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What's the Australian Outback Really Like?
"I have lived in Britain and the USA. Australia's social system, cost of living, outlook and weather are better than those of either country."
This is a quote from a 1994 300p fiction called, The Back of Beyond by Barbara Bickmore, published by Random House (Aust) Pty Ltd., 20 Alfred St., Milson's Point, NSW 2061. It creates stories of the early days of the Flying Doctors and continues like this:
Occasionally tracks cross the sand, signs of man like no other men on earth. Thousand-of-years-old stone paintings on rocks. The most consistently remote and barren land known to man. The most unwelcoming. Uninhabited and uninhabitable.
And then slowly, in the middle of the nineteenth century, a few men came, searching their way across the gibber plains, across the vast deserts, across the horizon that never seemed to come any closer. With the men came sheep and later, cattle. Along with these came death, desolation and infinite loneliness.
It was a man's country, for a few men had the temerity to ask a woman to share a life so removed from humanity. And yet, here and there, hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles apart, a woman did come with a man, came and made a home for him, bore his children who would be doomed, as was she, to be forever alienated from civilised society ... from any society, civilised or not. It drove some people insane. It was referred to as The Loneliness, The Great Loneliness and then, The Great Australian Loneliness.
The sun beats down on this parched earth, which for millennia seemed unfit for human habitation. It is the most isolated, empty vastness, as well as the oldest land mass, on the face of the earth. And the last to be populated by white man.
It is a land of infinite beauty, frightening, empty ... a land of indescribable bird life, of reptiles, or mystical spiritualism. It combines blacks native to the land—unlike any other people known to man—and whites of European extraction who have met the challenges of this inhospitable continent.
It is a land where Biblical seven-year droughts are common, and the earth is littered with the bleached bones of sheep, cattle, horses ... and the broken hearts of men. It is a land where flash floods appear with no warning, obliterating homesteads and drowning babies. Wind-driven fires rage out of control.
It is the only place on the plant where people dwell in underground caves to escape the blast-furnace heat of summer when the temperature hovers above 125F (+50C) months on end, where a man can die of thirst within hours. It is two million square miles unlike any other, beyond anything most men can imagine.
That it has ever been populated that any women were willing to settle on homesteads where the nearest neighbour might be as close as sixty-five miles away or as far as five-hundred miles distant. It truly is a miracle.
And the fact that towns were born there, that cattle and sheep stations developed that led to wealth, as well as to bankruptcy and death, has all largely been due to the efforts on one man, and to the radio and the aeroplane.
These two inventions and this man, The Rev. John Flynn, opened the way for the Flying Doctor Service, one of the nobler experiments of mankind, and it made all the difference to the development of the interior of Australia."
John Flynn once said, "If we once dream, the rest is easy." For Flynn himself, the rest was not easy but with the grit of so many of Christ's pioneers, he struggled against all odds until his own dream became a reality.
His heart went out to thousands of isolated settlers who were deprived—not only of the Gospel—but of the basic medical help and companionship which city people take for granted.
He dreamed of aeroplanes when the whole of aviation was in its infancy; and unheard morse code wireless which would give bush people a voice. His friend Alfred Traeger invented and developed the famous pedal radio that linked the outback to the world.
Flynn's persistence and drive eventually got the Flying Doctors off the ground in early Qantas biplanes, at Cloncurry, far northwest Queensland in 1928. The first journey was to Julia Creek for a medical evacuation, a town now served by Schools of the Air and Outback Patrol's monthly Explorers Club Magazine.
John Flynn died in 1951.
Flynn saw his parish as the whole of inland Australia when the vision of the people was limited; no radio, no aviation, camel travel, raw newspapers and primitive medicine.
His vision brought the mantle of safety to the wilderness and the message of the Church to the people.
Flynn was one of God's true adventurers, and Outback Patrol pilots and teams struggle to carry on his personal ministry to the people today, while the Royal Flying Doctor Service continues it's grand medical work.
