With photographs by Gary Hansen and Mark Lang
"'Outback Australia' proclaim number plates on vehicles in the Northern Territory and as Thomas Keneally says: given the aggressive stickers which decorate the trucks ('Eat More Beef, You Bastards!'), the patina of ochre dust which covers them, the dents, the emergency canisters of water on the roof racks - one is not inclined to argue.
"Outback is the heart of Australia, the hinterland, beyond the cities and as foreign to most Australians as it is to Europeans or Americans. It is a vast area with Darwin its capital, sparsely inhabited, much of it desert but by no means empty.
"In vivid character-sketches and anecdotes Thomas Kencally who has known and loved the outback all his life evokes a strange, harsh world where seemingly to compete with the climate and landscape everydiing and everybody is larger than life.
"Above all the outback is a magic place. Only the Aboriginals can not be said to be immigrants, having occupied central Australia for more than forty diousand years. Their spiritual life is enriched by their mythology of 'the Dreaming'. For them, central Australia is a complex network of tracks - Dreaming trails - leading to sites of enormous sacred significance. The greatest is the Rock or as the non-Aboriginal Australians call it Ayers Rock.
"Even for white Australians Ayers Rock exerts an influence sometimes for evil as seems to have been the case for the Chamberlains whose baby was recently killed near there and whose story made headlines round the world.
"For the non-Aboriginal the outback can be a place of madness and violence. Women are few and murders occur fourteen times more frequently than elsewhere in Australia. Floods and cyclones alternate with terrifying heat but white Australians can and do find solace there. Women like Tookie Gill and Mrs Jeanie Gunn - alone perhaps for six weeks at a stretch - find something to hold them there if only the extraordinary dawns of the Northern Territory."
Outback is of course an Australian word meaning back country. There is an implication of remoteness and sparse population, and remoteness and scarcity of people are at least an element in this book. There is also, behind the word, an implication that very little in the human sense happens there, and that what does happen can be slow and undramatic. This book sets itself to show that nothing could be less true. It is as if in the immeiisity of outback Australia people's temperaments expand like yeast to occupy and give point to the immensities of space. It is hoped therefore that in these pages you will visit an enchanting and unknown country whose customs, secrets, ironies and landscapes you could riot previously have guessed at.
To return to the term outback: it can be applied to many regions of Australia, but the region which in the imaginations of most Australians is outback par excellence is the Northern Territory, and this book deals mainly with the Territory and its neighbouring areas. Among other objectives, it attempts to link the history of that astounding country to the people who live there now. It does not try to give an exhaustive chronology either of the European occupation of the Territory or of the venerable millennia of the Aboriginal Dreaming, but it looks at the frontier which still exists in the Northern Territory, at the men and women - often of a nineteenth-century-style character, certainty and toughness - who live their extraordinary lives there. This account also attempts to enter that tribal cosmos of the Aboriginals, that other Australia of the Aboriginal mind, so different from the Australia of the European as to be another continent, another planet. It tries to examine in graphic terms the points at which the two world-views - white and black - depart from each other or collide.
May the reader be diverted in this strange landscape, among the exotic people of the Territory, in the company of the sorcerers, cattlemen, uranium miners, survivors, and singers of unexpected songs.
From the Hodder and Stoughton hardback edition, 1983.
This page and its contents are copyright © 2001 by Perry Middlemiss, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.Return to Thomas Keneally page.
Last modified: November 26, 2001.