afternoon, fifty miles out from Oodnadatta. Defeated and deflated, Breaden had purchased the Ford and become the Centre’s first car owner. That contest had convinced Breaden that the age of the horse as a draught animal was rapidly waning. Only in war there still seemed to be no substitute for it: Australians had every reason to be proud of the military glory that the Australian Light Horse Brigades were winning for themselves in World War I. Surveyor-General Day, in the 1916 Report already referred to, had spoken enthusiastically about the reputation of Centre-bred horses, and had urged the Government to establish a central horse breeding station in the MacDonnell Ranges \”for defence or other purposes”. But towards the end of World War I the British invention of the tank suddenly made all cavalry units obsolete. Over thousands of years of military history cavalry charges had determined the outcome of many important battles. The Roman Empire itself had collapsed when its borders had been crossed by whole tribes of Germanic peoples advancing westward to escape from the horsed Huns of the Asian interior. Now the age of the horse was reaching its end. Eight years after Day’s recommendation for a central horse-breeding station, terrified horses were going to be shot in their thousands in trapping yards built around the pools and springs of the Centre, whose waters were to be defiled by their brains and blood. Soon afterwards the patient donkeys were to be wiped out in similar fashion. The only mourners for both the horses and the donkeys were to be the aboriginal station workers who had handled them for so many decades. The dark men could not comprehend the white man’s mercenary attitudes: once his faithful animals had ceased being useful to him, he coldly exterminated them with brutal and callous ruthlessness. A cynic might have remarked that it had been Central Australia’s greatest tragedy, in more ways than one, to have been lifted out from what could have been termed technologically the Stone Age straight into the age of the rifle and the bullet.

When Bob Buck and Theo had completed their survey of the station buildings, the yards, and the aboriginal camp they returned to the kitchen, and Molly Tjalameinta put a huge pot of tea and some johnny cakes before them. Alf Butler, too, came in and joined them. After all three had finished their cups of morning tea, Buck, Butler, and Theo went out to the van, to find that the eight donkeys had already been harnessed to it. Bob Njitiaka and his wife Lornie were waiting for the signal to leave, and Ettie and a few more Henbury boys and girls were sitting on some other donkeys, ready to accompany the van for a few miles and see Theo off according to the Aranda rules of courtesy. Titus, the Hermannsburg van driver, had been lent a fresh riding horse and a saddle so that he could drive an additional eight loose wagon donkeys behind the vehicle.

And so, at half past nine in the morning, the van drew out of Henbury. Tjalameinta wept a few tears when she saw Theo leaving, and then called out a farewell to Lornie and to Njitiaka. Tjalameinta and Lornie were sisters. But whereas Tjalameinta was cheery and chubby to the point of good-natured tubbiness, Lornie was a slim and somewhat reserved woman, though possessed of the same qualities of kindness and friendliness that also characterised her sister. Their father had been Aremala, the eldest son of Nameia, the triumphant avenger of the massacre at Irbmangkara.

The Finke took a wide northward sweep at Henbury, and the furthest point of this huge loop came close to the low ranges which formed an edge for the northern skyline about five miles north of the station. Two well-known Upper Southern Aranda totemic sites were situated on the furthest portion of this loop – Tera, the home of a kwalba or sandhill wallaby ancestor, and Kantowala, the temporary hollow of a vicious ljaltakalbala serpent ancestor. Both of these mythological personages had eventually left their homes forever and set out for the MacDonnell Ranges. In the low hills north-east of Kantowala lay Inteera, the far-famed kangaroo centre whose sacred rites had been witnessed and described in detail by Spencer and Gillen before the turn of the century. Because of the long northward sweep of the river, the road to Idracowra crossed the Finke at Henbury, and the river remained out of sight till the next crossing, some sixteen miles away, at the point where the Britannia Sandhills had to be entered. The van accordingly crossed over to the southern bank. The eight donkeys pulled the vehicle across the Finke and up the steep sandhill bank on the other side without any fuss or bother. Nor did the donkey driver have to use any reins to guide them. Unlike horses, the donkeys stuck to their trail without any attempts to stray off the track.

Even at night they could be depended on to keep to the road without any guidance or supervision on the part of their driver. As the van climbed up the southern sandhill bank, it passed a large river gum that still raised its tall trunk skyward in token of its triumphant defiance of the high floods that had badly eroded the bank at this point and exposed all its roots to the depth of about four or five feet. These roots had since succeeded in growing mottled bark over their exposed upper sections. This dauntless tree looked like a magnificent symbol of all the plants and creatures that lived in this timeless land – a land whose weathered face clearly showed the scars of its many grim periods. Nothing that was not tough or high-spirited could survive in it for long; and the extensive flora and fauna of Central Australia showed in all its characteristics how successfully all things that lived in this country had become adapted to their environment. Nature showed a resourcefulness in the Centre that mere man could only marvel at.

Theo followed the van with the other children, enjoying his last ride on Possum who had come forward to him at Henbury, nuzzling him for the familiar crust of bread. With Tjalameinta’s help he had been able to reward Possum’s affection. It was easy for the riders to keep up with the van, for the pace of the donkeys pulling it varied only from a speed of about two miles an hour in heavy sand to two and a half miles an hour on hard ground. This slow pace enabled all the young donkey foals to accompany their mothers. They had all been branded, and the males castrated, only a few days earlier, and most of them were still weak from their ordeal. All the dark children and adults hated branding day, and grieved for the unfortunate male foals. For the dark folk, who believed that human beings, animals, and plants were all indivisibly linked by a common thread of life, respected the dignity of the animals native to their country, and also that of the new animals introduced into their environment by the white men. They never failed to comment on the brutal manner in which the white men so frequently maltreated their own animals. These dark folk had not yet fully grasped the fact that, generally speaking, civilised man normally associates dignity only with power and with money.