An Australian's View of Australia
F. W. Boreham, 1886-1959 – Speaking in North America in the 1930's.
"I come from Australia, and to us Australians, you Americans seem strange people. Not that you are strange; but you look queer to us. For Australia, as you know, is a topsy-turvy kind of place. It is a place where we walk with our feet to your feet; a place whose midnight corresponds with your noon and whose noon corresponds with your midnight. A place where we get up when you go to bed and go to bed when you get up; a place where we celebrate Christmas at midsummer and keep the fourth of July in the depth of winter; a place where we go north in winter if we want to be warm and go south in summer is we want to be cool; a place where the trees shed their bark instead of their leaves, where the birds laugh and where the native animals are fitted out with pockets.
Now, just as all the world looks upside down to a man who is standing on his head, it is natural that, to us Australians, you Americans should appear odd. Here in my hand, for example, is the printed program of this gathering. The word Program is spelt with only seven letters. I am filled with admiration. The final letters of the word as we spell it are, of course, superfluous. But we British people never notice that, and, if we had noticed it, we should have been too conservative to make the change. But you Americans both see and act. The thing that puzzles me however, is that you, being such misers with your letters, are such spendthrifts with your syllables. You cut the final letters of our program; you deleted the u from colour and honour and valour; you even paint the words GO SLO in enormous letters across your city streets; yet you call a lift an elevator, a car an automobile, a jug a pitcher, a tram a street-car, and so on. Now this does strike us as peculiar. It would not be so bad if your long words were the right words and our short words the wrong words. But our short words are the right words and your long words are the wrong words. A lift is a lift; it not an elevator. You can lift a man up and lift him down; but you can't elevate him up and elevate him down...."
In explaining this, F. W. Boreham called it 'a banquet of banter', and it won admiration in the numerous conferences at which he spoke in the US and Canada in the 1920's and 1930's. It explains succinctly, the differences which bring us together with peoples of the world.
F. W. Boreham is the author of 48 books, published by Epworth in the UK from 1902 to 1958. They contain numerous short articles on the Australian way of life compared with Christian teachings. They are now collector's items. Les Nixon will Email you his book list, upon request.
Outback Patrol's Les Nixon is an avid FWB collector, and has 46 of the 48 titles on display at Patrol HQ Institute, with a supply of duplicates to lend. Only a handful of Australians possess the whole set.
Nixon is searching for F. W. Boreham's The Whisper of God (1902) and George Augustus Selwyn (191?). Any person willing to offer these will be welcomed with a veritable avalanche of affection, and offers to swap, buy or steal at any price, to complete the Nixon FWB collection.
The Bush Parsons
This is what the outback was like when the first Anglican missionaries entered it in the cause of the Gospel, and in the name of the Bush Brotherhood of St. Laurence. From Ivan Southall's Parson on the Track" 1956, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, p129. (out of print)
Heat and dust and flatness:
Back in the twenties, many of the outback places like Bourke NSW were hard frontier townships of heat and dust and flatness on the banks of the great inland rivers of the west that changed names several times between it's source and where it empties into the great south ocean, sometimes as much as 1700 miles long. The one great river, for instance, starts as the Severn and becomes the Dumaresq in south Queensland, and then the Macintire and the Barwon and finally the Darling in New South Wales! It is a magnificent stream, navigable for great distances, draining more than a quarter of a million square miles, and in the last of the 1800's and early decades of the 1900's still carrying the remnants of the picturesque river traffic, before the railways and the roadways emerged to take over.
Floods brought the silt:
Sometimes the great rivers flooded , as they had flooded for thousands of years, and huge levee banks protected the towns. Without its levee banks, Bourke might have become, from time to time, a poor man's 'Venice of the West' or have drowned completely beneath a vast inland sea. The river rose so high that it's tributaries did not drain into it but flowed backwards and inundated thousands of square miles. When the water drained away, they left yet another layer of silt over the table-flat plains—fantastically flat plains, created by the rivers across ancient depressions and undulations, gradually drowning the irregularities of the terrain in silt, and inch or two at a time, until only here and there on high ground, where a hillock might glory in the name of a mountain, the original red earth remained; rich plains created by water yet ironically starved for the lack of it.
