1798: The year of the French

British forces flee Castlebar during the 1798 rebellion.

The year 1798 saw the largest failed rebellion in Ireland against English for over 100 years and there would be nothing on a scale like it again until the violence of the years 1916-21. That latter rebellion led to the Anglo-Irish treaty, 100 years ago and arguably the 1798 rebellion was just as profound, leading as it did to the end of the Irish parliament in Dublin and founding of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800.

The main focus of the 1798 was the uprising in Co Wexford, with a lesser rising in other parts of Leinster and Northern Ireland. But there was also a French landing in Killala, Co Mayo which led to a second major front from the west known in local folklore as “Blíain na bhFrancach” anglicised as Year of the French, also the title of a Thomas Flanagan novel about the events, first published in 1979.

France was still in the middle of its revolutionary wars in 1798 led by the Paris Directory though Napoleon was on the rise. Directory leaders feared Bonaparte’s popularity after his victories in Italy, so they were relieved when he proposed to leave France and mount an expedition to Egypt to gain further glory against the British Navy. Ireland was only a minor concern though United Irishmen leaders in Paris including Dublin lawyer Theobald Wolfe Tone had long been keen for French support for a rebellion in the supposed weakest link of the British Isles, with claims of 250,000 Irish irregulars ready to support any invasion.

Two years earlier General Lazare Hoche led a plan to invade Ireland and Cornwall with a force of 20,000 men but arrived off the coast of Co Cork in mid Winter. Storms sunk several ships and prevented any landing. After two fruitless weeks in Bantry Bay the French sailed home in frustration forcing a postponement of the planned Irish rising. Tone called it “Britain’s luckiest escape since the Armada”. There was also a short-lived invasion of the Welsh coast at Pembrokeshire in 1797. By 1798 the United Irishmen felt ready to start a rebellion without French aid but aided by informers Britain arrested most of the leaders and imposed martial law.

Despite the crackdown rebels began fighting in May but were swiftly overcome by British forces in Dublin and Antrim. Rebels had more success in Wexford but were eventually annihilated at Vinegar Hill near Enniscorthy on June 21 though fighting dragged on in the midlands until mid July. Against this backdrop Tone agitated for another French force which left port in early August. A force of 1000 men under General Jean Humbert unexpectedly landed on the west coast on August 22 at Killala Bay, Co Mayo. While there was Whiteboy activity in this region with violence against landholders, it was no United Irishmen hotbed. Nevertheless Humbert quickly raised several hundred poorly disciplined recruits to join him, and began moving south.

Flanagan uses several fictional narrators to tell the tale. There is Protestant clergyman Arthur Vincent Broome, probably based on Church of Ireland bishop of Killala and Achonry Joseph Stack, a loyalist who “grieves for the sufferings of all”. Stack was captured and his bishop’s palace was used as military headquarters during the rebellion. Episodes are also written by local United Irishman Malcolm Elliott and his wife Judith, as well as a Castlebar schoolteacher Sean MacKenna and Harold Wyndham, a fictional aide to British forces leader Lord Cornwallis.

Cornwallis had an army 25 times the size of the French but was slow to go west. Within five days of landing, the invasion force took the Mayo country town of Castlebar. Although General Lake had 6000 defenders, the 2000-strong attackers had the benefit of surprise, taking a seemingly impassable route and arriving at an unguarded side of town. The British panicked under a bayonet charge and fled to Athlone in an act known as the “Castlebar Races”. The exultant Irish and French force declared the newly formed Republic of Connaught.

Though the victory gave Humbert 5000 Irish recruits, they were poorly armed and trained and Castlebar had not led to a renewed outbreak of the rebellion as hoped. A massive British army was assembled in Athlone under Field Marshal Lord Cornwallis, newly appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and he was determined not to make the same mistake as Lake. He moved to Tuam and set his headquarters near Ballinrobe, 20km from the rebel army. With no sign of reinforcements from France, Humbert abandoned Castlebar and moved towards Sligo to ignite a rising in Ulster.

Humbert’s army moved 50km northeast to Tobercurry, where late on September 4 he routed a small body of loyalist yeomen under Captain O’Hara who alerted Colonel Vereker, the commander of the Sligo garrison. The following morning Vereker marched out with 500 men and two guns. He took up a position near Collooney, 13km south of Sligo with his left protected by the Ballysadare River and his right anchored on a steep, wooded hill.

The French advanced on the right along the river, while the Irish rebels deployed to the left. Their advance was held up by Loyalist gunfire. United Irishman Colonel Bartholomew Teeling who held a French commission, galloped forward alone to the British line, pistolled the enemy gunner at point-blank range, and rode back unscathed under a hail of musket-fire. Inspired by his example, the Irish and French surged forward and routed the Loyalists.

After the victory Humbert made a surprise decision to abandon the journey north and instead head towards the midlands. He had received word of an uprising breaking out in Longford and Westmeath and hoped to link up with new allies. Cornwallis ordered Lake to harry Humbert’s rearguard but not directly attack. The French headed east to Manorhamilton then south crossing the Shannon at Drumshambo heading towards Longford or Granard. They would not quite make it to either town with the British quickly putting down an insurrection at Granard. It was now a forced march with Humbert abandoning heavy guns. He wanted a short skirmish followed by an honourable surrender and return to France. What would happen to the Irish was not his concern.

Cornwallis set up his army to meet them on a hill near the village of Ballinamuck, Co Longford, 20km north of the county town. Humbert’s army arrived at Ballinamuck on September 8 wedged between 15,000 Cornwallis troops in front of him and 14,000 troops under Lake behind him. The boggy ground didn’t help French cavalry and the Irish regiment narrowly escaped heavy British reinforcements arrived from the southwest.

Several companies of British foot and horse ascended the hill toward the main Irish position. Twice, they were repulsed by counter-charges of Irish pikemen. General Lake then sent a large force on a flanking movement around the base of the hill. The French and Irish withdrew a short distance to the east and south. When the British grand assault poured up the hill from three sides, in overwhelming numbers, Humbert gave the order to surrender. The final battle lasted 30 minutes.

While Humbert’s French were treated as gallant prisoners of war after an honourable defeat, the Irish were massacred where they stood. Many were driven into the bog south of the hill where they were hunted down and executed. Captured Irish officers such as Bartholomew Teeling were seized and hanged as traitors, despite their French commissions. The 800 French prisoners were taken to Dublin and were exchanged and repatriated a few weeks later. Killala, where the rebellion started, was retaken on September 23 amid much slaughter.

The last act of the 1798 rebellion came a month later with the arrival of Wolfe Tone in Irish waters with a 3000-strong French naval force. On October 12 they attempted to land in County Donegal near Lough Swilly but were intercepted by a large British Navy squadron. The French surrendered after a three-hour off-shore battle. Wolfe Tone was tried by court-martial in Dublin and found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Tone slit his own throat in prison on November 12, and died a week later.

The rebellion was the deathknell of the protestant dominated parliament in Dublin and the Act of Union was signed in 1800. The result of the rebellion was to bring Ireland more under London’s command at time when British hegemony was stretching across the globe. But its neglect of the country on its doorstep would continue to haunt Britain and eventually led to a massive famine laid the groundwork for future more successful rebellions.

“The huntsman’s horn echoes from hill to hill, and their cries have a mystery of ritual, from a view to a kill.” (Thomas Flanagan, Year of the French).

The tragedy of Nockatunga

The monument to the expedition at Noccundra.

On November 9, 1878, workers at the remote Nockatunga station watched as an unsteady rider stumbled in from the desert. Near death from thirst, the man fell down in front of them, barely alive. The workers recognised him as Lewis Thompson, the stockman they called “the piano tuner”. He’d left there nine days earlier heading west with two other men, an Australian bushie called Andrew Hume, and an Irish soldier and VC winner no less, called Timothy O’Dea. The other two were still missing presumed dead in the relentless heat of a far western Queensland summer.

I’ve written about Andrew Hume before. Having read Darrell Lewis’ Where is Dr Leichhardt, I’d written Hume off as a conman who invented a story about a possible Leichhardt expedition in order to get out of jail. But Hume did eventually go looking for Leichhardt and he died on that search. I recently read a more sympathetic account of his journey in Les Perrin’s The Mystery of the Leichhardt Survivor.

Hume was a long shot to say the least. Ludwig Leichhardt and likely seven others went missing in 1848 somewhere in a massive region between western Queensland and the west coast. There was also evidence further north at Glenormiston though likely they died far into the Territory or even WA. Hume was now in far south-west Queensland searching for survivors in 1874, 26 years later. Hume was joined on the search at Nockatunga Station (now Noccundra) by O’Hea and Thompson.

Perrin begins the story not at Nockatunga, but in Baradine, New South Wales where Hume was arrested in 1866. Hume was on a several-day bender and having ran out of money, launched a farcical armed raid on the pub, where he drunkenly told patrons he was the bushranger “The Black Prince”. The shambles ended in his arrest and incarceration for ten years with hard labour. He was sent to Darlinghurst prison and then to Cockatoo Island before ending up at Parramatta jail in 1869. Here he read a report on a wild white man in western Queensland and revealed to authorities a story about his own travels in the early 1860s when he claimed to have reached the west coast and while far inland he met a white man living with an Aboriginal tribe. The man told Hume he was a survivor of an expedition party and it was this news Hume was bringing back when waylaid in Baradine. He claimed he didn’t want to mention this after the arrest as people would think it a ploy to get released.

Officers at Parramatta prison were impressed by his story and got him to dictate a letter. The letter had two diagrams of marks he found on remote trees one saying “L C Nov 1847 Dig” and the other “L C Aug 1848 Rock”. Hume said he placed papers in a saddle bag under one of the trees promising to bring them back at a later date. He said he was sure he could find them again. Though Hume did not divulge the name of the white man, his letter was sent at a time of intense interest in the unknown fate of Leichhardt. There were two searches near Thargomindah into reports of an old white man living further west. If Hume’s story was true, it needed to be investigated. Many were sceptical. Hovenden Hely who travelled in the failed Leichhardt second expedition said Leichhardt had not even started his third and final expedition in 1847 and marked his trees L or LL but not LC.

Yet the Governor of NSW pardoned Hume after serving half his sentence and the government approved his travel and expenses into the interior. South Australia agreed to take him by ship to Darwin where he could then travel south-west. South Australia was building the Adelaide-Darwin telegraph line and among those aboard was postmaster general Charles Todd who had responsibility for the line. Hume told him his story though Todd was unimpressed and believed him a fake. When the ship arrived at Roper River in March 1872, the captain decided to use the floods to take the ship upstream as far as possible as it would be closer to the line than Darwin. Hume disembarked but found his way forward blocked by those floods. He finally proceeded to the Line where he got a job while waiting for a horse. He ended up staying on the Line till its completion in August. He did not get a horse till December and then went missing for 12 months.

He arrived back at Roper in November 1873 and announced he’d found the white man who he identified as Classen, a German survivor from Leichhardt’s party. He carried a leather satchel which he claimed had writings from Classen, Leichhardt’s watch and other relics but he refused to show them to anyone. He wrote to Sydney documenting his finds and in December paid for a passage back to Brisbane. There he met Rev James Samuel Hassall who was Parramatta jail chaplain when Hume was there. Hume told Hassell he’d travelled west of Tennant Creek into the Davenport Ranges until he was 300 miles north west of the Line. There he met “Classen” now aged in his seventies who told him he had survived as a tribal doctor. Classen wrote his story down for Hume and showed him Leichhardt’s remains in a coolamon tree. Less impressed was surveyor-general AC Gregory (who also searched for Leichhardt) who had difficulty recognising locations Hume said he went to. Although Todd and others pointed out date discrepancies in Hume’s story, he was still eagerly expected when he finally arrived back in Sydney.

