How an accident at Mount Isa Mines in 1927 led to the flying doctors

A. Affleck, Pilot; Rev. JA Barber; Dr. G. Simpson.QANTAS VICTORY. Photo: National Library of Australia.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the birth of the Flying Doctor service.

Much of the information in the article came from a book Angels in the Outback by former Australian Inland Mission director Max Griffiths.

Since then I was contacted by Mount Isa historian Barry Merrick who told us that like the information on the RFDS history site, important details have been left out when it came to the accident in Mount Isa in 1927 that had a direct bearing on the service.

“I researched this information and have collated it from late July 1927 to August 2nd 1927, including photographs,” Merrick said.

“Dr George Simpson was conducting what we call today a feasibility study into medical services for the Outback. However, on August 1 1927, a miner was thrown down a shaft here and was unable to be transported to Cloncurry by ambulance, in those days the road was via Duchess. MIM hired the QANTAS mail plane to evacuate him to Cloncurry Hospital.”

Merrick forwarded a compilation he put together of the events based on newspaper reports and diaries from the era.

In 1927 Mount Isa was four years old, there were two hotels, two shops, a picture show, and a couple of boarding houses. Harry Smith had installed an ice works and the railway line was approaching from Duchess while a plane brought the mail.

Dr Simpson started his study of medical services with a visit to Camooweal in July 1927 where he reported there was a bush hospital of eight beds and a resident doctor.

Driving to Cloncurry – which took him 26 hours via Duchess – he noted on July 31 “lunching at a dry creek we arrived at Mount Isa about 3:30. It is a flourishing tin town, houses, and mines, supporting a luxurious pub.”

“We called on the local doc., Dr. Doreen Hungerford, who lives in a tidy house set on high piles. No drunk could negotiate the stairs to her consulting room,” Dr Simpson wrote.

“She is a gallant, capable girl, and very popular with the 200 odd inhabitants in the town. We had not long to exchange compliments here as our objective was still far ahead.”

By the time Simpson had arrived in Cloncurry on August 1 there was an accident at the mine in Mount Isa. As reported in the parliamentary proceedings “(William) O’Brien and two mates were being lowered down Doherty’s shaft in a skip. When 6 or 7 feet above 300-ft. plat the skip stopped momentarily and tipped the three men into the shaft. O’Brien’s pelvis was fractured. The other men were not hurt.”

The injured miner could not be transported safely by road to Cloncurry Hospital which was eight hours away road trip, so they rang the hospital for medical assistance.

ODoherty Shaft with the shaft entrance sloping down to the left. Photo: Mount Isa Mines Photographic Collection.

According to the Queensland Times (August 3) “QANTAS received a call from Mount Isa, for a plane into the Cloncurry Hospital a man whose spine was injured. The mission doctor (Simpson) volunteered to go with the plane, and was allowed to do so.”

According to Dr Simpsons’s Journal “About midday Mr. Evans (pilot) came across and said he was flying out to Mount Isa to bring in a case of a fractured pelvis and spine. I had offered to go with him when the trip was first projected the evening before, and he now said he would be delighted to take me.”

They went straight out to the Cloncurry aerodrome 4km away and were soon flying over Cloncurry in the QANTAS DH50.

“We passed high over Duchess, then turned to the right, and we were soon swooping down on Mount Isa, and the waiting group beside the ambulance,’ Dr Simpson wrote.

“Dr Hungerford was rather surprised to see me again, but we had little time for exchange of compliments, as we had no lunch and wished to get back as soon as possible.”

Because the mail plane was not fitted out for the evacuation the QANTAS mechanic and Dr Simpson made adjustments to accommodate a stretcher and ensured it was safely anchored by arranging extra supports.

Then he carefully directed the loading of the suffering man on to the aircraft and attended him during the return flight.

QANTAS Plane Hermes at Cloncurry. L:R: Ambulance Officer Jack Lisson; Dr. George Simpson; Pilot Mr. Evans. Photo: National Library of Australia.

Dr Simpson said the vibration on the return trip upset O’Brien, so he gave him morphia and some brandy “which he promptly vomited”.

“Evans made a beautiful landing, and the aerial medical service of the A.I.M. was an established fact,” he wrote.

“The ambulance was waiting to convey the patient to hospital, and it was a rough, bumpy trip – much worse than the air part.”

Merrick wrote that unconfirmed reports said O’Brien was very vocal about his experiences.

“I suffered sheer hell, agony,” O’Brien told everyone, “but that was while I was in the ambulance. Red dust had blown in drifts across the road and we had to crash through these like a boat through waves, spraying dust in all directions. Every jolt sent me through the roof with pain. In the air, though it was just like heaven: it was smooth and painless in comparison”.

“The trip gave Simpson a valuable experience of the problems associated with carrying a prone patient in an aircraft,” Merrick concluded.

“Doctor George Simpson was able to demonstrate the use of an aerial service for medical evacuations and in May 1928. The Australian Inland Mission Aerial Medical Service was operational and later became the Royal Flying Doctor Service.”

Corella Creek murder mystery

This creek is Corella Creek 75km east of Mount Isa and 45km west of Cloncurry. I’ve driven over it hundreds of times on my way down the Barkly Hwy between the two North West Queensland towns in the last five years. This photo taken on Friday was the first time I’ve walked across the bridge to take the photo.IMG_0226

I’ve stopped at Corella Creek before, however. On the western side of the creek there is a parking area and a small monument that commemorates Burke and Wills. The explorers passed this way north and south in their ill-fated 1860-61 expedition. The inscription says “this obelisk was placed here by Cloncurry Shire Council, Mount Isa Mines and Mary Kathleen Uranium Ltd to commemorate the expedition of Burke and Wills who crossed this spot on the 22nd January 1861 on their journey across the Australian continent.”


I was back again on Friday for a mission. A few days earlier a man had put a photo of a inscribed cross for a man murdered. The murdered man’s name was Mark Barlow and his cross was supposedly “500m south of Corella Creek bridge on the east side of the creek”. I found out there was a lot more to Barlow’s death and was determined to find the cross for myself. So I parked at the obelisk west of the creek and set out.


