Vini, vidi, boo: I came, I saw, I spoke with ghosts


There is nothing quite like the Pilbara. It’s Australia’s high-viz FIFO Mecca; a broad expense of red country dotted with mine sites, thundering road trains and sprawling pastoral stations, all sitting – sometimes uncomfortably – against a backdrop of spectacular gorges, glorious beaches and ancient traditions carved into iron-rich rock faces. I was very fortunate to travel there recently, to a little town of Cossack. It’s a fascinating place, full of stories – although you have to listen closely, for those who tell them are all long dead.

Today, Cossack is a tourist ghost town; it is home to crumbling ruins, a few restored buildings, and a smattering of weathered graves. Yet, this is the place where Pilbara as we know it started.

The town sits at the mouth of the Harding River, surrounded by muddy salt marshes and low, rocky hills covered by a carpet of spiky spinifex. Most importantly, Cossack boasts a small beach that is clear of mangroves, upon which, in the 1860s, entrepreneurial men with white, freckled faces, could unload both their stock and their hopes for wool, cotton, and other riches. Once there, some of these men did, indeed, find their fortune. But it’s an unforgiving country, so the rest had to be content with the more common fodder of pioneering conquest: blood, sweat, and sunburn.


The road into Cossack, which goes past the old school building.

For my part, I arrived in Cossack at the end of the day, when the sun’s final rays set the dirt on fire and made shadows long. A man stood on the wharf, waving to me excitedly with one arm and pointing with the other towards the water, phone camera in hand.

“They are there!” he yelled. “But I can’t get them. I can’t see them!”

His enthusiasm was due to dolphins, I soon learned. Three of them. We watched together for a while, he hopping form foot to foot in excitement, I a bit more restrained, since the said creatures never re-appeared. What I did see, however, was a mass of circular ripples upon the water which more than hinted at the menagerie that must lie below.


Cossack today is a popular launching point for recreational fishing.

After a while the man gave up and flipped his phone shut, shrugged at me happily, and left. I found myself alone.  I turned around, grabbed the luggage from the back of my hire car and walked up the road in search of the town’s caretaker. I found her locking up for the night, and she led me into her stiflingly hot office.

“So you found us all right then?”

I nodded, a little guiltily. It wasn’t particularly easy to get lost along the only road going in and out of the settlement, but I made good effort at it, getting side-tracked into an overgrown dead-end lane near the boarded up school house.

Once the paperwork was done, I followed the caretaker to my accommodation, which was inside the town’s former police quarters. My room was basic, but clean, and mercifully air-conditioned. Being the tail end of the summer, the tourist season hasn’t started yet and I was the only guest. I had spent the morning researching Cossack at the local library, and now, with no one else to talk to, I settled down and started reading what I started earlier: a pile of notes about the history of the town.


Some of the buildings now serve as tourist and caretaker accommodation.

The essence of that history is ugly, heartbreaking and uplifting in equal measure, for the extent of suffering and hardship faced by many who passed through here is matched step by step with remarkable human resilience. Starting with the countless indigenous generations who have lived here since before forever, I cannot help but admire the local people who survived in this harsh country, with its brackish water, its furious cyclones, its crawling midges and flies and blearing heat – and later, with its onslaught of foreign settlers.

The Ngarluma people, on whose land Cossack was founded, were less warlike than their neighbours, a characteristic that the new arrivals perhaps took advantage of. For these incoming settlers, there was much to. They were used to a much different way of life, and their privations were many. It wasn’t long before the local Aboriginal population was compelled to assist the foreigners in any which way possible. At first the work was linked to the land – and the back breaking work of clearing it, fencing it, and taming it – but when some sharp-eyed settlers noticed Aboriginal people wading out at low tide and coming back with glistening pearl shell, a whole new wave of fortune seekers arrived, and a whole new form of torment dawned.

slwa_b3016918_1 Old Cossack

Cossack as it once was. Image source: SLWA.

Soon, Cossack became a booming port town. In its heyday in the late 1800s, up to 80 pearl luggers crowded within the inlet, and aboard each stood men desperate for what was the most precious commodity in the northwest: labour. Crews of them went further and further inland, alternatively cajoling, conning and kidnapping Aboriginal men, women and children into servitude. The poor recruits got paid with tobacco, alcohol and foreign germs, plus food and white man’s clothes that until then they had never needed. Then, at the end of the season, they got dumped wherever convenient, often away from country that was theirs. And so started the endless cycle of dispossession and deprivation that still haunts many indigenous communities today.

As rules relating to the use of Aboriginal labour were introduced, new recruits arrived, this time hailing from across the ocean: from Malaya, Timor, Philippines, Japan. Along with their arrival a new sort of diving apparatus was welcomed with much excitement, allowing the divers to go deeper and deeper still, each taking more risk than the other. These Asian divers were important, but far from socially equal, and they, too, suffered from racism, discrimination and white condescension. Still, some did well, and returned home better off than they started. Others are buried in the Asian part of the cemetery in Cossack, but many more were lost at sea, with not even a marker to remember them.


Asian cemetery.

Eventually, the Cossack pearl beds were raped clean and the pearling industry moved north to Broome. Discovery of gold brought an influx of Chinese and other migrants, but that also soon came to pass. Cyclones regularly ravaged the town, the inlet was silting up and a new port nearby took over the bulk of the shipping traffic. Cossack was dying. Two more valiant, if somewhat quirky, efforts were made to keep the town going: one was the introduction of a turtle soup factory and the other the establishment of a leper colony, but neither initiative lasted long. Finally, in the 1950s, having done its job as the founding port for the northwest, Cossack was abandoned and left to watch as the rest of Pilbara took off.

Now, the old wooden and corrugated iron buildings have turned to rust and dust, but the few stone buildings have since been lovingly restored. They stick out, incongruously, amid the red earth, mangroves and spinifex. One of the buildings is the said police barracks, in which I spent the night. Others include a beautiful old post office, a store, a lockup and a bakery. The old customs house now serves as functions venue and the courthouse is a museum.


The Court House, which now houses the Shakespeare Hall Social History Museum.

During my stay, I woke up at dawn. A steady buzz of insects drove the birds into a sing song crazy, and a couple of fishermen were already at the wharf, discussing barramundi. The town was draped in fresh glow of morning light. I grabbed my camera and went for a walk, and wherever I went, I kept hearing voices from the past. My own freshness didn’t last long, as by 8 o’clock I was already dripping with sweat.

“It was like that for us too,” the voices told me. (“Except there was no deodorant,” they added, in giggly embarrassment.)

I stopped off near the overgrown patch of land that marked the former Chinese gardens, and kicked the stony ground. “It was back breaking to dig in that, but we were desperate for fresh food of home,” the voices said.

In the museum, I caught a glance of a piece of jewellery. “Aye, it was hard to be a lady out here, back then” I heard.

And so it went, on and on.


