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Whose 'Never Never'?Produced by Lorena
Sunday 12 September 1999
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Lorena Allam: In Background
Briefing today, we're in the Northern Territory; it's just on
sunrise, and we're cruising down the Stuart Highway to the
Hello, I'm Lorena Allam.
Announcer: G'day! You're in the Never Never country.
Welcome to the wonder world of the Roper River and the town of
Mataranka. You're in genuine frontier country
Lorena Allam: Mataranka is a small town of
about 100 people, clinging to the sides of the Stuart Highway, four
hours' south of Darwin. It has a pub, two roadhouses and Kelly's
Cafe. They're all for sale. Down the street, there's the Council
Office, a bowling club and the shop. Fresh fruit and vegetables come
in on a refrigerated road train from Katherine. Petrol is 91-cents a
litre. It's known as the Never Never country.
The Never Never
has come to symbolise all that is noble, good and true about the
brave pioneers of the outback, laying the foundations of the nation.
But is it the biggest lie of the land?
Announcer: A further
history of Old Elsey Station can be found in the Never Never
cemetery south of town. Mataranka has much to interest you all. Pull
up and look past the bitumen, you'll find a world that has been
forever hidden, a wonderful world of river and trees, of history and
myth, a land of special magic. Experience the features in this land
of lots of time, this land of wait a while, this Never Never
Announcer: You're listening to Radio Never
Never on 88 FM
Lorena Allam: The Aboriginal traditional
owners of Elsey Station will be handed the title deeds by the end of
the year, probably November. It's been a nine-year battle, from
lodging the land rights claim to getting the official nod from
Aboriginal Affairs Minister, John Herron.
Elsey Station was
made famous by Jeannie Gunn, the author of the Australian class, 'We
of the Never Never'. The book was written almost 100 years ago, but
it still dominates the Australian imagination about the bush. It's
the story of Jeannie and her husband Aeneas, the Marluka, or boss,
trying to carve a home out of a remote, hostile country, populated
by a 'strange medley' of whites, blacks and Chinese.
an important place for Australian pioneering history. Like other
icons of the landscape, Uluru and Kakadu, it's considered part of
white colonial history.
In 'We of the Never Never', Jeannie
Gunn described it this way.
Reader: And all of
us, and many of this company, shared each others' lives for one
bright sunny year, away behind the back of beyond on the land of the
Never Never, in that elusive land with an elusive name, a land of
dangers and hardships and privations, yet loved as few lands are
Called the Never Never, the Marluka loved to say,
because they who have lived in it and loved it, never voluntarily
leave it. Sadly enough, there are too many who never never do leave
it. Others, the unfitted, will tell you that it is so called because
they who succeed in getting out of it swear they will never never
return to it. But we who have lived in it and loved it and left it,
know that our hearts can never never rest away from
Lorena Allam: 'We of the Never Never' has never been out
of print. It was taught in schools, on and off, for almost 30 years.
And like all great myths, it's been changed, even censored, to suit
In a chapter called 'A Nigger Hunt' which later
editors renamed 'A Surprise Party', Jeannie, her husband and a group
of stockmen ride out with rifles to shoot Aborigines interfering
with the cattle. It's the only passage in which Gunn refers directly
to frontier violence. But it's missing from some editions of the
book, including the most recent version published by Harper Collins.
It's thought to have been removed in 1927 when the book was first
used in schools. Here is the missing passage.
Reader: A black
fellow kills cattle because he is hungry and must be fed with food,
having been trained in a school that for generations has
acknowledged catch-who- catch-can among its commandments. And until
the long arm of the law interfered, white men killed the black
fellow because they were hungry with a hunger that must be fed with
gold, having been trained in a school that for generations has
acknowledged 'Thou shalt not kill' among its commandments. And yet
men speak of the superiority of the white race, and speaking, forget
to ask who of us would go hungry if the situation were reversed. But
condemn the black fellow as a mild thief (piously quoting now it
suits them) from those commandments that men must not steal, in the
same breath referring to the white man's crime when it finds them
out, as getting into trouble over some shooting affairs with blacks.
Truly, we British-born have reason to brag of our inborn sense of
Lorena Allam: There is evidence that shootings were
going on at Elsey Station while Jeannie Gun was there. Jack McLeod,
immortalised as the Quiet Stockman, recalls taking part in one
himself. Here's an excerpt from an interview with the ABC in 1958;
the interviewer asks:
Interviewer: And at this time, the
Aborigines, how did you get on with them? Were they very civilised
at that time?
