Big is Beautiful?

I sometimes think that one could write an autobiography based on books that have had a significant influence at various points along the way in one’s life. For example, my years from about 9 to 12 were influenced by reading several of the “William” books by Richmal Crompton. (I just looked up William books in Wikipedia, and learnt that William possessed an “unfailing belief in his own ingenuity and righteousness”! I’ll have to think about that!)

Another book that I can remember being impressed by in the 1970s was “Small is Beautiful” by E F Schumacher. It was subtitled “A Study of Economics as if People Mattered”. In 1995, it was included in a list of “The 100 Most Influential Books Published since World War 2”, published in The Times Literary Supplement.

And here I am about to talk about Australians’ love for BIG THINGS. There are more than 200 big things, located all around the country. People have even been known to plan a road trip to take in as many big things as possible, with a photo taken at each one.

Big Axe

I was prompted to write about Big Things by two events:

1.       I was recently in Tasmania, and visiting the Longley International Hotel near Hobart, when I suddenly found myself confronted by a Big Thing, in this instance a Big Axe. Impressive!

2.      Returning from a recent trip to Quilpie in south-west Queensland (see Bobby Dazzler Newsletter #81), we passed through the small town of Dunedoo, about 60 km north of Mudgee in New South Wales. When later reading up about Dunedoo, I discovered that in the early 2000s, there was a proposal put to the good folk of Dunedoo to ginger up the flow of tourists to the town by building the “Big Dunny” there. (If you don’t know what Aussies mean by “dunny”, you can Google it.) It was to be a three-story building, featuring five-star toilets, a visitors’ centre, and even a radio station. But some po-faced locals thought it would be an embarrassment, and it was never built.

Some of Australia’s impressive Big Things are:

  •    The Big Cane Toad (Sarina, Qld)
  •    The Big Slide Rule (University of Tasmania, Hobart)
  •    The Big Worm (250 metres! Bass, Victoria)
  •    The Big Ugg Boots (Thornton, NSW)
  •    The Big Wheelbarrow (Port Hedland, WA)
  •    The Big Hat (Cradock, SA)

You can see a reasonably comprehensive list by going to Wikipedia ( ) and searching on “Australia’s Big Things”. Sure makes you feel proud to be an Aussie!

PS: How about writing a comment below to tell us about a book that’s been very influential in your life.

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Getting Away From The Crowds

Anyone who’s travelled around the Outback more than a bit will be aware that it can be a very lonely part of the world. To travel 100 kms without seeing any sign of a house or a person is not unusual – and maybe not even to see another car on the road in that time. Of course, if your vehicle has broken down and you’re waiting for someone to come along who may be able to help you, it can feel as if you’re on the moon.

I was recently travelling with friends in south west Queensland, in particular attending some events celebrating the centenary of when Quilpie was officially proclaimed a town back in 1917. (Quilpie’s about 120 kms west of Charleville, and 980 kms west of Brisbane.) I picked up a brochure along the way, entitled “Outback Queensland Travellers’ Guide 2017/18”, which enthusiastically classifies about two thirds of Queensland as “outback”.

It describes the Queensland Outback shire by shire, and lists the “communities” within each shire, and their population. For example, Quilpie Shire contains the communities of Toompine (pop. 2) and Cheepie (pop. 1). The Longreach Region contains the community of Emmet (pop. 2). Diamantina Shire contains Betoota (pop. 0), and Cloncurry Shire contains Duchess (pop. 2) and Quamby (pop. 0).

You’d think a place with population zero would be somewhat lacking as far as a sense of community was concerned. Hence it seems remarkable that although no-one lives there, Quamby is the home of the Quamby Rodeo, where hundreds come each July to enjoy the thrills and spills. Betoota (pop. 0) for many years had a population of 1, namely Simon Rimienko, the publican, who became famous for having been stuck on the Birdsville Track for 18 weeks with his truckload of 8 tons of beer. Now that Simon’s no longer around and the population has plummeted to zero, Betoota still apparently has what it takes to stage an annual Horse and Motorbike Gymkhana, and also an annual Race Meeting.

Betoota’s remarkable social program might incline to think that a place like Cheepie – which has one actual live resident – would put on all manner of special events to pull in the crowds, but no, nothing much happens in Cheepie.  Maybe the person who lives there just prefers a quiet life.

It’s interesting to note that the Federal Electorate of Maranoa, which takes in 40% of Queensland including much of this Outback area, occupies 731,000 square kms, and averages one person on the electoral roll per seven square kms. One can easily get the feeling that the Outback gives you a chance to escape from the traffic jams and the crowds of city life. And you’d be right!