But when it came to the handover of the artifacts, there was a shock. Hume claimed the satchel had been cut open and the contents stolen. Nevertheless Hume stuck to his story giving a detailed description of Leichhardt watch and chain. He told authorities it would be difficult to remove Classen from the tribe and although letters to papers described Hume as an “impudent imposter” he maintained supporters such Eccleston Du Faur and John Dunmore Lang who were willing to privately finance another expedition. This time he would go overland, and be accompanied.

Experienced bushman Peter Lorimer initially signed up but insisted he carry the money, which Hume refused. Three replacements were found but Hume took to the drink in the early stages and all three resigned their commission. Fortunately Du Faur found an excellent replacement, Timothy O’Hea, a young Irishman who had been awarded a Victoria Cross in Canada in 1866. Ironically the Irishman won it for defending the Empire from fellow Irish Fenians who had invaded from the US and he was the only man to win a VC not in battle. He showed his valour putting out a fire on a munitions train, saving the lives of many passengers. After moving back to Ireland and then to New Zealand where he became a constable, O’Hea moved to Sydney in 1874. When Du Faur found out about his arrival, he offered him a spot on the expedition and O’Hea immediately accepted.

O’Hea found Hume at Murrurundi and the two men took an immediate liking to each other. O’Hea was interested in Hume’s life and became a sobering influence. They crossed into Queensland at Mungindi and delayed there due to straying horses they recruited a third member, stockman and piano tuner, Lewis Thompson. Like O’Hea, Thompson served in the army, in India, and the other two were impressed by Thompson’s horsemanship and determination.

The trio proceeded west to the Warrego River at Cunnamulla and arrived at Thargomindah station in October. While they were expected and welcomed at the station, the owner was away and the lack of his knowledge would prove crucial later on. Here was the last outpost of white Australia, the Bulloo Barracks, where Thargomindah township now stands. They arrived at Nockatunga Station on October 31 but Hume was determined to push on to the Cooper Creek before the wet season started.

It was difficult country. Charles Sturt was trapped for months in an exceptional dry year in his 1845 expedition and Burke and Wills died there 16 years later. Hume’s plan was to head north-west from the Creek along the Diamantina and Georgina systems and then north of the Simpson Desert to the Telegraph Line. They rode out on November 1, heading south-west.

According to Thompson’s account they followed the Wilson River to Noccundra Waterhole and they followed an indistinct track which they hoped would lead to the Cooper Creek. Most of the watercourses were dry, though they found water at Graham’s Creek. Hume was sure they were just a day away from the Cooper, just 60 miles away and he brushed aside O’Hea’s suggestion they fill all their water bags. At the end of the day their bags were drained but Hume again was confident the Cooper was just another day away. But at the end of that day, Hume was puzzled they still hadn’t found it, and had no water for 30 hours.

The problem was that after following a north-south path for hundreds of kilometres the Cooper takes a right-angled turn west just west of Noccundra. Hume’s limited maps did not show this diversion and with the station owner absent no one else had told them about it. It meant they were 30km south of the creek and travelling parallel to it in searing high temperatures. Midway through the next day Hume make the decision to turn back to Graham’s Creek, though they took a south-westerly path in the hope of finding water. After three days without water O’Hea in particular was becoming despondent.

They continued a fourth day without water resting more frequently. Although Hume believed they weren’t far from Graham’s Creek, O’Hea could go no further and Hume instructed Thompson to go ahead. Thompson staggered on until he found a waterhole a day later, a place later called Thompson’s Creek. His horse would go no further so he walked back to where he left the other two but they were gone without trace. He went back to the waterhole and saddled his horse before another vain search for his comrades. On returning to Thompson’s Creek a third time he found five horses but no riders and three of them had their saddles and packs removed. Another horse carried flour but the bags had been torn to pieces and the flour scattered in the wind. Late that day, November 8, Thompson began the journey back to Noccundra.

The following day an unsteady rider was seen approaching Nockatunga homestead. It was Thompson and it was clear he’d suffered great hardship. He said they got lost in the desert and the other two were missing and dangerously weakened. After two days rest Thompson joined a search party with two station workers and a black tracker. They went first to Graham’s Creek then Thompson’s Creek and found the spare horses where Thompson left them. The tracker found packs that the horses had rolled off. They then reached the last camp where Thompson had left them. They found O’Hea’s rifle and other possessions and worked out the pair had deliberately unbuckled the spare horses but bafflingly had not followed them to Thompson Creek in search of water (about 6km away), and instead gone in the opposite direction.

They found O’Hea’s dead horse half eaten by wild dogs. The tracker followed Hume’s horse’s tracks and eventually found it, also dead. Nearby was Hume’s belt and watch, then his rifle and his hat. But there was no sign of Hume, or O’Hea. Finally after a long search Thompson found Hume’s body a half mile from the horse. He estimated Hume had been dead six days. O’Hea’s body was never found. The following morning they returned to Nockatunga which they reached a day later. Bulloo Barracks sub-inspector Dunne was waiting and as was a JP who made out an inventory of the dead men’s possessions. Dunne led another expedition to Thompson Creek where he examined Hume’s body. They buried him there and had another unsuccessful hunt for O’Dea’s remains.

Dunne sent a message to the magistrate in Charleville that Hume was found dead and O’Hea was also presumed dead. In a letter to Du Faur Thompson gave a similar message though he also supposed “he may have fell in with a party of blacks”. But that was about as likely as “Classen” suffering the same fate. The Leichhardt expedition probably died far to the west, their remains forever hidden by the desert, just like O’Hea’s.

Charles Sturt’s search for the inland sea

The Charles Sturt expedition leaves Adelaide in 1844.

Charles Sturt was one of white Australia’s greatest inland explorers whose reputation was secure even before he set off on his final epic journey in 1844. Like fellow British army officer Thomas Mitchell he served the Crown in the Peninsular Wars and also like Mitchell took a liking to exploring New South Wales when he arrived in 1827. His first expedition in 1828 followed the Macquarie River west to the Darling and a year later he followed the Murray to its mouth in Lake Alexandrina and his party made the arduous return journey against the current, in the heat of an Australian summer. Sturt survived the ordeal but his health never fully recovered and the experience left him near blind.

He later served as commander on Norfolk Island before settling in South Australia. But Sturt had a constant nagging concern. In 1840 he said “Over the Centre of this mighty continent there hangs a veil which the most enterprising might be proud to raise.” Despite his ill-health Sturt was determined to raise that veil. In 1844 South Australia was on the verge of economic collapse and settlers hoped Sturt might find rich agricultural lands to save it. Sturt’s mission was more personal. He believed there was an inland sea (something that did not fool his contemporary Ludwig Leichhardt who knew hot inland winds meant a sea was unlikely).

Sturt is sometimes confused for a different explorer – his near namesake John McDouall Stuart, a South Australian legend and perhaps an even greater explorer. Stuart learned at the knee of Sturt and Stuart was an important part of Sturt’s final expedition. Stuart was a surveyor and hired for his mapping skills and he was among a party of 15 that set off from Adelaide in August 1844 with colonial orders to explore north to 28 degrees latitude, a journey followed by Ivan Rudolph’s Sturt’s Desert Drama (2006).

Sturt’s deputy was Irish army officer James Poole while Dr John Harris Browne was the expedition medic. Others included head stockman Robert Flood, storekeeper Louis Piesse and Sturt’s manservant George Davenport, who like many of them had worked with Sturt before. They took 11 horses, 32 bullocks, 200 sheep, five bullock drays, one light cart and one boat complete with sails and rigging, ready to sail that inland sea. They set off slowly west following the route of the modern day A20 towards the Murray.

They were accompanied by another well known explorer Edward Eyre who joined them at Moorundi. Sturt and Eyre had known each other since 1837 and Eyre was the first white traveller to cross the Nullarbor in 1840/1. Eyre and Sturt had a reputation for travelling unharmed through Aboriginal country, which was crucial as Moorundi was the edge of white settlement. As they passed the Great Bend of the Murray, Sturt was reminded of the loss of his comrade Henry Bryan who went missing here five years earlier, presumably killed by local people. Sturt knew similar dangers lay ahead of his current expedition.

They pushed on to Lake Bonney (now Barmera). Eyre parlayed with local Aboriginal people who did not molest the party as they stocked up on water. Instead they fed them with yabbies from the lake. The flooding river slowed down progress as they made it to Lake Victoria (NSW). Here locals skirmished with an 1841 party so again Eyre went ahead to make the peace. They found him holding court with a group of 70 people with Sturt noting they placed the “utmost reliance” on Eyre who they called Great Chief.

The party had a decision to make. The plan was to head off on the fork in the river north to the Darling. But to save time and distance Eyre suggested they take an anabranch, a shorter more ancient, but drier channel north. Progress was slow due to Poole’s slow chaining of the distance. To make up time lost, Sturt agreed. The gamble would pay off, but there was sadness too, as this was Eyre’s last day with the expedition and they had to continue without his diplomatic skills.

At Lake Victoria, locals told Sturt there was a river at Laidley’s Ponds (near today’s Menindee) that came from the north west. This news excited Sturt as this was the direction he wanted to travel. He sent riders ahead who found water in the Anabranch so they set off in mid September in heavy rain with conditions muddy and difficult. They were helped by native guide Nadbuck who had invaluable knowledge of the hostile area they were entering. They were delayed when Flood lost two fingers in a shooting accident chasing feral cattle. Sturt cut down the rations to enable his men stay longer in the field.

Though the Anabranch was in flood, it was desolate country beside it. Scouts found out the Anabranch suddenly dried up ahead. Sturt took advice to push east towards the Darling, proper, 30km above the confluence with the Murray. Though narrower than the Murray, it was verdant and beautiful though Sturt knew the heat left it barren in summer. At night he bolstered camp security though he held good relations with local owners, who remembered a massacre Mitchell left in his travels. Rough and rotten river flats played hell with the drays and prevented him from moving through known hostile areas as quickly as he liked.

The further north they went, the more Aboriginal groups they met. Nadbuck knew the protocols to keep the peace and Sturt described them as “a merry people”. Just south of today’s Pooncarie they noticed debris in the water and the following morning the river had risen 1.2m. In three days, the river overflowed its banks, invading the flats, making travel even slower. On October 10 they reach Williorara river at Menindee where they planned to move away from the Darling, much to everyone’s unease.

Expedition map in Daniel Brock’s To The Desert With Brock

Poole and Stuart set off on horses to seek a way forward. They crossed the Scrope Range to what was later called the Barrier Range and Poole described what he called an inland sea towards today’s Broken Hill. Though Sturt thought it might be a mirage, the party headed forward. From Lake Cawndilla, this was new country to white eyes. When Sturt got to a peak near Broken Hill they had a clear view west and everything was “dark and dreary”. His hopes of an inland lake or a river heading to the tropics were dashed. They found a profusion of beautiful flowers later named Sturt’s desert pea, adopted as the floral emblem of South Australia. He also named an outcrop as “broken hill” in remembrance of a feature in Wales, and the name was later was applied to a larger area.