Jack McLeod: No, they weren't, we had a lot of
trouble with them. They used to kill a lot of cattle and horses as
well. Used to have a lot of trouble with them then. In fact they
speared one of our Chinese cooks, May Sing.
was an actual incident in 'We of the Never Never' wasn't
Jack McLeod; Yes, I believe it was in 'We of the Never
Interviewer: And why did they spear this cook, do you
Jack McLeod: Well I don't know why, he was milking
the cows in the yard up in the morning and they just happened to
come along and speared 'im. Because we used to work in conjunction
with the police, took us six weeks to catch the one that speared the
cook. I was out with Inspector Berkeleys. Took us six weeks before
we got him.
Lorena Allam: The Quiet Stockman of the Never
Never, Jack McLeod.
This version of Never Never history isn't
popular. And it certainly didn't appear in the 1983 film version.
But by then, people had begun to see the book as old-fashioned, if
not racist. The movie revised and resurrected the myth for a new
generation. But where the book is a fond study of the bush-folk, the
movie reflects the earnest liberalism becoming apparent in race
politics in the early 1980s.
Broadcaster Phillip Adams was
the film's Executive Producer.
Phillip Adams: I remember the
book as being progressive in attitudes for its time, and dimly
thought it might be useful to make a film which gave some
recognition to Aborigines in Australia. When I belatedly read the
damn thing, my blood froze because I realised that it was infinitely
patronising, and I told the people who'd brought the project to me
that they'd have to significantly rewrite it before it would be
acceptable to me, or in fact to anyone else.
It's these revisions which have grabbed the attention of Mickey
Dewar, who's a curator of history at the Northern Territory Museum
Mickey Dewar is a specialist on the history of
Australian literature about the north. She's no romantic when it
comes to explaining the enduring appeal of the never
Mickey Dewar: Well it's got all the elements that
Anglo Australian society really appreciates and understands. What we
have is we have that sort of construction of the wise paternalistic
society, the embattled little woman who's virtuous and who brings
virtue to Elsey Station and the surrounding area, because of course
she's writing at a time when we're well aware that most of the
European men who are out in the pastoral area are engaged in sexual
relations with the Aboriginal women, and Jeannie comes in and she
describes a much purer territory, where all the white stockmen are
good blokes, sensitive blokes who have a great deal of respect for
the white woman, and this issue of inter-racial sexuality is never
mentioned. Violence towards Aboriginal people is not mentioned
either. Although that too is well known to have taken place at the
time, that's dealt with in such a sanitised way that people feel
better about it. And I mean, I feel better about it too, when you
read it, because it's much better to read that kind of things than
it is to face of moving on to somebody else's land and forcibly
driving people off with guns, and sexually exploiting them at the
Lorena Allam: Mickey Dewar explains why the Never
Never is sacred for white Australia.
Mickey Dewar: For me the
Never Never is the Northern Territory, and the Northern Territory is
the imaginative outback of the whole of Australia. And the Never
Never is, by definition, it's somewhere you can never really reach.
You can never get there. But we know it's there, somewhere out
beyond the horizon. It's the dream of white occupation, of the
continent, and it's what sustains us in the sense that Europeans too
need to forge links to the country that they live in. And for white
Australians, the Never Never is that metaphor for living
Lorena Allam: In the
Mataranka thermal pool, it's standing room only at this time of the
year. During the dry season the place gets 200,000 visitors. They're
mostly elderly white Australians, drawn by the pool's therapeutic
powers, and the Never Never history. The rest are a mixture of
European and Japanese tourists, passing through, north to Darwin or
south to Alice Springs. But the locals still feel like they're
living on the frontier.
As we look around the dusty
demountable which serves as the local museum, Yvonne Dorward
Yvonne Dorward: It's fairly wild and woolly, but I
think it's character developing. Tough, it's always very tough on
women up here, and the weak ones don't survive of course. But the
tough ones do, maybe that's why I like it.
Yvonne Dorward is 62, a bold, funny woman who says she's survived
cancer and two husbands. Yvonne first came to the Territory 40 years
ago, as a mad on a cattle station west of Alice Springs. She used to
run the pub here in Mataranka.
These days she's a sculptor,
known for creating the six-foot high talking termite mound in the
main street, and the statue of The Fizzer, the mailman of the Never
Never. Yvonne live in Mataranka about eight months of the year,
coming out of retirement to do the odd bit of work. She's currently
collecting oral histories for the Mataranka Museum. After this trip,
she was heading off to Queensland to build a giant concrete dugong
for a local council there.