I walked down to the Creek and found my first surprise. There was water in it. I had simply assumed the creek would be dry and I could simply walk down the middle of it until I spotted the cross. Plan B called for me to take off my walking shoes and socks and get my feet wet. I could see a track on the east side about 100m south of where I stood. I had to be careful. While initially the water was ankle deep, the rocks below were slippery. Then about half way down it got deeper and I got wet up to my upper thigh. I gingerly kept going with my camera in my hand to avoid it getting wet in my pockets. I finally got to the path on the other side but then needed to clamber under a barbed wire fence to keep going. It was undignified and I still had no clue where the cross was.


On the east side I picked up a cattle trail and immediately assumed this was how the guy who found the track came down rather than the precarious cross-creek path I chose. But I could see no cross. Almost about to give up and turn back, I finally found it off to my left, hidden in high grass in a copse, well away from the track.IMG_0221.JPG

The cross was in the shape of propellor blades as Mark Barlow was an aircraft mechanic. Each blade had a tribute from friends and family. The topmost blade had an inscription from Mark’s parents Don and Chris which said he was “quiet achiever, honest and strong” and most shockingly “murdered at this place on the 4th March 1993.” Satisfied with my find I walked back to the car, finding a track on the east of the creek to the road and not having to get wet again on my return.IMG_0223.JPG

But who did it and why?

The North West Star of March 21, 1993 held part of the answer to the murder mystery. It revealed the body of a missing 27-year-old Sunshine Coast helicopter pilot, Mark Barlow was found lying in a clearing by a roadside near the Corella River. Police were baffled and appealed for help, putting a mannikin dressed as a motorcyclist on the road next to a motorbike. No one had answers.  Mark’s parents Don and Christine came from Kawana Waters to Mount Isa to also appeal for help.94140743_10222377023076355_5645102832571908096_n.jpg

They said Mark left their house on March 3 heading for Victoria River Downs in the Territory where he was an aircraft mechanic. He was never heard from again. At the end of the month Mount Isa police found he had been robbed, so there was a motive at least, if no suspect. Then on March 29 a national event occurred that would reverberate in Mount Isa. Three men named Leonard Leabeater, Robert Steele and Raymond Bassett finished off a nine-day rampage across Queensland and New South Wales, resulting in their taking hostages in a siege in a farmhouse at Hanging Rock Station, Cangai, near Grafton, NSW threatening to kill people indiscriminately.

Cangai farmhouse. Photo: Getty images

The siege was notorious for the actions of A Current Affair reporter Mike Willesee who rang the farmhouse and spoke to the murderers and the children live on air. The three men held police at bay with guns for two days until Leabeater killed himself and Steele and Basset surrendered. The children escaped unharmed. The trio boasted about having killed five people already. According to Leabeater, they had been on the run from South Australia where he had been unjustly accused of indecent behavior to girls and was being harassed by the police.

Robert Steele

They travelled north to Queensland where Steele confessed to killing Barlow in Mount Isa. In a chilling interview Steele said Barlow was sleeping by his motorcycle on March 21. Steele said he slit his throat and shot him twice in the head for his money. Steel also confessed to killing 14-year-old mum-to-be Deborah Gale in a burned out trailer in Dalby, Queensland. He stabbed Debbie, then shot her in the head, loaded her body into a trailer and set her alight. Steele said she was his girlfriend, and said he shot her because she was going to tell police about previous crimes. On the way south into New South Wales, the three men needed a new car as police had a description of theirs. They stopped a car near Armidale and shot the two men who were occupants. They shot a third man who happened upon the scene. All three died.

Steele was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences plus 25 years without parole; he hanged himself in his cell in Goulburn Jail on 23 December 1994. Bassett was sentenced to consecutive sentences of life imprisonment for the Queensland murders, with the Queensland sentencing judge ordering him to serve a total non-parole period of 34 years.


Fergus McMaster and the birth of Qantas

The first Qantas Longreach to Winton flight 1922. Photo: State Library of Queensland.

Elizabeth Fysh has the right background and surname to write a biography of one of Qantas’s founders. Fysh grew up on her parents’ property near Kynuna, 150km from Winton, where Qantas began and through her husband Frith Fysh (now dead) she married into the family of two of Qantas’s founders Hudson Fysh (Frith’s uncle) and Fergus McMaster (Frith’s grandfather). Elizabeth and Frith moved to Longreach, home of Qantas’s first headquarters, where they were involved in the establishment of the Qantas Founders’ Museum.

Elizabeth’s new book When Chairman Were Patriots is about Fergus McMaster and his crowning glory, the birth of an international airline in remote western Queensland. She calls McMaster a man of extraordinary vision, one of three people to found the airline (with Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness) and its chairman for most of its first three decades.

McMaster was the youngest of eight children in a 19th century Queensland family of Scottish stock who were property selectors and miners. As a young boy Fergus helped muster 4000 wether sheep from Clermont to Longreach exciting a life-long interest in the west. He also helped work their Morinish gold mine near Rockhampton until it was spent and the family moved west to Ilfracombe. They gradually acquired more properties which the elder McMaster brothers worked.

After the difficulty of the Federation Drought, conditions gradually improved and the brothers became significant landholders with a quarter of a million acres. In 1910 they acquired the 800 square mile Devoncourt and two adjacent properties near Cloncurry run by brother Hugh, and the 1200 square mile Oban south of what would become Mount Isa run by brother George. Fergus ran Moscow station (renamed Stranraer in the Cold War climate of 1950) north of Longreach. He married Winton girl Edith Scougall in 1911. Edith gave birth to a daughter in 1911 but tragically died of typhoid fever in 1913.

In 1917 after two failed attempts Fergus signed up for the AIF aged 37 along with brother George aged 43. They both served at Villers-Bretonneux and George was killed in action. Fergus was also involved in the victory at Le Hamel under Monash and survived the war though he didn’t get home until January 1920.