They relied on wells as they pushed forward but Sturt was worried: “In the barren and stony ranges through which I had to force my way, no spring was to be found.” While crossing the tableland and hills, he found a high ridge which was the watershed. Colonial secretary Lord Stanley ordered him to find such features so Sturt named it “Stanley’s Barrier Range”. Later just called the Barrier Range, it was the border between the Murray-Darling system and insignificant drainage west to the desert. They found an important water pool they called Rocky Glen and struggled to find a way through the impenetrable Barrier. When they did, they were confronted by seif dunes, sausage-shaped sand ridges which were tiring for the horses to cross, with temperatures rising to 47C. Sturt successfully crossed into the Plains to the west, to confront another immense wilderness ahead.

The party waited at Morphetts Creek while Poole and Browne went on west to find water. They were searching for Lake Torrens but it was not where Eyre said it was. Browne suspected it might be a chain of lakes, proved correct a decade later. They returned after two weeks not having found water or an inland sea. Sturt sent Flood and another to search 70 miles north. They returned after three days saying they had found a creek 40 miles away with good grass. The entire party set off another two days later and arrived at Floods Creek early on Dec 10, 1844, four months after leaving Adelaide. Poole led another expedition north as the summer temperatures rose. They arrived back on Christmas Day having ventured as far as modern Tibooburra, and found water at Evelyn Creek near Milparinka. Sturt had to risk the 120km journey with only one creek on the way. The weather cooled on the 28th and they rode through the night. They found the site despite Poole’s incompetence leading them the wrong way. But by the time they got there, it was greatly reduced and they needed to find new water fast. Finally on Jan 27 they found a new Depot site at an Evelyn Creek tributary at a place they called Preservation Creek with deep and sheltered pools. It would become their salvation and their prison.

Depot Glen was 16km west of Milparinka with plenty of water and a “romantic and pretty spot”, according to Sturt. They recovered from illnesses and sought advice from Aboriginal groups. Sturt planned a new break-out group north. Six months after leaving Adelaide they crossed the now Queensland border immersed in sanddunes. They travelled 200km north finding no new water and then went back. They tried a second route that took them to Cameron Corner (where the SA/Qld/NSW borders meet) but found only desolate scrub and temperatures in the 50s. They were beaten by seif dunes and lifeless desert and returned to Depot Glen exhausted and thirsty, Sturt knew he was a prisoner of the Depot yet abundant birdlife convinced them water was near. A westward explore found nothing either. Months passed by and their water supply diminished without rain. A plan for Poole to lead a consignment back to Adelaide was put on hold when Poole fell seriously ill.

Finally in July they had their first rain in five months at the Depot and after two wet days the rising waters threatened the camp. Poole was well enough to travel on July 14 and led his group south. But a messenger came back to say Poole died two days later. The party returned to the Depot to bury him and Piesse led the Adelaide-bound party. Sturt led his group 100km to Lake Pinaroo and on July 28 named a new depot as The Park (later Fort Grey). Sturt penetrated into South Australia but found only barren country and no water. They found a dry Lake Blanche but no inland sea and little else to detain them so rode back to the Park. On August 18 they found Strzelecki Creek which Sturt named for a Polish explorer. Sturt’s next fateful decision was to head north-west.

This was difficult flat country with no visible vegetation but billions of stones. Sturt called it a Stony Desert and it later became known as Sturt’s Stony Desert. Ironically this feature was a result of Sturt’s inland sea, only it was a pre-historic one formed millions of years earlier. They found shallow pools and wells that kept them alive and on the brink of disaster they found a beautiful creek on Sep 3 they called Eyre Creek after the “courageous and chivalrous officer”. But from here the plain ran into the fiery dunes of the Simpson Desert. Close to the centre of Australia, Sturt ordered his men to return to the Park Depot, worried his retreat might be cut off. The Simpson was not crossed until 1936 by Edmund Colson using camels.

Sturt staggered back to the depot on Oct 1 subsisting on “an insufficient supply of food and drinking water that your pigs would have refused.” He felt a failure and decided on one last tilt at the desert. He took Stuart and two others on a new journey leaving Oct 8 as temperatures soared to 38 degrees. Five days later they found a broad creek Sturt named in honour of friend Judge Charles Cooper. Despite its large body of water he called it Cooper Creek and not river because it wasn’t running water but a series of sheets of water separated by dry creek beds. They camped 15km west of modern Innamincka near where Burke and Wills died in 1861. They followed the creek north until it disappeared into muddy puddles. They found a waterless plain and followed it north west before arriving back in the Stony Desert,

They passed Lake Etamunbanie (SA) and made it near modern Birdsville in Queensland where Sturt climbed a summit and found no attractive way forward. Sturt had to admit defeat on unraveling the mystery of the dead centre and “slowly and sullenly led my horse down the hill”. The journey back starting Oct 21 was a race against destruction. They found just enough well water to make it back to the Cooper with the loss of only one horse. There they surveyed more of the creek, 250km eastward. They were surrounded by Wangkumara people who proved friendly and who told them there was no water eastward. With Sturt unable to determine the Cooper’s source in the Channel Country tangle they retreated to the Park. But with the advance party running late, on Nov 6 the men at the Park decided to retreat back to Depot Glen with Browne leaving a note for Sturt.

Sturt’s party rode into the Park a week later and read Browne’s letter. Despite Sturt in agony with scurvy they set off again on Nov 16 riding all night and getting to Depot Glen at noon the following day after 18 hours of riding. The next problem was finding a way back to the Darling. Initial sorties along the most direct route were failures, so they gambled on the way they got there a year earlier. Sturt had to be transported by dray, leaving leadership with Browne. To get the 180km to Floods Creek they hatched a plan based on the Aboriginal “possum bottles”, skinning a possum and turning it inside out using a neck for a water bottle. In the expedition’s case they created a ‘bullock bottle” capable of carrying 150 gallons, which was carried on ahead of the group. Browne rode on to Floods Creek which was losing water rapidly.

The men created a second bullock bottle, left their whaleboat behind and began their dash south on Dec 7. From Floods Creek they found further water south and Sturt pushed the team to Lake Cawndilla on Dec 19. They found the lake a parched expanse of cracked mud and the Darling was not in flood. Here they found Piesse with a rescue party with the all-important lime juice as an antiscorbutic. They began the descent down the Darling on Boxing Day and again they chose the Anabranch to avoid the dangerous tribes on the Murray-Darling confluence. Letters made it ahead of them to Adelaide and newspapers rejoiced at the “safety of the beloved Captain Sturt and his adventurous band”.

Sturt had recovered to ride unaided into Adelaide. To avoid a welcoming committee he rode in at midnight on Jan 19, 1846 to embrace his wife. The official party rode in to a great welcome on Jan 28. Sturt retired to England and felt the “fearful desert” had defeated him but prospectors and selectors followed his routes. The Cooper became a practical way to the interior, though the inland regions remain difficult country that only its Aboriginal owners truly understand.

The Cannes photo meme and me

Photo: Stephane Cardinale/CORBIS via Getty Images

French photographer Stephane Cardinale snapped this great image above at the 74th Cannes film festival earlier this month. It was a publicity shot for Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch and featured Anderson himself along with his actors from the film Timothée Chalamet, Tilda Swinton, and Bill Murray. The photo is wonderful and awkward and it was immediately picked up on social media for what Vulture called their “extremely mismatched — and extremely on brand — fashion choices”. Vulture itself tweeted the photo with the caption “tag yourself” and indeed many did. The best examples I saw of the many memes that followed was Christopher Bonanos’s “Book proposal, manuscript, publication day, sales figures” and Tim Callanan’s “French Open, Wimbledon, US Open, Australian Open”.

Several more appeared the days that followed as the meme lended itself to anything that had four contrasting components. I thought nothing more of it until Wednesday when I came home and turned on the television. Channel Seven news was coming live from a party at Southbank and only then did I remember that the 2032 Olympics decision was just about to be announced from Tokyo. This was expected to be an underwhelming announcement as Brisbane was the only city in the “race” as announced a few months earlier. Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk had copped flak for flying to Tokyo in the middle of the pandemic but hosting an Olympics is a big deal and they still had to do the presentation to the IOC to prove the city could pull it off.

That evening at 6.30pm Queensland time, Channel Seven went live to Tokyo where IOC president Thomas Bach was to announce the winner. In the seconds it took him to say “And the winner is….” there was bizarre tension for a supposed one horse race. But it quickly evaporated – Brisbane it was, and that was cue for an explosion of delight in Southbank and elsewhere. I have ambiguous feelings about the Olympics and its purported benefits but couldn’t help be pleased my home town had won it. On Twitter I just noted that it would have been hilarious had any other city had been named instead.

While there I noted other early reactions including someone who pointed out the next four Olympics were in Tokyo, Paris, Los Angeles and now Brisbane. What immediately struck me was the incongruity of Brisbane in that list of alpha cities and the second thing was there was four cities on the list. I immediately thought of the Cannes meme and had a look at the photo to see if it worked. Chalamet was obviously not Japanese but looking hopefully into the distance with his young geeky wear he could pass for Tokyo (particularly as this would be the Games no one could dress up for). Onto Anderson and his presumably expensive white suit. Paris? Yeah why not. Then the impossibly cool Tilda Swinton in her likely even more expensive blue suit, and the lipstick and the hair, not to mention those shades. Los Angeles? Maybe. But shortened to LA? Definitely! Finally there was Bill Murray, so utterly different from the others and yet comfortable in his holiday-wear skin, happy to stare off into a future 11 years away. He looked relaxed and Australian, something captured in the tennis open version of the meme. But the Australian Open is played in supercool (in every sense) Melbourne where no-one dresses like that. Would they dress like that in Brisbane? You bet.

This summarised about 10 seconds of decision making in my head then another 10 seconds to confirm this indeed was the order of the next four Olympics (Paris following LA might still have worked). So I crafted the tweet, probably around 15 minutes after the announcement. Just seven words “Next four Olympics Tokyo, Paris, LA, Brisbane” with the picture (and sorry Stephane, no photo credit). I was pleased with my work. I’m not exactly A-lister Twitter, with a modest amount of followers, but I have been around the platform since 2009 so I was fairly certain this would attract some attention, But as soon as I saw fairly influential people in my followers retweeting or liking it, I saw this would do particularly well. One person early on was critical in a polite way: “LA and Paris don’t really work though! Sorry”. I’m no high priest of fashion but this person seemed to be an outlier. Most thought I’d nailed it, and everyone, including the polite fashionista, seemed to think it was funny.

I went to bed that evening with likes and retweets slowly climbing and it kept gathering pace as other parts of the world, got into their day. One guy said “this perfection should end this meme”, while proud Brisbanites (and Bill Murray fans) said “By far the best one is Brisbane, wouldn’t want I any other way”. Daniel Hopkins went all caps for Murray as Brisbane. “I LOVE BRISBANE, HE SUCH A GREAT GUY!!!!” “Canberra Muse” said “People are so quick and I am *here* for it” while Steve Allen said “The first gold medal goes to…” a thought echoed by “I think this one is the winner” and “the accuracy of this”. There were GIFS of perfection and standing ovation. My head started to swell at this point, though I refrained from any comment.

