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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Ow yu goin mate orright?

Being myself an Aussie bloke, I can walk up to another bloke and say that. If the other bloke is a true blue Aussie, he can ignore the questioning aspect, and simply reply “G’day mate.” And thus it is established that we are indeed mates, and if one or the other of us happens to be in a spot of bother, there is a fair chance that the other will try to be of assistance.

At least this is the theory as clearly set out in Mateship 101.

Although the task of defining a national character for the people of any country is fraught with difficulties and subtle pitfalls, for Australians, mateship cannot be ignored, and even today most of us would include it somewhere in our description of what it means to be Australian.


I’ve just read “Mateship – A Very Australian History” by Nick Dyrenfurth (Scribe 2015). I regard it as a must read for anyone seeking to get a handle on the Australian character. It provides a thoroughly researched account of how the concept of mateship had its genesis among the early rural and sometimes ex-convict workers of Australia, and was then refined and developed in the gold rushes of the latter half of the nineteenth century, the growth of the union movement, and the involvement of Australians in the two World Wars. The author provides a rich mix of references to mateship by Australians of all ranks, from prime ministers on down, as they have sought to redefine it to suit their various purposes, and take advantage of the broad approval of the concept, notwithstanding its fuzziness in areas such as its lack of applicability to women.

Which begs the question, what if I say “Ow yu goin mate orright?” to a woman, in particular an Aussie woman other than my partner?  I stand a fair chance of a reply along the lines of “I’m not your mate, and with a bit of luck, I never will be.” Of course, she would be taking the option of interpreting “mate” as meaning “intimate partner”, and drawing on the fact that, notwithstanding some strenuous efforts over the years, mateship has never been unambiguously extended to include the fairer sex.

In 1999, when some amendments to the Australian constitution were being considered, the then Prime Minister John Howard proposed the inclusion of a reference to mateship in the preamble, as follows:

“Australians are free to be proud of their country and heritage, free to realise themselves as individuals, and free to pursue their hopes and ideals. We value excellence as well as fairness, independence as dearly as mateship.

However, the idea was dropped, largely due to opposition from the poet Les Murray (who said that the term “mateship” was “blokish” and “not a real word”), and also the Australian Democratic Party.

I guess you could say we’re a weird mob. Although I must add that I’ve been deeply grateful on a couple of occasions when having car problems in some remote Outback spot, and a bloke arrived in another vehicle, and although I’d never met him before, turned out to be my mate, and helped me sort out the problem and get going again. True mateship!

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The Good Oil – Part 2: Emu

Just to set the scene, why not start by listening to John Williamson’s famous rendition of “Old Man Emu” – click here. (If you enjoyed the sound of the didgeridoo in that, you might like some solo didgeridoo music – click here.)

Strictly speaking, an emu going full speed (up to 50 km/h) couldn’t beat a large kangaroo, which can get up to 70 km/h over a short distance. But we won’t let these details spoil the story. Three weeks ago, I wrote about the amazing properties of eucalyptus oil, and promised a follow-up story. This is it – Australia’s other miracle oil.

Emu oil is extracted from the large pad of fat on the emu’s back, and is freely available in Australia.


Emu farming was a growth industry in Australia for a while, but is now on the decline. There are emu farms in China, the USA and India. Anyone who’s travelled in Outback Australia will be aware that there are plenty of feral emus out there – official estimates suggest about 700,000 – and quite a few of them ready to run out in front of your car without notice.

Emu oil contains vitamins A and E, as well as several of the essential fatty acids. It has been claimed to have beneficial effects (either ingested or applied topically) when used to treat a wide range of conditions. Some of the claims that have been made for emu oil:

  • An effective moisturiser.
  • It reduces cholesterol.
  • It assists in weight loss.
  • Helpful as a cough syrup.
  • Anti-inflammatory for treating dry/rough skin, scars, rashes, eczema, psoriasis, burns.
  • Temporary relief for arthritis, muscle and joint pain.
  • Sooths sunburn and insect bites.
  • Helps reduce pregnancy stretch marks. (You’ve never seen an emu with pregnancy stretch marks, have you? Although I wouldn’t like to have to lay those eggs either.))
  • Anti-bacterial for wounds and infections.
  • It promotes healthy finger and toe nail growth.

Even if you don’t have any pregnancy stretch marks, you’re almost certain to need emu oil for some other reason. Tell ‘em Bobby Dazzler sent you.

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Dark Emu

I’ve just read Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (Magabala Books, Broome, WA, 2014). I cannot recommend it too highly. It deserves to be read not only by all non-indigenous Australians, but also by the non-indigenous peoples of other countries (such as the USA and Canada) which were colonised by Europeans full of the confidence of their “superior” culture, religion, and understanding of the way things ought to be. I speak as a descendant of English and Irish people who came to settle in Australia some four or five generations ago.


I was taught at school that aboriginal people were hunter-gathers, 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.