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It’s Different in the Outback

I recently came across the word “Outbackistan”. It was on the ABC’s Conversation Hour, in which Richard Fidler interviewed Gav Dear, songwriter and frontman for “The Roadtrippers”. “Outbackistan” is the title of their most recent album. The album is described as “a remote far-out Australian outback mix of country folk and tumbling rock’n’roll written and played by genuine black and white dwellers of the northern reaches of Outbackistan.”

The term “Outbackistan” was coined to make the point that the Australian Outback is in some ways like a country in its own right, just as different and even mysterious as some of the Central Asian “Stans” like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The rather amazing Gav Dear interview can be heard at:

Talking to an Outback farmer a week ago brought to light an example of just how different life in the Outback can be. This chap had had some medical tests which brought to light PSA levels in his blood which would normally be regarded as a sign of prostate cancer. There was plenty of work waiting to be done on the farm, and the treatment options offered by the doctor sounded uncomfortable, time-consuming and expensive – and even then without any guarantee of success.

A fellow Outback farmer suggested there was a much easier approach, and he wouldn’t even have to make the 240 kilometre round-trip drive into town to buy the medicine – he’d have it right there in the shed. And sure enough he did:

Bruce medicine.jpg

He didn’t take much, he assured me – just a few drops – but it seemed to do the job, and his PSA levels are now back to normal.

The product he took is normally used for “drenching” sheep and cattle, which means forcibly administering it to deal with internal parasites of various kinds. The container is clearly marked: “DANGEROUS POISON    Not to be taken     For animal treatment only    TOXIC”.

Things are different in Outbackistan.


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Don’t Fence Me In

Australia has had three major fences:

1. The Western Australian Rabbit-Proof Fence

Completed in 1907, this fence runs roughly north-south from near Port Hedland to the Great Australian Bight, and was originally 1800 km long. It was intended to keep rabbits on the eastern side, but was generally regarded as a failure. Some 1100 km remain, mainly as a discouragement to emus moving from Central Australia to the greener pastures of the far west during drought times.

2. The Queensland Rabbit-Proof Fence

At its best, this fence ran from near Haddon Corner in the south-west of Queensland to Mungindi on the NSW border, and was mostly constructed before 1900. The intention was to keep the rabbits on the south side, but, like the WA fence, was not markedly successful. About 555 km of it remain, parts having been made dingo-proof.

3. The Dog Fence, also known as the Dingo Fence or the Wild Dog Fence

It runs from the Great Australian Bight to a little north-west of Brisbane, some 5400 km, and is one of the longest man-made structures in the world. It was constructed in piece-meal fashion over several decades from about 1947, using existing property fences where practical. It averages about 1.8 metres in height, including a section beneath the ground. It is well maintained by a series of maintenance crews who spend their time driving back and forth along the fence checking for problems, such as breaks, burnt posts, sand drifts, etc.

dog fence 2

The general idea is to keep dingos to the north of the fence, which is cattle country. Very few sheep live north of the fence. Kangaroo and emu populations are also smaller on the north side of the fence.

Dog Fence

The Dog Fence now runs through the village of Hungerford on the NSW/Queensland border. Back in 1892, there was already a section of the Queensland Rabbit-Proof Fence there. Hungerford was made famous by poet Henry Lawson’s short story “While the Billy Boils”, which you can read at .
He wrote the story after walking the 220 kms from Bourke to Hungerford, and made fun of his observation that there were numerous rabbits on both sides of the fence.

In 2002, a film called Rabbit-Proof Fence came out, portraying the story of three young aboriginal girls taken from their homes in Western Australia to be trained in “white” ways, who escape and walk home through hundreds of miles of bush and desert country, using the Fence as their guide. Highly recommended if you haven’t already seen it!

Many Australians were rather vague at the time as to where the Rabbit-Proof Fence was, and for that matter, whether it was something separate from the Dingo Fence. It was of course the WA Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Australia being a geographically large country, it’s not surprising that fences play a significant part in its history.

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Eagles and Duty

(This article originally appeared in the Bobby Dazzler Newsletter #10 in May 2004. To subscribe to the free six-times-a-year Newsletter, send a request to

Ogden Nash, in his wonderful poem, Kind of an Ode to Duty, wrote:

O Duty,
Why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie?
Why glitter thy spectacles so ominously?
Why art thou clad so abominously?
Why art thou so different from Venus
And why do thou and I have so few interests mutually in common between us?
Why art thou fifty per cent martyr
And fifty-one per cent Tartar?