Yvonne says there are racial
tensions here which she thinks are getting worse. She says the place
has changed her negative attitude to Aborigines, but she's in the
Yvonne Dorward: So I have to personally come to
terms with the situation that we do have in Australia, and I don't
think it's any good saying it didn't happen, because it bloody well
did. My ancestors ran off the people with rifles, so that is the
situation and I have to do what I can to make amends and I think to
be a bridge, because some of the younger people coming up are pretty
angry, both Aboriginal and whites, and I feel fear for the
generation that's coming up now because of the antagonism, which,
good or bad, it is there. Perhaps it's not so under-the-carpet as it
was years ago, but I think they're issues that have to be ironed out
or else it will be just a bloody disaster.
Yvonne says she fears for the future because people are unwilling to
deal with the truth of the past. She shows me around the museum;
it's full of photos and artefacts about the glory days: heroes,
horses, outback characters and the war effort.
Apart from the
Museum, the tourist attractions are the Elsey Graveyard, where some
of the Never Never characters. Then there's the replica of the old
Elsey Homestead made for the film, and the old homestead site, a
cairn of stones in the middle of the bush where Jeannie Gunn used to
live. Unlike other parts of the Territory where they're traded on as
a tourist attraction, there is scant reference here to
Mickey Dewar again.
Mickey Dewar: Tourism
is the major industry in the Northern Territory, and no-one is to be
criticised for attempting to exploit that as a resource. I mean not
a great deal happens in the Northern Territory, and we tend to, when
we're defining ourselves in mythic terms, it tends to be Cyclone
Tracy, World War II bombing and We of the Never Never, and there
isn't room for much else. It's a fairly unambiguous
Lorena Allam: That's Mangarayi elders
Jessie Roberts and Sheila Conway, singing about their country.
Jessie and Sheila are the driving force behind Jilkminggan, a
community of about 300 people, 30 kilometres from Mataranka, down a
mostly dirt road.
CAR DRIVING ON DIRT ROAD
Allam: Jessie and Sheila have helped build this case from scratch.
It's a green, peaceful place, on the banks of the Roper River. It
has a solar array for power, a few dozen houses and a shady little
park for the kids. The school buildings feature images of two major
dreamings in the area, the Red Kangaroo and the Black Cockatoo.
These buildings are fairly new. The older students are still having
their lessons in a couple of hot silver caravans, with a shady open
area rigged up between.
Lorena Allam: Jessie
Roberts and Sheila Conway are sisters, and direct descendants of the
Aboriginal people Jeannie Gunn wrote about. They've worked on Elsey
most of their lives. Now great-grandmothers, Jessie is in her 70s
and Sheila isn't too far behind. They're gentle and friendly,
singing and talking about old times with a mixture of humour and
From the turn of the century Mangarayi worked on
Elsey Station for rations and shelter. Jessie and Sheila recall
their working lives there as young women in the '40s. They speak in
kriol, and you'll hear a translation of their words.
I used to work as a house cleaner, and old Amy used to work in the
kitchen and sometimes Sheila used to work in the laundry or the
house. There used to be a couple of girls in the house, and another
couple of girls in the kitchen. That's the way we always used to
Sheila: We used to work here at 5 o'clock in the
morning, given a hand in the yard when they used to come back from
drafting and branding the cattle. We did everything, you know. We
used to get up early in the morning to get the breakfast for the
people here, like the manager and the stockmen up at the trapping
yard, I tell you. And they worked too. Today we have a good time; we
can sleep until the sun comes up. But then, we had a hard job in the
kitchen. We used to make the tea and set the table; take the tea
into the Manager and his wife's bedroom; and we used to set the
tables and go into the kitchen and take the food out on the
Jessie: That was very hard. We used to knock off
around half-past eight, you know, washing up the dishes and cleaning
the kitchen. And then we'd finish and go back to the
Lorena Allam: The camp was four rough shelters by the
side of the road, about a mile from the homestead. There was one
rainwater tank, with a leaky tap, to service a community of 120
people. As it dripped, the tap turned the black soil under the tank
to deep, sticky mud. As appalling as conditions were, it was still
Sheila: We were thinking, we're not going to
give away our country because we knew where the sacred sites were.
