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Trading Stories

July 30th, 1876

At this camp was a gin with a broken thigh, but from her condition it was evident she was well looked after by the others. These natives are very timid. The pecherie they affirm to lie N of W. In the evening a venerable old lady favored us with her opinions, devoting at least a couple of hours to the retail of what was evidently not complimentary to whites; and during the night the lot, including the cripple, absconded.

Journal of W.O Hodgkinson (1877)

The most philosophically troubling issue of our incursions in the New World, I think, grows out of our definition of wealth—the methods for its acquisition and our perception of what sorts of riches can actually be owned and transferred. A fresh landscape brings out awe, desire, and apprehension in us. But one like North America, undeveloped, also encourages a vague feeling that we can either augment or waste our lives in such places, depending on what we do. Our colloquy with the original inhabitants, of course, is unfinished. And we are still asking ourselves: what is worth acquiring here?

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

In May, with the wet season just finished over the Top End, day temperatures are rarely scorching and night temperatures settle above freezing. It is a good time of year to travel the Simpson and Strzelecki deserts. We (myself a geographer, desert ecologist Mike Letnic, and archaeologist Huw Barton) had set camp on the bank of Coongie Lakes – a freshwater lake fed by a branch of Cooper Creek, about a third of the way between Innamincka and Birdsville. It was here that one of the cultural threads of the Australian continent, and one of the great trading routes of the world, first came to be recognised by a European. His name was William Oswald Hodgkinson. 

The year was 1876, and Hodgkinson was crossing the Simpson Desert for the second time. Fifteen years earlier he had been second-in-command of the relief expedition sent to find Burke and Wills. That expedition, starving with Victorian pride, had steadfastly refused assistance and advice from the desert people. On 7 May 1861 Burke and Wills and John King, the only surviving members of the party, were close to death. Wills had written in his diary the previous day that the ‘present state of things is not calculated to raise our spirits much…I suppose this will end in our having to live like the blacks for a few months.’ Having desperately searched out the desert tribes, they accepted gifts of fish and nardoocakes.1 They were also given some of the prized desert narcotic called pituri. This was the trade article that Hodgkinson, fifteen years later, would realise was critical to understanding, and navigating, the central deserts. 

King offered this description of the drug: ‘After chewing it for a few minutes I felt quite happy and perfectly indifferent about my position…[it has] much the same effect as might be produced by two pretty stiff nobblers of brandy.’ His comments on the drug are interesting because he lived with the desert people (and was kept alive by them) for two and a half months following the deaths of Burke and Wills, before a search party returned him to Melbourne. 

‘Offering this pitchery pill to a stranger is the greatest expression of amity,’ he explained, ‘however, we did not at first understand and felt rather disgusted than otherwise when they used to press upon our acceptance their nasty-looking balls of chewed grass, as it appeared to be.’

Because of their refusal to engage with the desert people, Burke and Wills remained ignorant of a route that ran the entire length of their intended expedition. Instead, it was Hodgkinson – an altogether more broad-minded character – sitting among some of the same people at Coongie who would have witnessed the death of the earlier explorers, who was to discover the drug trade that stretched across the Australian continent. 

‘The natives’, Hodgkinson wrote in 1876, ‘bring large shells from the north-west, and tell mysterious legends of a place called Peecheringa, the natives of which carry on an extensive commerce in a narcotic they call pecherie.’2

To most people of Hogkinson’s time the word ‘commerce’ would have been an unusual choice to describe a native activity. The engagement with the locals that is apparent in his expression ‘mysterious legends of a place’ would have been alien too. The ‘large shells’ he mentions are baler shells from the Gulf of Carpentaria. Sea shells. What Hodgkinson is describing is an awareness of trade routes that stretched the length of the country. This was commerce on a grand scale. 

It may simply have been a lucky coincidence that his desire to find the drug overlapped with the fact that it was only in following the path of its trade that he would be able to survive the desert. The ethnographer W. Roth, writing in the 1890s (after many had already discovered the importance of the Aboriginal trade routes), made this very point. ‘For future pioneers’, he wrote, ‘a knowledge of Aboriginal lines of travel or trade-routes might prove of great value, since only along them would there be a chance of finding water.’ Undoubtedly Hodgkinson, two decades earlier, had been perceptive enough to realise that ‘the narcotic they call pecherie’ was fundamental to understanding the human landscape of the Simpson. And certainly, from previous expeditions, he knew that it was only with the help of its people that he could hope to cross the desert.

On 11 July 1876 he set out from Coongie station on a search for the narcotic hidden within the sand dunes of the Simpson Desert. One hundred and twenty years later we were on his trail; tracing the words of his journal to find a path to the present, searching the evidence before us for clues to the past: signs of the merchants and owners of country who had engaged in this extensive trade network. Our hope was to record the remaining fragments of a cultural wealth that had once traversed the country, but might already be no more than a place in the minds of people now gone. 