Ruins of the North West Mercantile Store.

In the middle of the day, I drove out to get a coffee and lunch at nearby Roebourne, and then retreated back to the bliss of my air-conditioned room, emerging out again after night fell.  My footsteps crunched along the ground and competed with the high strung chirp of crickets. Above me, a few stars peaked though yeasty, white-grey clouds and the town ruins were nothing but faint silhouettes.

I was still the only one in Cossack, and I felt little in this vast country. But, small and alone does not mean lonely. It was those chatty ghosts, you see. They told me how they, too, once stood under the same moonlight at night, and how they watched the rich Pilbara colours moult into a palette of grey. And it struck me then, as it had already a few times before, that it’s really no surprise that our first people were storytellers, or that so many yarns are spun from the bush – for this amazing country, now, as it was then, is made for nothing if not storytelling.


Sunset over the Butcher’s Inlet.

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Trekking Kokoda: seeing, hearing, feeling


The difficult part of writing about trekking in Kokoda lies in knowing where to start. To write about the track, its history and people is tricky, as each topic is tightly knitted to the other, so it is hard to know when one theme starts and the other begins. A chronological account is tempting, as it allows for detailed descriptions of each day’s adventures. However, the Kokoda experience is greater than the sum of its parts, and such a linear re-telling fails to capture the tang of the whole. After some thought, I’ve decided that perhaps the best way to tell you about it, is to describe the way Kokoda feels, and the way it lingers and replays in my memory as a series of vignettes, each so crisp and clear that I can still see, smell and hear everything.

Picture, then, a jungle. A deep, towering jungle, with majestic trees spreading their wings so high above as to block out the sun and leave the bottom dim and mysterious. A thick carpet of shrubbery hugging the steep mountain slopes, each bush fighting with ferns and tangled vines for attention from the merest drop of light. Imagine soft, furry moss dripping off fallen tree trunks and rocks like molten wax, exposed, gnarled tree roots serving as both steps and stepping hazards along the narrow, winding trail, and layers and layers of mud – glistening black in some places, dark brown in others, sickly ochre and a greasy, slippery red in others still.

Imagine emerging into bright patches of shoulder high kunai grass, fields of sweet potato and small clearings which offer sweeping views of imposing, cloud covered mountains. At night, look up into the sky to see the silver candy floss of Milky Way, and by day witness green of every colour, studded here and there with buttons of red and yellow flowers, patches of purple shrubs, multi-coloured beetles and fluttering ultramarine butterflies. Let your eyes settle on small, quaint villages with stilted grass huts and manicured gardens, which from the distance look peaceful and idyllic, but from up close scream of poverty, hardship and human resilience.

I took a great number of photos on the trip, but they simply do not compare fairly with reality – nor do they capture the non-visual aspect of the Kokoda trek. There is no way that a camera shot can convey the nearly constant awareness of one’s body: the burning quads and hamstrings, gasps for air, the brutal jarring of knee joints on never-ending descents and the cloying, sticky sweat, thick with sunscreen and bug repellent, pooling on the skin and rolling down to fall saltily on the tongue. Nor can a photograph truly re-tell the heavenly relief of a stream swirling around hot feet, or the joy of a wetted hat wrung over your head which sends a stream of icy rivulets down your back.

If I close my eyes, I’m reminded of other sensations, less physical but none the less tangible: the heavy weight of sympathy and remembrance for those who fought and died here, a sudden rush of adrenaline at the edge of a cliff, the moments of weightlessness when you miss a step, and the deep sense of admiration and gratitude for the sure-footed porters who catch you over and over again.

Let’s not forget the tastes: the sweet-salty tingle of Hydrolyte, standard hiking fare of powdered milk, oatmeal and dehydrated beef, and packet chicken noodle soup which, in the words of a fellow trekker, “is the worst shit in the world but tastes so bloody good”. Yet, also, the totally unexpected tastes, the delightful surprises of pizza, pasties, pancakes and – most astonishingly of all – freshly made, pink iced doughnuts. Oh, and the smells! The stench of campsite toilets, filled with swarming bees, creeping bugs and poor-aim mishaps. Wood smoke and jungle decay. Damp socks and body odour, instant coffee on a freezing high altitude morning, and sweet smelling posies laid on a memorial at dawn.

But if you think for a moment that all these memories play in my mind as if from a silent movie reel, you would be very much mistaken. For, like all great adventures, Kokoda comes with its own, spectacular sound track. It is a resounding background orchestra of chirping insects and strange birdsong, Pidgin accents and the hollow ring of machete striking wood. A serenade of falling rocks and loose, slipping earth, rushing waterfalls and pounding raindrops, of laughter and loud banter, the tumble of private thoughts that accompany each squelching step, and the silent echoes of all those others who walked along the same track.

And then, there is the music.

It is the sweet Kokoda cherry on top of what would already have been a tremendously rich experience. Music from village children, distant Sabbath church hymns, a clump of porters sitting atop a steep ridge or around a crackling fire. It is this music which is the trek’s parting gift: mellow island voices, wrapped with soft guitar chords, all raised in perfect harmony which can be heard loud and clear long after the plane home has left the tarmac.


Lon pela road, mi wokabout

Lon Kokoda trail – mi laik go lon

Pt Moresby, wer wan pela botol

Swit pela SP i weitim mi


Ol mangi raun nabaut

Kolim nem bilon boss


Putim nem bilon mi

Mi lai wokabout


Taim mi go karim pack,

Suvet i kilim mi, blue maunten

I antap tumas, tintin i sot

Mi no wari, mi kukim iet







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Moments that count

Friendship quoteI tend to write about that which is on my mind the most, and of late it has been the simple joy of friendship.

My musings result from a couple of great weekends away, the first with freshly made friends, the second with more established ones.  They were not extraordinary excursions; in both cases, short drives out of suburbia, with basic accommodation, mozzies, a medley of balls, bikes and kids and grazed knees, all washed over with shared wine and late night laughter. However, they were both incredibly relaxing and joyful, and it was the companionship that made them so.

I have not always been blessed with friends, having spent a great deal of my early teen and pre-teen years grasping for peer camaraderie, let alone kindred souls. I am still not quite sure why exactly this was the case. I suspect that I simply happened to be a misfit for my particular time and place, rather than being a victim of conspiracy or the fruit of my own doing.

Regardless, to now be able to go away as I have, and to be a welcome part of the crowd, feels like a true gift. As did, too, other moments, both big and small: the day when, cradling a new born, I found a curry on my doorstep; the time when someone else faced the task of taking my newly dead husband’s clothes away; the moment when a wry comment cracked through the office, and lifted the dreariness of a horrid day.  Those moments are countless, yet count so much.

I am content enough with my own company, but there is certain warmth that comes with a good mate. So I am just putting it out there:  I unashamedly love it when such a one unexpectedly knocks on my door, rings my phone or tags me in a Facebook post.