My husband knew where the men's sites were, because old Willy and
Jabiru George and those old people were still alive. We weren't just
going to throw those old people away. Because me and my husband used
to sit down with them, and we were thinking for those old people.
All my kids were born in this country, that's what we think about.
We're not going to go away, we know that from the beginning, from
our grandfathers and fathers, and everyone that has died here. And
we're still here.
Lorena Allam: Sheila Conway.
1970s Canberra had begun taking an interest in Aboriginal living
conditions on pastoral leases. It wanted to intervene in the way
Aboriginal people were forced to live. It asked pastoralists to set
aside parts of their leases for Aboriginal living areas, where the
Federal Government would then be able to provide basic
That's what happened at Elsey in 1974. But the
program had no money, and no legislation backing it up. Success
depended on the goodwill of the station owners, and the negotiation
skills of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, or DAA.
Whelan was employed by the DAA to negotiate with the
Kirk Whelan: The first time I went to Elsey station,
I was stunned. I have never seen conditions as bad as they were,
they were the worst I'd seen anywhere in the Territory. But I was
later to find out this was really par for the course for Aboriginal
people on pastoral properties.
Kirk Whelan: Can you describe
what they were like?
Kirk Whelan: Well driving into Elsey
Station, the first thing was the smell, and you could smell this
place, this smell, at least 150 to 200 metres before you saw these
four hovels, right beside the road, built on a limestone ridge, and
then in front of the ridge was some blacksoil, and on that blacksoil
was a tank and tank-stand, and the tank would leak all day, when
there was water in it. And underneath that tank-stand was a tap. Now
to get to the tap you had to wade through about three to four inches
of black smelling goo, that had been there as long as the camp had
been there, which had been about 20 or 25 years at that spot, and it
was just horrendous.
Lorena Allam: Moving the people out of
that became a priority. But it took nine months of negotiating to
agree on a place. By August 1974, it was arranged: the people would
move from the Elsey camp to the new living area, after the Mataranka
But Jessie and Sheila say that was news to them. At
the rodeo, the owner came over and suddenly told them they were no
longer welcome at Elsey.
Jessie says they were stranded in
town for two days, before the DAA came to help them move all their
things from the camp at Elsey to the new place,
But Jilkminggan was just a name; there were no
houses, no tap water, no electricity, nothing.
started building with tin and paperbark. In those days we didn't
have any tarps rigged up against the rain. For nearly three or four
years we didn't have buildings here, we just made paperbark humpies.
Me and my sister used to get up early in the morning with our
husbands. Five o'clock we used to walk down to Elsey Creek, gather
paperbark and take it up, and when DAA came down they'd help us cart
it back. We had a big job doing this, not like this, these news
places, we had a lot of work building it up.
Kirk Whelan: It
was just on the side of the riverbank, about 120-130 people. There
was nothing there. Other than it being a very nice spot. And one of
the first things we did was - I don't know where we got the money
from, but somehow we managed to hire a truck and go to Katherine and
knock down the old Native Ward at the Katherine Hospital, and whack
this galvanised iron on the back of a truck and bring it back to
Duck Creek, or Jilkminggan. And that was the beginning of the start
of Jilkminggan. But also those people would go out into the scrub,
all day long, the whole community, and cut down paperbark trees and
bring in paperbark itself, you know, drag it three and four
kilometres by hand, to build bough shelters and rudimentary
buildings. That was the start of it, a whole community
Lorena Allam: So they were determined to build
this place, they weren't just sitting down waiting for the DAA to
bring in money to help.
Kirk Whelan: No, no. Well the thing
about this program was while they had a program as such, they had no
money attached to it. For the Territory there might have been
something like $5,000 which was really nothing, and certainly in the
first year I think the only help from government was a pump, a
Lombardini pump, and really that was about it.
weren't getting round and asking and fighting the government. We
were just behaving in a sensible way. Now today you can get
everything, but not then. Very hard. We did it all on our own for
our living area. And after that you could see, after a couple of
years, and we had two buildings, Jessie's and mine.
Whelan: It really took about 10 or 15 years. There was a stage where
they, because of lack of funds, an organisation in Katherine was
started called the Newinal Association. And its role was to build
infrastructure on these pastoral properties. But these early houses
were just a cement floor, galvanised iron roof, and maybe a tap out
the front, and that was it. Which was a remarkable change though,
because Elsey Station and the camp had one tap for 120
Lorena Allam: Kirk Whelan.