A pool of heat haze hovered atop a gravel road in this new world of ours. We had planned to travel north from Coongie along Hodgkinson’s path, which was in turn the route of the pituri traders, but soon found that the current trails no longer mirrored the old. Semi-trailers don’t need waterholes as the aboriginal traders, the explorers, and the overlanding cattle-drivers once did. So we found ourselves driving out across stone plains known to the locals as gibber, and dipping only occasionally into gullies where dry creek-beds lay and coolibah wept. There was a sense beyond the visible, something more innate and animal, that these were not people places, that the alien lanes of the road spoke as much to the country as the road trains that boomed in straight lines along them. 

In the towns though, built around the timeless logic of water, the old and the new routes meet. In Birdsville, population eighty, we met Linda Crombie, an elder of the Wonkganuru people. We were keen to hear anything about the ancient trade and she accepted our questions with grace. It was not a favourite role for this shy and elderly woman with large oval glasses, but there was a sense of responsibility about her acceptance of us. She was the last of the pituri people, and who else could answer our questions?

‘The pituri was the main tabacca for Aborigine but you don’t get it round here,’ she said. ‘You have to go out past Bedourie there, out into the desert. That’s where you get it.’ Pointing out over the red sandhills to the west. ‘I went out there with my grandparents, we went ryeeee-owwwwt in the desert there looking for pituri.’ And the way she drags the sentence out says everything about how far the walk must have been for a young child. 

Linda is in her eighties now, and the last to speak the language of the southern desert people. The last to know its ancient secrets too, reminding us there were things she couldn’t say, and didn’t trust to be known. Her people – traders in the drug for perhaps thousands of years – had been forced from the desert. ‘It was the eight-years drought and all the cattle had got the water. My parents never saw the desert again, poor old people.’

The cattle stations had been around for decades by the time Linda and family were forced to leave by the droughts of the 1930s, the fragile arid-land ecology already in tatters, and the trade in pituri almost dead. There was a brief re-emergence in the 1940s, Linda told us, when the war limited tobacco supplies and station owners needed a new form of cheap and compelling payment. 

‘Some of the old people went out in the desert and got some pituri and Old Celcie Morton used to buy it. He had the station and he’d buy it and hand it round to people who’d be workin’ for him. That’s how they paid people then. Bread and tabacca or pituri. 

‘But it’s all dead now, it’s all gone. Them that wanted the pituri are all died out now.’

Later she told us the name of a cattle station where pituri still grew, and the names of some people ‘out Bedourie way’ who might be able to help us find it. A century earlier Hodgkinson had been similarly advised by a ‘courteous’ group. They gave him ‘a sample of pecherie [then] accompanied us to the next tribe, which they represent as the occupants of the pecherie country’. In this way we felt some sense of a parallel journey: as foreigners directed onward by locals. But it was a short-lived feeling, and we left Birdsville with the reverberations of Linda’s lament for the pituri people, the people who had been so friendly toward Hodgkinson that he regretted ‘not having brought some articles suitable for presents’.

The contemporary Australian artist and explorer John Wolseley has said that there is a ‘comparable poignancy of excitement’ between early explorers and their modern counterparts. The earlier travellers were moved by being the ‘first to find’, while the latter are moved by the feeling they may be the ‘last to see’; that the industrialising of modern people may destroy the natural wealth of a place entirely.

Perhaps there was an element of this in our journey, but knowing the already devastating impact of cattle, ours was a slightly different case of ‘last to see’. We had Hodgkinson’s journal, hoping to capture a glimpse of that sense of ‘first to find’ from it, and with our own eyes bear witness to the modern legacy of these lands. 

We were lucky to have had the documentary account of such an insightful character. Hodgkinson had been in the marines, perhaps involved in the Eureka Stockade, and later became a journalist for the Melbourne Age, when he met and interviewed Robert O’Hara Burke, whose expedition he later decided to join. It was a catastrophe he survived when Burke dismissed most of his party. Hodgkinson later became a Queensland government minister, a prospector, inventor, and advocate for various humanitarian causes. He craved adventure and knowledge, and was fascinated by Aboriginal culture. This alone set him apart from his contemporaries and the earlier explorers.

But despite this fascination, the desert of the pituri traders was vanishing beneath his feet. It was a landscape shortly to undergo dramatic change; so soon to be conquered by the single-mindedness common at the time that the transition can almost be read in the corners of Hodgkinson’s descriptions. Natural beauty and ecological wealth, so delicately balanced, would mean nothing. Cultural knowledge, even in matters regarding landscape appraisal – immensely valuable to the pioneers – would not be grasped until much later. As the biographer of desert station-owner Robert Collins put it: this would be a place where family fortunes were ‘wrung from the hand of nature alone.’ It was simple. No fortune preexisted their toil. No uncertainty of ownership existed. And everything was theirs to take. 