[Apart from abominously, this poem also includes such wonderful words as albatrossly and forbiddinger. See the full text at ]

I was thinking about eagles when that poem came to mind.

eagle and roadkill

The wedge-tailed eagle (aquila audax, or “wedgie”) is common in the Australian Outback, and is always exciting to see. Fully grown, it has a wing span of about 2.3 metres (over 7 ft), and is one of the largest eagles in the world. It is a dark blackish brown in colour, and has distinctive “trousers” – feathers all the way down its legs.

Since early European settlers cleverly introduced rabbits into Australia, the wedgies have had a convenient and plentiful source of food. But the calici virus (which “escaped” from experimental use in 1995) dramatically reduced the rabbit population, particularly in the Outback. As inevitably seems to be the case when we try to “adjust” nature, there are undesirable side effects. In this instance, eagles had to look elsewhere for food, and it is said that their numbers declined significantly.

The most common place to see wedgies is feeding on road kill – usually kangaroos or emus. Caution is needed, since they sometimes become so engorged that they have trouble lifting off as a vehicle approaches. I’m told that having a wedge-tailed eagle crash through your windscreen and end up on your lap is not a fun experience for either party!

The nesting habits of wedgies are interesting. The nest is usually in a position to give a good view of the surrounding area, although in the desert, this may mean in a low tree. It is built of dead sticks, loosely stacked.

No two nests are usually closer than about 2.5 kms, thus ensuring a sizable “territory” for each pair of birds.

An eagle will use the same nest year after year, usually adding an extra layer of sticks each season. An old nest can be close to two metres wide and up to three metres deep. There are reports of trees collapsing under the weight of a single nest, which can be as much as 400 kgs. (Pictured is an eagle’s nest in the Strzelecki Desert – with glamour provided by Raylene Ogilvy of Lindon Station).eagles nest

I was thinking of wedgies being “dutiful” – sticking with the same nest (and the same mate) throughout their life, and adding more sticks each year. It almost evokes an image of the suburban couple, working hard to put food on the table, adding a room or two to the cottage as the family grows, and finally ending their days in the same suburban cottage.

Such people can be “salt of the earth” types, and yet some would think of them as “boring”. Attention to duty, a life of routine – these things have come to have a negative connotation for many, in a world where excitement, drama, action, adventure, and the thrill of the new are what it’s all about.

’Twas not always thus. In earlier times, the exigencies of survival occupied pretty much every waking hour. The Christian Church indeed saw such routine as an aid to holiness. John Keble (1792-1866), English clergyman and Professor of Poetry at Oxford, wrote in 1827:

The trivial round, the common task,
Would furnish all we ought to ask;
Room to deny ourselves; a road
To bring us, daily, nearer God.

These days, most of us have at least a degree of choice as to how much routine we follow, and how much adventure and unpredictability we “allow” into our lives. To a certain extent, our upbringing and past life will have formed our attitudes to these things. Routine can be a source of security, or it can feel like a prelude to death. Some are hooked on adrenaline, others feel very distressed by unpredictability and change.

And yet, we can never be certain about the future. We might think we have tomorrow mapped out pretty neatly, but a thousand different things can come along to change it completely. A reluctance to break out of a comfortable and familiar routine can be a refusal to embrace the very nature of life itself, and a rejection of the potential inherent in every step into the unknown future.

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The Barkly Tableland

The Barkly Tableland is a large plain stretching from the middle of the Northern Territory across to the western edge of Queensland. It was encountered by explorer William Landsborough in 1862, while he was leading a party in search of Burke and Wills, who had both perished after being the first non-indigenous people to cross the continent from south to north in the previous year. Landsborough named the plain after Sir Henry Barkly, the then governor of Victoria. Incidentally, here’s one for the trivia buffs: Landsborough was the first non-indigenous person to cross the continent from north to south.

And here’s another trivia gem: In later life, Landsborough and his wife Carolyn settled on Sweers Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where they had a child which they named Sweersena. “And why” I hear you ask “was the island called Sweers in the first place, causing the poor child to end up with such a name?” Just don’t you worry about that.

Now, back to the Tableland: In 1877, Nat Buchanan, widely regarded as Australia’s greatest drover, started exploring the Barkly Tableland for its potential to become cattle country, and subsequently moved large herds of up to 20,000 cattle through the region. In 1883, Harry Readford, the cattle duffer immortalised as “Captain Starlight” in Rolph Boldrewood’s book “Robbery Under Arms”, drove cattle up through the Barkly area to establish Brunette Downs Station, which at 12,200 square miles in area, is still the ninth largest cattle station in Australia.