Two other Aussie war veterans, Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness got home seven months earlier. As horsemen before the war they graduated to aeroplanes in the war and served in the Australian Flying Corps No 1 Squadron, McGinness as a decorated ace. On the ship home they heard about prime minister Billy Hughes’ announcement of a £10,000 prize for the first British-built plane to fly from England to Australia in under 30 days. Though they failed to get sponsorship to enter the race, the Defence Department offered them jobs to survey a possible air route from Longreach to Darwin. They found not a single mile of road between Burketown and Katherine and often got bogged down convincing them of the need for the air route. The pair were in Darwin to watch captain Ross Smith arrive in December 1919 to win the race.

McGuinness and Fysh then made the long journey back to the east coast separately. McGinness made it as far as Cloncurry when fate intervened. McMaster had finally returned from Europe and was managing Devoncourt while brother Hugh was ill. Fergus had broken the axle on his car and being a Sunday could not find a mechanic. McGinness came to the rescue repairing the car, sparking a friendship.

Fysh later caught up with McGinness and they canvassed the idea of an air taxi service in Cloncurry. They figured McMaster, then leader of the local cattleman’s association, would be the ideal local contact to get involved. The trio met in Brisbane in June 1920 and while McMaster didn’t see it as a money-making scheme he did know it would be a vital communication service. Immediately McMaster used his contacts to get backers for the proposal and raised £3000 in capital.

For that £3000 McGinness and Fysh bought two Avro 504K aeroplanes with the capacity for a pilot and two passengers, and registered the company as the Western Queensland Auto Aero Service Ltd. After they were advised this was a mouthful they changed it to Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service with its pleasing acronym of QANTAS, which McMaster said had “a ring of ANZAC about it”.

McMaster also fleshed out proposed services with air centres at Longreach, Winton and Cloncurry, an air ambulance service (which eventuated in 1928 as the Flying Doctor using Qantas planes) and a mail service from Longreach to Darwin. The first Avro was ready in 1921 (the second purchase was cancelled) with McGinness as pilot and a new BE2E plane with it piloted by Fysh. They flew from Sydney to Winton with seven stops surviving getting badly lost on the last day. McMaster was confirmed chairman at the first meeting of directors at the Winton Aero Club though the headquarters was then moved to Longreach.

McMaster convinced councils in the region to start building facilities to support the business and they began offering joyrides to thrilled western Queenslanders. He raised £30,000 in shares and hoped to win a government subsidy to run the airmail contract from Charleville to Cloncurry. The contract came out for tender in January 1922 and Qantas were announced as the winners a month later. The contract demanded larger planes and they ordered two Vickers Vulcan at £37,000 each.

While they waited for the Vulcans they started the service with an overhauled DH4. But as they first day arrived, there was a split. McMaster made a crucial decision. He insisted the company put safety first and make “adventure and risk subside into routine”. That was anathema to the individualistic McGinness and he resigned without reason, a decision he would later regret bitterly. Before he left he was still given the honour of piloting the first flight.

At 5.30am on November 22, 1922 McGinness set off from Charleville carrying 108 letters to Longreach with scheduled stops at Tambo and Blackall. McMaster met him at Longreach at 10.15am with enthusiastic crowds at both ends. The following day Fysh was at the controls setting off for Winton (McMaster drove the 180km to meet him there again) then McKinlay and finally Cloncurry. Qantas was up and running. In front of huge crowd at Longreach, McMaster said from these beginnings Qantas would become one of the world’s great air services.

For most of the next 25 years McMaster set about making his prophecy a reality, Qantas reaching profit in three years and winning the Brisbane to Darwin mail route. He oversaw its growth to beat Britain’s BOC (later British Airways) to the growing international route via the connections it made in Darwin, moving the headquarters to Brisbane before shrinking again in the war, finally watching on as the Labor government nationalised the airline in 1947. By then ill health forced him to move to Brisbane where he died in 1950. He did not die wealthy as author Elizabeth Fysh wrote. But she said, he had created a brand which is most synonymous with its country as any in the world. Even if today’s Qantas occasionally have to be reminded of its humble upbringings.






















The birth of the Royal Flying Doctor Service

captureThe Royal Flying Doctor Service is an integral part of outback Australian life and there are many reminders of it here in North West Queensland. Mount Isa Airport is one of its major bases and in town the RFDS office sits just off the Barkly Hwy. Around the corner from the office in Mount Isa is the 1950s RFDS Wild Drover plane perched high on its platform and visible from the bridge on the highway. Just 120km down the road Cloncurry hosts John Flynn Place, a museum dedicated to clergyman Flynn’s creation of the Flying Doctor service, which began in that town in 1928.

Flynn was a Victorian Presbyterian pastor and the inspiration behind two great health organisations in the bush. The first was the Australian Inland Mission a series of basic bush hospitals he established in the early 20th century in very remote communities like Oodnadatta, Fitzroy Crossing and Birdsville. These hospitals filled an urgent need, but highlighted another: How to get patients from very remote areas to remote care.

The need for a flying doctor was traced to an event over a decade before its founding. In 1917 Australia was transfixed by the tragedy of Kimberley stockman Jimmy Darcy. On July 29, Darcy suffered massive internal injuries when his horse fell in a cattle stampede. He was taken 80km on a dray over a rough track to the nearest settlement of Halls Creek in the far north of Western Australia. He needed immediate lifesaving surgery and with the nearest doctor thousands of kilometres away, Halls Creek postmaster Fred Tuckett had to perform emergency surgery on Darcy’s ruptured bladder. Perth doctor Dr Joe Holland instructed Tuckett via morse code how to carry out the surgery and using his pocketknife and some morphine, Tuckett made an incision above the pubic bone. Tuckett worked for hours, cutting and stitching, stopping every few minutes to check the doctor’s telegrams.

Though the operation was a success Darcy came down with malaria. Dr Holland made a mercy dash on a cattle ship that took a week to reach Derby and then bumpy six days in a Model T Ford before it died 40km from Halls Creek. Dr Holland walked for two hours to a cattle station and then rode through the night to reach the town at daybreak. Agonisingly Jimmy Darcy had died a few hours earlier.