On it went on Thursday morning as the likes climbed well into the thousands. Lance Masina thought it was funny but said “Ya’ll leave my hometown alone.” I could not work out from his profile description which of the four cities was his hometown. On it went. “Timmy’s Olympics would be lame as shit.” wrote one person, clearly not a fan of Chalamet’s work. The idea of me as “meme winner” continued. “This is the only good one”, “This is the winner. Pack everything else up, we’ll send the full results to the listserv.”, while Lucile thought it was “rude but true”. Matthew Clayfield reminded me how close I was sailing to the wind: “This meme got old quickly, but this is correct.”

Even the formidable Crikey political writer Bernard Keane was impressed “OK this is the only one of these that I reckon is absolutely dead on. Perfect.” That was generous of him. Many years ago, I saw a photo of Keane and I was struck by the physical resemblance to the great Irish writer Samuel Beckett, I don’t remember Keane’s exact response but he did not find it flattering, sadly. Anyway it was either nice of him to put that aside, or more likely did not remember the exchange.

Not everyone was seeing the funny side. Scottish tweeter “StewMcD” was not happy with the bread and circuses of the Olympics. “Hopefully, during that period, commonsense might creep out and either scrap the corrupt, extravagence (sic) of Olympics and relocate them permanently to Athens, with international financial aid (or end them).” Similarly Buddy Hasgeny wrote “the least appealing Australian capital city is now set to also become hopelessly insolvent by 2032.” “El Presidente” thought it was “boredom in four installments”. Klaus Kaulfuss said “Next 4 Olympics, people/families will still be sleeping rough.” All of these criticisms of the Olympics are valid by the way, though I can’t agree with Buddy’s analysis of Brisbane as the least appealing Australian capital city.

But these quibbles were swamped by the lol and rofl emojis. And hats off to Terry Baucher. Having liked the tweet the night before, Terry admitted he was “still crying over this”. Alicia Powell wasn’t much interested in me or the Olympics. “I would love to be trapped in a lift with these 4 people,” she said. Nory wrote “もしくは裸足か” which Google translates from Japanese as “or barefoot” so I’m little the wiser. But on it went through Thursday and into the night. It wasn’t until Friday morning that it ran out of juice. People had had enough and had moved on. By then the tweet had nearly 550,000 impressions, 32,500 engagements, nearly 20,000 clicks on the photo, nearly 5000 likes, over 800 retweets, almost 700 profile clicks, 252 link clinks and a handful of new followers, who no doubt are underwhelmed by my subsequent content. It’s big numbers though I saw a funny video featuring a squirrel that was next level viral attracting audiences way beyond my meagre resources.

Just like the squirrel, my tweet was ephemeral and fun while it lasted. In these days of serious viruses, it was fun to watch harmless viral content do its thing. I only wish they congregated in similar numbers at the rest of my writing. But there’s the lesson; timing is everything, I just got in quick with that one. But it is a reminder to strive to make all my writing as spot on as that one tweet. Oh, and I’m keen to see The French Dispatch when it lands on our shores, hopefully sometime before the Brisbane Olympics.

The road to the war: Mount Isa to the Territory

The caravan resting site 50km west of Mount Isa, with sections of the old road next to the new Barkly Highway.

I’ve driven west from Mount Isa numerous times, heading to Camooweal and points in the Territory. The first time I drove it was in 2002 when the Mount Isa to Camooweal stretch was mostly just one lane. But otherwise it was a fine road to Tennant Creek, and since those times even the Queensland section has improved out of sight. Around 50km west of Mount Isa there is a caravan resting site with a monument commemorating the opening of the site in 1995 and also a section of the older original road still visible. Nearby, as cars and trucks zoom past at 110kph, interpretative signage tells the history of the road, built as a wartime project.

The signage notes the preserved old road shows the design standards of the 1940s. The road hugs the natural surface crossing floodplains and crests. The sign said the adjacent modern road, the Barkly Highway, built in 1994 is a stark contrast. The sign also acknowledges the site was built on Kalkadoon land, who formed part of the workforce in war times.

The monument to the 1994 rebuilding of the road.

Before World War II, the road between Mount Isa and Camooweal was little more than a droving track. The track followed the 1897 telegraph line and meandered from waterhole to waterhole across ridges and black soil plains. That might have sufficed for moving cattle but was hopeless for moving war materiel. By 1940 Australian governments finally had to look seriously at the problem of getting soldiers, equipment and supplies to Darwin, where the threat of the Japanese was all too real. In 1940 the Queensland Main Roads Commission was given the task of building a road west from Mount Isa to Tennant Creek, where other crews were building another road north from Alice Springs.

Engineers designed a new route, 10km shorter than the Telegraph route and work started in earnest in January 1941. But progress was slow. There was not enough money allocated to the project and there were chronic shortages of manpower and equipment. Nevertheless pressing concerns of war meant traffic used whatever sections were available as soon as they were built and by year’s end 1000 vehicles a day used the road, adding to its wear-and-tear.

Interpretative signage at the 50km rest site.

It wasn’t until May 1942 that the new Allied Works Council took over management of the road, With Commonwealth funding and machinery borrowed from across Queensland, the road took shape. Work continued around the clock to gravel the road, By October they had completed important bridges over Spear Creek and the Buckley, Georgina and Rankine rivers meaning jeeps could avoid hazardous boggy causeways. But heavy use still meant constant maintenance and by end 1943 the road was almost five metres wide, which it remained to war’s end.

Former World War II serviceman Alex Tanner writes of the building of the road in his 1995 book The Long Road North. As the title suggests, his focus was on the Stuart Highway, which linked Alice Springs with Darwin but the Barkly is also part of his story. Tanner notes the incredulity of local cattlemen who scoffed at the idea of putting an all-weather road over the treacherous black soil plains or sealing the stretches of shifting bulldust which grinds down to fine powder with the slightest of traffic. Nevertheless the power of bulldozers and graders made it happen.

Creeks were a major problem requiring reinforced concrete fords over larger creeks while smaller ones were kerbed and gravelled, as there was not enough time to install pipe drains. They pulled down trees with soft-tempered steel wire rope as Diesel-powered Caterpillar angledozers and trailbuilders worked 24 hours a day to clear the land ahead of the formation graders. Hurricane lamps were used at nighttime to keep the line in the dark. Problems included ever-present dust, flies, snakes and anthills which regenerated on the road as quickly as they were pulled down. Tanner noted it was a four day journey from Alice to the Isa and on the last day “winding gullies cut deeply into the soft rock and the road traced a circuitous way in and out of gullies and narrow creek flats” before finally in the late afternoon of the fourth day “the curling smoke from the mine stack at Mount Isa, hanging in the still afternoon sky, pointed the location of the dusty little mining town.”

List of the WW2 camps between Mount Isa and Yelvertoft (100km west)

The December 1941 Pearl Harbor attack brought the US into the war and the Americans were given the use of the railroad to Mount Isa and the new East-West road springing up to Tennant Creek. By early 1942, 56 trains a week were arriving in the Isa and American troops were stationed there until April 1943. The road west was thrashed by the huge increase in traffic with 2500 personnel and 1500 vehicles regularly using the road. Tanner said the mainly Black American jeep drivers were not disciplined when it came to speed limits and accidents were common. Crews were admonished for travelling 50mph “grossly excessive over the newly constructed gravel surface” while trucks overturned in the treacherous bulldust. The Mains Roads Commission had to rebuild the entire Queensland section in 12 months. A plan to build a pipeline from Isa to Birdum in NT to transport fuel was ruled out as impractical.

Initially the east-west road was unsealed but it was always Queensland’s intention to seal it. Based on the north-south experience the Allied Works Council decided the most appropriate technique was emulsified bitumen. A better method would have been “straight” bitumen heated in a continuous mixer but the quantities of fuel required made that prohibitive with very few trees along the line. Emulsified bitumen was a more liquid product which penetrated into the gravel base rather than forming a carpet over it. They applied a primer coat of crude tar which sank into the gravel. A “tack” coat of emulsified bitumen was followed by a machine-rolled “penetration” coat and finally a seal coat with finer grit, rolled and drag broomed.

The high water content needed for emulsified bitumen was a transportation problem with so few natural water supplies. They solved this by mixing the bitumen and emulsion at Mount Isa using the least amount of water, then transporting the rest to dumps along the road where the balance was added from available bores. The emulsified bitumen was carried in 44 gallon drums to 400 ton dumps spread at 32km intervals. The final cost of the road was £1,020,700, a very substantial amount at the time. But the end product was testament to the army’s work. The legacy of the road was that it was unaltered for another 20 years improving the lives of North West Queenslanders and making the the Territory – and the rest of the state – accessible.

Mount Isa to Brisbane via Charleville

Last weekend was time for another big drive from Mount Isa to Brisbane. I’ve done it several times stopping in different places such as Winton, Blackall, or all in one hit. This time the stopping point was Charleville, not a normal stop, as I take the short cut from Augathella to Morven. But this time I wanted to take in the Cosmos Centre observatory on a Friday night plus the chance to do the town’s parkrun the following morning. I left Mount Isa in the dark at 5am and caught the dawn south of Cloncurry, with bonus cattle crossing their field, while crossing my field of vision.

About 100km south of Cloncurry is McKinlay. There’s not much here as the town’s service station-cum-shop closed down a couple of years ago. That leaves the Walkabout Creek Hotel as the town’s only business. Its claim to fame is that it is the site of the pub scenes in the 1986 film Crocodile Dundee. The movie set remains at the back of the pub for people to visit. I was there in 2016 when the town celebrated the 30th anniversary of the movie with a weekend of celebrations as the town swelled from 15 to 300 people for the occasion.

A further 200km south there are reminders of other movies as the drive passes through the striking terrain of Winton Shire. Winton is the home of the Outback Film Festival, held a week ago and its wild west locations attracts many filmmakers. John Hillcoat filmed the Meat Pie western The Proposition around here in 2005.

For a remote Western Queensland town, Barcaldine, 110km east of Longreach, has a surprisingly strong link to the Labor Party. Labor mythology has it that the Labor was founded under the town’s Tree of Knowledge after the 1891 Shearers’ Strike. Near the tree is the Workers Heritage Centre, sited in the grounds of the former Barcaldine State School. It originally opened in 1991 containing historical exhibits about labour history and the strike. After a major upgrade, the Queensland premier reopened the facility in May on the 130th anniversary of the Shearers’ Strike.

The oldest town in Central West Queensland is Tambo. Many tribes lived in this fertile area on the Barcoo including the Wadjabangai. Sir Thomas Mitchell was the first European to explore the area in 1846 and selectors followed in his path in the 1860s. The town of Carrangarra was founded in 1863 and the town was renamed Tambo in 1868, the name coming from an Indigenous Australian word meaning hidden place. Since overshadowed by nearby Blackall, Tambo remains charming and the Shire Hall is one of many grand buildings in the town.

I arrived at Charleville as the sun was setting, almost exactly 12 hours after leaving Mount Isa. Glistening in the late evening sunshine is the local 30 metre-high water tower on which Brisbane artist Guido van Helten painted a mural in May 2019. The mural is painted in Van Helten’s 3D monochromatic mural style and features four children intertwined through sport. Van Helten completed a second tower on the same theme in Cunnamulla, 200km to the south.