That’s it. I don’t have a more deep and meaningful point to make; this is a mere expression of gratitude for all the lovely souls who over the years enriched my life and let me into theirs, lifted my spirits and made me glad to be here, and to be me.

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No head Broome to write

Amazing colours of the Kimberley

Amazing colours of the Kimberley

Naively, I thought I would do a lot of writing this week.

Four days away, all by myself. Away from the family, away from work. No appointments, no cooking, no sock pick-uping.  I had imagined myself, coffee in hand and surrounded by mind maps and notes, diligently working on the initial sketches of a book. Jotting ideas down, putting some sort of a structure together. Something I could show for all this TIME I’ve had this week.

Exit out of Tunnel Creek

Exit out of Tunnel Creek

It didn’t quite turn out like that.

All might have gone as planned, if I was
the sort of person who is happy to simply chill out by the pool while on a holiday. After all, a jump between holding a book and holding a laptop isn’t really that huge, and any extra mental effort required to press the keyboard could always be nicely compensated by a pink cocktail or two.

But see, I’m not that type. When I go away, I sleep less and wake up earlier, roused by foreign bird song and the need to get out and explore. My eyes shift focus across the landscape, my nose twitches in response to new smells, my mind is restless and I absolutely cannot sit still.

Coast just south of Broome

Coast just south of Broome

It didn’t help that I found myself in such a darn beautiful place. Really, the unfortunate combination of stunning location and my personality meant that I faced an epic author fail. Instead of writing, I went canoeing and dinosaur footprint spotting. I walked 10km across a deserted beach, and then trotted a few more checking out the nooks and crannies of the town. I swatted flies and counted crocodiles in an ancient gorge, waded knee deep through a cold cave stream, ducked under a snake hanging low in a tree, and ate barramundi at sunset.

My mind was filled with thoughts and endless questions, totally in awe of the history and geography around me.  Sitting in a canoe out at sea, I spotted a turtle come up for air and then quickly duck down below, intuitively knowing that he’s best to get away, lest he became lunch like so many of his ancestors. I let my hand drag through the water, marvelling at how the sea could be both so milky blue and clear at the same time, and wondered whether divers of old ever lost sense of its beauty as they risked lives in search for pearl shell. I looked around at the rusty cliffs, separated by a darker line which once marked a river, and speculated on what sort of fish fed within its waters. I spied sharp rocks breaking the surface of the sea, and felt a wave of sympathy for the likes of Dampier, Baudin and King, and the countless sailors who’ve often come to grief among the mighty tides and reefs.

Windjana Gorge

Windjana Gorge

Tunnel Creek

Tunnel Creek

Heading inland, I was mesmerised by the endless termite mounds, and drunk by the thought of how many of the little critters live and die out there, destined to a fate of picking up another’s droppings. I was spell bound by the Napier range, and by the knowledge that it is really one big fossil, full of creatures that once lived under the sea. I could hear the silent echoes of heroic Jandamarra as he sneaked through the ancient caves and gorges, fleeing from police. I wondered what birds made the sing song calls in the bush. And, once darkness fell, my breath caught as I watched the surreal silhouettes of huge boab trees backlit by a scrub fire.

And all along, I searched for words, words which might best describe the smells, the sounds, and the colours of the Kimberly. I found many, but fell grossly short of having sufficient discipline to pick out the ones which related to what I had actually set out to do. Thus, the plan for my book remains untouched.

However, if a picture paints a thousand words, then through my mind’s eye I’ve already written a novel this week.

Cable Beach

Cable Beach

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They weren’t asked to go: Western Australia’s Chinese Anzacs

AIF trainee soldiers erecting tents at Blackboy Hill Camp.

AIF trainee soldiers erecting tents at Blackboy Hill Camp.

The message was clear enough: ‘If you ain’t white, don’t bother applying’.

At the outbreak of World War 1, thousands of young men rallied in support of Britain and volunteered for the Australian Imperial Forces. So many men, that recruiters could be picky. Volunteers had to be tall enough. Healthy enough. And most certainly white enough.

Rules relaxed as the war progressed, but in the early years military orders directed the recruiting officials to reject those who were not of substantial European origin. This was in keeping with the 1909 Commonwealth Defence Act and the White Australia Policy.

However, it is evident that some discretion was applied at the recruitment depots. Whether by result of ambiguity, negligence or a turn of a blind eye, the now legendary Anzacs who set off to the Middle East and beyond held within their ranks members of Australia’s non-white minorities, and the red blood spilled in Gallipoli and the fields of Western Front certainly included that which once was contained within black and yellow tinted skin.

Among those who successfully enlisted were Charles You, George Gipp and Richard Gipp, three brothers from the edges of inner Perth, and as far as is known the only three of the 200 odd Chinese Australians to join the AIF to come from Western Australia. Each one’s story reflects a different reality of war: one was wounded, one was plagued by disease and one’s name lies sealed forever in cold stone of a French memorial.

The three were a product of mixed heritage. Their father, Charles Lee Ah You Gipp, arrived from Canton full of gold rush fever sometime in the second half of the 19th Century. He eventually settled in Warrnambool and married (apparently much to his father-in-law’s dismay) Victorian lass 23 years his junior, Elizabeth Walters.

Towards the very end of the 1800s, the family moved to Western Australia in search of better fortunes and new life – but that new life was to be short lived. Charles Sr passed away in 1899, leaving Elizabeth to raise nine young children alone. Charles Jr, George and Richard would have been about 7, 5 and 4 respectively at the time of their father’s death. Little information is available about how they fared, but no doubt the family would have faced some hardship in those pre-war years. Not only did Elizabeth not have family support, but women who had married Chinese men, along with their ‘half caste children’ were commonly subject to broad discrimination.  The brothers’ decision to join the army may have been driven as much by a desire for equality not accessible to them in civilian life, as by any patriotic passion.


Francis George Gipp

George Gipp Regiment No. 059, 16th Battalion, 4th Brigade Enlisted 07.09.14

George Gipp
Regiment No. 059,
16th Battalion, 4th Brigade
Enlisted 07.09.14

The first of the brothers, George, enlisted barely five weeks after the outbreak of the war. Race issues aside, his entry into the ranks of the AIF is remarkable, as at 5ft 4 ¼in he stood almost two full inches below the then (supposedly strict) enlistment standard.

George had turned 21 only a fortnight prior to fronting up at the recruitment centre. He was allocated to the 16th Battalion, and commenced basic training at Blackboy Hill. He then travelled to Melbourne for further training. Men stationed at Blackboy Hill were customarily granted four days leave prior to departure onwards, and George is likely to have used this time to say goodbye to his family. It would have been the last time the three brothers were to be together.