Newspapers were gripped by the story of the young stockman’s desperate struggle for life and John Flynn commented on it a year later in his Presbyterian Church Inland Mission magazine The Inlander. “It’s still the pioneer who pays the price for the nation’s development,” Flynn wrote. But his eye was caught by another article in the same issue. Victorian man Clifford Peel was a fellow Presbyterian and a support of Flynn’s Australian Inland Mission. Importantly he was also an early aviator.

Enrolled into a medical degree in Melbourne in 1917, Peel had signed up with the Australian Flying Corps and sent to the western front. His letter to the Inlander was written “at sea 20 November 1917”. Peel could see how after the war planes could overcome the tyranny of distance in the Australian bush. He addressed two questions in the letter, safety and the lack of landing grounds.

Peel said even in war the number of miles flown “per misadventure” was “very large” while “the number of accidents per aerodrome was very small”. He then calculated the cost of inland flying in “time, men, material and efficiency” and said in the bush it would be ten times cheaper than running a car while landing grounds “would be found where needed”. Peel said aviation would transform mail delivery, government services and business and would be “an undreamt of boon” for those who lived in remote parts. Peel concluded his letter by saying he could foresee “a missionary doctor administering to the needs of men and women scattered between Wyndham and Cloncurry”.

Perhaps Peel saw himself in that role after the war. Sadly he was shot down in combat and killed just a few days before the 1918 Armistice and never lived to see the dream come to fruition. But Flynn could not get the idea out of his mind. From 1919 onwards he devoted his magazine to promote the cause of a flying doctor. Flynn foresaw another problem. It was one thing to have a plane ready in an emergency but the people who lived on properties needed some way of calling it out in emergencies.

Morse code was available as the Darcy incident showed but only at telegraph stations. Wireless had also started but its equipment was cumbersome and was mostly just receiver-only with stations unable to transmit out.

In 1922 the Australian Inland Mission board launched an Aerial Medical Fund to raise money for a flying doctor. Around the same time Flynn met Qantas co-founder and pilot Hudson Fysh. The then two-year-old airline had flown 40,000km and carried a thousand passengers without accidents. Fysh advised Flynn to buy new planes that weren’t damaged in the war and also to buy small planes as they would need to land on primitive airstrips. They also need to be covered from the elements to protect patients.

But with Flynn busy with the Australian Inland Mission, his Presbyterian church board appointed another minister Andrew Barber to supervise the hospitals to take the pressure off Flynn. Barber and a doctor George Simpson went on a tour of northern Australian hospitals in 1927 taking three months covering almost 13,000 kms. They arrived at Cloncurry when Qantas received an urgent message from Mount Isa to take a badly injured worker to Cloncurry hospital. Simpson accompanied the pilot to provide aid to the worker who had a fractured pelvis and spine. The quick aerial response saved the miner’s life and the publicity led to interest and donations from public and private sources.

But how could people in an emergency contact help when needed? By 1926 Flynn was also talking to an electrical engineer named Alf Traeger known for his improvisation work in radio technology.  Traeger had an idea from a returned war veteran who told him they captured a German radio transmitter in the trenches which used bicycle wheels to generate power at 20 watts. By using feet it freed up the operator’s hands for sending messages. Traeger travelled around the outback trying communication experiments with Flynn. By 1929 Traeger had replicated the German model. His simple phone cost just £33 to produce. The earliest radios sent messages in Morse code and eventually Traeger adopted a typewriter to allow people to type in their messages in English.

The next need was a base radio station and Cloncurry, the spot where Qantas was providing planes for the fledgling aerial medical service, was ideal. Traeger went to Augustus Downs station, 300km north to successfully test the pedal radio. Flynn recruited eight radio experts and sent them to pastoral stations around Cloncurry to install the sets and explain how to use them. It also put them in isolated hospitals such as the one in Birdsville. The Australian Inland Aerial Medical Service was up and running with Kenyon St Vincent Welch the first doctor based in Cloncurry. Welch had been selected from 22 applicants responding to an advertisement in the Australian Medical Journal. In May 1928 he made the first emergency flight from Cloncurry to Julia Creek, on board a De Havilland model DH50 aircraft hired from Qantas.

It quickly expanded from being just an emergency service. When Welsh was flown to Dajarra, an hour from Cloncurry, to treat a child, people hearing of his presence queued up to see him. It was the flying doctors’ first medical clinic, something that would become standard practice in the years that followed. When Flynn died in 1951 he was buried at the foot of Mt Gillen in Alice Springs in the centre of Australia. During the burial a single RFDS plane flew overhead “as if winging him to heaven” as Max Griffiths wrote in his biography of the Inland Mission. The Mission survived until 1977 but the RFDS still flies high today, a vital part of the health care services of the Australian Outback.




A visit to Mornington Island

Barely a few weeks ago in those dimly remembered pre-virus times I made my first ever visit to Mornington Island. The remote indigenous community in the Gulf of Carpentaria is not easy to get to with only a handful of scheduled flights and there is not much to detain tourists. The island is in my territory of the Mount Isa paper but we are reliant on the goodwill of local politicians to hitch a lift when they visit on chartered flights. In early March Bob Katter was heading there and offered me a ride, which I gladly accepted. It was a 1 hour 20 minute journey by six-seater Beechworth, with five aboard. Katter sat with his two assistants at the back. I sat next to the pilot, enjoying the view as we left the Isa just after dawn at 6.30am.


Mornington Island is 450km from Mount Isa, and 28km into the Gulf of Carpentaria. After an hour or so heading north we reach the Gulf coastline near Burketown. The saltpans are full of water after recent cyclones and heavy rain.


Off east is Sweers Island home of the tourist lodge run by Tex and Lyn Battle. The Sweers Island Lodge is a favourite for fishers hoping to catch the famous Gulf barramundi though sadly empty like everywhere else at the moment.


Straight ahead lies our destination Mornington Island, largest of the Wellesley Islands. A narrow strait separates Mornington from the smaller uninhabited Denham Island to the south.island4

Mornington Island is around a thousand square kilometres wide. It is mostly uninhabited except for the township of Gunana at the bottom end.