It was the end for complex ecology. With finite supplies of water and a voracious colonial appetite for new sites of wealth, something in the landscape had to give. Even today the consequences of this appetite are everywhere abundant, giving these dry landscapes the unadorned qualities of a great open-air museum where the past sits, lingers, and interminably settles across its surfaces. These are places where millennia often account for nothing more than a shifting, a slumping, a slow reworking of the crust. A discarded tool, perhaps thousands of years since cleaved from the axe of the stone-cutter, pressed beneath the track of a 4WD vehicle, the bane of desert archaeology. 

A fragment of grinding stone might lie between the straight lines of stock fences, or the twisting poverty of their rabbit counterparts. A derelict homestead is built atop a shell midden. Sand-blasted machinery once used to extract and investigate decays without rusting, while nearby the skulls of extinct bilby and bettong lie amid the bones of a forgotten feast. From the air the eerily square grids of oil and gas survey roads provide testament to the rigour of another kind of mind, while bottles, always remaining the property of long deceased breweries, slowly collect sand. There are cattle carcasses and personal objects too; a broken comb, a tobacco tin. And on the bank of a dry desert river channel, a can of damper mix, its seal still intact and its brand discernible below the steel lid.

It was with all of this in mind that I began to imagine Hodgkinson as one of those lonely figures in history who walk the edge of two forever parting worlds. 

Beyond Birdsville, on the road to Bedourie, are vast plains of gibber. These are no-nonsense places of concentration and survival, which tease every sense; landscapes on such a scale as to leave you tenuous and minute against their immensity. At times, walking away from the road, it is only possible to orient by the sun and the position of the car. Not a stem of grass raises its head above the stones and not a living thing moves amidst the heat shimmer. Devoid of wind, it is the most soundless place imaginable. Later, back in the ABC radio studios, we played a recording of the desert. It was the coldest of sounds, like a white box of nothing.

With the horizon curved forever around, the very edges of the world were visible just beyond the tip of our grasp. At these times we felt breathless with awe. There was no escaping an awareness of being aboard starship earth, a small craft navigating impossibly large heavens.

Earlier explorers, without the benefit of air-conditioned 4WDs for retreat, saw the landscape in more savage terms. The Burke and Wills struggle of 1860 comes readily to mind. So too does that of Captain Charles Sturt. In a scene that must have been truly bizarre, Sturt led a band of men, a flock of sheep, and a boat, deep into the sand-dune country. It was 1845 and he knew nothing of Aboriginal trade routes. Instead, he sought a great inland sea. Deep within the dunes, all he saw was a ‘heartless desert’. Standing on a ridge of sand and casting his eye over the endless red lines stretching away, he cursed the fact that instead of an inland sea he had discovered the gates to hell. It was a journey that would later inspire Mark Twain to write ‘it does not read like history but like the most beautiful of lies.’ 

The desert frontier was fearful and isolated enough, but coupled with the ‘constant dread’ and ‘unrecorded battlefields’ that characterised black and white relations – topics Henry Reynolds has written extensively on –  it must have been truly terrifying. A terror made bearable only by the promise of rich new lands.

It was a promise repaid heavily to those such as the ‘Honorable T. Elder’, whose ‘patriotic liberality’ Hodgkinson noted ‘has contributed so much to the geographical exploration of Australia’. Elder had claimed vast areas of this new country following the reports of J.W. Lewis, the explorer he commissioned. Elder’s patriotism would continue to be rewarded, as would the pioneers of the eastern Simpson Desert, such as John Costello, Oscar de Satge and Robert Collins, men who saw ‘the great possibilities’ of the land which ‘even to this day are undreamt of’. These men saw wealth in stark terms: it was theirs to take.

The casualties of their taking would be enormous. Whole ecological and social structures were destroyed. Roth wrote of the Simpson desert in the 1890s that ‘owing to the opening up of the country with the advent of the Europeans…tribal camps have been shifted…while in a few cases, what with privation, disease, alcohol, and lead [bullets], the whole community has been annihilated’. The fauna of the desert would fare little better. Around twenty species of mammal are now extinct from Australia’s arid zone, leaving just a skeleton of the previous marsupial fauna; and it is unknown to what extent the reptile, bird and insect populations have been reduced, or exactly what impacts have been wrought on desert flora. 

Hodgkinson realised some of the possibilities of this future. After spending considerable time with one particular ‘pacific and cheerful’ desert tribe, marvelling at the grandeur and ‘astonishing size’ of their grave sites, he lamented that ‘the process of European occupations must tend to the usual result, and consign them to the fate of aboriginal tribes in general’.

