The Rabbit-Proof Fence is Australia’s equivalent of the Great Wall of China. Traversing the vast dusty plains of Western Australia from the southern ocean at Starvation Boat Harbour to Eighty Mile Beach north of Port Hedland, it cuts the continent in two. I have only seen fragments of the Fence in photographs, and yet in my mind it unravels in its entirety. I see it with a birds-eye view; kilometre after kilometre – more than 1800 all told – of wire mesh, dotted with fence posts, snaking the length of one of the world’s most arid and ancient landmasses. Invariably, the fence that I conjure travels across a landscape of enhanced colour – earth the richest red, sky the brightest blue – but of hazy definition, obscured by the ripple of heatwaves... but this is the imagination at work.
The Fence lies hundreds of kilometres from the majority of Australians (who live perched on the eastern coast, my family among them) and is a million miles from their thoughts. It made its way into my consciousness, here in London, as the backbone to an extraordinary story recounted by my mother in one of our many long-distance telephone conversations. This story came from Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence, a book which describes an epic journey made by three girls along the length of the Fence in 1931.
Under a policy of assimilation which sought to ‘breed out’ Aboriginality by absorbing mixed-race children into white society, three girls, Molly, Gracie and Daisy, were forcibly removed from their families in Jigalong, a maintenance depot for the Fence, and taken hundreds of miles away, to Moore River Native Settlement near Perth. The eldest, Molly, decided they would escape and walk back home. She had been told that the Fence stretched right across the country and figured that they could walk east until they hit the Fence and then north, along it, back to Jigalong. Which is just what they did; avoiding police, trackers and spotter aircraft along the way. They were 14, 11 and 8 at the time, and it took them more than two months.
Without the Fence the girls might not have found their way home. Their journey moved and amazed me, but the Fence posed more questions. What was it doing there? So bold in its size and yet so banal in its ‘fence-ness’. So ambitious in its reach but so unrenowned. Was it a great feat or a great folly? Either way, I was struck by its existence, and sufficiently intrigued to forage for answers.
Before the Fence, there were the rabbits. As its name suggests, the beginnings of the Fence are intimately linked to the introduction of the rabbit to Australia – which, in turn, was part of a colonial attempt to make a strange new land familiar. Early European settlers brought their animals with them; sheep and cattle to farm, foxes and rabbits to hunt. In the 19th century, hunting was a fashionable recreation ‘back home’, and settlers were keen to replicate it. Convention required foxes and rabbits. Native creatures were deemed to be inferior to imported game, so kangaroos and emus would not do. Besides, it was vital that a clear distinction be maintained between Aboriginal hunting (perceived by settlers to be a matter of subsistence and a desperate affair) and the Hunt (an élite sporting pursuit).
Despite their presumed superiority, early shipments of domestic rabbits died out. Still, the mores of the time persisted and eventually, in 1859, 24 wild rabbits were ‘successfully’ introduced in Geelong, Victoria, by one Thomas Austin, an English tenant farmer who had made a fortune in Australia and wished to play the part of a sporty squire. With the foothold that Austin had provided, the rabbits did what they do best, and rapidly adapted to their new conditions, their proliferation aided by the efforts of settlers to transform bush into farmland. It was not long before hunters could boast of shooting 1,200 rabbits in three and a half hours. Benefiting from this abundance, a rabbit-canning industry blossomed, and hatters began to use rabbit felt.
While some were profiting from the explosion in the rabbit population, however, others suffered its consequences. The rabbits spread with alarming speed, causing devastating damage to pastures and crops along the way. Australians were witnessing one of the most spectacular wildlife irruptions in modern history. Farmers used poison and traps in an effort to exert some control, and bounties were offered to professional rabbiters. But, despite these efforts, the rabbits continued to flourish in plague proportions. Less than 30 years after their introduction, the Intercolonial Royal Commission offered a £25,000 reward for whoever could come up with an effective method of controlling the Rabbit Menace. To no avail.
In 1901, a Royal Commission addressed The Rabbit Question and, among its conclusions, recommended that a barrier be constructed across the country to divide pastoral land (with its manmade waterholes) from the dry bush lands in the eastern part of the state of Western Australia. Thus the idea of our Fence was born.