The township of Gununa and its airstrip comes into view as we descend. Around 1200 people call Gununa home, the vast majority Indigenous Australians. Contact with the British began when Matthew Flinders anchored the HMS Investigator off Sweers Island in 1802. Flinders named the islands for colonial administrator Richard Colley Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley and later second earl of Mornington.


Enough of earls, the airport sign reminds us we are in Lardil country. The Lardil and Kaiadilt Peoples knew the Macassan traders who visited the Gulf to collect beche-de-mer during the 1600s. But few European people visited Mornington Island until the early 1900s, when commercial operators became interested in the beche-de-mer and pearling trade. In 1914 the Presbyterian Church established a mission on the island with around 400 people.island7

During the 1970s, the church introduced policies to support self-management and recognition of Aboriginal land tenure through the new Gunanamanda Aboriginal Corporation. Among the lasting creations was the Mirndiyan Gununa art centre with its Indigenous majority staff focused on locally relevant programs to produce internationally significant artwork. Mornington Island artists are heavily influenced by, and connected to, their land and culture in their art.


Bob Katter poses for a photo with art centre manager John Armstrong and artist Bereline Loogatha. Bob is wearing a traditional head garment and also purchased two boomerangs, one for himself and one for me. Thanks, Bob.


Afterwards we went next door to the Junkuri Laka Community Legal Centre Aboriginal Corporation. In this centre local elders (seated) dispense wisdom and traditional justice and run a domestic violence program, men’s support group program and a mediation service on the island. Standing in the middle is Kyle Yanner a capable local man who picked us up from the airport and was running for local mayor in the council elections (an election he subsequently won).


As well as listening to local concerns, Bob told the Junkuri Laka mob why he was on the island, a message he repeated when he went to the local store. Bob wanted support for a local market garden so people could grow their own fresh produce and not have to rely on the overpriced and often stale goods of the store (the only one on the island).


Then it was on to the Bynoe Centre. Bynoe is a Normanton-based agency which provides affordable housing to local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In July 2019, they won the contract for the Community Development Program (work for the dole) on Mornington Island and the workshop is home to skilled craftspeople.


Here Bob chats with one of the grand old elders of the community Roberta Felton, a former Mornington Shire councillor. Roberta laments the loss of the old ways which she says contributes to the many problems on the island. She recalls the Second World War years when locals were encouraged to go bush ahead of a possible Japanese invasion. While she supported native bush tucker she was aghast at plans that didn’t respect the difference between women’s and men’s work. Gardening was women’s work, she said.


Outside, Bynoe workers showed Bob some of the work they were doing to make their own small market garden.


Inside, Bob held another meeting where he said Aboriginal people were dying 20 years younger than white people and malnutrition was part of the problem. Again he sought support for a large market garden, but said the local council (not represented at the meeting) were against the proposal.


At lunch time Bynoe staff and local health workers held a free barbecue for the community.


Kyle then took us around the community where Bob used a loudspeaker to invite people to a public meeting at the festival grounds. We stopped off to view the water’s edge. It looks inviting though local crocodiles, like the infamous mythical albino Whitey, might have other ideas.


Among the issues people brought to Bob’s attention was the many semi-wild horses roaming around town. While they are apparently owned, they seem to roam freely. One local told Bob that a pack of horses galloping down the main street almost killed a small child who was dragged from their path.


We were joined on the bus to the festival grounds by Kyle’s lovely wife and two children.


When we arrived at the Festival Grounds I checked out the public toilets to work out if I was a Dungamudun or a Gulmawun. My instincts said the former but sadly it was completely derelict and destroyed inside and and impossible to tell, so I’m still none the wiser.


Once again Bob gave his spiel as to why Mornington Island needed a market garden. I wrote it up for the North West Star. He showed the meeting a copy of a letter from Prime Minister Scott Morrison in November last year which said the government would work with communities like Mornington Island and Yarrabah to set up market gardens for “economic and health opportunities”. The prime minister promised $5 million for the proposal. However when Mr Katter spoke to the PM’s office the previous week about the money, he was told they had received letters saying the community was against the idea. He was here to find out if that was true.


Many locals had their say on this and other issues though some had difficulty using the loudspeaker to get their point across. Afterwards Bob had a show of hands and there was 100% support for his proposal though again the Council’s Mayor and CEO were noticeably absent. That may change now that Kyle is mayor.


Afterwards Kyle gave us another jaunt around the local sights including the jetty. The jetty was rebuilt in 2016 after cyclone damage though some like Bob Katter are dismissive of its flimsiness in extreme weather saying the island should have a sea wall instead.


It’s a nice day for boating, but then I suspect most days are nice for boating on Mornington Island.


Kyle took us out to see the weir, well stocked after summer rains.


Then it was back in the plane for the trip back to Mount Isa heading directly over Gununa as we leave.


Our Savannah Aviation pilot refuelled the Beechworth in Burketown, making the return journey a little longer.


We took off over Burketown which, like Mornington Island, was declared closed to visitors only a few days later as concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic grew. These were sensible precautions in areas with large Indigenous populations and few health facilities.


Eventually around 5.30pm – 11 hours after leaving the city, we see the familiar stacks of Mount Isa Mines as we head for home.  It was an enlightening and thoughtful day. I’m not sure when I’ll get back to Mornington Island but its beauty and its determined people left a deep impression.


Back of Beyond: Tom Kruse, the Birdsville Track postman

captureBirdsville might be the most remote town in Queensland but it has a mystique of its own and is one of the most well-known places in the outback. The annual races and now the Big Red Bash attract thousands every year. Birdsville is 1600km from Brisbane, Adelaide is slightly closer at 1500km and the road from South Australia, the Birdsville Track, was perhaps most responsible for creating the legend of Birdsville. The story of the Track and one man who used it was the subject of a famous film in the early 1950s called “Back of Beyond”. That film was an unexpected hit and a national favourite for many years. It made stars of the Track and of Australia’s own “Tom Cruise”, though in his case it was spelt Tom Kruse and he was an outback postman who pre-dated Cruise by many years.