It was this fate that Manning Clark would later see as being fundamental to the development of a national psyche. He wrote that on seeing the ‘decay and disappearance’ of the original inhabitants of the land ‘in that period before 1850’ the ‘men of good will, the men whose faces were lit up by the love of Christ, and their eyes afire with pride in their own achievement, and perhaps hungry, as all men are, for the something more, became the men with a sorrowful countenance’. 

I wonder how much this relates to what Lopez described so beautifully as our ‘unfinished colloquy’. Whether the pride we hold for our own achievement, our own economic success, has disabled us from coming to terms with the consequences of its accumulation. Whether we see wealth in such singular terms that we cannot ask the question: where has this wealth come from and at what cost? Or receive an answer other than: from our own hard work. And certainly this is a cherished element of the pioneer story. Success and riches against the odds. Whatever the ‘odds’ may be, and whatever the emotional territories that surround them.

The desert today is peopled mostly by workers of desiccated cattle stations, operations that stretch over distances that might encompass whole European countries. Gordon MacDonald’s station was one of these. It was in the low thirties Celsius when we arrived, parking beside a corrugated workshed that looked as gaunt and unambiguous as the country itself, despite its fill of horse-shoes, bridles, saddles, car tyres, and machinery parts. We had a punctured tyre and Chappy – one of three white stationhands to begin working here in the last few years – went to fix it. Gordon and Jimmy lent against the car and pondered the surrounding country. Jimmy was seventy years old, a New Zealander by birth, but a local since before anyone could remember, while Gordon had simply moved over from a neighbouring property a few decades back. We had wanted to ask them about the narcotic, but were soon made to realise that it was a question for more expansive moments. Campfires and the like. So we settled for information about the country ahead.

‘It’s dry country that’s for sure,’ Gordon said. ‘We took our divining rods one time and went down into that country and we didn’t divine a drop of water. Not a drop.’ 

Jimmy merely nodded. 

The sky was blue above and the ground was red sand below, like it was for hundreds of kilometres around. ‘But that’s not to say there’s no water down there, it might be we’re just no good at divining and that’s all. I’d never say I was any genius at divining.’ 

These were the new residents of pituri country. Cattle-men of the desert. Chappy finished re-threading the tyre and wheel rim and walked over to where I stood in the shade between the car and shed. Gordon retreated to the cool of the house. Chappy wanted to know why we’d come out here, and then began to deride me as I explained. ‘What do ya wanna go da-own they-re for?’ he asked as if he hadn’t heard properly. It was the craziest idea he had heard since those boats on legs he remembered from a visit to Sydney. 

‘The hydrofoils?’

‘Is that their crazy bla-uddy name?’

Chappy was in his mid-forties, with deep-set eyes wrinkled into place against the glare of the desert sun. In his manner he let me know he had a certain expertise in hopeless cases. They sought him like crows to carrion. I was merely the latest.

‘You dro-ove all the farken wa-ay from Sidnee cosofa farken bush?’ He had the slow way of talking that people of wide-open spaces tend to have. ‘Yorra farken strange fella you are,’ each word buried in the bosom of the last.

I laughed and turned back to the Land Cruiser, thinking as I walked that soon enough the desert would be peopled by men like Chappy who would think it crazy to look for a plant. Old Jimmy was resting against the driver’s window and talking to Mike. He turned to me as I approached the car, a voice like red sand, gibber stone and glue, only gruffer. A voice made completely in the throat. ‘Thatjoker’, suck on cigarette, letters and smoke tumbling out together: ‘givenyoutrabble?’ 

‘Nah he just thinks I’m a bit strange.’

‘He’sorright,’ suck back, ‘sometimesabitstrangehimself,’ signal smoke, ‘withfellashedon’tknow.’ He had a beautiful way of articulating with his cigarette, a compensation perhaps, for what could no longer be communicated with his tar-shot voice. A plume faded and grew with the varying emphasis of his words: ‘know,’ a thick rasp of smoke, a pause, then a slender train of smoke for full stop. 

Jimmy had lost any trace of a New Zealand accent when his voice had slipped down his throat. We asked him the way to the Gorge.

‘ItsalontimesinceIwasdownthere,’ he rumbled, his fag almost bare on his lip. ‘Musbeoooohhhhateornineyearssnow,’ he concluded, pinching the dead cigarette between yellow thumb and index finger and dropping it to the sand. He rested a foot against the frame of the open door and immediately began rolling another. ‘Itsnothardtofindtho,’ roll, roll, roll, lick. ‘Motorout theTurkeyNestandpassayards,’ cupping his hands around his mouth to protect the new cigarette from the light breeze. Flint click click click, flame, still talking, ‘downcreekandemuboreway.’ Smoke. Smoke. ‘Thenyou’llseeatrack goinout totharange,’ big plume, ‘you’ll,’ puff, ‘seeit.’ He looked straight at me. ‘You’lllike itthere,’ he said. And almost as an afterthought as we started the engine and made to leave: ‘Thatpitcherry’sgoodstufftoo,’ smiling in smoke. 

