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Whose 'Never Never'?

Produced by Lorena Allam
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 Never-Never.

Hello, I'm Lorena Allam.

RADIO - Birds

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 here.


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 land.


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.

This is 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 loved.

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 it.

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 the times.

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 justice.

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.

Interviewer: That was an actual incident in 'We of the Never Never' wasn't it?

Jack McLeod; Yes, I believe it was in 'We of the Never Never'.

Interviewer: And why did they spear this cook, do you remember?

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.

Lorena Allam: It's these revisions which have grabbed the attention of Mickey Dewar, who's a curator of history at the Northern Territory Museum in Darwin.

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 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 same time.

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 here.


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 explains.

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.

Lorena Allam: 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 minority.

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.

Lorena Allam: 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 Aborigines.

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 picture.


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.


Lorena 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 nostalgia.

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.

Jessie: 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 work.

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 trays.

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 camp.

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 their country.

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.

By the 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 services.

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.

Kirk Whelan was employed by the DAA to negotiate with the owners.

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 Rodeo.

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, Jilkminggan.

But Jilkminggan was just a name; there were no houses, no tap water, no electricity, nothing.

Jessie: We 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 involvement.

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.

Sheila: We 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.

Kirk 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 people.

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 themselves.

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.

Money was 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.

If successful, the land could be converted to freehold, permanent ownership, which would give Mangarayi the right to veto mining, exploration and development.

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.

But white 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.

Kirk Whelan: 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 Whelan.

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 years.

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, yes.

Lorena Allam: How much more do you reckon Elsey could handle?

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 stocked.

Lorena Allam: Are you making money out of the place?

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 our own.

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 station.

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.

Sheila: We've got a station now. We're right. We've got the station back and we're happy now.

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 Conway.

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 years.

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 claims.

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.

Les MacFarlane's youngest son, Hamish, is one of them. He explains why Mataranka is worried about the T.O.s, the traditional owners.

Hamish 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?

Lorena Allam: Hamish MacFarlane.

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 watercolours.

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 do.

Lorena Allam: Do you reckon there'll be a time when everyone can get along, or sort out those differences about using the river?

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.

Lorena Allam: Hamish MacFarlane agrees with Des, but for him, good relations depend on the appeasement of white grievances.

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 Country'

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 primitive.

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.

Angela Punch Macgregor: You never told me you spoke their language.

Arthur Dignam: I learned it when I was here before.

Angela Punch Macgregor: Could you tech me?

Arthur Dignam: Well I could, but you wouldn't need it. If you speak simply, they understand enough English to follow orders.

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 deranged.

Des Fishlock: I got a job with them as a transport manager; it's the worst job I ever had in my life.

Lorena 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.

Phillip 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 scenes.

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 time.

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 Jarratt.

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 punch.

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.


Angela Punch Macgregor: You think they're inferior.

Arthur Dignam: The men believe it and the blacks believe it, that's what matters.

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 them?

Arthur Dignam: Yes, they should be left alone to live their own ways, that's what I believe.

Angela Punch Macgregor: Why does it have to be them and us? Why can't we live together?

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 possible.

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.

During peak 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 attraction.

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.

Lorena Allam: 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 go'.


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
Author: Mrs. Aeneas (Jeannie) Gunn
First published in London, 1908
Multiple additions; available at most libraries

Further information:

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies


Northern Land Council





ABC Indigenous Online
ABC's Gateway to Indigenous Issues and Programming, including AWAYE.

National Native Title Tribunal

Inquiry into the Reeves Report
on the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act
Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs

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