Kruse’s story is told in “Mailman of the Birdsville Track” (2003) by Kristin Weidenbach. Weidenbach introduces herself as “the daughter of the chief Badger restorer Neil Weidenbach”. The Badger was a Leyland truck which Kruse used to deliver the mail along the Birdsville Track.

The film Back of Beyond is worth checking out. The plummy narrator tells of how the bush postie grinds his way through the desert, his truck filled with necessities and news for the Outback. The rough track is covered in sandhills and passengers need to get out and place iron sheets (left there for this purpose) under bogged tyres to enable the Badger to escape. It revs in circles to speed up and climb over the tricky sandhills.

It’s one of many memorable scenes and Kruse’s battered hat and craggy face is unmissable. Kruse spent just 20 of his 96 years as the Birdsville postie but this was the role that defined him. Kristen Weidenbach met Kruse through her father. Still spry into his eighties, Kruse was an inveterate talker and held an astonishing memory of his life.

Born in 1911 in a family of 12 children at Waterloo, 120km north of Adelaide, Kruse left school at 13 and did odd jobs, getting valuable lessons in bush repairs and mechanical improvisation. In the Depression he moved 200km north to Yunta on the Barrier Hwy where he worked for his uncle as a mechanic. He then got a job with carter Harry Ding, hauling livestock, wheat and wool.

Ding owned Northern SA mail runs and successfully bid for the Marree-Birdsville route in 1935. The two towns were linked by the Birdsville Track, a dry, lonely and ill-defined cattle trail. Founded in the 1880s to move stock from the Channel Country to southern markets, the Track was “500 kilometres of blinding sunlight glinting off orange gibber stones, eerie desert darkness and palpable silence”. It was also full of flies, choking dust storms and sand that clogged air filters. 

Kruse was Ding’s most competent driver and the natural for the new role. Ding proposed a one week route every second week: three days north, one day in Birdsville and three days back. In the off weeks there were other jobs. Kruse had never driven the Track before he started in a six-wheeled Leyland Cub in 45 degree heat on New Year’s Day 1936. The new service was a threat to the Afghan cameleers that dominated the supply of goods along the route (though the mail had always gone by horse). Kruse carried the mail and five passengers, three who clung on top of the load.

The Track passed windswept sandhills and hard claypans and was often merely two faint tyre trails requiring local knowledge to decipher. After camping at Cooper Creek, day two saw the first of the fearsome sandhills at Ooroowillanie. Kruse used coconut matting to lay on the sand to glide over them. At the bottom of the hill, the passengers got off, Kruse laid down the matting, reversed the truck and charged at the dune. Halfway up it slid off the mat and he had to start again. It took several goes to get over the top and the mats were torn to shreds.

He arrived in Birdsville in flurry of excitement with townsfolk keen to see their fortnightly mail and the new truck. They read their mails and constructed replies for Harry to take home the following day, with more passengers for the journey.

The first journey was mechanically trouble-free but it didn’t take long for the desert to take its toll. On the second trip a universal joint snapped forcing him to walk 9kms to a station, then 45km by horse and foot to another where he borrowed a Dodge to complete the run. The Cub was stuck for weeks awaiting parts. While out of action he used Ding’s 1934 Ford which twisted an axle in the middle of nowhere. With no radios, Ding eventually found out Kruse had not reached Birdsville and sent a mission to find them at Goyder Lagoon. After that they set up the trucks with radios to report progress.

Kruse got used to the conditions but in the wet season a one-week trip could take six when the rivers rose and cut the track. At these times Kruse used two vehicles one on either side of the Cooper Creek and a boat to ferry cargo between the two. In 1936 Ding bought the Leyland Badger and in 1939 it was improved with a gearbox and rear axle from an abandoned Thorneycroft which improved performance in the sand. It lacked was brakes, a “decorative accessory” in the desert.

Kruse and the overladen Badger were famous on the Track by 1942. He was 27 and married to Valma, whom he courted for five years, Ding made him Marree manager and the couple set up home there. Valma accompanied him on the Birdsville run, sleeping in the open, until the birth of their first daughter in 1943. The road improved but iron sheets were still needed to traverse bigger sandhills. When coming from the west, there was a near-vertical drop from the top so Kruse had to be at the right speed to slide down the eastern side.

At the half way point, Mungerannie Gap, the country changed from sandhills to the pebbly gibber plains of the Sturt Stony Desert. Kruse called it a never-ending paddock of marbles, constantly jolting and shuddering through flying stones. They caused numerous punctures fixed with a hand pump that took 1000 strokes to get to pressure.

In 1947 Kruse bought the mail run from Ding. But the years that followed were flood years and it was almost impossible to make money while the Cooper Creek was up, often for six months. Instead of one vehicle and one or two men, Kruse needed three men and two vehicles. By 1951 and the third year of flood Kruse had enough and offered the mail run to another man while he started a dam-sinking business (though he didn’t sell the run until 1963). The track quality was improving and a new four-wheel Blitz was more suited to the desert terrain than the six-wheelers of Kruse’s era. The Badger became Kruse’s runabout.

A year later filmmaker John Heyer, working for the Shell Film Unit, arrived in the outback to make a film about “the spirit of Australia”. The Maree-Birdsville mail run was ideal for his project. It was a heavily scripted docu-drama and the mailman represented all the hard-working pioneers of the inland. When Heyer met Kruse he knew he was the man to play the role.

Back of Beyond was filmed in 1952 and Kruse had to bring the Badger. Heyer and a ten person crew left Marree in four 4WD vehicles carrying generators, radios, wind machines and three months of food.  They recreated many hazards of the mail run, filming a dust storm using an old aeroplane engine with a huge propeller at Etadunna station. They had Kruse fall out of the boat on the creek crossing, a hazardous undertaking as he could not swim.

In the most famous scene, Kruse dances with a dressmakers’ dummy on the banks of the Cooper, doffing his hat to his imaginary partner. Though Kruse was not paid for his role, it changed his life. The film premiered in Adelaide in 1954 and was an immediate hit. Though the sound tapes were scratched in the desert and actors overlaid the voices of Kruse and others, he and Valma (who also appeared briefly, calling him in for dinner) loved it when it finally played in Marree, to great applause and laughter.