His journey out of Australia didn’t have auspicious beginnings. According to the 16th Battalion Unit War Diaries, the men had left their Victorian quarters after two days of continuous rain, and climbed aboard the HMAT A40 Ceramic  just before Christmas, wet, muddy and ‘with symptoms of great prevalence of influenza’. After a brief stopover in Albany, the ship departed for overseas on the last day of 1914 – and the next day, George was caught sleeping whilst on sentry duty.

A port side view of troop transport HMAT Ceramic (A40) laden with troops after leaving Port Melbourne wharf. Soldiers have climbed the rigging on all four masts.

A port side view of troop transport HMAT Ceramic (A40) laden with troops after leaving Port Melbourne wharf. Soldiers have climbed the rigging on all four masts.

The Ceramic was part of the second convoy to leave Albany: 17 ships, carrying 11,000 troops in all. Its voyage to war was relatively uneventful. George’s journey took him to Ceylon, the port of Aden in Yemen and the Suez Canal, before arriving at the final resting point of Alexandria in Egypt on the 3rd of February 1915. He then travelled by train to a camp at Heliopolis and waited for two months for instructions for further mobilisation.

Finally, in mid April, George and the rest of the 16th Battalion boarded an old, overcrowded, vermin ridden steamer Haida Pascha and set sail for the small Greek island of Lemnos in the Agean Sea. Their final destination of Gallipoli was – officially, at least – still a secret. Once in port in Lemnos, the troops spent a few days practising shifting supplies up and down rope ladders into waiting boats below. It was preparation for the now infamous days that followed.

About noon on the 25th of April, Haida Pascha got underway, chugging slowly across the calm sea.  Several firsthand accounts recall that faint sounds of distant gunfire were heard all through the day. As Haida Pascha neared the beaches of Gallipoli, George would have seen evidence of the morning’s battle, shrouded by a thick haze of smoke and flashes of guns ahead. However, he would not yet have been aware that the initial landing force had landed a kilometre or two north of the intended position, and instead of facing open country the men found themselves scrambling steep ridges and gullies under increasingly heavy Turkish fire. The Haida Pascha troops were to be landed at the same point.

At about 6pm, George and the rest of the men moved from their ship to the waiting destroyer below, then transferred onto a smaller row boat for the last few hundred meters to shore. They made their way up the hills, ending up on a steep spur located between two gullies, later named ‘Pope’s Hill’ after their commanding officer. For the next five days they stayed there, under heavy fire from Turkish troops to their front and rear.

After a couple brief rest days, marked by deadly sniper attacks, the men of the 16th went on attack towards Quinn’s Post, arguably the most dangerous and feared post at Gallipoli. They spent a night alternatively fighting and digging trenches along a steep hill, chillingly named the Bloody Angle, and at dawn of 3rd of May charged at the Turks who were stationed only 100m away. By the end of that day, barely a week after arriving on the shores of Gallipoli, the approximately 1000 strong Battalion has been reduced to only nine officers and 290 men. George was still standing, but it was not to be for long.

The medical camp at the base of Quinn's Post and Pope's Post.

The medical camp at the base of Quinn’s Post and Pope’s Post.

As Quinn’s Post was pretty much under constant enemy fire, men were rotated in and out of the post for two days at a time. On the 21st of May, two days after a massive Turkish assault which resulted in massive loss of life and left thousands of bodies rotting in the hot summer sun, George was hit in the head by a piece of shrapnel as he was leaving a trench and sustained a compound fracture to the skull. He was taken down to the beach, placed on board of the crowded HS Sicilia. From there he moved to the 17th General Hospital in Alexandria, and then to Manchester for further treatment before finally being invalidated and sent home. He spent a mere 27 days on the front.

As a byline, in all existing army records, George Gipp is listed as a Private. Yet, a wartime photo held by his grand niece shows him sporting the triple chevron of a sergeant’s insignia on his sleeve. Maybe George was a bit of a lad and borrowed another’s uniform as a lark; or, perhaps more likely, the wheels of army bureaucracy turned imperfectly amid the chaos of Gallipoli, and a promotion granted in truth on the field was never reflected on official record.

Richard James Gipp

Richard Gipp Regiment no 429, 28th Battalion, 7th Brigade Enlisted 08.03.15

Richard Gipp
Regiment no 429, 28th Battalion, 7th Brigade
Enlisted 08.03.15

At the same time as George awaited the bloody baptism of Gallipoli, another Battalion was being raised back in Blackboy Camp in Perth’s hills. This was the 28th, and it held within its ranks George’s younger brother, Richard.

Unlike George, Richard completed his training in Perth, and departed overseas from Fremantle rather than via Melbourne and Albany. About a week prior to embarking, the 28th Battalion took part in a King’s Birthday march through Perth, with all men fully horsed and equipped and cheered on by thousands of people who lined the city streets. The route of the march went merely a few hundred meters from where the Gipp brothers lived, and Richard’s family is likely to have been amongst the crowds. They could well have also been present on the docks of Victoria Quay as the HMAT Ascanius pulled away on the evening of 9th of June 1915, with Richard standing on deck and waving back to a place he would not see again for several years. The family, at the time, were not yet aware that George had been wounded – Elizabeth Gipp received a telegram informing her of the fact the day after the Ascanius pulled away.

Permission note from Richard's mother. (National Archives B2455, Gipp R)

Permission note from Richard’s mother. (National Archives B2455, Gipp R)

Just like George, Richard was headed for Gallipoli. The 28th Battalion had a relatively brief and quiet time at Gallipoli, staying until the forces’ final evacuation mid December. However, Richard’s time at the peninsula was cut short due to ill health which was to plague him for the rest of his time in service.  He fell ill with the bronchitis towards the end of October, was transferred to a hospital in Heliopolis, and never went back to Gallipoli – which is perhaps just as well, as within a month the area was visited by a blizzard, with heavy snow falls and extreme cold which would have been anything but helpful to recuperation.

Richard was admitted to hospital with another bout of bronchitis on Christmas Eve of 1915, and then embarked for Marseilles at the end of May, two months later than the rest of his Battalion. He eventually re-joined his unit at Etaples in northern France on the 8th of August of 1916.

The timing of Richard’s arrival back amongst the ranks of his Battalion is significant; had he joined them mere two weeks earlier, he would have found himself fighting in bloody battle of Poziers which was to claim not only the life of many of his mates, but also that of his older brother, Charles.

As it was, the 28th withdrew from Poziers merely two days earlier, and moved on to a quieter sector of the front in Belgium. Richard spent only a couple of days with them before being re-admitted to hospital yet again – this time, with malaria.

In October, the Battalion returned south to the Somme Valley. By all accounts, the conditions were dreadful; the Somme battlefields were swamped with rain, the ground turning into cloying mud which sucked men down, forcing them into slow motion in face of a barrage of German gun fire. As the winter months set in, Richard fell ill once more, most likely with a reoccurrence of bronchitis, and later with mumps. He recovered, and is likely to have been involved in heavy fighting at the second battle of Bullecourt, before going on leave to England at the end of July 1917.  Alas, within a week of crossing the Channel, he was hospitalized yet again – this time, with one of the unmentionable diseases. He did not rejoin his unit until just before Christmas.

