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Australia's Vast Outback: Distance Is the Common Bond

May 10, 1987|SID MOODY | Associated Press

TAMBO, Australia — In this uncommon land where swans are black, trees shed bark instead of leaves and it has rained fish, the common denominator is distance.

Eye-stretching, boot-scraping, camel-trekking, jet-spanning, habit-forming, isolation-producing, economics-determining, politics-shaping, culture-defining distance.

"G'day, Miss Alix," says a second-grader to his teacher. Miss Alix is 346 miles away in a radio booth.

An aborigine is speared in a tribal dispute. Les Bushell of the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Alice Springs sends a medical plane on a 250-mile flight to treat him.

1,900 Miles to Darwin

A trucker towing two big trailers has been on the road for 30 hours, straight from Brisbane to the next meaningful city to the west, Darwin. He isn't there yet. It's 1,900 miles.

In January, two youths in a mandatory four-wheel drive trucklet set off from the Kimberleys in the northwest to cross three deserts to Melbourne, 1,700 miles away. Neither they nor their vehicle have been seen since.

Some people on Outback cattle stations have never seen a traffic light or the oceans that ring this island continent.

A Long Driveway

Greig and Eve Francis drive hundreds of miles daily out of Tambo in central Queensland, he delivering fuel, she the mail. Greig Francis used to be a head stockman on a cattle ranch--a "property"--of 5,500 square miles, somewhat smaller than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The road into the main spread equals the distance from New York to Philadelphia.

There is a property in South Australia of 15,000 square miles, the size of Switzerland. It used to be 17,000 square miles--1 1/2 Belgiums, before two Luxembourgs were sold off.

John and Alexander Forrest left the west coast of Australia in 1874 to follow their aborigine guides gingerly from water hole to water hole. The 1,800-mile trek took six months.

In 1880, Nat Buchanan became justly famous for driving 20,000 head of cattle to Darwin from the Outback. The trip covered 2,000 miles.

Sparse Population

Much of what Australia is, and isn't, is a result of distance. In an area the size of the 48 contiguous United States, there are only 16 million people, six states, the Canberra capital district and Darwin's northern territory. The states used to charge import duties on each other's products. Years ago they laid rails of different widths because no one thought there would ever be a need for a national railroad. In February, the last stretch of the 1,600-mile highway from Adelaide on the south coast to Darwin was paved.

Distance brought the white man to Australia in 1788. London, 11,000 miles away, wanted a far penal colony to dump hard-core convicts, and a Pacific base against European rivals.

Colonization began in Sydney and spread along the southeast coast in widely separated port sites--Brisbane, Melbourne, Hobart and Adelaide, the only one founded by free settlers. Eighty percent of Australians live in this coastal strip, shaped like a beer drinker's working arm.

The concentration is partly the result of distance. The authorities did not want their convict charges seeking freedom in the Outback, which was, and remains, thinly settled.

Wool Factory

Distance helped make Australia the wool factory that it is. Bullock-carted wheat could not pay the economic freight to reach a world market. It was too bulky. But wool could.

Britain set land prices inordinately high for new immigrants in the 19th Century, further dictating coastal cluster. Immigrants paid 80 times what new Americans paid for land after the U.S. Homestead Act of 1862.

Many of the immigrants were English urbanites. The loneliness of the bush daunted them. It still does. They stuck to the coast.

Repeated gold strikes opened up widely scattered parts of the Outback. Railroads fingered out from coastal hubs. But they didn't connect the coastal cities. No one thought there was a need to connect the far-flung ports. There was no national railroad of common width until 1960.

Convict Forefathers

Eighty percent of Australians descend from the 160,000 founding convicts--once a matter for shame, now of pride--or free immigrants from Ireland and the British Isles. With subtle differences, they speak the same tongue.

There are descendants of Afghan camel drivers from frontier days, Italian and Portuguese fishermen, Chinese coolies of the gold rushes, World War II displaced persons. But this is not yet a melting pot of the American type. Distance made it far easier and cheaper to reach America than Australia. Northern Australia once wanted to import Asian labor. The distant south said no and had the votes. So Australia stayed white and was distant enough to largely remain so.

Aussies call Western Australians "sand gropers," South Australians "crow eaters," Queenslanders "banana benders." But they share an intense nationalism, heightened perhaps by their isolation from the mainstreams of their Western origins. Some call this "cultural cringe," an overcompensated sense of inferiority.

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