Over the years,
Mangarayi watched the Elsey lease over the land change hands many
times. But in 1991, they finally got the chance to buy it
Elsey was one of several places sent broke by
cattle disease and neglect.
The Hong Kong based owner,
Adrian Zecha, wanted to sell, so Mangarayi approached the Northern
Land Council about finding a way to buy Zecha out.
found through ABTA, a trust set up to administer royalty payments.
So they bought the Elsey lease in July 1991. Now armed with that
lease, they could lodge a land rights claim.
the land could be converted to freehold, permanent ownership, which
would give Mangarayi the right to veto mining, exploration and
Once the news got out, Territory Parliament was
in an uproar. The government said the new owners would ruin Elsey as
a cattle station and cause untold damage to the Territory economy.
Aborigines were taking over the land at a terrifying rate, a sure
sign of the imminent death of the cattle industry.
pastoralists had done a pretty good job of ending it themselves.
Much of the land for sale was already degraded, overstocked and
poorly managed. That was the case at Elsey, too.
Certainly the period I was working in that region from, say, '75
until '80 consistently, I don't think I ever saw a cent spent on
that station. Certainly when the interests from Hong Kong had
control of that station, and also Hodgin Downs, they were certainly
allowed to run right down.
Lorena Allam: Kirk
But here we are today, sitting in the kitchen of the
Elsey Station, overlooking the brilliant green Roper River, and the
place looks good. Aboriginal people have owned it for eight
The country is dry, covered in stiff speargrass, but
outside the homestead, the sprinklers are on all day watering the
large lawn and a couple of men are fixing up the kitchen roof. The
place took some damage during last year's record floods; there's a
faint tide mark half way up the kitchen wall.
Max Gorringe is
Elsey's current manager, a highly respected stockman from far west
Queensland. The Aboriginal owners hired Max and his wife Mabs four
years ago, and the partnership is working well. Max describes the
improvements he's made to the place: 200 kilometres of new fencing,
a few new bores, and an increase in stock.
Max Gorringe: When
we got here four years ago, there was about 5,000 now there's about
12,000, 13,000. So they're increasing. As well as purchasing a few,
Lorena Allam: How much more do you reckon Elsey could
Max Gorringe: Oh, about another - it could carry up
to about 25,000 I reckon, total. So we're a long way off being fully
Lorena Allam: Are you making money out of the
Max Gorringe: Yes, we are making money. We haven't had
an ATSIC grant for about the first six months we were here I think.
They helped us a lot before then, but then since then we've been on
Lorena Allam: Compared to other properties, this is
good. Jessie Roberts and Sheila Conway remember their excitement at
buying the station back, and then the shock of finding it so badly
run down. So they went to work again.
Sheila: There was no
house here, all the houses were falling down, there was only a
caravan behind where you're standing. Houses were falling down, the
fences were falling down, everything, I tell you!
It was a
shovel job I tell you, pushing brooms and rakes. We brought all the
things from Jilkminggan, flattening all this grass. And the manager
that was here then, well, when everything was clean here, all the
snakes went into his caravan, I tell you! Hard job, I tell you. No
help, just me and Jessie's family. We worked hard at this
Jessie: We had some managers that didn't work well,
but now we've got this manager Max. He's a really good manager. He
welcomes our mob coming any time, he always says, because 'it's not
my place, it's your place!' he always says to everybody, all the
family. That's what it's like!
If the station needs
equipment, we give it; if we need equipment from here, we can use
it. We work together.
The community is run by the community,
but we still work together. The station is run by the Cattle
Association itself, but we still work together.
got a station now. We're right. We've got the station back and we're
Jessie: That's what I'd love to see. I've been
waiting too long to get that title. I hope shortly I'll get it.
Thank you very much.
Lorena Allam: Jessie Roberts and Sheila
For about 40 years, the property next door was owned
by Les MacFarlane. MacFarlane was the Member for Elsey for a quarter
of a century. He was also Speaker of the House for eight
MacFarlane was known for his mission to 'get the
blacks of taxpayers' backs'. In 1982, he chaired a group in
Katherine called the 'One Nation, One Law' committee, popularly
called 'Rights for Whites', set up in response to fears about land
He died in 1986. Here he's speaking with ABC
Territory Radio in 1983.
Les MacFarlane: Well I think they
should be entitled to live their own lifestyle, just like anybody
else, provided they get off the taxpayers' back. That's the
fundamental thing. We should encourage them to become assimilated as
far as providing for themselves in the Australian economic system.