 1st Australian Dermatological Hospital in Bulford, England. The hospital was largely dedicated to the treatment of venereal disease.

1st Australian Dermatological Hospital in Bulford, England. The hospital was largely dedicated to the treatment of venereal disease.

Richard remained in France until war’s end. Towards late summer of 1918, the Battalion took part in the joint British and French offensive which marked the start of Germany’s defeat. Its final attack, just prior to its withdrawal from the line, was on the Beaureviour Line, around the village of Estrees. Richard left France for England just before the New Year, and – after yet another month long stint in hospital – arrived back in Fremantle aboard the HMAT Khyber in late May of 1919.

Charles N Ah You

Charles You with family Regiment No: 4632, 11th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Brigade Enlisted 26.10.15

Charles You with family
Regiment No: 4632, 11th Battalion, 3rd Infantry Brigade
Enlisted 26.10.15

The eldest of the three brothers, Charles (who used ‘You’ as his surname, as opposed to ‘Gipp’) did not enlist until late in 1915. He was already married, with a young son. His paperwork shows two enlistment dates – the first, 29 September, is crossed out, and replaced with 26 October. What’s more, he was the only one of the three to note on his enlistment paperwork that his father was ‘naturalised Chinese’. Could it be that when he first went to enlist, he changed his mind, only to go again later? Did he perhaps hope, by admitting mixed descent, to be rejected?

Unbeknown to him, while he was completing his training in the basking heat of Western Australian summer, the wheels of politics were turning in the irreversible direction of his ultimate demise. On the other side of the world, in a little town of Chantilly in northern France, the Commander in Chief of the French army, General Joseph Joffre held a conference with his Allied counterparts. There, in a little chateau, the most senior military minds drew up battle plans, which included tactics for what was to become one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, the Battle of the Somme. It was to be a concentrated attack upon a 30 km stretch of land, and the chief tactic was ‘attrition’ – a desperate bid to drain the German forces of reserves. For the plan to work, the Allies were in need of cannon fodder, of which Charles was to be one.

He arrived in Egypt aboard the HMAT Miltiades in March, transferred to the HMAT Transylvania to Marseilles, and from there proceeded to the Base Depot at Etaples. As was the norm, Charles would have had to undergo at least ten days additional training and a strict medical check – which he may have passed with some difficulty, as – for reasons which are unclear – he ended up in hospital for a few days. Finally, on 25 May 1916, he joined the 11th Battalion on the Western Front, along with 68 other fresh reinforcements.

Troops of the 1st Australian General Base Depot in France, buying food from local peasants.

Troops of the 1st Australian General Base Depot in France, buying food from local peasants.

He had his first experience of combat within a week. Late in the evening of 30 May, German artillery bombarded the Allied line around the Cordonnerie salient, a prominent part of the British frontline protruding towards the German frontline, and its infantry launched a raid on the 11th Battalion’s trenches, leaving 37 killed and 70 wounded.

Over the course of the following month, the Battalion was brought up to strength and moved to the Somme valley. The men arrived in a little town of Albert on 19th July, amid a gas attack. They spent the next two days working to improve trenches and supply stores, preparing for an assault. Their target was Poziers, a small village atop a ridge in the centre of the Somme battlefield and an important German defensive position.

The main street of Pozieres after heavy bombardment by the British and the Germans.

The main street of Pozieres after heavy bombardment by the British and the Germans.

The attack on Poziers was launched just before midnight on the night of 22nd-23rd July. It started with heavy shelling of the Germans with phosgene and tear gas, during which time troops crept into no-man’s-land, and once the bombardment lifted the men stormed the enemy trenches. What followed was a confused, bloody battle at close quarters, amid a featureless terrain which had been reduced to a field of craters. Australians suffered gravely over the next two days, falling from both enemy and friendly fire. It was somewhere during this time and amid this mayhem that Charles You lost his life.


 After the war

After returning from the front, George was discharged as permanently unfit. He applied for, and received, a war service gratuity, as his injury left him with long term weakness and a reduction in movement on one side and a lifetime of severe headaches. He married twice and had two daughters, heading back to Victoria after the death of his mother in 1922. He died aged 58, in the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital.

Richard outlived all his siblings. After the war he travelled to China to learn more of his heritage, and like his brother ultimately returned to Victoria. He married, but had no children, quite possibly as result of illness which he had suffered in Europe.

As for Charles, he lies to this day among the 23,000 men who lost their lives at Poziers. His name is honoured on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, but his body is buried in an unknown spot, with not even the final dignity of the exact date that he drew his last breath.

Defence Act 1909 (Aus), s. 138b

Dept of Veteran Affairs, 2005. An artist at the Landing – Signaller Silas. Gallipoli And The Anzacs. Available from:

Gill, I. (2004). Fremantle to France: 11th Battalion A.I.F. 1914–1919 (2nd ed.). Myaree, Western Australia: Advance Press

Longmore, C. (1929)  The old Sixteenth: being a record of the 16th Battalion, A.I.F., during the Great War, 1914-1918, Perth

National Archives of Australia: B2455, Gipp G, available from:

National Archives of Australia: B2455, Gipp R, available at

National Archives of Australia: B2455, You C, available at


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In shadow of the plague

Woodman Point Quarantine Station, Isolation Hospital for infected passengers

Woodman Point Quarantine Station, Isolation Hospital

Bubonic plague is something we normally associate with medieval Europe, not sunny Western Australia. And yet, at the turn of last century, the Black Death sailed onto the shores of the Swan River, and sent the young city of Fremantle into a panicked, lime and carbolic fuelled spin.

When young William Campbell sat down for breakfast at his Bay Street boarding house on Saturday morning of April 7, 1900, he wouldn’t have known that it would be for the last time. He had been feeling increasingly ill since Thursday, with chills, aches and swollen glands. Quite likely though, his landlord and fellow boarders would have passed off the symptoms as a bad case of man flu, and offered only a modicum of sympathy as he went off to work at the nearby goods shed.

William was a railway shunter, unloading cargo which was brought into Fremantle on ships and placing it on trains for further journey inland. In the week prior to falling ill, he had been handling the loads from the steamers, Pilbara and Marloo. Both ships hailed from Sydney, and amongst the standard consignment of goods was at least one flea-ridden rat-infected with the dreaded Yersinia pestis bacterium. In all likelihood, William wouldn’t have even noticed the fatal flea bite.

By Saturday evening, he felt ill enough to make his way to Fremantle Hospital in search of medicine for his fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. He expressed disinclination to stay at the hospital, however, and left – only to return an hour or so later and was admitted. Luckily so, as soon afterwards he slipped into a coma.