But we’d soon be back. We had left the spare tyre behind and as dusk began to close, and the sky lit with its familiar fires of sunset, we returned to the station. That night we ate spaghetti bolognese cooked by Mrs MacDonald, Gordon’s wife, and slept beside the brick homestead. The following day, with a meeting arranged for later in the week, a three kilo bag of T-bone steak and a side of corned beef, we were sent out across the dunes they’d leased for thirty years. We felt comfortable enough now that desert voices would tell the story of the narcotic that once defined this section of country, and we relaxed a little, satiated by the knowledge that we weren’t too late.

There had been a few confusing moments in our search for this rare desert plant. A fortnight earlier we had been in Innamincka, another of those outback posts with a skeleton-key street plan. It consisted of a store cum service station, pub, monument and tourist centre. The car park was easily its biggest feature. It was here that we first met with a modern brand of pituri. In the pub were a number of workers from the gas fields, and one of them recently down from Alice had brought a bag of ‘pituri’ with him which he demonstrated to us after we’d explained our journey. He said that it was common throughout the Territory and that people often cultivated it like marijuana. This confused us, for pituri – Duboisia hopwoodii– was notoriously difficult to cultivate. Furthermore, according to all the ethnographic papers we’d read, the only population that was harvestable for drug consumption – where the nicotine content was high and the toxic alkaloid component relatively low – grew on the crests of sand dunes in suckering clumps in a very small area of the Simpson Desert. Peecheringa. It was this small and exclusive crop that was annually harvested and traded by the people that owned that part of the desert country. This exclusivity, together with its very high nicotine content (about five times that of commercial tobacco), was what had made pituri the desert equivalent of gold.

The problem was soon solved. There are various plants of the genus Nicotania which grow at the foothills of rocky outcrops where water accumulates throughout the western deserts. After the decline of trade in Duboisia hopwoodii from the Simpson, the name pituri had begun to be applied in a generic form to indigenous plants containing nicotine. Long-distance trading routes would not have been necessary for these plants. Their growth was widespread. They were not exotic.

There is something intrinsically human about the way we apportion value to the exotic. Suzanne feeding you tea and oranges in Leonard Cohen’s song is nice, but the fact that they ‘come all the way from China’ makes them special. Sensual too. For aboriginal people it was the same. Governor Phillip on arrival with the First Fleet was certainly aware of the importance of trade and the power of the exotic. In a letter he noted that ‘I am informed hatchets and beads are the articles for barter – a few small grindstones for the chiefs’; but witnessing the problem of hand-held lighting, he wrote that ‘small tin lamps on a very simple construction must be very acceptable’ exchange articles. Indeed the horror of white occupation of traditional lands was offset to some degree by the value accrued by local people in offering goods procured from Europeans in traditional exchange networks. Governor Hunter, for example, puzzled that: ‘of all the cloaths and the multiplicity of other articles which had been given to Bennelong, very little now remained in his possession; his shield, and most of his cloaths, were, by his own account, sent a great distance off; but whether he had lost them, or given them away, was uncertain.’

They were traded of course, but what this trading meant to Bennelong in terms of his esteem in aboriginal society is unknown. To Hunter it was yet further evidence of the careless lifestyle of the savage. He was, like so many Marlo Morgan’s to follow, blind to our common humanity and dazzled by our difference; busying himself collecting native curiosities such as hatchets and spears to be shipped back to England, while mocking Aborigines for whom top-hats were a highly prized item.3

So pituri, coming from a tiny almost inaccessible corner of the Simpson Desert, held the kind of allure that we can imagine from our own ways of ascribing value. Were not other factors also at work? Its marketing for example? Certainly, as anyone witnessing the beautifully woven ‘pituri bags’ in the South Australian Museum and the Australian Museum in Sydney can testify, its packaging was wonderful. Another thing we know is that the kind of fascination that surrounded the product was powerful enough, despite the obvious language barrier, to leave William Oswald Hodgkinson obsessed with ‘mysterious legends of a place called Peecheringa’.

Talking to that oil worker in Innamincka about ‘pituri’, it was, in some ways, reassuring to know that the importance of the plant had been recognised in this new form, that its marketability had led to another plant taking its name. In the way perhaps that buk choi might first have been marketed as spinach, or the South American potato in Europe as the ‘apple of the earth’. 

We asked Linda about this other pituri from Alice: ‘Yeah they got pituri over there, but they got a different pituri!’ In this part of the desert there was only one ‘pituri’ in the minds of people, and the grave understanding that spread over Gordon and Jimmy’s faces at its mention told enough to satisfy any lingering concern.

