You know you're near the end of the 380 km stretch of Mitchell Highway from Dubbo to Bourke when you break out of the mulga and box tree scrub onto the wide Darling flood plain. My first reflex is to sight the Mt Oxley mesa, often floating in the heatwaves on the Eastern horizon. It's a ritual that locates me somehow - a fixed point on the inner landscape composed of stories I have collected over four decades.
I’ve just completed a memoir tracking my journey as a historian and storyteller. The publisher asked about images for the cover and instinctively I thought of this lonely, flat-topped outcrop where the first European explorer had stood and surveyed the vast stretch of plains spreading West 190 years ago. Like Charles Sturt, I had arrived in Ngemba territory ignorant of the ancient songlines etched into the face of the country. And I knew little of the narrative overlaid by the wave of European settlers that followed Sturt’s footsteps.
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Forty years of travelling the country and listening to Westerners grew my knowledge of both and honed my skills. I felt I owed the Outback for expanding my education. It gave me the backbone for the doctorate I wrote on storytelling at Macquarie University. So I seized on the idea of having a photo taken on Oxley wearing the academic hat presented to me at graduation.
It was a bit cheeky I suppose, relocating a tradition that dates nearly 1000 years to the time in Europe when Christianity shaped education, to a mountain in the Australian bush. The academic cap and gown was the practical uniform of the clergy in those days, designed to keep them warm - not a real necessity in Bourke!
But in another way I felt ‘Why not?’ Education isn't limited to ivy-covered sandstone buildings or state-of-the-art lecture theatres, it also belongs in the wide spaces under vast skies. I had applied the discipline of university training as a historian at the back o’ Bourke and practiced as a teacher of the Christian faith, right there in the West. It seemed natural to stand against the ancient sandstone walls of Mt Oxley as my hall of education.
Along with that, I wanted to pay respect to some outstanding and heroic men and women of faith who had served in this remote region. Some, like the Bush Brothers, had ridden long miles pastoring their scattered flock. Pilots and nurses of the Far West Children's Scheme and Flying Doctors Service had braved tough conditions to bring medical care. Aboriginal activists had fought hard and long for civil rights. Preachers had patiently explained the Christian story to small congregations and teachers opened the understanding of isolated children. Farmers, pastoralists, unionists, politicians, engineers, business people had given freely of time and resources to build communities.
Telling their forgotten stories has become the call on my life. If you'd like to read more about that, my book Tell Me Another is coming out early next year.
(Thanks go to my mate Ian Cole for the trip out to Mount Oxley and the photos.)
Join The Outback Historian, Paul Roe, on an unforgettable journey into Australia's Past as he follows the footprints of the Master Storyteller and uncovers unknown treasures of the nation.