In 1934 I applied to the School of Anthropology, Sydney University, to undertake field research for my doctoral thesis. A cousin of my father’s was a member of the Waitara branch of the Christian Brethren, and through them I was invited to ‘visit and assist’ at Doomadgee Mission, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. While there I would compile a dictionary of the languages spoken by the Gangalidda and Waanyi people.
Being just twenty-two years old, six-feet-tall but lanky and ‘short on common sense,’ as my father used to say, my mother was rightly worried at my chances of reaching my destination, let alone surviving six months in the wild Gulf. Yet, with her tears still damp on my shirt, I steered my four-cylinder Riley motor car out of our depression-ravaged suburb of Burwood, north to Newcastle, then onto the New England Highway with the windows wide open and the warm November air on my face.
I’d changed and repaired my first flat tyre before I was through the Hunter Valley, broke an axle in Tingha, got bogged in the black soils near Moree. I camped each night beside my car, learned to cook on a fire and make the best of what I had. These skills would stand me in good stead in the sands of North Africa, eight or nine years later, when I carried a Lee-Enfield rifle for my country, but that’s another story.
This journey north was character building, to say the least. I waited three days for the repair of a front spring in Augathella and swore like a teamster when the petrol tank ran dry five miles short of Longreach. Near Winton I picked up a swagman to keep me company for a hundred miles, then discovered, a short time after, that he had emptied my wallet of cash. Luckily I’d followed my father’s advice and hidden the bulk of my funds under the dash.
Finally, I reached the outpost of Burketown, filling the trunk with provisions for the Mission, and obtaining a hand-drawn mud map of the final leg. Two days later; four weeks after my mother’s final kiss, the Riley churned through the ruts over a tidal clay pan, and spun her rear wheels up the rise into the old Doomadgee Mission, west of Arthur’s Creek at Bayley Point.
I looked around me with the eye of a young man eager for adventure, anxious to learn what my home over the next months would be like. The mission occupied, essentially, but not strictly, an island of green, some six miles by two or three in extent, surrounded by marshes and saltwater inlets on all sides. To the north was the ocean – of a colour unfamiliar to me – a kind of blue-green-grey. A mangrove-lined creek snaked its way past the Mission lands to the east. Most of the high ground, I saw, was lightly wooded. Soon enough I would learn to tell a carbeen tree from a messmate, but that first day they were just trees, and a scrubby type they were too.
The Mission itself, when we reached it, occupied a sandy ridge overlooking more swamps. It was neat, but more primitive than I had expected. All the buildings – a couple of outhouses, and two dormitories, presumably one for boys and one for girls – were made of pandanus-palm logs standing on end, with corrugated tin or speargrass thatch roofs. I noted horse yards, a vegetable garden fenced with wire netting, and the beginnings of an orchard. A woman was carrying a bucket of water up from the well on the edge of the marshes, some of which apparently held freshwater.
The Missionaries, Len and Dorothy Akehurst, along with their young son, Frank, met me at the car, bustled me inside their home and had me drinking tea in no time.
Len was taller than me, and thin as a whip, but with big hands and a wiry knottiness to his muscles. His corded neck was the exact same width as his face. His wife Dorothy looked small beside him, with kind eyes and dark curls. They were, all in all, serious but friendly souls, and related to me how they had first tried their luck at building a mission in Burketown itself, but were forced out here, to this genuine wilderness, by the attitude and lifestyles of the local white population.
The Akehursts gave me a private room in one of the outbuildings, with a kapok mattress and bed-base cleverly made of timber branches. The floor was of crushed termite mound, almost as hard as concrete. Most of the furniture, it turned out, had been made by or under the supervision of an old white man called Bob Gates, a carpenter from Tasmania. He lived in another room in the same dwelling as I, and proved to be a good company.
In those first days, let me tell you, I set about my task with energy. I had an indexed notebook for words and their meanings, one for grammar rules and one for phrases. Len and Dorothy provided my first few Waanyi and Ganglalidda words, for they had been doing their best to learn the local tongue when they could. They let me loose on the mission children, who had mostly been brought from Burketown, and who further enlightened me to the secrets of their dialects, making me smile in the process. Meanwhile, the good missionaries dosed me up on quinine to keep the Gulf Fever at bay, and I did not have to raise a hand to feed myself, apart from sometimes indulging in the pleasurable sport of fishing.
In my free time, I was drawn to the country itself. I took rambling walks to the beach, venturing carelessly at times into the sucking mud of the mangroves. I sketched Pains and Bayley Islands, mangrove swamps and stands of pandanus trees. I saw brolgas dance, morning glory clouds, and one day I watched Nichol, one of the Gangalidda workers, whistle up an emu, bewitching it into coming close, at which point he rose and clubbed it to death for the pot.
I met all the pivotal characters in the local scene: Bob Gates and his offsider, Frank: the aforementioned Nichol, young Stanley, and his brother Willie. Lizzie and her daughter, Dulcie. There was also Mahomet Hussein, who lived along the coast a little, but idled away much of his time at the mission.
Growing in confidence, and seeking older, more accomplished speakers of the local tongues, I also ventured into the camp of itinerants on the eastern side of the ‘island,’ along the banks of Doomadgee Creek, the western arm of Arthur’s Creek. I found that if I took a little tobacco with me, the inhabitants were much more interested in conversation.