Driving away from the homestead we rose and fell over brilliant red sand, setting a course among the occasional noxious smelling gidgee of the swales, before again tackling the parallel peaks of dune. On either side were trail bike tracks marking the routes to the recently worked areas of the property; the yards they called Plum Pudding, and the mustering runs to Corner and Ocean Bores. But they were soon behind us, and we were left to carve our own tracks into the fresh sands and newly shooting green stems of spinifex. After an hour of driving we found an abandoned grader slowly sinking into a dune that had figured in Jimmy’s directions, and we rounded the waterhole they called Dead Emu Waterhole and made across the stone flats to the gorge in the west. 

We were happy as we drove, alive to new experiences and secure in our task. It was now also possible, in country without vehicle tracks and other obvious markings, to imagine the days of exploration and the explorers themselves, and I began to muse on the motives that drove them: less immediately obvious than those of the colonial pioneers to follow. 

Visions of achievement, and the expansion of geographic knowledge often defined their quests, as did courage and determination to achieve their goals, together with fear that 
they might not. There was also glory, fame, and fortune. In Hodgkinson’s case however, there wasn’t to be much of the latter. His completed expedition barely raised a whimper of recognition. The Brisbane Courier wrote that ‘to the old hands who can recollect the keen interest with which the wanderings of the early explorers were traced by the public, the vague anticipations of great discoveries or fearful disaster…the general apathy with which the progress and the result of the expedition under Mr Hodgkinson has been regarded is almost inconceivable’. 

We arrived at the gorge just before nightfall, the tracks of the cattle-pads gradually disappearing into the darkness ahead. These tracks, leading into the mouth of the gorge, were the first tangible evidence to us of others that had led to this place, for surely they were a simple continuation of those pre-existing paths that had led Hodgkinson – ’seized with severe purging’ after ‘a most miserable night’ without water – into the gorge he named ‘Arrow’s Gorge’, after his much-loved horse which had died from dehydration and exhaustion the day before. Hodgkinson, given his poor state of health, could be forgiven for not realising that this was one of the major distribution points of the drug he so determinedly sought. That from here trade routes would stretch as far afield as the Gulf of Carpentaria, the Channel Country of Queensland, Spencer Gulf in South Australia, and the Darling River in New South Wales – an epic route many times older than the famous silk road across arid China and the Middle East. 

He was now very close to the growing area of the drug as well. Ever since Coongie Lakes he had been pointed to the north-west by those whom he had asked along the way.4 But it would not be made easy for him. As he moved closer and his threat to the trade grew, the desert people began sending him in complete circles. He resorted to taking hostages and delivering threats. The closer he got to Peecheringa the less people seemed to know, and he conceded to his diary, ‘I fear Peecheringa will remain unknown’.

Hodgkinson stumbled up the Gorge on August 28, 1876. He followed the lower reaches of the channel looking for water and came upon a group of locals, who ‘fled in great fright at our approach, leaving all their worldly wealth, viz. – two tomahawks, a large club, a boomerang, an old wallaby skin, an aboriginal chisel, two hand nets, and (found subsequently) an emu net, together with the proceeds of the morning’s work, which I had the curiosity to count – 3 heaps, comprising 1,218 birds.’

After he and his party had devoured all one thousand two hundred and eighteen birds ‘head, legs and tail’, Hodgkinson explained the fear of the fleeing people. ‘Unfortunately’, he wrote, ‘we are now entering the region of ‘dispersions’ and the blacks justly dread any white intruder.’

Back in Sydney, I would come across a report in an 1870s Queensland newspaper from a country correspondent stationed just to the north-east of the Gorge. ‘A large number of natives visited the camp on Sunday’, he wrote. ‘The Inspector, with a detachment of native police, proceeded to disperse them’. It is one of the most chilling euphemisms in Australian history. Only a small number managed to escape. 

In the boulders that perched against the cliffs, in the staunch and twisted bloodwoods and the droop of the River Red Gums that led up the gorge, we knew what it was to look at a ‘dispersed’ landscape. Later we would find hundreds of rock carvings and stone tools. Huw, after a day’s archaeological wanderings, explained to us the impact of finding a neatly stored mulla and grindstone, as ‘like looking into the last moment of their leaving, and knowing from the silence of the stone, they would never come back’.

Of course, I wasn’t ignorant of the frontier history of Outback Australia. But there is nothing quite like the timelessness of arid country to make this understanding a graphic one. All the evidence sits, like pages in an open book, upon the surface of the sand. Reading it is as easy as it is heartbreaking. Tools, middens, carvings, even paths, are still visible. An upturned grinding stone waits to be reclaimed by its owners.