And I support any move in that direction. So when you talk about a
traditional lifestyle, what are you talking about? Are you talking
about a traditional lifestyle minus TV, minus videos, minus motor
cars, minus shirt and trousers, what are you talking about? And also
minus a pipeline to the taxpayers' pocket. You can't have both, you
can't have a traditional lifestyle and white man's benefits, or
whatever they are.
Lorena Allam: Les MacFarlane speaking with
ABC Territory Radio in 1983.
When the Elsey claim was lodged
in 1991, 500 white citizens sent a petition to the Territory
government. They were worried that Aboriginal owners would lock them
out of land they considered their own.
youngest son, Hamish, is one of them. He explains why Mataranka is
worried about the T.O.s, the traditional owners.
MacFarlane: The problem that a lot of people have with land claims,
the bottom line of it is that the T.O.s are then in, you know, total
control of the land, and so it's basically back to one person's
opinion that has the ability to affect the lifestyle of the
community in the surrounding area you know, and there's no real
ability to keep that in check at all, if at this point in time the
person that is the traditional owner of such-and-such piece of land
gets on with the community, then that's all good and well, but
there's always the possibility that someone else, you know, could
take the opinion that they don't want people there, and so these
things are lost to the community. And that's always been the
background worry of the Mataranka people, eh?
Back in town, I spoke to Des and Sandra
Fishlock. The Fishlocks stopped for lunch in Mataranka and ended up
staying 25 years. Their time on the Roper was profitable; they ran
one of the first tourist operations in the area, Never Never Land
Tours. And they built the Stockyard Gallery, a tea house,
information centre and Australiana gift shop. These days Des writes
bush poetry and does 'artistic leatherwork', while Sandra paints
I asked Des if the land claim had caused
tension in the town.
Des Fishlock: Well it depends on what
you call tension. I mean there's been nothing violent or anything
like that. But of course if you're going to the pub and listen to
the talk, people complain, which they do anyway; it wouldn't matter
what happened, they've got to have something to whinge about. But
that's probably, yes, people get a bit pissed off, they
Lorena Allam: Do you reckon there'll be a time when
everyone can get along, or sort out those differences about using
Des Fishlock: Eventually everyone has got to be
able to get along. I mean you can't go on forever just bickering.
It's a bit like Crocodile Dundee said, 'It's a bit like two fleas
arguing over who owns the dog.' It is, isn't it? But, you know,
again it's some of the people behind that have got this agenda,
whatever it is, that they're manipulating these people. Like I could
go to Jessie and I could go anywhere; we managed Elsey Station for a
couple of months during the wet season, sort of sit-down manager,
and Jessie was our laundry lady then.
Sandra Fishlock: Jessie
was one of the house girls.
Des Fishlock: Jessie and I get on
famously, and if people are allowed to get on and do normal things,
yes, they'll get on, 'course they will. Have to.
Allam: Hamish MacFarlane agrees with Des, but for him, good
relations depend on the appeasement of white
Hamish MacFarlane: Yes, people get along, but the
underlying current will always remain there while there are two
groups of people in Australia being treated separately, simply
because of the colour of their skin. So, yes, I think that's a
problem that people are going to have to sort out. But on the other
hand, I do believe that Aboriginal people probably were owed
something, but have now got to the stage where maybe they've
received it, and I think things should go back to a more even keel
from this point onwards.
Lorena Allam: One
of the most popular places to stay is the Mataranka Homestead
Tourist Resort. It takes its name from the cattle station that used
to be there. The Resort is a caravan park and camping ground.
There's a small, very basic motel made of fibro and part of the old
house has been converted for backpackers. It's quiet during the day
when everyone's out sightseeing, but at night there's family
entertainment on a small open-air stage.
SONG 'Born in the
Lorena Allam: This is an Australiana theme park; you
can have the full Never Never experience here. You can go on a tour
of the Elsey Homestead replica; or you can order a steak sandwich
from Jeannie's kitchen, and a beer from the Marluka's Bar, and sit
back and watch the film of We of the Never Never. It's screened
every day at noon.
Arthur Dignam played Aeneas Gunn and
Angela Punch Macgregor played his wife, Jeannie.
Angela Punch Macgregor: Why do the Aborigines live the
way they do in those humpies? I never expected it to be so
Arthur Dignam: It isn't really, if you think about
it. They're nomadic, or they were, until the whites came. All they
need is something to provide shelter and shade that's quick to erect
out of whatever comes to hand. In this climate, those humpies
probably make more sense than the houses we build.