The critics loved it too. The Sydney Morning Herald called it an Australian masterpiece in “an environment that will not compromise with man”. Shell toured the film across Australia and it packed out halls. Schools borrowed it and a generation was mesmerised by the Australian desert and envied Kruse his lifestyle (which ironically he changed by then). By 1960 more people had seen Back of Beyond than any other Australian film.

The young Queen Elizabeth saw it on her Royal Yacht in 1954. She was so impressed she added Kruse to the New Year’s honours list and he became Tom Kruse MBE in 1955. His new dam-sinking career was just as arduous and required many months at a time on the road. After innumerable breakdowns and bush repairs, the Badger was still used as a water truck but in 1958 it met its end at Pandie Pandie station in north-east South Australia. The engine was dead but the tray was still useful and the truck became a platform to store fuel drums in the field. The Badger slowly sunk to the ground, abandoned to its fate.

The family moved from Marree to Adelaide in the 1960s though Tom still roamed the inland working on dams. He retired in 1984 aged 70. Two years later SA celebrated 150 years and planned a ride from Port Augusta to Birdsville. It included a reenactment of the mail run with Kruse driving a 1950s style Chevy Blitz. Kruse suggested the crew check out the Badger while in the area.

The reenactment involved 80 vehicles. After getting to Birdsville they went back 50km to Pandie Pandie and found the Badger next to an abandoned Cub vehicle. The Badger was a wreck and couldn’t be moved but they rescued the Cub. Kruse believed he could rescue the Badger but was shocked to hear others did it without his knowledge in 1993. A group including Neil Wiesenbach carefully extracted the old truck skeleton and after Kruse got over his shock and disappointment, he joined the loving restoration in Adelaide.

A film crew heard about the project and decided on one last trip in 1999. The film “The Mail Truck’s Last Run” raised funds for the Flying Doctors. An official reenactment convoy left Birdsville for Marree with Kruse driving and camped at the Cooper for an auction to raise money and a screening of Back of Beyond. The Badger was not up to the full journey, making most of it on a truck and wheeled out for key sections such as the entry into Birdsville at 30kph under a banner reading “The Mail Truck’s Last Run”.

The passenger-side door and nameplate were donated to the Birdsville Museum. The rest of the Badger set off for the trip to Marree and drove for three hours before being loaded on the truck. They arrived in Marree to a hero’s welcome and Tom caught up with many he had not seen since 1963. A few days later he drove the Badger to the Adelaide GPO to officially hand it over to the mayor. The Badger ended up in the National Motor Museum at Birdwood in the Adelaide Hills.

Kruse was a celebrity for the remainder of his days. In 2000 he and the Badger were the stars of the National 4 x 4 show in Melbourne. In 2001 there was the long-awaited screening of Last Mail from Birdsville and Wiesenbach’s book came out two years later. He died aged 96 in 2011. In ABC’s report of his death, former governor-general Major-General Michael Jeffery said Kruse had saved many lives during his Outback days. “I think we use the term hero far too frequently when it doesn’t really apply, but I think in this case it does,” he said.


Benito Mussolini and the rise of fascism

captureBarely 20 years fascism was a dated concept buried in the history books. The rise of Donald Trump has changed all that. This week alone Salon spoke about Trump as the “president who is acting like a fascist dictator” while many opposition to him define themselves as anti-fascist.

It is a century since the original fascist leader came to power, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, and Donald Sassoon’s Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism is worth a read to look for lessons for today.

Mussolini came to power in the mythologised “march on Rome” of 1922, though prosaically he arrived in the overnight train from Milan not on horseback as he fantasised. His was no insurrection either. Though he told newspapers “we have made a revolution unparalleled”,  he was there to meet the King who appointed him prime minister of a coalition government.

Later Mussolini bent the facts to suit the legend and he wasted no time in removing the trappings of democracy. Sassoon methodically shows how he was helped by authorities every step of the way. They, like German leaders with Hitler 10 years later, helped him because they thought he was malleable and the socialist alternative was too frightening to contemplate.

The old elites despised Mussolini, a former schoolteacher and the son of a blacksmith and schoolmistress. They recognised he could do the dirty work they couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Mussolini was a soldier in World War One, a war Italy entered reluctantly in the hope of gaining Trentino, Trieste and parts of Turkey. Mussolini had been a Socialist before the war but despised the party’s timidity and he supported the war effort.

It was a brutal war for Italy which lost 650,000 dead and one million wounded. There was a staggering defeat to the Austrians at Caporetto in 1916 though they did end up on the winning side. Mussolini was wounded in 1916 and discharged. Fellow veterans were the fodder for his right-wing paramilitary association who wore black shirts inspired by Italian crack troops of the Arditi, while the Arditi hymn “Giovinezza” (youth) became the fascist party anthem. The word “fascio” (bundle or bunch) was originally used by left-wing peasants while in 1917 a group of 80 pro-war MPs called themselves Fascio nationale di azione, whom Mussolini called “the fascist deputies”.

Italy did badly out of post-war negotiations. They showed no interest in anything other than their demands and Woodrow Wilson was suspicious of Italian intentions. Italian negotiators overplayed their hand and failed to get their demands. At home veterans associations wanted to keep their army jobs though the economy could no longer support a large bureaucracy. A weak government stood by as poet Gabriele D’Annunzio led a rabble army to seize the free city of Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia).

Mussolini’s new National Fascist Party did poorly in the 1919 election but he did have a newspaper Il Populo d’Italia to preach his message. It was anti-parliamentarian but otherwise had a vague agenda. The Socialists won the most seats in 1919 but a Catholic party denied them a clear majority producing parliamentary paralysis. Through 1919 and 1920 there were general strikes across the North and workers councils took over the factories. But the socialists were internally divided, there was a split with Communists and none of them could not grasp power through negotiation.

The industrialists panicked at the prospect of “workers control” and looked for help from new forces. Mussolini concentrated his efforts on the rural sector, the landlords, the peasantry below them, and the sharecroppers on the bottom. The latter were initially drawn to the socialists and worried landholders recruited fascist squads to keep their power. Fascists used violence to good effect, frightening the population away from the socialists.

