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No.1 Sid & the drought

This short article together with its associated quiz was first published in The White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.320 of 26th June 2009

Things were looking grim. Sid and his partner had taken some chances in their time, but now was crunch time. They were sitting on the parched land in outback South Australia with no chance of rain and practically no chance of paying back the banks. Couldn’t complain though. Sid thought of one of the drovers he employed from up north. He’d have said “can’t complain but.” Sid had always been a good judge of horseflesh – and cattle – and men, Women were still a bit of a mystery, but Sid could sum up a horse or a steer or a dog or a man pretty quickly and his judgement nearly always turned out right.

As a young teenager he had worked hard. Hard enough to buy a one-eyed horse and stash away a few shillings then sneak off in the middle of the night to try his luck by himself. He got by doing this and that but before long found himself sleeping rough with Billy, a young Aborigine, by the side of a river. He learnt a lot from Billy and from that time he never ventured seriously into the outback without some local Aboriginal companionship. He learnt long before many other Europeans that Australia didn’t have regular seasons but long cycles, sometimes very long cycles, of climate conditions that you had to learn to live with. Sid earned enough to buy a bullock team – the equivalent of owning your own semi-trailer – and used them to cart goods from where they were plentiful to where they were needed. Arbitrage. You can make a good living from arbitrage, but Sid reckoned if you could also add value along the way then everyone would be better off.

Cattle. He knew cattle. Buy the best cattle from where it is plentiful and cheap, move it across country and fatten it up then sell it at a premium where it is scarce – places like the goldfields. Driving stock across the outback is no simple matter. You need to follow the water and that wasn’t always where it was last year. You’re heading south but the thunder and the storm clouds are out west. Head west cos that’s where the water will be the next day. Billy had taught him well. It mightn’t be the most direct or fastest route but man and beast can arrive in much better nick that way. In the end Sid was able to buy cattle up north, follow the water, spell them north of Adelaide on good grass then bring them into market at a premium. He had not only bought cheap and sold dear – he had added value on the way.

He hired men – you can tell a good man just like a good bullock – and trusted them to follow his general directions and their instincts to get the cattle down south. If the going got tough, they could sell off a few head here and there to keep things going, but he never questioned that - that was their business. You can trust a good man.

Sid had a grand plan to buy enough property along the various inland creeks and rivers whereby he could provide a drought-proof path for stock across the inland. If the rains weren’t coming in one area, he could divert in another direction. Things had worked well for a number of years but there had been a number of major setbacks. Sitting in the outback and realising his risk taking had almost certainly over-exceeded itself Sid could still look back on a remarkable journey. In the distance he could hear the crack of a stockwhip and the bark of a cattle dog. At least one lucky blighter still had a few head out there. As the mob came over the hill Sid could see they were not the straggly bunch he expected but a large well-feed batch that would fetch a pretty penny in Adelaide.

The stockman rode up. “Sorry it took so long. The rains kept moving around, but we got em here in good nick.” Sid recognised the stockman he’d hired up north nearly 18 months ago and had completely forgotten about. Sid surveyed the herd. “You did good son,” “Yeah, not too bad.” That completed the performance review. The stockman (whose name we still do not know) had no performance bonus as part of his package but like many others was motivated by a quiet personal pride in his job and professional recognition from someone he respected. He would probably never have made it as a financial adviser onselling subprime loans but Sid, with his enterprise back on track, you can be sure made sure that his stockman was well looked after.

There have no doubt been many significant low-key moments in the outback. This is one that we happen to know about.

The White Hat Quiz

  1. What was Sid’s surname?
  2. What was the name of his one-eyed horse? (If you’ve been paying attention you will find it in a recent quiz.)
  3. Sid sold 10 head of cattle to purchase a share in a fledgling mining company. Which company?
  4. Sid was later to become Sir Sid, but before that he sold off a major property on the Victoria River to a pom and by the mid 20th century this property was owned by a lord. Lord who?
  5. A quiet Aboriginal stockman working for this Lord’s company became unhappy with the way his people were treated and organised a walkoff. What was this stockman’s name?
  6. An Australian prime minister symbolically poured dirt into this stockman’s hands. What was that prime minister’s name?
  7. An Australian performer wrote a song inspired by that stockman. What is the name of the singer/songwriter(s) and the song?
  8. Is there any point in bothering with Australian history? After all we live in a globalised world.

No.2 - The Last First Contact

This short article together with its associated quiz was first published in The White Hat Melbourne Newsletter - Edition 697 of 16th August 2103

In 1984 the small outpost of Kiwirrkurra in the Western Desert might have been considered by many as one of the last outposts of the habitable world. But that all depends on what direction you were coming from. You see, it was in 1984 that there had been a chance encounter in the desert with some Pintupi people who were still living a traditional nomadic lifestyle and had never encountered a whitefella. Thus it was that in October 1984 nine proud, intelligent, near-naked people whose ancestry stretched back over 40,000 years in the country and whose traditional skills allowed them to survive in one of the most inhospitable terrains on earth made their first contact with a European culture that had been through the copper age, the bronze age, the iron age, the industrial revolution, had put a man on the moon, created the internet (and in a few years’ time would create the world wide web) but would have no hope of surviving alone in the environment past the asphalt. How you view Kiwirrkurra depends on which direction you’re coming from.

However, something even more remarkable was to follow. Several of the Pintupi Nine (as they became known) were to come across the acrylic paintings that built on the dot patterns they were used to creating by poking fingers in the sand in order to convey a particular way of understanding their country. Before long, Tom and Walala in particular had developed particular styles of painting that had caught the eye of the international art scene. The two boys who had come in from the desert were now in demand in Paris, not because of their background but because they were producing art that was ‘new’. You can see a photo of Tom and Walala wandering through their country after the rains five years after they ‘came in’ below.

Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists

Details of the wonderful book can be found  at Lives of the Papunya Tula Artists where it can be bought online.

Tom and Walala still paint in Alice Springs, usually sitting next to each other on the ground while painting part of their country from memory in their individual styles.

They may well share a laugh about when their extended family first made contact in the desert. A group from whitefella settlement had set out to find them. Having waited at one of the waterholes until sunset they concealed the only whitefella under a blanket. When Tom, Walala and the rest returned they were alarmed to find to find long distant relatives there, but the biggest surprise came when they pulled the blanket off to reveal the first whitefella they had ever seen. “He was as as white as the clouds at sunrise. We thought he was a ghost. It scared the xxxx out of us” they said in Pintupi. It shows that after more than 40,000 years of separate development some elements of language remain the same and that blackfella and whitefella humour in Australia seem to share the common element of being prepared to laugh at yourself.

more to come in future newsletters . . .

You can find a comprehensive guide to markets around Australia at The White Hat Guide to Markets in Australia.