 The Tableland is a vast stretch of semi-arid plains, with Mitchell grass the predominant vegetation. There’s not much natural wildlife, apart from possums, snakes and lizards. The Spencer’s goanna (pictured) can be up to 120 cm long, and it’s said can knock people out by using its large muscular tail.


The drive east along the Barkly Highway from Tennant Creek on the Stuart Highway across the Tableland to Camooweal just over the Queensland border is a run of 450 kms, with great views of the Tableland, but not a lot else to see. The Barkly Homestead roadhouse appears at about the 190 kms mark. I couldn’t resist buying a postcard there showing an aerial view of the roadhouse and station buildings, the air strip, and a long straight stretch of road. It would have been harder for Landsborough.



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Terra Nullius

In the Bobby Dazzler Newsletter* #78 (December 2016), I wrote a review of Bruce Pascoe’s book “Dark Emu”. In it, Pascoe describes how Aboriginal people, despite common perceptions to the contrary, did build houses, did build dams, did sow, irrigate and till the land, did alter the course of rivers, did sew their clothes, and did construct a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity.

I went on to say that I was taught at school that aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers, naked nomads who were most of the time on “walkabout”, who didn’t build “proper” houses, etc. And I’m sure the words “primitive” and “uncivilised” came into it somewhere. It suited my British forebears to regard the country as “terra nullius” – “nobody’s land” – and thus legitimise their claiming of the country as a British possession, just waiting to be occupied and put to some worthwhile use by “civilised” people.

In British common law, terra nullius referred to land which had been neither occupied nor otherwise utilised for a certain period of time, and a court could assign or change ownership of that land to a suitable applicant. An article about the term terra nullius and its use in Australia can be found here.

In 1992, the Mabo case handed down by the High Court of Australia was a landmark case recognising native title in Australia for the first time. The Wikipedia article on “Mabo v Queensland (No. 2)” says that “The High Court held that the doctrine of terra nullius, which imported all laws of England to a new land, did not apply in circumstances where there were already inhabitants present – even if those inhabitants had been regarded at the time as “uncivilized”.

However, a letter from Newsletter reader Rob French tells of an occasion when he was lecturing students at the University of New England in Armidale, and had invited a surveyor to be a guest lecturer on the legalities of land ownership in Australia. The surveyor told the story of “a Tasmanian farmer who had asked his neighbour across the road if he could graze his cows on a triangle of his neighbour’s land which he wasn’t using. ‘Sure’ was the reply, so that’s what happened. I can’t remember how or why, but I suspect that the grazier, as part of the grazing deal, paid the small taxes and rates on behalf of the owner. Quite a fair deal, wouldn’t you think? But one day the grazier turned up to the Tasmanian Lands Department and said ‘I have been producing from that land for over the required number of years and I have been paying the rates and taxes as an obedient servant of the Crown, so gimme.’ And he got the land, much to the chagrin of the former owner. He had used terra nullius to dud an honest farmer out of his land!”

The story continued that “It was the same terra nullius law that got Eddie Mabo his island back. While a terra nullius appeal was unique and frightening to the Queensland Government, the ten years of slowly grinding wheels of English-type law finally found in favour of the appellants. Why? Hidden amongst all the fluff and legal jargon and ideas of native title was the fundamental that, although the ownership of Murray (Mer) Island had been legally assumed by the Crown in the 18th or 19th century on the basis of terra nullius, it was shown in court that no Queensland Government development work had taken place for more than enough years for it to become terra nullius once again. That is, anybody could claim possession of the island, and Eddie Mabo did just that. Not a lease or aboriginal title but straight-up ownership. So if it hadn’t been for the terra nullius doctrine, Eddie Mabo’s mob would NOT have gained title to their island and would have had to negotiate some lease agreement or other form of title.”

Rob French concludes: “This info might start a stimulating discussion around a campfire, especially if you have a lawyer involved. If you look at websites, they usually say the common law doctrine of terra nullius was overturned. It looks like it was overturned to the untrained legal eye because ownership was returned to the Torres Strait Islander. My information is that, on the contrary, it was upheld.”

*If you’d like to receive the (free) Bobby Dazzler Newsletter about the Australian Outback by email every two months, just send a request to

PS: A reader sent a comment about the tone of this article, and my reason for writing it, and I have responded to that in my own comment. To see the comments, just click on “Comments” below.

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