Tuesday, May 22, 2018


Country is never quite what you expect it to be and buying a piece of it can be more than a financial transaction. The West Australian towns of Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun exist in a strange sistership. Ravensthorpe exudes a worn but robust beauty; a highway road train town, born of gold and sheep and nickel. Its mineral booms and busts are reflected in the stolid architecture of the main street’s public bars. The back blocks’ fibro houses were never intended for posterity. Fifty kilometres off the highway, Hopetoun is the charismatic, windswept sister. Run by the same council and serviced by the same dog catcher, Hopetoun’s scrubby Banksia country sits back to let the white sand beaches, turquoise waters and flaming Christmas trees take precedence. Beach shacks are hedged in limestone and shells, their verandas festooned with glass buoys. The Big Miners’ mansions squeeze between them. People work the Ravensthorpe mines and then drive fifty kilometres to Hopetoun to their homes behind the dunes. The sea breeze cools down the evening country. Property prices in Hopetoun can be five times that of Ravensthorpe.

Exactly half way between the two towns, on the edge of Barren Ranges, is Kundip. An odd little place, Kundip is a forgotten town site that flourished three times and finally died with the railway line. When I first visited this abandoned goldmining town, I fell in love with the stillness, the ruins of cellars, the quiet quartzite earth and the ghostly, kerosene tin remnants of past battlers. I lit a fire that night and slept in my swag beside the car, listening to South Australian radio and the sainting of Mary McKillop. It happened that I slept on one of the cheapest blocks for sale in West Australia. I bought it. I built a shack from scavenged cedar and corrugated iron, with the help of a borrowed generator and inspired friends.

On my last journey to Kundip, I grew more and more excited as I neared the place; craning through the bug-splattered windscreen to watch the country change from dried out farming dust lands to deep ranges and salmon gum forests. I arrived after a long drive of lonely roadhouses and the appropriate music: Johnny Cash, The Dubliners and Martha Wainright. I turned off the music. I lit a fire. Sitting alone, towards evening, I began thinking, “What am I doing here? I’m mad. This idea is just stupid.”

But then the sun sank. The white quartz ground turned pink beneath the olive green moorts. The chanting of the crickets slowed to a sleepy dirge. Stars, satellites and meteorites began their sky wheeling. The new mine glowed on the horizon. I’d be mad to be anywhere else, I thought, and stoked the fire.

A lightning storm hung over the Barren Ranges, snagged on its jagged edges. I saw the eerie orange reflection against the clouds; like driving a night time desert highway and seeing the lights of the roadhouse for an age before you get there. That night constant flashes, 'sky sparks' coming from way out to sea off Hopetoun, lit up the sky. The next day was rainful, then blue skies, then the strange clouds announcing more rain, followed by rainbows - doubled and even trebled on the horizon and then more blue skies.

"The light is different out here," Dad said to me, when he made the drive out. The light is indeed different to the southern coast where we come from. It seems more diffused, gentler than the stark blue and white hues of the coast. Kundip trees part to reveal the sky behind them. It is not the solid, waist height scrub or soaring forests of the south. The photographs I have taken of this country always look drab and grey but it is not like that at all. The earth is rich, ochre red or white with quartz and there is water all around and zany emerald native shrubs endemic to this area. The colours are almost too vivid for the naked eye. My pictures don't reflect that and it confused me, until my father said the thing about the light.

After I finished roofing the veranda and attaching guttering with bits of wire and cable ties, I packed up my tools. I wanted to stop in at the tip (always a good lurk in a mining town) and have a bit of a drive around the bush. My plan was to circle through the Ravensthorpe Ranges and back to my shack. I found a paddock full of camels on the way and inadvertently chased some emus down the road. On my way towards Jerramungup I found the Cocanarup road.

I drove down the orange gravel track, heading downhill into the salmon gum forests and the Phillips River Valley. I passed what was obviously an old farm, the stone ground scoured by a century of work, punctuated by wires strung through jam wood posts, the buildings on the hill weathered by wind and not a tree or garden around them; just stones and dirt and wire. Grim country.

Just across from the farm, the land turns a salmon gum green. It is a different eco-system in the valley, the air is cooler, the light is greener. Once again, there is the stillness. The forest reminds me of our southern karris but for the absence of leatherwoods – that soft understory of perfect Australian emerald. Here there is no understory, only blood red resin dripping onto fallen bark. Any waist height foliage is bound to be prickly.

I was about three kilometres, as the crow flies, from my shack when I stumbled upon John Dunn’s grave.

The grave is bound with freshly painted white pickets and stands among the wispy casuarinas and red rocks above a dry river course. Below, and once upon a flood, the relentless water had pushed branches against the gums to almost three metres above its grainy bed. Emus, snakes, bungarra and kangaroo tracked this riverbed. At the grave, my mental translation of the epitaph was ‘You never know when they are gonna get yer’ (Matthew 24:42).

‘I heard there was some nasty business out there,’ Dad had said to me, when I bought the land.  I’m still unsure whether he meant the 1880 spearing of John Dunn, or the aftermath. It is a difficult story, the story of a settlers’ right to country in 19th century Australia. Aboriginal people from the Ravensthorpe area are part of the Noongar nation. Their acts of resistance to being chained up, their grounds over-run by sheep and their women stolen or lured away, were often swift and violent. Generally, these acts were seen by colonial administrators as a criminal issue. For the Dunn brothers, living on the farm I had just passed, the police were a week’s ride away.