Punch Macgregor: You never told me you spoke their
Arthur Dignam: I learned it when I was here
Angela Punch Macgregor: Could you tech
Arthur Dignam: Well I could, but you wouldn't need it. If
you speak simply, they understand enough English to follow
Lorena Allam: The movie is widely regarded as a dud.
And most people who worked on the film don't have fond memories of
it. Des Fishlock still thinks film industry people are
Des Fishlock: I got a job with them as a transport
manager; it's the worst job I ever had in my life.
Allam: Why was it so bad?
Des Fishlock: They're a different
mob, these film people I tell you! No, they really are. Here, people
know what they're doing when it comes to driving in the scrub, and
what you need to do when you're driving at night, even on the sealed
roads. And these people couldn't be told, they were flat chat
everywhere, and it destroyed motor cars, absolutely destroyed them.
So I quit after three months, I'd had enough of it.
Adams: I remember the film makers would go stir crazy on the
location and would borrow vehicles, film vehicles, and go screaming
into Darwin, and we lost a couple of vehicles as a consequence.
There was a tendency to four wheel drives to be found lying upside
down in the bush.
Lorena Allam: The film's Executive
Producer, Phillip Adams, remembers the drama that went on behind the
Phillip Adams: The director's approach to the film
was interesting, in that he seemed to make it up as he went along in
terms of the shoot area. And it was all pretty haphazard. And given
the magnitude of the project, it was causing great alarm. So the
phone would just ring constantly, the producer would want me to sack
the director; the director wanted me to sack the producer; and at
one point a number of cast members, including Angela Punch Macgregor
who was evoking the spirit of Mrs Gunn, also rang up and said that
if I didn't sack the producer she was going to walk off the film. So
it was just a bloody mess. And I regret that it was ever made and of
course wouldn't touch it with a bargepole were the proposal to be
brought to me today.
Lorena Allam: Tom Lewis is an Aboriginal
actor and musician who was born at Ngukurr, an Aboriginal community
down the Roper River from Jilkminggan. Tom had played the lead in
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and was a movie star by the time he
played a stockman in We of the Never Never. He says the locals
didn't like it.
Tom Lewis: The experiences that we had with
the local cowboys, if I may say, who had been giving us a hard
Lorena Allam: Why?
Tom Lewis: Well, look at this
nigger, who does he think he is, why are all these white people
treating him like this? For example, yes? One day I came out of the
restaurant and this idiot walked up to me while I was setting up a
pool table, and what had happened, this guy walked up and punched me
right in the stomach, right? And I nearly turned around I smacked
him with a ball, you know the pool ball, and he came back again and
this time he hit me the second time, and John Jarratt had come
around the restaurant at the same time, and he saw this, and walked
up to this person and picked him up and chucked him against the
wall, and I knew if I turned around and hurt this bloke, hit this
bloke, I would have gone to jail and the local cop and his little
rookies, they would have got stuck into me. So those sort of
tensions, we were sort of pushing aside.
Lorena Allam: That's
precisely what happened, according to actor John
John Jarratt is something of an institution in
Australian film and TV. In We of the Never Never, he was a stockman
who hated Aborigines. But off the screen he was waging a one-man war
against the racism he saw directed at his Aboriginal colleagues,
especially Tom Lewis.
John Jarratt: They were jealous of
Tommy because of his status as a well-known Australian actor. This
uppity blackfellow who got too good for himself, a half-caste, you
know. Blackfellow totally despised. The black part totally despised,
the white part totally ignored.
Lorena Allam: Jarratt says
tension between the locals and the film crew got so bad that as soon
as the film was over, they had a huge brawl, and he threw the first
John Jarratt: I was just dancing with a lovely
Aboriginal girl called Barbara, and this guy walked up to me and
said, 'You black loving arsehole'. And as I said, I'm from central
Queensland and I know what happens next. You either hit, or get hit.
And he was a lot tougher than me, so I hit him as hard as I could
and just kept hitting him. I broke my finger and apparently he was
in hospital, which I regret, but, you know. And then the whole thing
broke up and then the locals went back to Mataranka and got a whole
lot of - got a posse and came back, and the film cast and crew had
an all-in brawl with Mataranka. It's never happened to me on a film
before or since, and I've done 30-odd films, so it's pretty raw
country up there, I can tell you.
Macgregor: You think they're inferior.