I met an old man called Charlie, who knew hardly a word of English but loved to go to the missionaries’ Saturday night prayer meetings, dressed only in a loincloth. I also made the acquaintance of a famous dugong hunter called Old Jack, who still hunted the aquatic beasts with a spear and sixteen-foot dugout canoe. Others sat around smoky fires, with scores of whippet-thin dogs in attendance, these half-starved canines chewing on fish bones and tortoise shells; anything that resembled food.
One particular old woman interested me from the start, for several reasons. One was her age, she looked to be at least eighty years, and her eyes were pale with the effects of sandy blight. The other reason was that the others spoke to her little and she kept her own fire. Her ‘white’ name, I learned, was Kitty. Her deep, dusty skin was pitted by a multitude of old scars, most notably on her forehead. She sat in the shade through much of the day, usually in her own camp, but sometimes alongside the creek near the jetty, or occasionally venturing up near to the mission buildings.
When I queried Len Akehurst about her, he told me that Kitty was not from this country like the others, her birthplace being outback New South Wales. Learning that she was a fellow New South Welshman piqued my interest still further.
Then came the bombshell. Kitty, Len told me, had been the wife of a white cattleman for more than thirty years, and her long-dead son was an infamous outlaw.
Outlaw? My ears pricked like those of a rabbit. Being young, and a romantic at heart, I was fascinated by feats of arms and drawn by nature of my profession to the science of crime.
The next few afternoons I spent sitting in the shade with Kitty. The first thing that I noticed was that she spoke English better than most of the others in that camp, perhaps because of her years in company with a white man. A clay pipe, scorched around the bowl, sat between her lips or in her hand most of the time, sometimes lit, sometimes not.
Occasionally, tiring of my questions, she would stand up and move. At other times she would accept gifts of tea or tobacco, and let me sit for hours, feigning deafness when I probed too deep.
Day by day, however, I suspected that she was growing to like me. I learned that she preferred Capstan tobacco to Barrett’s, and despite her near-blindness she could tell the difference straight off. Her bad vision, it seemed, bothered her little. She could do anything a comparable woman of her age could do, including cook, fish, and walk reasonably long distances. She had a wicked sense of humour, and one day, when we lounged and talked down at the creek, she sitting against a tree, and myself with my back to the water, she kept chuckling to herself.
‘What’s so funny?’ I asked.
Kitty pointed out into the racing ebb tide and said, ‘Big-feller ‘gator many time poke him head up an’ look at you. Might be he wanna eat you up.’
That afternoon, as if to reward me for amusing her, she told me a little about her husband, whose name was Henry, or Harry to his mates. Unlike most white stockmen and their women, Kitty proudly told me that she and Henry were ‘proper way married.’ From a pocket in her dress she produced a grimy pewter ring of the cheapest kind.
Henry’s family were German immigrants, she told me, his father Casper Flecke having been a vine dresser. If I was surprised that Kitty knew the term, I was even more surprised that she could tell me exactly what work vine dressers did, conjuring imaginary vines and the dresser’s secateurs with her hands. It was not the first time she would surprise me. I was to find that her memory for places – people, conversations; things that people had told her – was as sharp as a Kodak print.
She went on to relate how the Flecke family’s passage to Australia was paid for by the famous Macarthur family of Sydney, so Casper could work on their vineyards at Camden. After the five-year contract expired the family drifted north to Maitland, where Casper became a spirit merchant, and young Henry fell into bush work on outlying stations, drifting further afield as he grew older.
Henry had been working on Mungyer Station, near Moree, when he took Kitty from a camp along the Mehi River.
‘He took you?’ I asked.
Kitty agreed that yes, he had found her alone, ridden her down and taken her on his horse. Of course she had been terrified. He taught her to ride, wear stockman’s clothes and tend cattle. Kitty, in dungarees and shirt, worked beside her man by day, and shared his swag at night.
When Kitty became pregnant she continued to ride beside Henry and work with cattle. Their son, Joe, was born in a stock camp on Mungyer Station. Henry was enamoured of the child, and pronounced him the best-formed little fellow he had seen.
Our talks were interrupted when the first days of heavy rain came. I now learned why the Mission lands were so often described as an island, for the encircling arms of water joined hands and cut us off. The humidity grew to unbearable levels, so that I sweltered day and night, and Mrs Akehurst was struck down with Gulf Fever.
Then, when the sun was shining again, producing an intensity of damp heat I could scarcely bear, I walked into Kitty’s camp with a lump of damper and some tea. That day Kitty started to tell me about Joe. Later I was able to add to her story some details that I researched and learned first-hand from court records, and the like, for Kitty cared little for dates and time.
In the main, however, what follows is the story she told. I learned, in the coming days, that for people who do not write, recollections and stories travel from lip to lip with perfect accuracy. And for them, truth can be a matter of life and death. Those parts of Joe’s life Kitty had not seen with her own eyes, she had learned from others, and related word-for-word.
Quite early in our talks, she told me that the police shot Joe fourteen times before he fell dead, and I began to understand that few people carried such a burden of pain as that old woman. From that time on, neither heat nor monsoonal downpours could stop my time with Kitty.
Before long, sweating in my bed, under a net besieged by centipedes and mosquitoes, I was dreaming of Kitty’s outlaw son. Dreaming of the way it might have been near the end, with bullet wounds oozing blood from his gut, thigh, chest and limbs, and his lean face like a deaths-head in the dusk, and God only knew what police skulking nearby.
I came to understand that Joe Flick, the grandson of a German vine dresser and a Kamilaroi warrior, was the truest wild colonial boy of them all. I hungered for his story like a starving man.
© 2019 Greg Barron