The height of the netting above ground averaged 2ft 10in to 3ft and the depth underground 6 to 8 inches except where the ground was sandy and then it was 12 inches below the surface. The netting was one and a quarter inches mesh and dipped in coal tar 18 inches from the bottom selvedge. There was a top wire 12 inches above the wire netting and in the south this was mostly plain wire, but where there was stock a barb wire was used.
Acting on the Royal Commission’s recommendation, the Government of Western Australia appointed A.W. Canning to survey the route for the fence. Canning was known as a meticulous and accurate man with – just the thing for a surveyor – a marvellous sense of direction: ‘They used to say he was made up of whalebone and sinews – he was so thin – but could walk all day, and be just as fresh at night as he was in the morning.’ His task was to ascertain the nature of the land, the availability of timber for fencing, the quality of ground for erecting fence posts and the availability of water and feed for animals along the chosen route. It was a tough job. The region of the survey was outside the settled areas and was a dry and waterless country: ‘In one case Mr Canning himself walked eighty four miles in two days searching for water. The camels at this time went without a drink for twelve days. At the end of his trip he had a walk of about 210 miles over spinifex country carrying water.’ As well as lack of water, Canning faced extremes of temperature (from 0C on wintry nights up to 48C in summer), bright light and flies. It is a harsh environment for those not accustomed to it.
As I try to put myself in Canning’s shoes, adventuring north into the red heart of Australia, I am reminded of Scott of the Antarctic, who, in the very same year, was setting off on his Discovery expedition (1901-4) to the white ice of the south. There is such a stark contrast between their surroundings but such a commonality in their purpose, the two of them embarking upon a solitary battle against the extremes of the earth, crossing uncharted territory to get to a certain point. This was a ‘heroic age’.... but I digress, and these links are tenuous. The last thing on Scott’s mind was the building of a fence.
Once the survey was complete, a wide path was cleared through the bush on either side of the chosen route, depots were built, supplies were delivered and construction began. Water-boring parties were organised to establish watering points while others were organised to find feed for the animals. Holes were sunk in what was often rock hard ground and posts were made of whatever timber was available. Where there was no suitable timber, iron standards were used. Fence dimensions were standardised wherever possible: ‘Posts twelve feet apart; strainers every five chains. Posts, not less than four inches in diameter at the small end, standing four feet above ground level and sunk one foot nine inches below.’
At times more than 400 men and 300 animals (camels, horses and donkeys) were engaged in constructing the Fence. They toiled in a capricious climate of bushfires, droughts, floods and cyclones which, as well as being difficult and uncomfortable to work in, threatened whatever progress had been made. At one point, the Director of Agriculture reported that 70 posts had been destroyed by fire and that, in several places, the netting beneath the ground had badly deteriorated or been eaten right through. On other occasions whole sections of the Fence were found buried by sand drifts.
In 1903, to assist in this battle against the elements, the first boundary riders were appointed to maintain the Fence. As, post after post, it made its way north, they patched up the sections in need of repair. Boundary riders worked the Fence in pairs, patrolling up and down a stretch of more than 200 kilometres. They travelled on bicycles, before camels were found to be a more satisfactory form of transport. Their duties included repairing sections of the fence damaged by fire, flood or termite, removing dead animals and debris caught in the wire and cutting scrub and timber to the required width on both sides; ‘other duties were to keep gates, which were situated roughly every twenty miles along the Fence, in good order... to lay baits of strychnine where dingo tracks were found and to record the rainfall from gauges placed three or four to each man’s length.’
The administrative engine that drove the Fence across the country was substantial. As well as the Minister and Under Secretary, the Rabbit Department had its Chief Inspector, sub-inspectors and foremen, all invested in the success of the Fence. Speed and efficiency were of the essence in their race against the spread of the rabbits. The two sub-inspectors travelled along their respective sections of the Fence, supervising the boundary riders’ work. ‘They issued their instructions mostly per written word, leaving a note on work to be done, and its priority, in one or other of the huts along the way for the boundary rider to pick up.’