Even fellow human beings who are lacking in power and in money tend to be regarded as inferior creatures, fit for all kinds of exploitation. As for the animals, these exist merely to provide handsome profits for their owners or convenient targets for the bullets of so-called sportsmen who may wish to fill in their idle hours by destroying life out of sheer devilment.

After two hours of slow travelling the Five Mile Creek, a winding dry watercourse studded with flourishing box gums, had been reached. The children turned back with their mounts and the tired foals. Theo sadly took his leave of them, stroked Possum affectionately for the last time, and climbed on to the front seat of the van.

It was a little after four in the afternoon when the van reached the end of a long expanse of dreary flats that were skirted by a southern edge of low barren hills. Here the travellers once more caught sight of the magnificent gums of the Finke. The river, which had turned back from the hills north of Henbury in a series of great loops, now twisted its way south towards the Palmer River Valley. The road from Henbury forked at this point. One trail was the normal donkey wagon track, the other the rather shorter camel pad; but both led eventually to Idracowra. The wagon track bore to the right and kept to the Finke Valley. It crossed the river between Ekngata and Irkngalalitnama, and then went past Anbaia to Uratanga, a particularly salty waterhole which receded rapidly in dry periods and left behind great areas of salt-pans, yielding excellent supplies of crystallised salt. This salt was used, after grinding by dark women, both on Henbury and on Idracowra stations for dry-salting the corned beef supplies. After leaving Uratanga, the wagon road continued in an easterly direction and rejoined the Henbury-Idracowra camel pad close to Talpanama. This camel pad, which had crossed the Finke between Irkngalalitnama and Takalalama and immediately ascended into the Britannia Sandhills, was only slightly heavier and not much more sandy than the Finke Valley wagon road. But while the donkeys could have pulled an empty vehicle without much difficulty up the steep Finke bank at this crossing, they would have had great trouble in bringing a fully loaded wagon down safely on the return journey. These station vehicles did not have effective brakes; and a loaded salt wagon could easily have careered into the donkeys from behind and maimed the shafters. Moreover, the road over the Britannia Sandhills had to cross many high red sand-dunes, and it was hence normally avoided by all wheeled traffic. However, the camel pad over the Britannia Sandhills was many miles shorter than the normal wagon trail down the Finke Valley; and hence both Hermannsburg vehicles had elected to follow it so as to save vital time. The van was pulled up in the Finke bed, and the donkeys were quickly unharnessed so that they could have a drink from the Takalalama waterhole. The loose donkeys and the saddle horse of their driver also took deep gulps of water; for the day had been a very hot one. Then the donkeys were harnessed to the van again. They were clearly tired from pulling the van for sixteen miles in the scorching heat; and since the river bank up which the road ascended into the sandhills was a particularly steep one, Njitiaka and Lornie, after breaking off new gum switches, walked on foot, one on either side of the bravely struggling team, yelling and shouting at the donkeys and bringing their switches down hard on the rumps of any animal that looked like slacking. For the vehicle had to reach the top of the steep bank without coming to a halt. Otherwise it would have had to roll back again into the river bed before making a second attempt. However, the sturdy little creatures did not let their drivers down. Puffing and snorting, and shaking their long ears till they flapped together noisily, they drew the van to the top of the sandhill bank without a hitch. Once the crest had been reached, the van was pulled up. An examination of the tracks left behind by the buggy and the horses that had gone up this bank some hours earlier showed that the advance party had experienced even greater trouble in reaching the top than had the van. Njitiaka and Lornie climbed up on their seats again, and the van went forward for a further five miles into the sandhills, now blazing red in the light of the sinking western sun. There was a small flat with a fair amount of dry feed here; and a halt was made for the night.

The sun sank, and the rich sunset colour faded from the red sandhills. Theo sat down with his three companions and ate some of the steak that Lornie had grilled over the coals. Bob Buck had killed a bullock two nights earlier, and he had liberally replenished the fresh meat supply of the Hermannsburg party. Theo, who had previously seen only the yellowish sandhills on the Hermannsburg run, had been amazed by the brilliance and richness of the warm colouring on the Britannia Sandhills in the last glow of sundown. He looked forward to spending a night under the stars with his dark companions, and hoped to have a long chat at the campfire with them. But immediately after the evening meal Titus spoke up, and in his quiet and courteous manner suggested to Theo that he should retire for an early night’s rest. “We have to leave here after midnight,” he explained, “soon after the moon has risen. We have to go a long way yet through the sandhills, before we get back to the Finke tomorrow and the donkeys can have a drink; and it will be night again tomorrow before we reach Idracowra.” It did not take Theo long to work out that with only twenty one miles of the distance covered, Idracowra must still be thirty four miles away; and thirty four miles meant a long day’s journey even when travelling with horses. The donkeys might take seventeen hours or longer to cover the same stretch. He unrolled his swag near the van and stretched himself out under the night sky, now ablaze with a myriad stars. Njitiaka and Lornie put down their blankets near the dying campfire, and Titus cleared a space for his swag a little further away. A welcome breeze sprang up and quickly lowered the temperature by several degrees. In the distance a lone dingo could be heard howling. From a mulga branch close by came the mournful night notes of a mopoke. Two or three bats swooped over the red embers of the fire to seize insects attracted by the dying glow. The clinking of hobble chains and the occasional tinkle of a bell indicated that the donkeys were still grazing contentedly close to the camp. It was reassuring to know that they would be too tired to stray far during the night. A few yawns from the weary travellers showed that they were tired also. And then their limbs relaxed in the luxury of sleep out in the open air, watched over by the eternal stars.

Advertisements

About this entry