It was enough to spend a week in the Gorge among the ghosts of its past. Almost hearing the merchants. As a major trading post this must have seen all of the esteemed goods of the region. Axes hewn from the chert and silcrete particular to the quarries of Cloncurry. Grinding stones. Water-holding and ornamental shells from the coasts of the Arafura, Kimberley and Carpentaria. The wonderfully deep colour of Parachilna ochre. Boomerangs from Boulia, prized perhaps because of qualities in the local timber, or the skills of the local craftsmen, or most likely both. And what else might have been traded? Acacia gum perhaps. And seasonal goods, such as swans’ eggs and other foodstuffs.

These images were with me during the time we were in the Gorge, and began to exert their own force. As did their absence in reality, in this historical moment.

We had agreed to meet Gordon, Jimmy and Chappy at Ocean Bore, and it was there that we found them, surrounded by cattle and occupied in one of the never-ending and mundane routines of desert stations: refilling a bore pump with diesel. Gordon cranked the arm of the pump and the engine kicked over, bringing water spluttering to the surface. Not for two and a half million years – since flowing off the Great Dividing Range and becoming trapped below the desert sands in the Great Artesian Basin – had this water seen sunlight. Today it’s the secret ingredient sustaining an industry that – at first sight – appears surreal. Desert cattle. But the surreal image of a cow on red desert sand soon gives way to the real: to the earthy paths of cattle-pads trodden into sands where once different trails lay printed.

The afternoon sun fell slowly, sending the sky into its usual range of outrageous colours. Chappy watched us watching. ‘I don’t know what you fellers go on about. It’s just the sun goin down.’ He was right of course.

Jimmy cooked spuds and steak over the campfire while I fussed over the recording gear. ‘In the old days,’ Gordon said later, ‘the pituri men would just go on walkabout. They’d go out from the station, collect up a load of pituri and six weeks later they’d be back again. But they’re all dead now those pituri people.’

‘We had a station hand here, black fella, and he was real fond of it. He’d get pretty drunk on the stuff too.’ Gordon took a long draught of tea and shook his head lightly at the reminiscence. ‘There used to be a lot of them pituri men round here, years back.’

There was an air of mystery in the way that Gordon and Jimmy talked of ‘the pituri men’. Chappy had grown quiet. He was a journeyman and these were the stories of locals.

Jimmy was prodding the fire. ‘Ohhhtheyd-carryitround-withemalways,’ he said. ‘Alwaysapouch ofthepitcherryready.’ He cocked his head as he spoke and the wrinkles on his neck were like the fissures of ironbark. ‘Buttheydidntgochewwinit. Nooo notliketheoldfellas. Nooo theyusedtomixitupwithashesand smokeit.’

‘Idotoo,’ he confided later when we were alone. A young man from Bedourie had told us that pituri ‘is sumthen the old fellers used to do. But it’s nothing for us.’ There was a certain stigma associated with the old ways, and the old black ways most of all.

‘It’sgoodformyarthritis,’ Jimmy whispered, a statement that echoed that of another old explorer, who said it was ‘better than a feather-bed after a hard-day’s walking.’ 

As a user Jimmy could tell us exactly where the pituri plants were, so the next day we left following his set of instructions. He told us to pass through a particular gate and then count seven dune crests. As we crossed the fifth and sixth dunes and approached the seventh, images of the generations of traders that had come to these very plants were never far from our thoughts. 

An episode Hodgkinson had related after he had given an emu to a group of desert people a little further south from here also came to mind. ‘This gift quite delighted them,’ he wrote, ‘and as some recompense, one young lady danced for our amusement, and exhibited her musical skill by playing on a leaf held between her lips, and modulated by a blade of grass in the fashion of a Jew’s harp.’ It was a normal enough social trade. A song and dance of thanks. A reminder of a humanity we all share, and an exchange that anyone who has travelled can make sense of. 

On the seventh dune we stopped, searched, and found the plant. It was almost anticlimactic to see it extending out of the red crest of dune. A pale, unremarkable-looking shrub with small bell-shaped flowers. On the dune below, stone tools and other implements lay exposed, a reminder that less than one hundred years ago people were processing and packaging this plant into a tradeable commodity, just as their ancestors had for thousands of years.

We sat on the crest of the dune, the sun already at our backs in the west, and thought about the drug, branches of the plant in our hands. It had a range of uses. Practically, for people travelling extensive distances from waterhole to waterhole, or in search of game, often with little food, the appetite suppressant and stimulant properties of nicotine would have been useful. As a pain killer it had been administered to King, the lone survivor of the Burke and Wills disaster, by the desert people of Coongie Lake. They managed to keep him alive. It also had ceremonial uses. The men would sit around and chew it, telling stories. A young stockman in Bedourie had given us a small insight into this aspect: ‘The old fellers used to have it when they had their fucken re-unions or whatever, it was their source of marijuana in the old days.’