By 1904, despite the vigilance of the boundary riders, rabbits had been found west of the incomplete fence and the Government directed that a second fence be erected parallel to the first and 80 miles west of it. The fences became known as No.2 Fence and No.1 Fence respectively. Later still, No.3 Fence was constructed, connecting Fences 1 and 2 before running due east to Bluff Point (see map on page 35). In 1907, the Fence was at last complete and the Chief Rabbit Inspector sang its praises: ‘I went along portions of the R.P. Fence to the north of Burracoppin recently on the outside (east) and there was not a blade of grass to be seen, not even enough to feed a bandicoot. On the west side there was grass from three to six inches high and any amount of old feed.’
But such praise was short-lived. Within its first decade, the Fence was in disrepute and by the end of its second, following wartime shortages in labour and supplies, it was in disrepair. In 1930 the chairman of the Yilgarn Road Board wrote to the Director of Agriculture: ‘This Board is of the opinion that the Rabbit Proof Fence has outlived its usefulness as the rabbits are more numerous inside the Fence than on the outside and would suggest that both the Fence, and the netting particularly be made available to the adjoining settlers.’ And yet for each person who decried its usefulness there was another who considered it a protection. Moves to dismantle the Fence were resisted by those farming to the west of it, who now regarded it as protection from dingoes and emus.
As a barrier against the Rabbit Menace, the Fence was a failure, not only because of the vagaries of the Australian climate but because of the all too human flaws in its design and construction: ‘slanted support posts that allowed rabbits to climb over, carelessness or warped timber that left gaps at gates, loose soil or sloppy work that allowed rabbits to dig under.’ As David Stead, ‘Formerly Special Rabbit Menace Enquiry Commissioner to New South Wales Government’, pointed out in his 1935 publication, The Rabbit in Australia: History, Life Story, Habits, Effect upon Australian Primary Production and Best Means of Extermination, such fences were ‘A GIGANTIC MAKE-BELIEVE’. He was scathing in his condemnation of a similar fence on the Queensland-New South Wales border:
There is one thing outstanding very clearly in the matter... whatever effective work the fence did... it absolutely failed in an effort to prevent the movements of Rabbits from one part of the State to another... From the beginning, it was largely a gigantic make-believe – a danger, too, inasmuch as it, like other large fences, lulled the landholders most concerned, into a false sense of security, which numbed his own endeavours and really assisted the spread of the Rabbit.
Having touched upon the great effort that went into constructing and maintaining what was, in the end, a decidedly un-Rabbit Proof Fence. I’d like to switch from microscope to telescope to make a brief attempt at understanding how it was ever considered to be a reasonable proposition. A glance at the bigger picture will shed light on some of the forces at work behind the realisation of the Fence. Zooming out reminds us that it was built in a time when ideas of progress and evolution had become entangled; social Darwinism, with its stress on inherited and environmental influences, was ‘in the air’. Zoom a little further, prior to the currency of such thoughts, and we are struck by the presumption, on the part of the settlers, that Australia was up for grabs.
The European invaders of Australia found a vast, empty and unused land and justified their terra nullius claim accordingly. They observed that Aborigines had failed to invent agriculture or farming and believed that, as part of a natural process, they would vanish in the face of white civilisation. We now know that people have lived in Australia for at least 60,000 years and that during that time the land was actively and extensively managed. In viewing the land as untouched and unmodified European settlers overlooked the evidence of Aboriginal firestick farming, their domestication of plants and their impact on animals.
The Fence is redolent of a European concept of ownership – laying out a boundary, marking one’s territory, pegging out a corner, staking a claim – a physical means of asserting title to a piece of land. So very different from an Aboriginal concept of ownership, which is more about having the right to be on the land, the right to understand and to know the stories that are associated with the land and the right to speak for the land. The fences that are influential in Aboriginal communities are social and cultural; made manifest in rules of marriage, social obligations and sacred sites. The Fence would have made little sense to those Aborigines that encountered it. As they could have explained, had they been asked, fire is one of the most important forces at work in the Australian environment, and wooden fence posts were liable to be short-lived.
In 1900, a year before the Fence had been imagined, Australians of European descent enjoyed one of the highest spandards of living in the world. The Western culture in which they had their roots was going from strength to strength. While the Fence methodically snaked its way across country, post after post after post, the Wright brothers flew their first flight and the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed. It was a time of progress, a time of high hopes. Everything seemed possible, in Australia too. Riding this wave of optimism, with naïve faith in the inexhaustible resources of their vast new continent, settlers were eager to shape the land to their advantage.