Pascoe provides copious well-documented evidence of just how wrong this view is. Here are some quotes from this excellent book:

If we look at the evidence …. and explain to our children that Aboriginal people 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, then it is likely we will admire and love our land all the more.

In Aboriginal life, the spirit and the corporeal world are wedded, but in European society the economy operates independently of the spirit and, as modern examples illustrate, almost in defiance of the religious moral code.

Francisco Pizzaro gained Peru from the Incas by massacring five thousand Indians in cold blood. Today he would be considered a war criminal.

Of course, it is no small matter to seek to right even some of the wrongs of yesteryear, but one could argue that a logical starting point is to become acquainted with the facts behind the myths. I urge you to read this book.

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The Good Oil – Part 1: Eucalyptus

For thousands of years, indigenous Australians have used the oil from the “gum” or eucalyptus tree as an antiseptic or healing agent. From the very early days of white settlement in 1788, people started to recognise some of the many uses of this aromatic oil.

By the 1850s, methods of distilling the oil by steaming gum leaves had been developed, principally by one Joseph Bosisto, a Melbourne pharmacist (who incidentally was Mayor of Richmond in Melbourne from 1864 to 1866). He first started producing commercial quantities of the oil in 1852, and his product is still produced in Australia. It takes about 5 kgs of gum leaves to produce 50 ml of oil.


Note that the bottle is labelled “POISON”. If you drank a whole bottle of Mr Bosisto’s product, you would certainly need to be hospitalised, and it (the oil, that is) might kill you. However, I gather there have been no reported deaths due to ingestion of eucalyptus oil in the past 50 years.

Due to the incredible generosity of Australians handing out gum tree seeds to people all over the world who wanted them, Australia lost its early almost complete domination of the eucalyptus oil market, and countries including Spain, Portugal and South Africa took over. However, Australian production has been increasing in recent decades. Jobs and growth, as we say.

Eucalyptus oil has a vast range of uses, from antiseptic to food flavouring, from insect repellent to cleaning and deodorising. Need to remove the remains of sticky labels from plastic? Use eucalyptus oil. A spoonful of eucalyptus oil in a foot bath brings relief to sore and aching feet.

“A short spray of Bosisto’s on the pillow at night helps keep my nasal passages clear.”

“What a great snail and slug repellent!  I never used snail bait before because of the dangers to children and pets.  Now my seedlings are safe and so is the family.”  

“At the first sign of a cold, you paint the soles of your feet with eucalyptus oil. Never fails.”

“I have suffered with loss of hair through a nervous condition and have been many years trying everything – even a specialist, only to be told there was nothing anybody could do.  The other day somebody told me to use eucalyptus oil which I did.  I just couldn’t believe the results.  I have hair coming all over my head. “

“Years ago my husband, who lived on a sheep station, also had horses.  One horse that had strangles, he treated with eucalyptus in bran in a nose bag and after a time the horse improved.  He is sure it was through using the eucalyptus”.   

Eucalyptus oil even has a high octane rating and could be used in your car, but the production costs are too high to make this financially feasible.

Stand by for “The Good Oil: Part 2”.

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Introducing the Mound People

There’s no denying that Outback Australia provides travellers with many long stretches of road or track devoid of anything much to make conversation about. It’s also a well-known fact that having something to do or to chat about during the two-hour drive to the next point of interest makes the time pass much more rapidly. It’s therefore not surprising that Aussie travellers have come up with a variety of ways to inject a spot of entertainment into the journey.

One is cairn building. There must be many hundreds of cairns – piles of stones – in conspicuous places around the Outback. Often on the top of a steep hill, they can sometimes provide a challenging 4WD climb to reach the site of the cairn. “Hey, looks like people have driven up to the top of that hill. Let’s give it a go!” Next thing, you’re in low range, and grinding upwards to the spot where you’ll lob a few more rocks onto the top of the cairn, take a selfie or two, and then start wondering whether the brakes will work on the way down.


The motivation for cairn building may have something to do with the yearning for immortality – when you return to that spot in ten years’ time, “your cairn” will probably still be there, albeit a bit taller than it was. Maybe in 100 years …… ?

Another popular activity on the Oodnadatta track is “sleeper art” – spelling out names or words using the sleepers from the old abandoned railway line. I’m sure “LEVI” is secretly chuffed by the thought that several hundred people have by now seen his name right out there in the desert, and there’ll no doubt be many more in the years to come. But he’s unaware that some bright spark has already come along and changed it to “EVIL”.

Then there are “public collections” – items hung in a place that will be seen by many people, some of whom will be moved to stop and add to the collection. The venue is usually a tree, and the items thus displayed may be hats or footwear or t-shirts – even underwear.

But on our recent trip to the Kimberley and the “Top End” (roughly speaking, the top one-third of the Northern Territory, north from about Daly Waters), I realised there’s another important genre which I hadn’t previously seen: the “mound people”. These are termite mounds to which have been added various items to make them look like people.


There are of course hundreds of thousands of termite mounds just waiting to be turned into mound people, although we’re not sure whether the termites are happy about this trend.



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