My bed for the night was at the wonderful 1920s-style Corones Hotel. Remarkable Greek immigrant Harry Corones built the hotel at a time when Charleville was a stopping point for international air travellers from Brisbane. Completed in 1929 after five years of planning and construction, the new hotel contained a lounge and writing room, a dining-room for 150 people, a barber’s shop and a magnificent ballroom seating 320 people. Upstairs were ornate bathrooms, 40 rooms and a private lounge. It was “the best equipped and most up-to-date hotel outside the metropolis”. Aviator Amy Johnson stayed here on her flight from Britain to Australia in 1930, filling her hotel bath with 24 magnums of champagne which guests later drank in her honour. Other visitors included Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, the Wright brothers, Nancy Bird and English singer Gracie Fields. Fields caused a sensation when, in Beatles Let it Be-style, she stood at the open windows and sang the song “Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye” to a large crowd outside.

That evening I braved the south-west Queensland winter chill and went to the Cosmos Centre observatory on the edge of town. I hadn’t been here in almost 10 years and I was looking forward to stargazing. I was doubly lucky. Firstly they had unusual winter rain just 24 hours earlier, and a cloudy evening would have added to the dampening effect and secondly it was a new moon, so perfect for wider stargazing. They had three telescopes for around 30 people and we all had opportunities to look at the Alpha Centauri double star, the Jewel Box star cluster, Omega Centauri cluster, a nebula in Carinae, and finished with Saturn and her rings, magnificently rising in the low eastern sky.

On my way to parkrun the following morning I passed one of Charleville’s more peculiar attractions. These were the two Vortex Rainmaking Guns off the road to Cunnamulla. The guns were the brainchild of Queensland meteorologist Clement Wragge, the man who first named cyclones. The guns were his 1902 plan to seed clouds with rain during the five-year Federation Drought. The idea was based on guns Italian grapegrowers successfully used to dispel hailstorms. Sadly Wragge’s guns were unsuccessful. The drought eventually broke at the end of 1902 and the 10 Charleville guns were abandoned and left to rot until most became dilapidated and sold for scrap. Today only two guns remain intact, lovingly restored and given pride of place in Charleville’s biggest park.

That park, Graham Andrew park, is home to, and has given its name to, Charleville’s parkrun. Andrews was mayor of Murweh Shire (which includes Charleville) from 1988-2008. The Graham Andrews parkrun was tricky thanks to recent rain making the course a little slippery and I found the complex figure eight course hard to follow in places. Those are my excuses anyway, for a time of 24.18 for the 5km, about 30-45 second slower than usual, It was my 90th parkrun and my 32nd different course, as my parkrun tourism takes me from place to place.

After freshening up and breakfast, I continued east along the Warrego Highway back to Brisbane. The first town east of Charleville is Morven. A railhead named for a town in Aberdeenshire, Morven lost its only pub to fire in 2016. Devastated by the hole its absence left in the community, eight families banded together to build a new one. The result is Sadleir’s Waterhole, which was the town’s name until 1876. The pub is a low-set, modern-looking building with a big front deck built on the site of the old hotel. Just down the road in Muckadilla, another pub is rising from the ashes of a 2019 fire, which I’m pleased about having many fond memories of the Mucka pub from my Roma days.

Around 50km east of Morven, near the even smaller town of Mungallala is Ooline Park. The Ooline tree (Cadellia pentastylis) is a vulnerable species with rainforest origins dating back two million years to the Pleistocene Era when Australia was wetter than today. The tree is of considerable biogeographic and horticultural interest as a relic of an extensive rainforest vegetation that once covered much of Australia and it is a sole species. Oolines grow to 10m, and rarely to 25m with dark, hard and scaly bark. It was widespread in the bottle tree-dominated softwood scrubs, brigalow and belah areas of central and southern Queensland and north-western New South Wales but after extensive land clearing (now outlawed), it is now restricted from west of Rockhampton to the NSW border.

South of the Warrego, around 50km west of Roma, is Mount Abundance. The area was the home of the Mandandanji people who enjoyed its rich landscape and fertile soil. Sadly for them NSW Surveyor-General Thomas Mitchell also saw the area’s potential when he came through in 1846 naming the mountain for its sign of plenty. “I ascended an elevated north-eastern extremity of Mount Abundance, and from it beheld the finest country I had ever seen in a primeval state—a champagne region, spotted with wood, stretching as far as human vision or even the telescope could reach,” he wrote. Mitchell’s “champagne” meant lightly wooded though others were drunk at the prospects he described. A son of Mitchell’s friend named Allan Macpherson was quick to take up Mt Abundance and though Macpherson failed in his accommodation with unhappy prior owners, other less scrupulous owners cleared out the black inhabitants in the frontier war that followed, with the assistance of Native Police. Mt Abundance was also the last place Ludwig Leichhardt was heard from before his party disappeared in 1848.

Mitchell was also the first European to see Brachychiton rupestris, better known as the Queensland Bottle Tree, which like the ooline thrives in south-western Queensland. He selected the genus name to honour Henry De la Beche, head of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, while rupestris (meaning living among rocks) alludes to the rocky hilltop habitat Mitchell observed at Mt Abundance. The fat tree trunk typically reaches a 2m diameter after five to eight years, with a maximum height of 18-20m. The tree will drop leaves before the flowering period of October to December. The characteristic bottle shape develops in five to eight years. The canopy will also thin out during a drought. This hardy species is endemic to Central Queensland through to northern New South Wales, growing in heavy clay soil, silt, sand and volcanic rocks. Roma’s largest bottle tree has a whopping girth of 9.51 metres, a height of six metres and a crown of 20 metres, The century-old tree was transplanted in 1927 from a local property to site in town near the Bungil Creek. Roma historian Peter Keegan tells me there is an even wider tree near Mt Abundance, though we never quite got around to looking for it.

Entitled “A Bush Conversation” this Dion Cross installation featuring a pair of chatty cockatoos was the People’s Choice winner in the Sculptures Out Back Exhibition 2021 on show by the side of the highway on the eastern approach to Roma near the Big Rig. Dion’s vision was to show the need for conversation in the often lonely bush environment. “A yarn in the back paddock can make a big difference,” Dion said. Sculptures Out Back is an outdoor sculpture exhibition that runs annually from July to September. Artists are invited to display their works by contacting the Roma on Bungil Gallery Committee.

The Boonarga Cactoblastic Hall, 12km east of Chinchilla, is probably the only building in Australia named in honour of an insect. The South American Cactoblastis was introduced to consume prickly pear, the common name for several cacti species of the American native genus Opuntia. Prickly pears arrived in Australia with the First Fleet in 1788 as Governor Arthur Phillip saw them as the basis for a possible cochineal industry. The prickly pear got out of control as it was drought resistant, had no natural predators, loved the climate and its tough seeds passed through the digestive system of birds ready for germination. With much of Queensland’s pasture land overrun by the pest, government scientist Dr Jean White turned to another invader to solve the problem. Her experiments at Chinchilla led to the introduction of the Cactoblastis cactorum moth in 1926 that eventually brought prickly pear under control. Cactoblastis is a moth which feeds on cacti in Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and southern Brazil. It proved ideal for the Australian task, a rare example of an introduced predator achieving its outcome without unintended consequences.

Around 30km west of Dalby is Macalister, named for an early Queensland premier. Macalister is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town where traffic is only forced to slow down to 80kph. There are no shops but it has two distinguishing features. In the foreground is the chute that used to load coal from nearby Wilkie Creek mine to the rail line by the side of the highway. Peabody closed the mine in 2013 and when I was working in Dalby in 2015 there was a shortlived plan for a Japanese company to reopen it. But making money from coal is increasingly difficult and climate change will ensure the remaining coal will stay in the ground. In the background is the still active GrainCorp silo. The country between Dalby and Chincilla is renowned for its high yield crops, many of which end up in the Macalister silo for processing.

Botswana: A United Kingdom

Seretse Khama arrives at Southampton in 1950 with wife Ruth and baby daughter Jaqueline.

The 2016 film A United Kingdom tells of the love story between Englishwoman Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama, heir to the throne of Bechuanaland, and later president of the successor nation of Botswana. While they created a “united kingdom” of sorts (Khama had renounced his right to the throne by the time he led Botswana as president), the name is a reminder of the “United Kingdom” and the UK behaving badly yet again as a colonial power. The film has been praised for the acting of leads Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo but was also criticised for being cosy and sentimental. Nevertheless it tells a remarkable true story, based on Susan Williams’ nonfiction book Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation, and is worthy of the big screen treatment.

Khama was studying law in England after World War II when he met Ruth Williams, a clerk for Cuthbert Heath, a firm of underwriters at Lloyd’s of London. They met a dance organised by the London Missionary Society and were brought together by their love of jazz, particularly American vocal jazz group The Ink Spots, Khama was the son of the kgosi (a Bamangwato title that means king, though the British preferred paramount chief). The Bamangwato were the ruling tribe of Bechuanaland and one of the Tswana people that gave its name to Botswana (Land of the Tswana) when it achieved independence in 1966.

It was a long road to independence. Bechuanaland’s proximity to the Cape Colony was a double-edged sword. Trade with southern merchants brought prosperity, but it also brought Boer migrants to their borderlands until an 1860 peace agreement established the current-day South Africa-Botswana border. Christian missionaries including the LMS took advantage of the peace to establish a strong foothold as well as links with Bechuana elites that would eventually lead to the fateful meeting between Williams and Khama.

The movie condenses their courtship but they dated for a year before marrying in September 1948. While the couple loved each other, no one else was happy with the match. At that time in post-war Britain, only 0.02 percent of the people were black. Prejudice was fervent and interracial couples were largely nonexistent. Ruth’s father, George Williams, disowned his daughter. Though not depicted in the film, her employers fired her.

There were political implications as Bechuanaland remained a British protectorate after the war. Britain was already dealing with partition in India and did not want another fractured colony. The film’s “Sir Alistair Canning” is fictional but Britain strongly opposed the marriage. South Africa was about to implement apartheid included a ban on interracial marriage. and their regime was appalled. There were concerns South Africa could invade and even if they didn’t they were important to Britain which relied on South African gold and uranium. Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi Khama, who was acting as king, also strongly opposed the union.

The couple married in a civil ceremony after the Bishop of London refused to give his consent. After living in London, Seretse returned to Bechuanaland where he was confronted by his uncle. Tshekedi demanded the right to choose his nephew’s partner, and that would be someone from their own country, preferably of royal blood. He wanted Seretse to either divorce his new wife or else renounce his right to the throne. Seretse would do neither. Over the course of meetings in 1948, Seretse tried to convince his majority Bamangwato tribe, finally getting their support to accept him as chief (kgosi) at a tribal meeting (kgotla) in June 1949. Ruth joined Seretse in Bechuanaland after the kgotla but had her own difficulties in being accepted by black and white alike. Fortunately her arrival in August 1949 coincided with the best rainy season in decades, a good omen for the Bamangwato who called her the Rain Queen.

Despite the kgotla’s decision Britain had other ideas and appointed Walter Harrigan as judge of the High Courts of Bechuanaland Protectorate to conduct an inquiry into the legitimacy of the kgotla and whether Khama was a “fit and proper person” to be chief. Harrigan was a disappointment to Whitehall and his report showed the complete opposite of what they had hoped exposing the real reasons the British government didn’t want Seretse as kgosi. The embarrassed government hid the Harragin Report until 1981.

