Let me set the scene: 1965 — Mongrel Downs homestead was now established on a turnoff from the road Bill and Joe had made connecting the Granities road in the Territory to Balgo Mission in Western Australia.
From Balgo there was a road to Halls Creek which passed through Bill's family property, "Billiluna". The original idea had been to find a track through the Tanami to the Granites road so that Bill could walk cattle from Billiluna to Alice Springs and then truck them to Adelaide. (He couldn't send them north because of the pleuro line and he couldn't send them south on the Canning Stock Route as he'd previously done because wild Aborigines had pulled up the timbering of the wells and the watering paints were no longer viable.)
Mongrel Downs was actually a secondary project when they saw what good grass country they passed through when droving the, first mob of Billilunas through to Alice.
There are always those self-styled experts who know all about a place even though they've never set foot there and there were plenty of them in Alice and Darwin who assured us that there was nothing but mongrel country out in the "Tanami", including Lands Department officials who tried to stop our lease. We called it Mongrel Downs because of all those comments.
We didn't have an official mail delivery but depended on visitors or travellers to bring our mailbag. This meant that we got mail on average every six or seven weeks.
The three letters in question all arrived in the same mailbag. There'd been some publicity about the first-ever mob of cattle to walk through from the Kimberleys and the establishment of our property — the relevant government departments were certainly quick to hop on the outback bandwagon.
Letter No. 1 was from the Native Affairs Department in Alice Springs and it advised us that we couldn't drive on that section of the road that passed through the Yuendemu Reserve without a permit, and a permit could only be issued after every white traveller in the vehicle had a medical at the hospital before each and every trip. The reason for the medical was to prevent white travellers from possibly passing on white fella diseases like measles which could decimate Aboriginal children.
Fair enough, but (a) our road by-passed the settlement by miles; (b) the Aboriginal lads from Yuendemu were in and out of town like yo-yos in their second-hand vehicles and if there were any contagious diseases going round they would be the likely ones to take them back home because they didn't have to have permits or medicals; and (c) how were we supposed to front up for a medical in town if we couldn't get to town without a prior medical?
Letter No. 2 was from the Parks and Wildlife mob in Darwin which stated that we couldn't enter the reserve without a permit from Darwin, nor light a fire or carry a firearm under any circumstances.
That reserve is about the size of Belgium and it was my habit to camp at Refrigerator Well both going to and from Alice. I'd light a fire to boil the billy and heat up a tin of spaghetti or baked beans for tea and I'd re-kindle the fire for breakfast but I was always very careful to put it out before leaving.
The reserve was smack bang up against our eastern boundary so, officially, we couldn't even leave the property on the Territory side. So how about the other way — to Halls Creek? Not so! Letter No. 3 was from the Native Welfare Department in Perth. Balgo adjoined our western boundary and henceforth, a written permit from Perth office would be required whenever we crossed into the Balweena Reserve which separated us from Billiluna.
I might be exaggerating but I think I recall that we were supposed to apply in person to the Perth office for this one, so there we were — couldn't leave the property on the western side either.
By this time I was getting a bit twitchy. Hell's bells! We'd made that road right to Balgo at our own expense and the mission staff were already using it to access Alice Springs for business but we couldn't do the same without a permit from Perth!
My mate was laughing at my indignation.
"Honey," he said, "are there any fences, gates or signs at any of these boundaries?"
"Have you ever run across a ranger on the wildlife reserve or a patrol officer on the Aboriginal reserves?"
"Yeah, fair enough."
I tossed the letters aside and made us a cuppa while we explored the rest of the mailbag.
In an idle moment I did consider typing myself a permit or three when I travelled because I had the relevant signatures on the letters to copy, but I never actually got around to it. Didn't need to, anyway, because I never did meet any official to challenge me.
Joe had been a public servant so we knew that getting the paperwork right in head office was a lot more important than what was actually happening out in the field. When somebody in Canberra or Melbourne decided that a law was necessary to protect Aborigines or wildlife from germ-spreading or campfire-lighting local families or tourists the office personnel snapped a salute and disseminated the restrictions to all and sundry. There was absolutely nothing in their job descriptions that required them to have a medical themselves or brave the wilderness to lie in wait for innocent travellers. If there were no applications for permits there were no travellers, simple as that; the government paperwork balanced and life carried on as usual.
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