A dangerously pitted surface
When they were wet, the black soil plains were undoubtedly black, a greenie sort of black with the consistency of an oozing slimy paste that stank when disturbed, just firm enough in the drying stage to retain the impression of animal hoofs and assume a dangerously pitted surface, brick hard, rough enough to shake a motor car to pieces. If undisturbed in the drying stage vast tracts of it set like concrete and vehicles could pass over it in any direction, in comfort and safety.
"Zis ees emposseeble!"
When they were dry, the black soil plains were a dirty and dreary white, drab, crazed like old china, and bore incredible quantities of rubbish. When they were dry, the plains slowly crumbled away to a fine powder in the burning sun, powder so fine that every footstep and every breath of wind disturbed it and every flock of sheep passing over it moved beneath a dense haze of dust, dust so light and so airy that a still night was almost too brief a time for all to settle. By night it hung over the townships like a mist in the highlands of Scotland, softening every outline, ghosting every street light, irritating human lungs and throats. It was dust so fine that forty years later it was said to have wrecked the performance of a certain brand of imported motor car by limiting its engine life to a few thousand miles. A sample of the dust submitted to the car manufacture was puffed into a state of total suspension. Sahara dust analysed by the same method settled in twenty minutes. Dust form the western plains of NSW (according to several informants) was still in suspension four hours later. ("Zis ees emposseeble," said the manufacturer, "wee caann do nooozzing!")
Easiest way in was through the cracks in the walls.
Just about all of the inland towns of any size were made of wide unmade streets where the unwary driver might bog down in wet weather at his own front gate or outside the bank, a town not beautified though sixty years old, a town in which only a handful of householders had established gardens, most had been so thoroughly disheartened by climate and dogs and small boys and myriad pests that they had given up, a town with several impressive colonial buildings - government building from the old days when men had hoped for great things, and streets of sub-standard houses. Right across the plains there were serious problems for the designers of early heavy building, foundations shifted, walls leant, windows and doors jammed and were reluctant to close at all. One building might remain firm and immovable and another next door might split right down the middle. Of the old Church Rectory at Brewarrina, it was said that the easiest way in was through the cracks in the walls, but the Rectory at Bourke passed muster. It was built of red brick and stood down by the river bank, several minutes march from the church. It had four rooms with high ceilings and a passage in the centre, and a summer kitchen, washhouse and storeroom outside in the yard. The Church at Bourke, St. Stephens, was not a church at all, strictly speaking. It was a dusty old hall of wood, with it's timbers thirsting for paint. There had been a church once, a very fine building, as fine as any in the west, but one blisterringly hot unhappy day in 1895 it had burst into flames and the roof had fallen in. They didn't salvage it, but entirely demolished it and forgot to put it up again.
(Exerps from Ian Southall's Parson on the Track, 1956, out of print. Used Book Shops are the best source. Also, read, Ian Idress's Flynn of the Inland, the story of the beginnings of the Flying Doctor Service.)
Added: Today's Workers
Into towns like these in outback Australia, men of the 1880's Bush Brotherhood entered, served the people and God, and prepared the people for what was to follow, fulfilled their Divine Calling, handed it on to others, then died. In 1972 the three Brotherhoods united to become "The Company of Brothers". It is true that actual ministers on the ground are few and far between, but the Company of brothers still exists and it's funds help ministry in a variety of places. Revd. Richard Stamp says, "I was a Bush Brother and still serving in other fields, as are many of my former colleagues." He mentions Ivan Southall’s book, Parson On The Track, and R.A.F. Webb’s, Brothers In The Sun, with accounts of the various Bush Brotherhoods over the years. A classic book to read is Charles Matthew’s, A Parson in the Australian Bush, 1903. It records the pre-auto horse and sulky days of the early brothers, before Len Daniels flying events. Richard Stamp closes his 2009 letter to Les Nixon with the benediction, "Blessings in the Lord Jesus".
In the 21st Century, rectors of the Bush Church Aid Society, patrolling padres of the Uniting and Presbyterian Churches and others, and flying teams of Outback Patrol continue the invasion. The Salvationists have their David Schrimpton and the Bible Society's Phil Zamagias based in Darwin NT, and Assemblies Steve Cavill at Longreach; flying pastor Es Morse at 84 has retired.They stand on the high shoulders of valiant pioneers before them.