Failing to get legal satisfaction, Britain resorted to trickery. They invited Khama to London who left a pregnant Ruth behind in case she was barred from leaving England again. The British government asked him to relinquish all claims to the chieftainship in exchange for a yearly tax-free stipend of £1000. He refused and they barred him in 1951 from returning to Botswana for five years, citing bogus findings in their secret report. Seretse was allowed to go home in 1950 for the birth of his first child, after which he brought Ruth to England, where she reconciled with her father.

Living in exile in Croydon, Khama went on the counter-attack urging the British people to unseat the Labour government at the 1951 election. They did, but reinstalled Tory prime minister Winston Churchill reneged on his pre-election promise to let him go home. Not only did he uphold the ban, he made it permanent. Now in opposition younger Labour MPs such as Tony Benn and especially Fenner Brockway supported Khama’s cause. There were popular campaigns to overturn the ban in England and Bechuanaland. After much protest, Seretse and Tshekedi presented an agreement to the British government. Seretse would renounce the kgosi and would return as a private citizen. Tshekedi would also not claim the chieftainship for himself or his children. Britain agreed to this arrangement and in 1956, they ended Seretse’s banishment.

Back home Khama founded the Bechuanaland Democratic Party in 1961 and won the 1965 elections, the prelude to independence which Bechuanaland achieved in 1966 as the republic of Botswana. Khama was elected its first president. He had a daunting task. Botswana was the world’s third-poorest country, had minimal infrastructure and only 12 kilometres of paved roads, and had only 22 university graduates and 100 secondary school graduates. Khama transformed Botswana into an export-based economy, built around beef, copper and diamonds, helped by the 1967 discovery of Orapa’s diamond deposits. He served four terms between 1966 and 1980 with Ruth a politically active first lady and mother of four children. Khama died in office in 1980 aged 59 after contracting cancer of the abdomen.

Ruth continued charitable works – running women’s clubs, president of the Botswana Red Cross, and being involved with the girl guides. She died in 2002 aged 78 of throat cancer. Their son Ian Khama followed in his father’s footsteps serving as the fourth resident of the Republic of Botswana from 2008 to 2018. Botswana is not a “united kingdom” but remains a rare example of a successful African democracy with good quality of life, something Seretse and Ruth can claim much credit for.

When Malcolm Turnbull stopped at nothing

A photo of Malcolm Turnbull eating a camel pie in Birdsville in 2015 noting he became prime minister a few weeks later.

Annabel Crabb’s short biography of Malcolm Turnbull “Stop at Nothing” was published around the time of the 2016 election but before the result was announced. There was an assumption that Turnbull would win that election in reasonable comfort and then go forth John Howard-style to rule for another 10 years or so. Of course that didn’t happen. Like Howard in his second election in 1998, Turnbull stumbled over the line. But unlike Howard who had a clear run in his own partyroom, Turnbull remained hostage to the climate wars that dogged the Liberals since his first sacking in 2009. Another journalist Nikki Sava told the story of how Turnbull was eventually unseated in 2018, and Turnbull quickly resigned. The resignation has made Crabb’s book less relevant to day-to-day politics but she has an enjoyable wry style and Turnbull has led a wildly interesting life so it was enjoyable read.

Crabb starts with the shocking moment Turnbull lost his father Bruce, something that also featured in the recent SBS episode of Who Do You Think You Are about Turnbull’s ancestors. Bruce Turnbull had raised Malcolm alone since his mother Coral Landsbury walked out on the family. In the SBS show Turnbull said her absence “crept up on me like a slow chill of the heart”. Bruce was 56 when he died in a single-engine air crash in New South Wales in 1982. Malcolm was 28 and had just become a father himself. It “smashed him up” as Crabb said, The book and SBS show both recount the story when Malcolm was a boy and Bruce saved his life at Bondi when he got in trouble in the surf. Bruce taught Malcolm to forgive his mother for leaving them when he was just eight years old, something Turnbull noted with approval in Who Do You Think You Are when a similar story of forgiveness for a mother’s infidelity was unearthed about bygone relatives.

Crabb says Turnbull’s life was driven by ambition which changed abruptly when he finally became prime minister in 2015. It has been a colourful life, full of “hinterland” as George Brandis called it. Turnbull loved being prime minister, unlike his predecessor Tony Abbott who was better served as opposition leader. Turnbull’s “crowning misadventure” as opposition was the grand bargain he strived for with the Rudd government in 2009 on a carbon price. But Turnbull was driven on by extraordinary expectations and his determination to meet them and after considering retiring from politics, he stayed on to eventually become Australia’s 29th prime minister six years later.

Turnbull was famous well before he entered politics. He first came to attention as Kerry Packer’s Boy Friday, then spectacularly won the Spycatcher case, before leading the Republic campaign to defeat in 1999. Back in the 1970s he first came to public attention as a University of Sydney student working for the Nation Review, radio station 2SM and Channel Nine. He flogged jingles to ad man John Singleton who introduced him to Kerry Packer. At this point Crabb tells the strange story of “The Cat”. In 1977 Turnbull was dating a woman called Fiona Watson, stepdaughter of Labor senator “Diamond” Jim McClelland. It was a turbulent relationship which Watson decided to end. Turnbull embarked on a series of letters addressed to Watson’s cat, exhorting its owner to take him back. One day Watson found the cat dead outside her home. There is no evidence Turnbull killed the cat, but rumours quickly spread. A couple which spread into print were quickly met with Turnbull writs. “No cat died at my hands,” Turnbull told Crabb but the story persists as Sydney eastern suburbs folklore.

Turnbull went to work for Packer after Bruce’s death in 1982. Shortly after starting at Consolidated Press he became embroiled in the Costigan Royal Commission investigating dodgy union dealings. The Commission heard secret evidence a well-known Australian businessman was involved in drug-running, pornography and murder. The National Times published extracts from the hearings calling the businessman “The Goanna”. Graffiti in Sydney identified The Goanna as Packer, and Turnbull persuaded his boss to go on the counter-attack, believing the Commission was leaking the information. Packer publicly identified himself as The Goanna, refuted the allegations and blasted the Commission. Turnbull went on the air on TV and radio defending his boss, raising the ire of fellow barristers for his unorthodox behaviour, and forcing Turnbull to become a lawyer.

In private practice in 1986 he received a brief from barrister Geoffrey Robertson to fight for former British Intelligence Officer Peter Wright to publish his memoir Spycatcher in Australia, against the wishes of the British government. Turnbull was told the case was unwinnable and he was probably bugged but chose to continue. He indulged in fake conversations and hoax faxes to put the opposition off the scent. He even contacted British Labour opposition leader Neil Kinnock to get him to (reluctantly) attack Attorney-General Michael Havers for lying about secret letters that incriminated aristocrat Victor Rothschild in the leaking of Wright’s intelligence secrets. Kinnock got in trouble for accepting the call with one MP saying it was if he had spoken to General Galtieri for a chat about tactics during the Falklands War. Turnbull won the case making Spycatcher a best seller, and him a household name on two continents.

As a lawyer Turnbull later worked against Packer, acting for American junk bond holders who were owed money by Fairfax in 1991. Turnbull litigated against Fairfax and its bankers for misleading conduct saying the company had overly optimistic projections when touting for loan funds. He called off the threat when Fairfax finally took the holders as serious a creditor as its banks. It got them a seat at the bargaining table when a group called Tourang including Packer and Conrad Black looked to take over the company. When leaked papers showed Packer’s intentions to be more interventionist than he publicly stated, some wondered if it Packer’s ex-lawyer was doing the leaking. Turnbull denied it but admitted he was at war with Packer at the time. When the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal threatened to call an investigation, Packer withdrew from the syndicate, leaving the Fairfax empire in Black’s hands.

While Turnbull had no overarching political philosophy Crabb said he was driven into politics in 2004 by a mixture of aptitude and ambition, a sense of public service, and the “gravitational pull of fate”. A sleight of hand involving branch stacking also helped to unseat then MP Peter King in Wentworth, the wealthiest electorate in Australia. Turnbull thought he was the obvious choice to replace John Howard as leader in 2007 when Peter Costello stood aside but an ABC interview where he slammed WorkChoices cost him the vote against Brendan Nelson. Nelson was hapless and quickly replaced by Turnbull. Paul Keating told a worried Kevin Rudd that Turnbull was brilliant and utterly fearless but had an Achilles Heel: he lacked judgement. That lack cost him dear in 2009 when he went hard on the Godwin Grech affair.

Grech was Turnbull’s mole inside Treasury keeping him one step ahead of the government’s response to the GFC. But when Grech supplied details of a car financial assistance scheme with a supposed email from a Queensland dealer wanting special treatment Turnbull over-reached and demanded the resignations of PM Rudd and his treasurer Wayne Swan. It was soon revealed Grech had faked the email and Turnbull crashed hard, eventually falling on his sword over the carbon pricing deal when Andrew Robb reneged on his support. After a “bleak period” of introspection, Turnbull stayed on as a “loyal” Abbott frontbencher and then government minister from 2013.

Crabb pinpoints the time when Turnbull realised his boss was not suitable for the job. In May 2015 under advice from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, Abbott wanted to strip suspected terrorists of Australian citizenship, which would have breached Australia’s UN obligation to prevent statelessness. Turnbull railed against Abbott’s pointless war on “death cults” and delivered a powerful speech to the Sydney Institute on the rule of law and civil liberties. When he was finally elevated to the top job, he knew he had to be more consultative than Abbott who relied exclusively on Peta Credlin (Abbott cabinet meetings without her in the room were a lot shorter because ministers knew they couldn’t get their ideas up without her approval).

Turnbull was eventually done by the same numbers that did in Abbott. His treasurer Scott Morrison thought Turnbull supported him on his idea to raise the GST and use the funds for tax cuts. But backbenchers were furious at having to sell the hike for only moderate economic gain and Turnbull backed off leaving Morrison high and dry. After 30 Newspolls, Turnbull’s numbers were still behind Labor, and his time was up by his own method of indication. When the conservatives eventually came for him led by Peter Dutton, Morrison squeaked in the back door and won the 2019 election Turnbull believed was his for the taking.

Now Turnbull has plenty of time for kayaking on his beloved Sydney Harbour and seeing markers of his own life in his family tree. Crabb, speaking to Turnbull before his fall, gets one final quote from him. “I’m either ahead of my time or behind it. I don’t know which.” Turnbull is indeed an extraordinary and brilliant man, but the times have moved on without him. Turnbull points to Same Sex Marriage as an important legacy but that was poisoned by the long-winded way in which it had to be done. SSM aside, the tragedy of Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministerial reign was his failure to reshape Australia in his own forward-looking image.

Comparing the partitions of India and Ireland

Refugees cram onto a train during the India-Pakistan partition era.

Across both parts of Ireland this year, there are 100 year commemorations to mark the two states formed at the end of the Irish War of Independence. Ireland was partitioned in 1921 and its borders were set in stone in the coming years. Though largely rendered invisible in recent years, Brexit threatens to make them real again. The creation of the border in Ireland was a response of British imperial statecraft to an intractable religious conflict, so it was unsurprising the British would look to that solution when faced with an even bigger problem 25 years later in India, “the conjoined twins cursed at birth”.