The men who lured John Dunn into the bush killed him with single spear to his neck. His brother Walter could scarcely ‘put his finger into’ into the wound and yet blood drenched the dead man’s body. Three years later John’s other brother James was also attacked but he survived. James Gunn’s injuries bore all the hallmarks of retribution, rather than the execution-style killing of his brother. There was talk of ‘maltreatment’ of Noongar women.

An anthropologist at the local Indigenous affairs department surmises that the reprisal killings probably took place in several stages. Originally documented in diaries of white colonists and police records, contemporary Aboriginal historians and writers have revisited John Dunn’s spearing and its aftermath. They continue the history from the day of John Dunn’s death. It is a horrific story and no wonder anecdotes exist of Noongar winding up their car windows on their way through Ravensthorpe and never, ever driving through there at night.

Oral histories of Noongar people, and occasionally Europeans, testify that the Dunn’s pay back murders amounted to a massacre.  All parties agree that Noongar people were driven to Esperance or Bremer Bay by the Dunn brothers and their mates on horseback. One day’s ride away, at Fanny Cove, was another farm. The owner Muir had been killed by Aborigines three years before John Dunn and so his farm probably proved a friendly place for the Dunn’s party to refresh horses and glean news of the fleeing Noongar people. It is generally agreed that the Dunns and their accomplices poisoned the water holes on their return from Bremer Bay and Esperance, so that Noongar could not return to their own country.

An anthropologist recently charged with investigating the site of the massacre, in a report for a mining company who wants to move into the West Kundip area, wrote that if men on horseback were chasing and shooting people, bodily remains could be scattered all over the country, rather than buried in a single mass grave. This practical statement is almost mythical in its ramifications and always reminds me of Isis searching for the dismembered parts of her Osiris.

That the Cocanarup massacre even happened is still quietly argued among the European descendants in Ravensthorpe. In many local history publications of the region, the story ends with John Dunn’s spearing death. However, most histories do acknowledge that Noongar people died in conflict during the settlement of the area. Australian massacres during frontier conflict are still filtering into mainstream consciousness, partially because of an historical denial of Aboriginal resistance in our national narrative and because our darker histories were never really on the page unlike other colonial administrations of the same era. This observation is not to discredit the Ravensthorpe residents’ sentiments but to acknowledge that accounts of massacres of Aboriginal men, women and children were not generally reported to police as a crime and are therefore are often unrecorded.

According to some white and Noongar oral histories, many bodies are buried within metres of John Dunn’s grave, marked with a circle of stakes. I stood there on the riverbank, on the day I found the grave. It was summer and I only had thongs on my feet. I worried about snakes. I had a vague knowledge of John Dunn’s death and what happened afterwards. I wasn’t sure how I felt. I just knew that it was not somewhere I wanted to hang around.

I drove further into the bush, keeping the Barren Ranges on my right, fording rocky river crossings on a track once trod by horsemen and Noongar clans. Finally. I came out at a mine service road and, just as if I’d whistled him up, a miner roared past me in a spin of dust and red flags, his face set purposefully at the steering wheel. I thought I would back-track him and so I turned onto the big road, changed up to fourth gear and drove for a while, checking out for wheat silos and any sign of a town. I could see both the Barrens and the Ravensthorpe Ranges, but after being in the Phillips River valley and the dark world of the Dunns for so long, I was disorientated and couldn’t find my bearings.

My friend bought the block next to me and asked his Noongar mates about the place.
‘Just don’t move anything around, out there,’ they said.
After discovering the Cocanarup story and its proximity to my new home, I was even more dismayed by this advice and its origins. I’d just spent weeks driving around, looking for rocks. The stone around Kundip is red and white quartz, slid off the ranges over millennia, and it always has good, flat faces. I had gathered a nice pile of stone on my block.

I wanted to build something beautiful on what I thought was my very own patch of earth. The country around Cocanarup and Kundip is a place that, when I arrive, I can breathe deep and say out loud ‘I am here.’ There are plants that grow by my shack that haven’t been named by Europeans yet. The place has sleeping magic. Some nights I sleep for eleven hours. It is off the grid, out of range and clocks don’t seem to work here. Perfect.

Sometimes ignorance can be an unknown friend, who disappears when it comes time to learn the understory. Kundip country enchanted me from the first night I slept upon her skin. Later, discovering the stories of the people who died here; the fear, the running, the blood, the sweating horses and the spears and guns; it changed me. The irony is that after all my whining about being a perennial renter, I bought a patch of earth that I now know I am only borrowing. Understanding this makes me feel lucky, in a strange kind of way.


  1. Nice read - and intriguing too. I often wonder what Noongars would say about my current patch of dirt - I'll bet they weren't dumb enough to live under karris. I've come to think I shouldn't be here at all. Such strange energy on this hill - I wonder if it's a male place because the men seem to love it and women come to despise it and just want to get the hell out!! It's made me doubt my own instincts about where I should be. Maybe we are just attracted to dark energy Sarah.

  2. Yes, I think I am Michelle, attracted to dark places that is. That hill where you live feels a bit claustrophobic, not as much as on the eastern side though. I battle to see the stars at night with those looming marris where I live.

  3. You know my neighbour says she too feels claustrophobic on this hill and is plotting her escape. I have felt 'trapped' here for some time now. Maybe it's just me. I hope I am not being sucked into the dark energy of the next place but as I commented - I feel I have little faith in my ability to assess this.

    In certain contexts being attracted to darkness is a good thing. Jung would say so and many Eastern religions say there is no issue between good and bad - only whether you are attached to them or not. The trick is to respond with equanimity. I believe Kipling's 'If' suggests the same thing.