The resident medical officer, Dr. O’Meara, kept a close eye on the patient. What his initial diagnosis was, we can’t be sure, but he was an educated man, and no doubt well read. He would have heard of the epidemic taking hold in Sydney, and his brows must have gathered in a deep frown when he noticed the following afternoon, swollen glands on William’s right groin. Alas, there was nothing to be done, and by 9 o’clock that evening, William Campbell had died.

Dr. O’Meara shared his suspicions about cause of death with an ex-colleague, who had recently been promoted to the position of special medical officer of the Central Board of Health in Perth, Dr Anderson. The latter received the news with a great deal of alarm. He made his way to the hospital morgue and an hour after midnight performed an autopsy which confirmed the worst: William Campbell died of bubonic plague.

A report bearing the news was quickly sent to the principal medical officer, Dr Harvey. Who, on learning of the situation, immediately put the entire city on full alert. All manner of crisis- control measures were put into effect. Wharves were scrubbed, access to the inter-colonial shipping docks was limited, incoming steamers were subjected to strict fumigation, and mass efforts were coordinated to trap rats which roamed the city. A couple days after William’s death, the West Australian reported that government officials had “a tolerably free hand in the expenditure of public funds” when it came to carrying out prevention and control measures. Some of these funds were directed towards urgent and immediate construction of a quarantine station and cremation facilities at Woodman Point.

Immediate orders were issued to isolate William’s lodgings, hospital room and the morgue. The morgue would later be burned, as would all of the victim’s bedding and belongings. The walls in William’s room were stripped of paper and scrubbed, and similar treatment was applied to the ceiling, floors and woodwork, and the whole house was fumigated with sulphur for twelve hours.

A decision needed to be made as to the best way to dispose of poor William’s body. Burial was out of the question, for fear of bacterial contamination of the soil and ground water.  With no existing crematorium in Fremantle, officials approved a suggestion to take the cadaver 20 miles out to sea.  And so, the body was wrapped in three layers of heavy blankets, each soaked in a strong disinfecting solution of carbolic acid, then placed in a heavily weighted and perforated coffin and lowered into the ocean.

One would have hoped that was the end of the matter. Alas, panic, once in motion, takes a while to slow down and subside. Fear spread about fish and crustaceans feeding on the body and seafood all but vanished from the local menus. This was observed with a great deal of angst and bitterness by local fishermen, the life blood of the community, who noted that the chosen method of William’s burial practically extinguished their trade.  Many boats stayed in port, as it was nigh impossible for fishermen to sell their catch.

Fremantle was on tenterhooks, waiting. Rumours circled. And then, on the 12th of April, a shadow spread over the city as the second victim fell.

The statistics…

Between 1900 and 1925, there were 12 major plague outbreaks in 27 localities of Australia introduced by infected rats from overseas ships. According to Government health archives, there were 1371 reported cases of plague and 535 deaths. Sydney was most affected, but the disease also spread to Queensland with occasional cases found in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Kalgoorlie and Fremantle.

Source:  Australian Emergency Management Institute. (n.d.). Epidemic – Bubonic Plague, Australia-wide 1900-1925 . Retrieved July 9, 2015, from Australian Emergency Management Knoweldge Hubb:—bubonic-plague-australia-wide-1900-1925

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It wasn’t my fault either

The new law appeared as a short notice on page 10 of the West Australian, sandwiched between a section heading and an unrelated paragraph clarifying some aspect of the Vermin Act.

Aborigines in Perth – By a proclamation in the Government Gazette yesterday, the city of Perth was declared a prohibited area for aborigines and half castes not in lawful employment.1

That’s it. One sentence, written in March of 1927, advising that Aboriginal people were to disappear from the city centre. Not much in literary terms, but a sentence indeed for the indigenous population living and working around the northern banks of the Swan River. A sentence that could still be heard loud and clear as recently as 1954 – the same year as Marilyn married Joe DiMaggio and the young Queen Elizabeth visited Australia, when Bill Hayley recorded Rock around the clock and the first nuclear submarines were launched.

The prohibited area stretched roughly from William Street to the west, Bennett Street to the east, and south to the river from Newcastle Street. If you stood today on the corner of Barrack and William Streets in central Perth, enjoying a burger from nearby Macca’s, you’d pretty much be slap bang in the middle.

What the rule meant, in practical terms, was that any person of Aboriginal descent caught within this area after a six o’clock curfew could be arrested, unless they held a special exemption certificate. It brought distinct hardship and disadvantage to those who lived in the slums of East Perth, and had to cross the city each day to their employment (usually as domestic servants) in the leafy western suburbs, or for people who migrated towards the city during the Depression in search of work. Those who worked in the city could apply for the exemption certificate, of course – but they would usually only be granted one on the proviso that they abandoned all aspects of their traditional lifestyle and their aboriginal identity.

The proclamation was made under Section 39 of the notorious Aborigines Act of 1905. It was the very same act which allowed the appointed – and very white – ‘Chief Protector’ of Aborigines to deny indigenous Australians the right to marry outside of their race, restrict their rights to own property and thus vote, and most famously of all, to remove children from parents without a court order or proof of negligence or abuse.  What I find interesting is that over the years so many Australians expressed distaste over South Africa’s apartheid – without really realizing that we had our own special version of it here.

Despite its obvious racial discrimination, the rule restricting Aboriginal access to Perth city was broadly supported, no doubt particularly so by the hard working shop owners and businessmen, people who often would have made tremendous sacrifices to find themselves where they were. It was a move to clear the area of vagrants, an attempt to rid Perth of the drunk, the dispossessed and the angry Aborigines who loitered around the city. Let’s put political correctness aside for a moment, and acknowledge that antisocial behavior can – and obviously was – a significant problem, and the lawmakers, shaped by the attitudes of the day, simply acted in good faith to keep the city civil and safe.

What the law didn’t acknowledge at the time, of course, was that the city itself was built upon those ‘anti social’ vagrants’ land, upon an area where they formerly hunted, met and celebrated. Their dispossession started when their spiritual links to the soil where shattered and fences put up as replacement, and white man’s alcohol no doubt filled the void of anger, helplessness and lost identity.

Still, it’s all in the past now, so we need to move on, right?

Our current generation can hardly be held responsible for what happened in the years gone by. So many times I’ve seen people bristle when past mistreatment of Aboriginal people is brought up, resentful of the implication that seeing as the ‘whites’ were behind it all, they themselves, by the virtue of their white blood and heritage, are thus also somehow tainted. And others, the non-white, non-European migrants,  perhaps those who arrived here on boats, or flew in from war ravaged lands, they may shrug their shoulders and say, “well, you know, I’ve been through shit too, but you don’t see me going on about it, feeling sorry for myself for what happened and using the experience to get drunk and disorderly”.

Yep, I agree. I bristle sometimes, too. It wasn’t my fault either.