Though I loved Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s account of that partition, I knew little about it. I didn’t really even know much about the partition much closer to my home. I was born in the south of the Republic of Ireland in the 1960s and Northern Ireland was strange and forbidding, but a mostly remote place that had little to do my upbringing. Five hours away by road and light years away by attitude, Waterford was immune to the violence though I remember the black flags of the grim-faced IRA Hunger Striker protests in 1981. As the troubles worsened in the early 1970s and occasionally spilled over the border as it did with the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974 I tended to take my grandmother’s dim view of the North. She wished a giant scissors would cut the two Irelands apart (had she lived 20 years it might have been a continental plate she would have imagined) and send the North drifting off in the direction of Scotland. It wasn’t until 1984 when I took a day trip by Belfast by train that the place became real to me and strikingly Irish, at that. That feeling has grown in recent years since the Good Friday agreement and I was shocked by the complete absence of the border the last time I drove across it – the only giveaway was the road signs changing from kilometers to miles. And now with the intractable Brexit issue and the growing Catholic population, it seems to me a federal Ireland with power bases in Dublin and Belfast might well be the long term future for the island.

I wondered whether South Asian federal power-sharing arrangement could possibly be the same solution for India and Pakistan given their cultural resemblances to each other despite a similar religious divide that stoked up Ireland. I read Ian Talbot and Gurharpal Singh’s book The Partition of India which told me the 1947 Partition not only created the states of India and Pakistan but also involved the splitting of two provinces along Muslim and Hindu lines – Punjab in the west and Bengal in the east. As in Ulster, this was not just a colonial whim – a local majority carved out states that best suited them. Though the British also used this solution in Palestine around the same time, Talbot and Singh say the evidence shows they were reluctant to split India and only did so to avoid civil war.

With the benefit of hindsight, the ethnic cleansing experience of partition is that is does not solve problems, as Palestine’s tragedy today show. In Ireland more than 500 were killed in the violence that followed partition and more than 10,000 became refugees, most of them from the Catholic minority. The death toll in India’s Partition is disputed but much larger, with a tenfold gap possible between estimates of 200,000 and two million deaths. Fifteen million were involved in the largest displacement of the 20th century while Kashmir remains unfinished business for both states. India and Pakistan’s enmity is exacerbated by nuclear weapons, a problem shared by another partitioned Asian state: Korea.

Partitions have been rarely reversed, Germany aside. At the end of the Second World War, India remained under colonial rule but it was only a matter of timing when that would end. Labour’s win in the UK 1945 election was helpful as they had good relations with India’s leading Congress Party, Congress was established in 1885 as the secular voice of all India. But the growing power of the Muslim League needed to be accommodated with its demand for a separate Pakistan. The empire endgame began with the Great Calcutta Killing in August 1946 climaxing in genocidal violence a year later as India descended into religious civil war. On June 3, 1947 Britain announced its Plan to agree transfer of power to two dominions, India and the Muslim-majority provinces (Punjab, Sindh, Bengal, Baluchistan and the NWFP). The British departure on August 15 left issues over demarcation and large-scale disturbances in the Punjab which resulted in large-scale migration on religious lines. The trouble in Bengal was slower to erupt but its migration lasted well into the 1950s.

Irish Taoiseach Éamon de Valera with Indian prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru during de Valera’s visit to India in 1948. (Irish Press).

Ireland’s protestant population was greatest in the North West but imagine what might have happened had say, Kerry in the South West also had the same demographic. A Kerry-Ulster alliance would have been inherent unstable and this is what happened in India, leading to a second partition in the 1970s. Yet while Muslims had majorities in north-west and north-east India, the push for Partition came from the United Provinces where they numbered eight million, 15pc of the population, centred on Lucknow.

Here the Urdu-speaking landed gentry stood to lose most from a Hindu-dominated India. The vast majority of agricultural labourers did not have time to care about governance but Muslim separatism grew because the colonial state had categorised India by caste and religious identity since the census introduced in 1881. This led to separate provincial electorates for Muslims introduced in 1909. In 1928 Muhammad Ali Jinnah proposed his fourteen points to safeguard Muslim rights in a self-governing India. His emphasis on strong provinces in a weak federation largely reflected the Punjabi dominated All-India Muslim Conference. Chaudary Rahmat Ali coined the term Pakistan in 1933 as “the land of the pure” consisting of Punjab, NWFP, Kashmir, Sindh and Baluchistan though he was largely ignored at the time.

Two factors brought Pakistan to the centre of the agenda. First was the lived experience of Congress rule after provincial autonomy arrived in 1937, the second was the World War II. Jinnah exploited both adroitly. In the 1937 the Muslim League did well in Muslim minority provinces positioning itself as the safeguard of Muslim rights but in Punjab and Bengal it was eclipsed by regional parties. Congress ruled 7 of the 11 provinces and largely ignored Muslim interests instead enforcing cow protection and the use of Hindi, just as the new Protestant state in Northern Ireland ignored Catholic demands. Indian Muslims exaggerated claims of oppression and gained wider support as a result. By 1940 they were calling for “independent states in which the constituent units would be autonomous and sovereign” in north-west and north-east India.

At this stage the British could ignore their calls, but when the war arrived, Congress used it as an opportunity to advance their cause with the Non Cooperation (1939-42) and Quit India movements (1942) leading to violence. Ireland, then led by Éamon de Valera also publicly refused to cooperate with the Allies but 20 years of de facto independence meant the British could only quietly fume at his decision. India was still British so they could and did arrest many Congress leaders including Jawahartal Nehru. This left a vacuum which the Muslim League entered. In wartime the British saw Jinnah as an equal to Gandhi (whom they dared not arrest) implicitly accepting the League’s claim to speak on behalf of all Muslims. The 1942 Stafford Cripps Mission had a proviso no part of India would have to join the post-war dominion which pleased Jinnah while an enraged Gandhi thought it was an invite to create Pakistan. With an impasse the British called the 1945 Simla conference which collapsed when Jinnah insisted all Muslim members of the proposed Indian Executive Council should be members of the League.

Jinnah got his way scuttling any chance of unionist Muslims on the council. In the 1946 provincial elections they won 75 of the 86 Muslim seats. This was similar to results in Irish elections in 1918 and 1921 where hardliners on both sides strengthened their positions over the moderates. Jinnah’s influence with Britain diminished after the war but Congress began to see partition as a heavy but necessary price of independence and they wanted the border set on their terms, again similar to the Irish aims around the 1921 Peace Treaty. There was a widespread belief partition would offer a peaceful solution to the violence that wracked India in 1946-47. In March 1947 they called for splitting of Punjab if Pakistan was created. They were also pacified that Bengal’s largest city Calcutta was on their their side of the border. Congress leader Nehru saw the Muslim League as hindering post-independence economic development. Britain was gradually accepting partition too but did not want complete Balkanisation – the Sikhs, Pashtuns, Tamils and other who wanted their own states would not be tolerated. They tried a last ditch 1946 effort to impose an All-India solution with limited powers for the central government which the Muslim League cautiously supported but when Nehru baulked at the three provincial groupings, the League withdrew support and an united India was dead. Both local powers wanted a “right-sized state” to shape their own destiny and Jinnah reluctantly agreed to the sub-partition of Punjab and Bengal.

Just like in Ireland, a British-formed Boundary Commission was a chaotic failure with local powerbrokers exasperating attempts at diplomacy. When the British recommended joint sharing of Punjab’s intricate canal works, Jinnah objected saying he’d prefer “Pakistan deserts than fertile fields watered by the courtesy of the Hindus”. Media rumours of where the border might lie fuelled the violence in the lead-up to the partition date and the Commission deliberately delayed announcing some Muslim-majority areas of Punjab would be awarded to India. A Punjab Boundary Force was no match for local warlords who took what the Commission denied them. The Bengal partition was less acrimonious with both sides content to lobby for power post-Partition, though the loss of 21 million people diminished Bengal’s voice in India. Some Bengal Muslims preferred their own sovereign state and conflict between Bengali and Urdu Pakistan elites dominated east-west relations eventually leading to the second partition of 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh.

There were other complications that Ireland did not have. The largest princely state was Hyderabad, ruled by a Muslim nizam with an 85pc Hindu population. The nizam favoured Pakistan but was landlocked by India and the problem had not been resolved by August 1947. India invaded Hyderabad as a “police action” in September 1948 while Pakistan was distracted by its mourning for founder Jinnah. That left the biggest sore in Partition relations: Kashmir. The 1846 Treaty of Lahore ended Sikh domination and handed power to a Hindu elite for a century, with the majority Muslim population reduced to a servile peasantry. Sheikh Abdullah led calls for Kashmiri independence but he was imprisoned for two decades. Powerbrokers voted with India which resulted in hostilities between the two new states, UN intervention and de facto division along the ceasefire line. Kashmir remains the biggest unfinished business of partition.

Just as in Ireland, the Indian division of power was accompanied by massive dislocation. Throughout the years that followed communal violence had one major aim – to remove troublesome minority populations. A million people or more died because of Partition with both sides happy to blame the other while authorities implicitly supported the violence. Women were disproportionate victims, many killed by their own family members to protect them from “defilement” from men from the other side. Women and children were deliberately targetted with police, soldiers and railway staff often divulging details of the refugee trains to violent groups. Suicide, such as the death of 105 Sikh women who jumped into a village well was considered honourable and the subject of community pride.

Partition was accompanied by the largest uprooting of people in the 20th century. In Punjab ten million people moved in either direction. Karachi tripled in size between 1947 and 1953. Many had to travel from place to place before finding a new home. The flight was later to start in Bengal, reaching a peak of 1.5 million in 1949. Calcutta’s population rose by 20pc in five years and there was a further flight around 1971. By 1973 the city housed two million refugees, about a third of West Bengal’s urban population. The migrations left an enduring legacy of religious and ethnic nationalism that plague both countries to this day.

Ireland is 25 years further along the partition journey than South Asia. There is still much hatred in Ireland but a great deal of political civility. More importantly there is a will on the ground to treat with the other. Perhaps some Diwali or Ramadan Peace Agreement could get India and Pakistan to pull away from each other’s throat. But that requires political leadership that does not currently appear to exist in either country, where it’s too easy to don the nationalist mantle. It seems hard to imagine their borders ever disappearing. But if India is to realise its ambition to become a leading 21st century power in the mould of America, it needs to face up to the demons on its own border and confront the reality of its lookalike neighbour to the west. There is a template for this. India has friendly relations with East Pakistan’s successor nation, Bangladesh and they are the largest trade partners in South Asia. Inter-Irish trade is the main reason Northern Ireland is still in the EU Single Market. Trade, and perhaps the cricket beloved by both nations (though sadly not Ireland), may yet be the solution to the South Asian nuclear standoff.

Fool’s Gold: the story of Lasseter’s Reef

Harold Lasseter’s grave in Adelaide. Photo: Monument Australia

Gold has been an enduring feature of Australia’s story since the finds near Bathurst, NSW in 1851. Despite the fabulous riches later uncovered at Ballarat and Bendigo, the story has been mostly one of failure. That less inspiring but more human story is told in Barry McGowan’s book Fool’s Gold with tales from many unsuccessful rushes across the land. Each is about hope and then desperation as the gold is not there in payable quantities or in some cases an Australian El Dorado where the gold is not there at all such as McGowan’s centrepiece, the mythical Lasseter’s Reef in the heart of the Northern Territory.

