Saturday, July 02, 2011

Saturday morning musings - the outback

A story in the Australian, Even on the Big Run, the cattle ban hurts, provides an insight into the effects of the cattle ban on one Northern Territory property, Victoria River Downs or the big run.

Victoria River Downs. Now that's a name to toy with. A 9,000 square kilometre property in the Northern Territory, larger than many countries.

Growing up in Australia, the term outback refered to land beyond the normally settled areas, essentially arid, semi-arid and tropical Australia. In NSW, the term back of Bourke was used. Another term was beyond the black stump.

The geographic coverage of "outback" has varied with time.

According to the Wikipedia article on outback, the concept of 'back' country, which initially meant land beyond the settled regions, was in existence in 1800. The term "outback" was first used in print in 1869, when the writer clearly meant west of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. Between those dates, the back country or outback line moved north, south and west as European settlement expanded. This process was to continue. 

The outback exercised a powerful fascination on the Australian imagination, featuring in yarns, films, poetry, writing, Fortunes were made from mining and pastoral activities, but for every success there were many heartbreaks.

Victoria River Downs occupied a particular place in the composite image of the outback inscribed on the Australian imagination because of its sheer size. It may not have been a very profitable property, but fancy owning the equivalent of a small country!

At school, the outback was very present. Many of the borders there and at our sister girls' school came from outback Queensland. Many of the local country kids came from families such as the Wrights that owned or had owned chains of properties. The pastoral expansion was part of living memory.  

The world changes. One indicator of this has been the expansion in coverage of the term outback. Modern Australia has turned to the coast, looking out to the sea. As the links between the big cities and the inland became more attenuated, the outback line moved east past Wagga Wagga until today some Sydney kids think that the outback begins at the Blue Mountains, exactly the same point at which the back country began in 1800!

Just a muse, but there are some elements here that I want to follow up later on.

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