But in accepting this country, I am bound to its history. I am a white Australian, born in Poland, married to a New Zealander. This is not particularly unusual in the context of our multicultural society.

What is unusual, perhaps, is that Australia’s indigenous history interests me more than it does many other migrants. See, I am more than a member of a migrant family. I am also a foster parent to a little Yamaji boy. He, his past and his future matter to me – and because he matters, he connects me to his indigenous world. Not through blood, but through my thoughts and my heart strings.

And so I find myself trying to learn more. Although I’ve had partial schooling in Australia, it was at a time when Aboriginal history and culture were rarely acknowledged. Certainly, my old Social Studies textbook barely went as far as to say something along the lines of ‘they were here first’. It was only later, working as a humanities teacher and then a museum educator that I started to learn about indigenous history, starting with the very basics such as the difference between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the name of our local indigenous groups and the impact of colonization.

It just so happened that I had printed off the article which included the map of old Perth, the Aboriginal restricted area marked in red. I read the story over breakfast and thought nothing of it as the printout lay on the table.

I didn’t think it would grab my boy’s attention.

But he saw it. “What’s this?” he asked.

Such a loaded question. How much, what, how do I even begin to explain to a six year child the complexities of history, of indigenous policies which ultimately affected his own life history?

I decided on the truth; he will learn it soon enough anyway, and in my experience children appreciate honesty and are more resilient than we give them credit for.

“It’s a map of our city. White people often unfairly treated people who weren’t white. The area in red shows where Aboriginal people weren’t allowed to go, simply because they were Aboriginal”.

He looked at the map again and furrowed his brows. “That’s mean”, he said.

“I agree, but I don’t think they saw it that way back then”. I gave him a hug and he ran off to play.

I am hardly naïve enough to think that this simple exchange will solve all the issues this young man will one day have to deal with, once he starts exploring the past and confronting his identity. But sometimes, the starting point for the future is simply acknowledging the past.

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5 things we could do without


The first Christmas Card

The first Christmas Card

You know, we all have ‘ways of doing stuff’. When practiced by society as a whole, these little quirks and habits become cultural norms which define who we are. Some of these are perfectly wonderful – birthday cakes and coffee dates and Christmas presents. But there are certain things we take for granted that…well, that really, really ought to go. Here is my list. No doubt you’ll have your own!



It appears that no one is prepared to own up as the first person to be sufficiently obsessive – or bored enough – to insist on getting a few wrinkles out of cloth, but I am blaming the Chinese. They were using coal filled, hot metal pans to press over stretched material well over a thousand years ago. Vikings were also in on the act early; simple ironing stones and glass smoothers have been found in women’s graves (I will let you quietly ponder that point alone). And while today we have technology which is certainly more practical and efficient, it doesn’t make ironing any more meaningful.

Yes, yes, I know there exist those odd souls who actually find ironing relaxing. But I’ll bet that far more people would prefer to spend the time chilling, walking the dog or drawing rude pictures on ping pong balls. Seriously, why not agree to just add a tiny bit of wool or polyester to our cotton and linen and be done with it?


Formal school uniforms

Posh school uniforms have come to represent a high social status. Ironic, really, given as the first uniforms were worn by children attending charity schools, who needed to be clothed as cheaply as possible. But cheap, today? Hell, no. Not when a single blazer costs $150.

I have no problem with school uniforms per se. They prevent the morning drama of what to wear, and some say they encourage discipline. What I have an issue with is excessively formal school uniforms: eight year olds wearing stiff blazers, pressed white shirts and stripy ties – to say nothing of matching sock trims.

I’ve heard one school principal defend his school’s strict uniform policy by saying that formal attire will ‘help students feel comfortable in the business world’. Pfff. If Johnny needs twelve years of tie wearing to feel comfortable in a boardroom meeting, he is possibly better suited for an alternative career. And the most creative entrepreneurs seem to wear jeans, anyway.


Mrs/Miss distinctions

Word usage changes over time. Once, the abbreviation ‘Mrs’ stood for ‘mistress’ – a word which could mean many things: a woman who governs, a teacher, a female who is skilled at something…or, equally, a concubine. The title ‘Miss’ wasn’t really used by adult women until about the end of the 18th century, when socially ambitious ladies chose the term to distinguish themselves as more genteel, different from a businesswoman or a mere upper servant .

Fast forward to today, and the differentiation between ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’ serves purely to define a woman’s marital status. It seems bizarre, at a time when women – in the West, at least – are protected by equal opportunity and anti discrimination laws, to have these distinctions still thrust upon us on endless paperwork, with no equivalents for men.

I fully appreciate that it’s nice for a service provider to know whether their client is male or female, and use the knowledge for data analysis, marketing and what not. But I’ll be damned if the local pizza store owner needs to know whether I am married or not.


Faux pockets 

There are many baffling things about women’s clothing: stilettos, see through fabric, random sizing…but the one that takes the cake is the lack of storage space.

A pocket is an easy enough concept, and something that lucky men take for granted. No worries for them where to place their keys and spare change. But women’s clothing? Bah. All too often the pocket exists, nicely formed and where it should be, but it is sewn up tight.

In days gone by, pockets were made as a standalone item, tied separately under women’s petticoats, and accessible through a discrete slit on the side of the skirt. As ladies fashion became less voluminous, pockets fell out of grace. Designers may well justify their absence because such extras are most convenient when located near the hip area, not exactly a spot to which most women want to draw attention. But I reckon I could be trusted not to put a wombat down my pants; all I want is a spot to store my phone.


Christmas cards

For centuries people somehow managed to celebrate Christmas without the need for mass produced greeting cards. But then, mid 19th century, an enterprising English civil servant pays some dude to draw a picture of a family raising a toast and voila, the Christmas card – and yet another way to spend money – is invented.

And aren’t they pointless, really? A pre-printed message which hardly anyone reads, heralded with ‘To dear X’, and signed off by ‘Love, from Y’, inflicted upon people whom we see once a year.  According to the US Greeting Card Association, Americans alone purchase approximately 6.5 billion greeting cards annually, of which about a quarter are Christmas cards. Add to this the rest of the world’s festive masses, and we have annual sales of greeting cards which go well into double digit billions. Really? Can you not imagine what other things we could do with all that money, things that would perhaps better communicate the Christmas spirit?

Don’t even get me started on Valentine’s Day…


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The day I gave a f***

The day I decided to foster started just like any other day. Coffee.  Drive to work. Mark assessments. Teach. Take detention duty.

Somewhere around the middle of the day I was called into the principal’s office. Not because I was in trouble, but because one of the kids in my homeroom was. The ‘he is about to be expelled’ sort of trouble.

The principal asked me to step in and advocate for the boy, to present his side of the story. See, there was no one else to speak up for him. Bryce* was one of those kids whose own parents weren’t there to back him up, nor to tell him off once he got home. In fact, he didn’t even have a home.