The reef is named for Lewis Lasseter, for whom the highway to Uluru is also named. Lasseter was inspired by the 1923 book The Man with the Iron Door written by American Harold Bell Wright. The book was about prospectors in the Canyon of Gold, Arizona, and Lasseter was so impressed he added Harold Bell to his name that same year. Lasseter worked at many occupations, marrying twice and fathering five children. He lived in England and the US (1901-1909) and then was a market gardener and road maintenance man in NSW. He worked on the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Canberra’s parliament house.

In October 1929 Lasseter wrote a letter to the minister of defence about a gold reef in central Australia. The letter said that for 18 years he had known about a “vast gold bearing reef” in central Australia with assays from 22km of reef showing values of three ounces to the ton. Lasseter said when he was there he was without water for four days and suggested an aerial survey of the headwaters of the Gasgoyne River (WA) for a gravitational pipeline to the reef. As a “competent surveyor” Lasseter offered to do the job for £2000 and suggested five million pounds would be needed to develop the reef.

The minister forwarded the letter to HW Gepp, chairman of the Development and Migration Commission. Gepp was already talking about an aerial and truck survey of the western MacDonnells with Dr Keith Ward, the government’s consultant geologist on the Northern Territory from 1925-1931. Gepp and Ward met Lasseter who told them the reef was 400km south-west of Alice Springs in the western end of the ranges. Lasseter said the gold was in floaters (rocks or ground that appear solid but unattached to the bedrock) and he had carried a considerable amount until his horse died near Lake Amadeus, 50km north of Uluru. After that he took a smaller quantity out on foot. Lasseter would not disclose the exact location unless the government provided a water supply. The government men replied they could not guarantee that without establishing the field’s feasibility.

Gepp told the Minister the dispatch of a party to the reef was “a gamble” and recommended it only be done as part of an organised prospecting campaign in Central Australia. He proposed to discuss it at the 1930 Geological Conference. Lasseter wrote again saying he would only seek payment if the assay lived up to claims. He also said he would prefer to lead an expedition by truck even though he claimed he was in the Air Corps in the First World War – though there is no record of him there.

Labor won the federal election in February 1930 and Lasseter wrote to new Home Affairs minister Arthur Blakely to suggest equipping an expedition. Blakely turned it down but the letter gave momentum to the proposed discussion at the June Geological Conference. With the Depression taking hold, a desperate government was keen to explore money making schemes and a new gold discovery could be “of particular national advantage.”

This momentum was too slow for the impatient Lasseter. In March he wrote a letter to John Bailey, head of the Australian Workers Union, which Bailey forwarded to Blakely. Bailey suggested Arthur’s brother Fred Blakely would be ideal for the job, Fred Blakely was a highly regarded bushman and prospector who cycled Australia north to south in 1908. Arthur asked Fred if he fancied “a jaunt into Central Australia” saying they would get government support. It would also test out Lasseter.

In April 1930 Gepp agreed to provide a truck and a team including Fred Blakely. Lasseter would be paid the same as the others with an advance to work his claim. Blakely met Lasseter and while he believed there was some truth to Lasseter’s claims he thought there were gaps in the story. They agreed to a £50 share each and got four others to do the same. The six men met in Bailey’s office to discuss mining and a team of camels. Word got around with others clamouring to join the syndicate. By the next meeting 20 people showed up.

Lasseter told Blakely he was first in the MacDonnell Ranges aged 17 at the back end of a ruby boom. He said he got there via train to Cloncurry though this was around 1897 and the train did not come to Cloncurry until 10 years later. Lasseter said he found no rubies and intended to travel overland to Carnarvon in WA. He struck out due west when he hit the reef. “Everywhere I examined I found gold,” he told Blakely. He continued west through harsh country and was found almost dead nine days later. He and the surveyor who rescued him went prospecting three years later and found the reef a second time. They took samples but with supplies running out they went back to Carnarvon.

Lasseter told similar stories to the other miners and speculators who grew excited about untold riches. An exception to the mood was Australian aviator Charles Ulm who said Lasseter’s bearings put him in the Indian Ocean and the project was “too hazy” for investment. Nonetheless a new company called Central Australian Gold Exploration (CAGE) was set up with £5000 capital. Thornycroft Motors donated a truck for six months, Atlantic Oil Company donated oil and petrol and governments and the railway provided free transport by train. CAGE bought an airplane named Golden Quest piloted by journalist Errol Coote. Others were engineer and driver Philip Taylor, prospector George Sutherland and truck driver Fred Colson. Blakely was the leader and Lasseter the guide. Aboriginal stockman Mickey joined the expedition from Hamilton Downs station, west of Alice. Aboriginal Affairs was in Fred’s brother Arthur’s remit and he fielded letters from many worried by comments from Bailey the expedition was “armed to the teeth”. It was a legitimate concern two years after the nearby Coniston Massacre. Blakely said he had confidence in his brother and “none of the party would interfere with Aborigines”.

The party set out from Alice Springs on July 21, 1930 travelling 400km west through tough country to an airstrip at Ilbilla. Along the way the truck was damaged and Coote and Colson returned to Alice by car for a spare part leaving the plane at a makeshift runway at Taylors Creek. After four days at Ilbilla Coote and Colson left again to pick up the plane. Coote had not arrived after the agreed number of days so Blakely and Taylor returned by truck to Taylors Creek. They found the plane crashed and a note to say Colson had driven Coote back to Alice. Colson arrived back at the Creek the following morning and they rejoined the others at Ilbilla.

The full party headed 200km west to Mount Marjorie where Lasseter told Blakely they needed to go 240km south. This was not consistent with earlier statements. Lasseter admitted he lied on some points as he was suspicious of one of the party. Blakely felt for the first time Lasseter had never been there before. It heightened suspicions in Alice where a local thought Lasseter’s description of the area in the 1890s was nonsense. Lasseter was now moody, secretive and distrustful leading to many rows with Blakeley.

Lasseter gave new directions which meant returning to Ilbilla where they waited for Colson to arrive by truck. There was also a newcomer, dingo hunter Paul Johns, who arrived with five camels and two Aboriginal helpers. Blakely asked him to stay there for a few weeks in case they needed him. Eventually Coote arrived by replacement plane but told Blakely it did not have the range to continue further and needed to be refitted in Adelaide. Before he left again he took Lasseter in the air to find landmarks. On return Lasseter initially said nothing but under questioning from Coote admitted he had seen the reef from the air. He would not divulge where it was as he had no confidence in Blakely or Colson. Coote did not tell the others.

When they got to the location Lasseter suggested, they were stuck in an eroded escarpment of hills and mesas which the truck could not handle. Lasseter changed his story again and said the reef was further south near the Petermann Ranges. Blakely said they would have to backtrack 500km, the area was well prospected and was even further away from Carnarvon. With summer approaching Blakely decided to end the expedition. They went back to Ilbilla where they located Johns and his camels. They agreed Lasseter would continue the expedition with Johns. After the pair left, the others were shocked to find Lasseter had earlier telegrammed head office with the news he had found the reef.

Blakely went back to Sydney to inform directors of the mission’s failure. Shareholders aware of Lasseter’s telegram thought it was a Blakely doublecross. Coote flew to Adelaide where he told people Lasseter was excited during the aerial survey though it was 250km from where he said the reef was. Coote was then asked to fly back to Uluru to find Lasseter. Taylor would go there by truck. Coote arrived at Uluru with a damaged plane and had to fly back to Adelaide for repairs. When he got back the directors’ instructions had changed; he was to collect Taylor and fly home. Lasseter was left to his own devices.

A few days later Coote was in Alice Springs when Johns arrived without Lasseter. Johns told Coote they headed west past the Petermann Ranges towards the Warburton Ranges but had a falling out and Lasseter stormed off. While Johns rested with the camels Lasseter returned after two days saying he had found the reef. Lasseter had samples but refused to show them to Johns. Johns called Lasseter a liar. They fought and then calmed down and the following morning Lasseter asked Johns to return to Alice for supplies. He would stay with the camels. He gave him a letter which Johns later opened. It said Lasseter found the reef and had pegged leases though it was not as rich as he thought.

According to the letter Lasseter intended to return to Ilbilla and if Johns didn’t turn up he would go to Lake Christopher to meet a man called Johanson. Johns said Lasseter got hopelessly lost in waterholes near Kata Tjuta. It is not known who the Johanson is, though a W. Johanson of Boulder, WA later claimed to have received a letter from John Bailey to get ready to join the expedition. No one else in the expedition knew about Johanson or his relationship to Lasseter, one of many mysteries.

A plane rescue mission set out on December 15 but went missing. On New Years Day 1931 another aerial rescue mission set out from Point Cook, Victoria. Using Hermannsburg Mission as a base it ran reconnaissance flights. They found the missing men from the earlier flight rescue mission which crashed near Haasts Bluff but there was no sign of Lasseter who was presumed dead. Evidence of Lasseter’s arrival at Lake Christopher was found with an inscription on a salt pan and a tree marked “Lasseter 2.12.30”. Bailey said Lasseter did not meet Johanson because the latter had been speared by Aborigines. According to the diary Lasseter returned to Ilbilla. The diary said he pegged the reef but did not give a date or location. Not long after, Johns’ camels bolted and he set up camp in a cave at Hull Creek in the Petermanns to await rescue. Local man Bob Buck found his footprints with the help of Aborigines and found Lasseter’s body at Shaws Creek.

Buck also found the diary buried in the ashes of the fire and from the embers he pieced together Lasseter’s last days. Lasseter said the Aborigines were “hostile” though they befriended him and caught the camels after they bolted. They also fed him nardoo (the food which kept John King alive in the Burke & Wills saga) but he could not digest it. He gradually weakened and became blind. The local tribes weeped when he eventually died. Among his last words in the diary were: “What good is a reef worth millions? I would give it all for a loaf of bread.”

With Lasseter dead, his reef descended into myth. Newspaper articles claimed there was an Aladdin’s Cave of wealth somewhere in the Red Centre. Despite all the doubts and lies, expedition members still believed Lasseter’s story. A second CAGE expedition in 1931 was equally fruitless. The same year Ion Idriess’s bestselling novel Lasseter’s Last Ride: El Dorado Found was an imaginative if mostly invented reworking of the story. A newspaper review lauded it as an exciting true story. Lasseter’s Reef continued to dazzle prospectors throughout the 1930s though none found any workings. Only a few doubters such as Michael Terry were prepared to spoil the fun by noting 83 parties went through “Lasseter’s country” without a single authenticated gold discovery. Yet even in 2013, there were those who say they found Lasseter’s El Dorado on Google Earth.

Barry McGowan concludes the reef was a product of Lasseter’s feverish imagination. He noted Lasseter’s 1917 Army discharged said he had “marked hallucinations”. With his mood swings between optimism and distrustfulness, his ever-changing story and his tragic end, he was like Andrew Hume who told similar tales about Ludwig Leichhardt. Lasseter would probably now be diagnosed as bipolar. In his final act of deception, he was the victim though his dying spared him ridicule and harsh judgement. His act of death, McGowan concludes, tranformed Lasseter and his reef into one of Australia’s most enduring legends.