- 23 Dec 2013
- The Australian
- NICOLAS ROTHWELL
A FARM BY ANY OTHER NAME
Nostalgia and links with the exotic were often tropes of frontier nomenclature
Many an early pastoralist wished to remind himself of a more distant idea of home or heritage
AUVERGNE, Legune, Walhallow, Coolibah — the names fill the yawning spaces on the map of north Australia, roll sonorously off the tongue. But where did they come from? Who named the great pastoral stations of the inland and the savanna, and when, and why?
Like much in the brief Western history of the far outback, the claiming of the landscape by incomers is murky and misremembered, half-forgotten and half-reinvented — a record of dreams and dramas, with gruff pioneers and wild-eyed chancers to the fore. The country itself is ills-upplied with striking features.
Drive the long straight highway from Katherine westwards, through Timber Creek to Kununurra — a lonely journey at this time of year, across wide, unvarying scrub and dull tablelands — until the blood-red ranges of the Victoria River district show.
There’s the bridge, at last, a landmark, close up ahead: the new army bridge leading to old Bradshaw’s Run, named for the cunning Joseph Bradshaw. A speculator, con man and fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, he settled much of the least fertile land in the northern tropics, presided over a black war in the remote Top End and died from a gangrenous wound in his foot in 1916.
His brother Frederick had predeceased him, axed to death by vengeful Aborigines; his bones lie in a coffin made from beer cases on a peak that marks the station’s highest point.
Not far down the track, in lush pasture, is the Amanbidji Aboriginal community, picked out in the early 1890s by keen-eyed cattlemen Tom Kilfoyle and Michael Patrick Durack. They were on the long ride from the East Kimberley to the Pine Creek butcher’s shop when they saw the country: they called it Kildurk, a simple name, economical, a contraction of their two names into one.
And what’s this side track, up ahead? Humbert River station. A Nabokovian note — can Lolita Plains be far off?
‘‘Well, I don’t think I ever knew exactly why it was called Humbert River,’’ muses Roger ‘‘Stainless’’ Steele, the former Speaker of the Northern Territory parliament, whose life was shaped by his early experiences as a stockman on the stations of the north.
‘‘I spent years there and I’ve never delved into that. Only in your older age do you start to wonder. I’m lucky I know what I know.’’
But close study of the records provides, in this case at least, a definitive answer: explorer Alexander Forrest, who took his responsibilities as a cartographic trailblazer quite seriously, chose the name in honour of the newly crowned King Umberto I of Italy, during his passage through in 1879.
Foreign leaders appeal for varying reasons: but perhaps Stalingrad, the first choice of name for the station set up on the road to Uluru by well-sinker Merv Andrew and his left-leaning father, would have been a touch imprudent in 1937. They opted instead for Curtin Springs and painted up their choice on the side of the station ute.
Associations with the exotic and the faraway; nostalgic reminiscence: these were the standard tropes of frontier nomenclature, and the habit was maintained all through the years of pastoral expansion in the deep bush landscapes of the centre and the north.
You can take the back tracks and the narrow beef roads through the empty reaches of the Territory or far north Queensland and still see signposts festooned with names such as Argyle and Newry and Connemara, and i magine yourself in the Scottish highlands or on the shores of Galway Bay.
There are still whole northern districts named for the settled regions of the south: there’s a Maitland in the Pilbara, and a Ringwood in the red centre, and a Mount Ringwood for good measure in the north as well. Many an early pastoralist wished to remind himself of a more distant idea of home or heritage.
Ord River Station stands today in austere and silent country, where the desert and the tropics meet. For years it was contested terrain: even the toilet block was fortified against Aboriginal attack. When the homestead was first built, it bore the tranquil name of Plympton St Mary’s, at the request of ‘‘Smelter Bill’’ Osmand, a senior partner in the droving operation that opened up the region. His family could trace their line far back down the generations, to the Plympton parish of rural Devonshire: the name lacked a local fit, to put it mildly. It failed to stick.
Often enough, the immediate topography provided a more vivid stab of inspiration: thus Wave Hill homestead, scene of the famous walk-off by Aboriginal stockmen, stands close by a scalloped, curve-flanked hill; neighbouring Riveren is on the headwaters of the Victoria River. Rocklands Station near Camooweal is rocky, and Morestone next door even worse.
There were also some early traces and records of Western precursors in the landscape that could be pressed into use and help to stamp a pattern on the void. When the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt was pushing through the floodplain country south of the Gulf of Carpentaria, in September 1845, his party shot seven emus by a riverbank; his expedition journal records the incident in gory detail. Seven Emu Station stands near that point today, and various other Leichhardt stations dot the Territory and north Queensland maps.