Arthur Dignam: The men
believe it and the blacks believe it, that's what
Angela Punch Macgregor: No, what do you believe,
that's what matters. Do you think they should be kept in their
place, and that their place is as far from us as we can get
Arthur Dignam: Yes, they should be left alone to live
their own ways, that's what I believe.
Macgregor: Why does it have to be them and us? Why can't we live
Phillip Adams: I understand that these days this
Disneyfied version of Territory history is now used as a tourist
attraction and as the new mythology, that the book to some extent,
has passed into the mists of time, and that the film now represents
history. Well of course it doesn't. You know, the film was a
distortion of the book, the book was a distortion of reality. So
that's another cause for regret.
Lorena Allam: Do you feel a
little guilty knowing that this film that you describe as a bit of a
disaster, is screened every lunch time at the Mataranka Homestead
Resort for the benefit of the tourists?
Phillip Adams: I
didn't know it was, I'm not sure it's legal to do so, but you'll
have to ask Kerry Packer about that, because he owns the movie. I'm
astonished to think that this distortion of a distortion is now used
as some sort of sacred text, that it's become the Dead Sea Scroll of
the area, and I hope the film print wears out as rapidly as
Lorena Allam: The film print may wear out, but the
myth seems indestructible.
The Mataranka Community Council
has plans for the park in the main street. The whole park is going
to be a replica of the Roper River, peopled with Yvonne Dorward's
giant concrete statues of Aeneas and Jeannie Gun, as well as the
Little Black Princess. Yvonne wants to take on two apprentices to
help her sculpt them, one black and one white.
tourist season out at Elsey Station, they get three or four carloads
of visitors a day. Some of them are disappointed when they realise
it's a working cattle station. Max Gorringe would like to open it up
to people who want to learn about life among the cattle. But he's
got to get the traditional owners' permission, and, as Kirk Whelan
points out, the owners themselves are a potential tourist
Kirk Whelan: Aboriginal people are working that
property once again as a pastoral property, which is great, and I
think the people on that station would want to share that heritage
of Aeneas Gunn and Jeannie Gunn with other Australians. I don't
think it's taking it away from Australian people, I think it's
really enhancing them. Because these are the people, the only people
with that direct link back to that era. These people are the
grandchildren of the people on that property.
Once the hand-back takes place, tourism in the region is bound to
change. Any proposals in the claim area will have to meet the
approval of the traditional owners. There are places along the river
they want to keep private: sacred sites, ceremonial grounds. But
cultural tours are under discussion, giving visitors a look at the
country through Aboriginal eyes. It's certainly an alternative to
what's on offer now.
Tom Lewis: People sometimes explore, but
they only touch the surface because they only go and have a look at
a hut, you know, 'There's the hut that was used in the film We of
the Never Never' and that's how it looks. 'Oh there's an Aborigine
over there, don't worry about them, they drink too much. And they're
fighting, let them kill each other to death. And we'll stick them
right in the back because we're now the conqueror.' But the fact is
that they go there and they only see, they only see a surface, they
only see the harshness of the country and all that sort of thing.
But if they want to see the Never Never properly, then they should
go to the real people, and the Aboriginal people in that area have
so much to offer, yet they're so gentle. You don't see them because
they don't hang around in the town, so they might come in a truck
and do their shopping and things like that, but they go back and you
see them, and what you don't see you'll never know. What's that
saying? 'You'll never, never know if you never, never
Lorena Allam: Co-ordinating Producer, Linda
McGinness; Technical Operator, Colin Preston; Research, Jim Mellor,
with special assistance by Chips Mackinolty; readings by Ursula
Raymond and Barbara McCarthy; Executive Producer, Kirsten Garrett
and I'm Lorena Allam.
We of the Never Never
Aeneas (Jeannie) Gunn
First published in London,
Multiple additions; available at most libraries
BIG RIVER COUNTRY - STORIES FROM ELSEY
FRANCESCA MERLAN, IAD PRESS 1996
RACISM IN THE NEVER NEVER: DISPARATE READINGS OF
KATHERINE ELLINGHAUS IN HECATE 1997, VOL
23, ISSUE 2
THE LEGEND OF THE GOODFELLA MISSUS.
MCGUIRE IN ABORIGINAL HISTORY VOL 14 NO 2.
MAKING PEOPLE QUIET IN THE PASTORAL NORTH:
REMINISCENCES OF ELSEY STATION.
FRANCESCA MERLAN IN
ABORIGINAL HISTORY 1978 VOL 2 NO 1
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