Their brutal strike-breaking methods were applauded by sections of the press as a necessary task which once completed the fascisti could be controlled. Armed forces and police were also sympathetic and turned a blind eye. The Catholic Party and Socialists could have opposed them but were too busy squabbling with each other. By the end of 1920 the fascists, bankrolled by the landlords, were a significant power ready to take on the cities.

In Trieste Mussolini used his fascists to attack the offices of the Slovenian minority to great acclaim before turning on the socialists. In Bologna they opened fire on socialists celebrating a local election victory killing nine, and burned down the Chamber of Labour. In 1921 local elites cheered on as the fascists rampaged against chambers, cultural offices, land leagues, libraries, printing shops and mutual help societies. Whereever the red vote was high, socialists were terrorised, beaten and murdered. The violence paid off with areas like Ferrara turning black from red at the 1921 election. As one fascist leader put it “Our objective was to devalue the state, destroy the present regime and all its venerable institutions. The more our actions are seen to be scandalous, the better”.

Their actions resonated with male students who enjoyed the militaristic activities, the macho solidarity and flirtation with martyrdom. Their violence was legitimised as prime minister Giovanni Giolitti included them on his electoral bloc in May 1921. Giolitti, like many others, underestimated Mussolini’s warriors, saying they would “make a lot of noise but leave nothing behind except smoke”.

Decisive to their growth was the support of police and carabinieri and the army often supplied them transport to rallies, with higher ranks viewing them with “cautious benevolence”. Giolitti’s attempts to stop them were half-hearted. After the election the left was divided between Socialists and Communists, while the fascists won 35 seats which left them as a minor force. Now in parliament Mussolini calmed down the violence and signed a peace pact with new prime minister Ivanoe Bonomi. While violence continued, Mussolini had acquired a veneer of respectability.

He appeased industrialists by saying their economic policy would be liberal not socialist. By 1922 when everyone was paying attention to him, he used his paper to denounce “the state maintained at the expense of taxpayers”. He appeased the Church, looking forward to a reconciliation between Italy and Vatican and condemning the anti-clericalism of “charlatans”.

Through 1922 his party grew as the state tolerated its violence unpunished. In August they took over Milan city hall and expelled the socialist council, with the local magistrate instructed not to intervene. There were similar actions in Trento and Bolzano. When the Socialists went on strike in protest, the fascists intervened, and authorities more afraid of red than blacks, supported the crackdown. Mussolini’s deputy Cesare Rossi looked on the state with contempt. “It is not conceivable that a state with its own army and police could allow the existence of armed bands with their own military-style hierarchy and regulations… It is useless. We are forced to take over”.

Leading newspaper Milan’s Corriere della sera offered support for fascism as “the most extreme example of a resurgent national consciousness”. It feared the socialists more and demanded strong government. When the likelihood of a march on Rome emerged in 1922 the Corriere defended it as “a spiritual march, entirely legal”. It wanted the fascists inside the tent as part of a Coalition government.

By the time the final pre-Mussolini government was installed in August 1922 under reluctant prime minister Luigi Facta, the fascists controlled central Italy as a counter-state, publishing its own “regulations”. By now the movement had hundreds of thousand members and was so big it would either need to strengthen the state or replace it. In October Mussolini decided on the march to Rome. At their party conference in Naples, there was a carnival atmosphere with uniforms and war songs and cries of “To Rome!”. Mussolini told them they had created their own myth. “Our myth is the greatness of the nation”.

With a march looming, Facta proposed martial law. But King Victor Emmanuel III did not sign the decree. Instead he asked Mussolini to form a government. He knew the next government would have to accommodate the fascists and signing a decree to crush them was politically unpopular. As Sassoon put it, although there was no real march on Rome or revolution, appeasement of fascist violence created a psychological climate to make them appear stronger than they were. The King knew high-ranking generals supported the fascists (Mussolini appointed Admiral Thaon di Revel as Navy Minister).

The King’s decision was supported by the political establishment including the press. Industrialists were delighted when liberal Alberto De Stefani became finance minister, and other liberals lined up for Cabinet posts. There were no protests or strikes at the news of Mussolini’s elevation. Milan was calm. The mood oscillated between enthusiasm from supporters and resigned acceptance from enemies. Few realised democracy was about to die.

When Mussolini was appointed PM, the fascists camping outside Rome were allowed to enter the city and parade. Mussolini warned them not to be violent now their objective was reached. They cheered the Duce and marched in perfect order breaking discipline only to vandalise socialists’ homes and then went home.

Mussolini used his inaugural speech to say he would develop the revolution of the Blackshirts. “With 300,000 armed youth ready for anything, I could have punished all those who talked ill of fascism…I could have locked up parliament,” he warned. Over the next five years he dismantled the state. He introduced a new act giving the party with the most votes two-thirds of the seats. A race took place to join his party list. In the April 1924 election, the fascist-led Coalition won by a landslide in an election marred by irregularities and violence, with police ordered not to intervene. Mussolini forced 40 police commissioners and 340 deputies to resign.

When reformist Giacomo Matteoitti spoke in parliament against violence and corruption, he was kidnapped and killed, likely on Mussolini’s orders. In the years that followed the old parties were dissolved, trade unions forced to become fascist, the press was muzzled and special fascist courts decided on laws in a new legal code enforced by the secret police. By 1928 only fascist deputies could stand for election and the parliament became so useless it was dissolved in 1934. A dictatorship was established one step at a time.

Mussolini made peace with Yugoslavia and the Vatican with Pope Pius XI calling him the man “Providence sent us”. The economy improved thanks to American loans with the international community willing to do business with Mussolini. Churchill was charmed and in 1928 the Daily Mail called him the “Napoleon of modern times”.

Mussolini’s merit, Sassoon says, was to exploit to the full the hand history gave him. His ability to have good hunches did not come unstuck until his miscalculation about the probable outcome of the Second World War. His original instinct was to stay out but in 1940 Hitler looked a good bet. If the rise of Mussolini and Italian fascism was attributable to the First World War they were both wiped out by the Second.