Bryce was a ward of the state. He spent the school term living in a boarding school, and on holidays was carted off to whatever last minute respite placement could be found. A foster kid, without a foster home.

It wasn’t the first time I had dealings with kids whose ‘parent’ was the Department of Child Protection (DCP). There was Hayley*, a stubborn blond haired girl who muttered ‘bitch’ under her breath, but thrived in my History class; Troy*, my son’s 12 year old mate who came over for dinner a few days before making out to slash his wrists in the playground; teenage friends, some long silent, others reunited thanks to Facebook. Each had a story to tell, most needed a stable home. A home which I felt I would somehow one day be able to offer.

Ever since my teens I wanted a large family, but fate had other ideas. My first husband fell victim to cancer. Sadly, chemo, disability and the doom of terminal illness have a way of limiting both procreation and adoption – to say nothing of fostering, which requires mental strength and physical presence to deal with children with extraordinary needs and deep wounds.

Enter husband #2. We spoke of fostering on our first date. But there were houses to be bought, families to be blended, and holidays to take. Foster care was put on the one day definitively maybe list.

And then Bryce happened.

Bryce, so full of bravado and make pretend confidence in the principal’s office. But now, in my homeroom, he sat on the chair with his bag packed, shoulders hunched. His fists opened, then squeezed tight, his head bowed low. He didn’t say a word as I tried to comfort him, to convince him that another school will be ok, that future will be fine.

Finally, he looked up at me; pale, freckled face, hair in a mess. Bright blue eyes, filling with tears, and me, with nothing to say that would make any difference.

“I’m a DCP kid, Miss. Who gives a fuck?”

I never saw Bryce after that day. I have no idea what happened to him since. But that same evening I typed ‘foster care’ into a search engine and picked up the phone.

* Not their real names.

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Pages from a history book

Panorama of the Swan River Colony,  by Jane Eliza Currie, c. 1831

Panorama of the Swan River Colony, by Jane Eliza Currie, c. 1831

Oh, I know many people are bored by history and if that is you, you may as well stop reading now. But there is a tale I am compelled to mull over, an extraordinary, empowering, human story of the earliest days of the Swan River colony. And it is, after all, the long weekend which marks the foundation of Western Australia, so allow me the pleasure to share what I know, and what I don’t know, of the story with you.

For those of you who don’t know, Fremantle sits at the mouth of the Swan River, in the south western part of Western Australia. It is a cosmopolitan sort of place, full of heritage buildings, coffee shops, dockside workers and hippies in equal measure. It has always been a meeting spot of sorts; even before the Europeans arrived, this was where ancient bush paths converged, and where the local Whadjuk Noongar people met with their neighbours to trade, catch up and celebrate.

The land is reasonably flat, bar a series of small limestone hills, one of which sits right at the water’s edge. If you stand on top of this cliff you can see three small islands: Ngooloormayup, Meeandip and Wadjemup, now known as Carnac, Garden and Rottnest. Beyond them lies the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean.

In 1829, three ships sailed across this grand stretch of water.

The first was a war frigate, the HMS Challenger, under the command of a 29 year old Captain Charles Fremantle: a womanizer and alleged rapist, not too impressed at being sent to the end of the world with instructions to claim the entire western side of the Australian continent for Britain.

The boat anchored off Garden Island, then sailed to the coast, where half the soldiers disembarked, raised a flag and promptly set about erecting shelter…and trenches. Yep, 20 odd men, in wild and wooly weather, busily building barricades against the expected (and imagined) convoys of incoming French ships.

Next came the Parmelia, a small transport barque bearing the appointed lieutenant governor James Stirling. It was his zealous lobbing that convinced the British government that the area around the Swan River was verdant, fertile and otherwise ideal for settlement (never mind the reality of sandy soil, noxious weed and scorching summer heat that leaves the land parched and dry).  Trailing a few days behind was another navy vessel, the HMS Sulphur, carrying a detachment of troops and a load of supplies.

To say that the arrival of the two boats was inauspicious would be an understatement. A fine combination of treacherous reefs, severe storms and human cock up led to both the Paremlia and the Sulphur to strike rocks as they entered Coburn Sound. After almost four months at sea, the settlers were obliged to spend another two and a bit weeks marooned first off the tiny Carnac Island, and then Garden Island. Mainland so tantalizingly near, yet out of reach.

Finally, finally they made it to the coast. And THIS is when my imagination takes hold. We have so little record of the settlers’ early days. Alas, no daily selfie pictures, no Facebook updates of the meals they ate, outfits chosen, discoveries made. Only endless questions.

What were they all feeling, as their feet touched the beach? To be in this strange land, removed as far from home as they could possibly be? They were such a small number, in such a vast place! Did they celebrate, sing, shake hands with each other? Or did they sink to their knees and say a prayer, then look despondently around them and cry as the reality of isolation and the scale of the task ahead took hold?

The ships arrived at the very start of winter, a time of frequent rains and storms, of blustery winds blowing straight from the Antarctic. Some days would have brought cheerful, warming sun, but on those same days, when nights were clear and the warm blanket of clouds disappeared, temperatures dropped and an icy chill would have set in, going  straight to the bones. Oh, to have to spend that first winter, under makeshift shelter!

Real people, each with their own dreams and talents. What did the bricklayer, William Hoking, think as he ran the sandy soil through his fingers? Did he note the cliffs and start building limestone homes in his head, or was he urgently making plans to go in search of more familiar clay? Did he seek out Joseph Hoyton, the carpenter, and compare thoughts about the scattered eucalypts and the strange, short palm like plants that we know today as balga trees? How did William’s wife, Mary, cope, with her six children all scrambling to be fed, clothed, educated?

Others came with families, too. Kiddies of all ages. Did these children squeal with excitement as they finally stood on solid ground? Did they go off to collect drift wood, and build cubby houses in which they could sleep in later? Did they wonder off too far, and come across strange other children, little people who stared at them curiously with dark black eyes? Were they like kids today, somehow overcoming language barriers and quickly starting a happy game of hide and seek before both sets of parents, black and white, called them off in fear?

What about young Ellen Striling, being as she was the wife of the colony’s alpha male, James Stirling? She stepped aboard the Parmelia heavily pregnant and gave birth somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Also on board, travelling with a two month old baby, was Jane Daly, the wife of a mere surgeon’s assistant. Did Ellen and Jane bond over the shared experience of new motherhood in harsh conditions? Or did they maintain the old class conventions that might otherwise have kept them apart? Poor Jane certainly would have needed friendship – she lost both her husband and eldest daughter to the seas near Cape Town, and arrived on the banks of Western Australia alone and with four children under seven. What then? What happened to her next?

So many stories, so many triumphs and tragedies that followed. Out of them sprung a fledgling colony, a port, a bustling city. Oh, to be a fly on the (non-existent) wall, and watch and listen to it all that first day, that first evening…

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