But the most active name-giver among the first explorers was Ernest Giles, a man of wild imaginings and classical education who sprinkled the desert map with highly coloured features. Mount Unapproachable is his, as are the Tarn of Auber, Glen Fairy and the Vale of Tempe, which i n due course became Tempe Downs, an old pastoral block that lies hard by the federal government’s ill-fated Henbury Station carbon-farming pilot scheme.
Giles had a close rival in the classicising stakes: Thomas Mitchell, the ‘‘civilised surveyor’’, who brooked no insurbordination from his underlings, and liked to ride out in front alone on his expeditions and surrender himself to deep reverie. What was the bush landscape but a mirror of man’s mind, an echo of the old, European sublime?
Mitchell’s transit through the central Queensland sandstone brought the painters he had loved and studied to the forefront of his thoughts: today’s Carnarvon National Park bears sections named by him for landscape masters Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorrain. His wildest contrivance, though, came in the fringe country just beyond Carnarvon Gorge, which he named for his favourite Latin poet Virgil of Mantua: Mantuan Downs Station stands on the park’s northwestern border to this day.
Literature: there wasn’t much of it in early 19th-century Australia, when the backlands were being opened up and reading tastes were fairly predictable. A good number of stations in remote Queensland and the north bear names that refer to the most popular writer of the age, the endlessly prolific Walter Scott.
There’s a Waverley, for his novel cycle; a Lammermoor, just south of Hughenden, in tribute to his drama-studded masterpiece; even an Annandale or two after his ancestral home.
The early 19th-century orientalist bodice-ripper Lalla Rookh lent its heroine’s name to a couple of far-northern pastoral runs. Indeed, star-crossed lovers were a constant inspiration, and one can trace the progress of pastoral settlement by the romantic names on the map.
Thus Elvira Madigan, a beautiful Danish tightrope walker whose death pact with her married beau made world headlines in the 1890s, lives on in the Kimberley, which was being settled at the time: Old Elvire Station stands just south of Halls Creek, and a well-known Gija artist has Madigan, borrowed from the next-door homestead, as her Christian name today.
New times brought new fashions; and new artistic genres stand behind today’s new station names. When the Tapp family’s Territory cattle empire was being downsized a decade or so ago, and their Roper Valley Station was divided into three, two sections received straightforward toponyms: Big River and Flying Fox. What to do about the third?
The family’s hyper-intellectual matriarch, June Tapp, had yet to begin her intense Kafka phase — otherwise, the consequences could have been intriguing: Metamorphosis Downs? The Penal Colony?
But the decision fell to her son William, who had enthusiasms of his own: the third block was registered as Lonesome Dove, in honour of the TV mini-series and the Garth Brooks country song — and there it is, in black and white on the pastoral maps, and whenever the ignition key turns in the station’s four-wheel-drive, the same sad sweet tune starts up: ‘‘She was a girl on a wagon train, headed west across the plains.’’
A rather different pattern has become entrenched in the arid zone, farther south: many of the largest rangeland properties around Alice Springs have recognisably Aboriginal names, whether because the first cattle ventures were manned by indigenous stockmen or because the pioneer drovers found little in the dunefields and the claypans they could map on to their own experience.
Idracowra, Andado, Ambalindum — these are vague transcriptions of desert language prototypes. Erldunda on the Lasseter Highway junction is a version of the Arandic wandanda, which has a lovely meaning: ‘‘pale, early morning light’’.
Kulgera Station, down the road, almost on the South Australian border, is another name familiar to touring motorists: a police post, fuel stop and roadhouse cluster there. But few travellers can be aware of the word’s true resonance: in the Pertam language of the mountains, kalgka refers to a particularly private recess of a private part of the female anatomy: Aborigines from the country give wry, knowing glances at the turnoff signpost as they cruise past on their way into town.
Names: memories, claims, hopes, a glitter of loves and longings, all marooned on the map: their associations drift and fade in time’s flow, they lose what they were, they become one with the country they were meant to mark.
Who cares, now, that Portland Downs in central Queensland was set up by nephews of the Duke of Portland? Who knows that Wrotham Park Station in lower Cape York bears the Palladian estate name of the British admiral John Byng, court-martialled and shot for dereliction of his duties more than two centuries ago?
The records keep the tale — in most cases. But already there are names across the outback that have been lost or are far over the horizon line towards oblivion. They blur before our eyes and mere archival knowledge seems only to kill them more.
Which fierce wit took up Mount Satirist Station i n the Pilbara, and with what spur in their thoughts? The custodians of the region’s history cannot say: the name seems gone, perhaps forever, like the million vanished Aboriginal names that once covered the continent.
We love to view ourselves as allmastering, as rulers of the landscape, kings and queens as far as our eyes can see.
But the past was there before us, and the future will supplant us. All we have is an instinct, that goads and shapes us; we are waves bound for the shore, caught up by our need to name, to fix, and so mark our sheer impermanence.