In the early decades of the 20th century, popular ideas about the wealth that might be extracted from Australia were extraordinary. One of the most influential books written on these matters was Edwin Brady’s Australia Unlimited (1918). Brady thought that the absence of flowing rivers in Central Australia had led to the development of a ‘desert myth’: ‘[T]he lack or rivers was in fact a great boon, for nature had providently stored all of its water underground. There it was hoarded, just waiting for the wells of pastoralists to transform the mythical desert into a land of milk and honey, “destined one day to pulse with life”.’ In his summing-up of virtually every region of Australia, he states that it is ‘the best agricultural land in the world’, ‘the best grazing land in the world’ or some other ‘best in the world’.
The dream of remaking the land was a recurrent theme of settlement. And, in a time when sunshine and sheep pervaded the literary and artistic representations of Australia , the Fence seemed an apt response to the Rabbit Menace. Settlers had no doubts about the virtues of agricultural life and, along with livestock, fences were part and parcel of that idyll – a key prop in the making of a ‘new England’.
But things were not quite so straightforward. Running alongside this utopian perception of Australia’s potential was a more unsettling experience; a sense of alienation from an unfamiliar landscape. D.H. Lawrence addressed this sentiment in Kangaroo (1923): ‘The strange, as it were, invisible beauty of Australia, which is undeniably there, but which seems to lurk just beyond the range of our white vision. You feel you can’t see – as if your eyes hadn’t the vision in them to correspond with the outside landscape. For the landscape is so unimpressive, like a face with little or no features, a dark face. It is so aboriginal, out of our ken, and it hangs back so aloof.’ At heart, settlers did not understand this alien land. Many were afraid of it; haunted by the possibility that it was holding them back. In the wake of On the Origin of Species, social Darwinism encouraged fears that Australia was a degenerative environment: ‘what had this land done to the savage... what role was it playing in the scheme of Creation; how could it be settled and what would it do to the settlers?’ In the eyes of the settler, Aborigines had been stranded in time because of an insufficiently stimulating environment; to avoid a similar fate, they were determined to make the land anew. In this sense, the Fence is emblematic of attempts to overcome and control the land; it is the fossil of a response to an unfamiliar landscape; a pastoral footprint on a land not easily tamed. While it was built in a time of unbounded optimism, it was driven by a whisper of fear. Creating a boundary gave people a sense of security, if nothing else.
With hindsight, the Fence was an inappropriate and misguided response to the Rabbit Menace; and yet, without it, we would not have had Molly, Gracie and Daisy (it was while working on the Fence that their fathers met their mothers) or their remarkable story. Molly and Daisy are still alive and living in Jigalong, now 84 and 78; Gracie, who was caught and taken back to Moore River Native Settlement, died in 1983. My mother, inspired by their story, turned her hand to screenwriting and her film, Rabbit Proof Fence, will be released in Australia later this year.
Over the years the Fence’s wooden posts have been replaced by steel posts but, all in all, the structure is pretty much as it was when first erected. Redundant patches have been removed, leaving 1170 kilometres to be maintained. Now known as the Emu Fence or the State Barrier Fence, its main purpose has shifted from stopping rabbits to stopping emus which, at the onset of drought in the north east, migrate across the country in hordes. Today’s boundary rider has a more comfortable existence than his predecessor, patrolling the Fence in an air-conditioned vehicle equipped with car fridge and satellite phone.
Conflicting perceptions of Australia’s potential and of how best to manage the land persist although today’s debates focus more on people than on rabbits; on the carrying capacity of this ancient continent. Some argue that Australia is already overpopulated and suffering environmental degradation on a daily basis. Others, looking to technological advances to negate these effects, see room for plenty more.
Rabbits are still considered one of Australia’s foremost environmental pests.
Earlier this year Andrea Roe's Dream Rabbits were installed on Sir Henry Wellcome's model floating laboratory at the Wellcome Trust. Designed as fertility charms, the rabbits were cast in silver and photographed escaping the laboratory ship. During a six month artist residency at the Trust, Andrea filmed rabbits in the underground passageways and researched the 18th-century character Mary Toft, who allegedly gave birth to 17 rabbits and was known as The Rabbit Woman of Godalming.
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