We lit a fire and waited until it died down a little. Then we placed some acacia branches into the embers, and when it had died even further, we dried some pituri leaf. We mixed the acacia ash and pituri, the ash allowing the nicotine and other chemicals in the pituri to become more saliva-soluble, just like the alkali used in South America with the coca leaf. 

We chewed the mixture. It was neither a traditional nor a romantic way to take the drug and it reminded me of other highly amateur drug experiences. Traditionally pituri was rolled into a stick or “quid” with animal or human hair or plant fibre providing structural support. During long walks tribal chiefs would store it behind the ear, with the additional benefit of thin, well-vascularised skin working on the quid like a nicotine patch. I’m not a smoker. It made me feel slightly nauseous. It was also vaguely relaxing. 

Later, we would walk around the dune swale and discover beds of bush carrot and parsley and several of the comparatively rare Native Orange trees. It was further evidence of the camps of the Pituri gatherers. Here was their subsistence patch next to the cash-crop. But sitting on top of the dune, drifting into thought, less material things came to mind.

This was the heart of Peecheringa, and it made me feel uneasy to be here, sitting within this most important of places. I thought about the ‘men of good will…whose faces were lit up by the love of Christ’. Witnesses to the destruction of a people that made them “the men with a sorrowful countenance.” I thought about how much we had lost. Nature. People. Wisdom and stories. And I thought about what had taken its place. 

Wealth to some. A livelihood to others. And the origin story that is the ‘Outback’ to explain it. A place with no pre-history. A place conceived by the explorers perhaps, but delivered to the nation only after the toil of pioneers. Like the recent creations of Isaiah: ‘For now I create new heavens and a new earth, and the past will not be remembered, and will come no more to men’s minds’ (65:17). Terra Novus. But the past can never be entirely erased or made new. It resurfaces. In the countenance of a culture, in timid regrets and half-way apologies, or in more specific ways, like the loss of knowledge that might have saved a pioneer in time of drought.

The more I thought about the simple pioneer story of the Outback, its iconic strength, the more impoverishing it seemed as a place in our national heartland. Less the vision splendid than one confined and plundered. For the Outback myth is historically shallow, and geographically non-specific. It could be the Arctic or the Sahara. Landscape merely as stage, where the play is actually about – as many of Banjo Paterson’s mythologising dramas were – ‘the hero in the man from furthest out’, whose life may be ‘rough’, but who ‘can easy stand it if he’s built of sterling stuff.’ 

I wonder, as times and values change, how resiliant this myth will be. Whether for example, as we look beyond the colonial and seek to express the wider claims of our nation, the pioneer heroes might become a chapter or paragraph in another story, one that could not be performed elsewhere, a drama taking its course – like the lost songs of this country – from actions at various waterholes, creeks and lakes, and the rocks and memories of favourite camps, and later stations, along its routes. 

Author note

My appreciation for financial support for the journey goes to the Australian Geographic Society and ABC Radio National. The ABC Hindsight program broadcast a documentary on the journey titled Along the Pituri Trail. Special thanks to Mike Letnic, Huw Barton, Joy Murray and Jenya Osborne.

All quotes from early pioneers Robert Collins, Alice Duncan-Kemp, John Collins and Oscar de Satge are taken from Pamela Lukin Watson’s Frontier Lands and Pioneer Legends (Allen and Unwin, 1998).

The Manning Clark quote is taken from his 1976 Boyer Lecture, A Discovery of Australia. Information on Aboriginal trade routes across the desert are from the 1876 journal of W.O. Hodgkinson, the 1976 paper “The Chain of Connection” by D.J. Mulvaney, the 1985 paper “Leaving the Simpson Desert” by Luise Hercus, and the 1986 paper “Nine Simpson Desert Wells” by Luise Hercus and Peter Clarke.


1 Nardoo is a grass seed that is pounded to make an edible flour. The seed is one of the staple foods of desert life, but the seed husk is toxic and must be removed. Burke and Wills did not know this. It is one of the ironies of their death that they were (in desert terms) in an area of relatively abundant food and water.

2 Pecherie, pituri etc is derived from the shrub Duboisia hopwoodii. The species grows throughout dryland Australia and contains various chemical agents. It is only in the sand dunes of the Simpson Desert, however, that the nicotine content of the plant is relatively high and the toxic alkaloid component relatively low. Where the concentrations are in the reverse order, as is the case in specimens across the rest of dryland Australia, the plant was used to stun emus and other game by placing leaves in waterholes.

3 This information is taken from the excellent Isabel McBryde article ‘Cross-cultural Exchange’, Studies from Terra Australis to Australia, ed. John Hardy and Alan Frost (1989).

4 In itself an image that sorely challenges popular views of exploration. Here was Hodgkinson, asking people: can you kindly point me in the direction of….—and water, you wouldn’t happen to know where I can get some water around here would you?

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