The landscape is the same, the conditions are better, and the workers possess the same motivation, and enjoy the pleasures of speedy plane transport, exquisite communications, and a less torturing environment. But the people are the same as ever, and are possessed of the same needs, and require the same Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
ON FINDING AUSTRALIA
Since the 1500's, the white people of Europe constantly flattered themselves that they were good at discovering places, but try as they may, they consistently missed finding anything worth having down here in the southern climes. They were looking in the wrong places, or for other reasons ... and thus found what they were not looking for....
In the sixteenth century, the Spaniards and Portuguese failed to get within a thousand miles, and Sir Frances Drake, who set out from England specifically to find Australia, ended up in Peru. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch landed briefly in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and failed to identify it as part of Australia, found it unappealing anyway and moved on. Sixty-five years later, William Dampier made an inadvertent call on Western Australia, took one look at the locals, compared them unfavourably with the Hodmodods of Monomatapa, and sailed away. And when Captain Cook stumbled upon eastern Australia in 1770 he was actually looking for a planet, and when he had, then, a sea passage from America to India. He at least, though, had the sense to recognise his unpremeditated discovery as an island continent. So, he says so.
Of course, once Captain Cook had discovered Australia, all sorts of foreigners, like the Dutch and the French claimed to have done it first. Bacon did the same thing with Shakespeare, but Cook's claim is easier to substantiate than Shakespeare's because, had a foreigner discovered Australia, we'd have been talking in French, Portuguese or Double Dutch by now.
And so, indisputably, it came to pass that, in 1770, Captain James Cook discovered Botany Bay, (which was so utterly unappealing that it was subsequently made an airport), the British promptly dispatched a fleetful of convicts who, due to the exigencies of eighteenth-century travel, didn't arrive until 1788. If Cook had stayed on the job where he was, he may lived to a ripe old age.
Because of the invasion of the convicts, there are those who say that today's Australians are all descended from criminals. It is therefore necessary to point out that the worst crime of which those British calcitrants deported to Australia were guilty of was stealing something as modest as a loaf of bread; and anyway, only ten percent of Britain's then innumerable convicts were thus deported. The bread-stealing instincts of those ten percent have today been dispersed among nineteen-million Australians. The larcenous, arsonous and murderous instincts of the ninety percent who remained in the United Kingdom have been dispersed among 60-million Brits. In short, the British are at least twenty-five time more crooked than us.
After all these years since Cook, Australia is still, only just, in ways that matter, a frontier country with a folk history of helping out the family in the next covered wagon (or it's equivalent). It's harsh history grew out of a harsh environment-but for me, it was a long familiar and comfortable harshness. None of the gentleness of England, no dissembling; none of the tangible woolliness of the US; and not even a little bit of meaningless politeness. In the US, the plumber, the telephone operator, the sales person will all say, 'have-a-nice-day'; but should you limp to an urban doorstep here with a broken leg here, the chances are you will limp all the way to the next house alone. In London, you'd be made comfortable with a cup of tea, providing you knew who lived next door. In the US, they'd call 911. In Australia, no hospital being handy, the man next door would probably have-a-go at setting it.
But Australia still belongs to me if I no longer belong to her. She probably does not recognise me, as I do not recognize much of her, for that is the penalty of choosing to pull up one's roots. I am fiercely protective of her memories, proud of her achievements, resentful of her change. She, my mother country, is now for me an errant but much-loved child. Loved, and sometimes, hated by others for the things I took for granted. I am jealous of both the love and the hatred, feeling that those others cannot fully understand. Perhaps I have thoughtlessly misjudged her, exaggerated her faults, grasped at generalisations, indulged in inaccuracies; but I am only doing as I was taught—Ohaving-a-go!' To criticise and resent change, be it real or subjective, is the prerogative of family love. I may say what I like, but let no outsider cast a stone.
Excerpts from Australia Fair, 1984, Methuen London Ltd. ISBN 0-413-52600-3
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