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September 2001 Archives

September 2, 2001

Camels and the Development of Australia

Which country has the only wild camels in the world? The answer is Australia, with an estimated 100,000 roaming the Outback. The first camel was brought to Australia from the Canary Islands in 1840, but it was in 1860 that they were brought here for the expressed purpose of expedition use, namely the ill-fated Burke and Wills (see history update on the Burke and Wills Expedition). Between the years of 1860-1907, an estimated 12,000 camels were imported.

The Arabian camel, commonly one-humped, was the most popular type as it was from hot desert areas and well suited to the climates of Australia. Additional varieties were imported based on their suitability for the type of work they were to do.


‘Afghans’ were also brought to Australia to handle the animals. These men came from various parts of west Asia, but were commonly known as Afghans to the locals. The Ghan train was named after them, after the vital role they played in the development of central Australia.

The camel strings were used both in exploration and to haul goods from the railheads in central Australia. The poles for the Overland Telegraph Line were carted by camel, as were supplies and mail for Alice Springs, for the large cattle/sheep stations, and the Aboriginal communities.

The biggest camel teams consisted of up to 70 camels, with 40 being the most common. Four Afghans were the cameleers. The caravans could travel up to 40 km a day, with each camel packing 300 to 600 kg of supplies. One 1891 expedition travelled over 800 km in a month. Explorer Ernest Giles once travelled 354 km in eight days without watering his animals.

By the 1920s motor vehicles had virtually ended the widespread use of the camels. The last major exploration to utilize camels was in 1939 when Dr C T Madigan crossed the Simpson Desert. In the years that followed, the domesticated camels were released into the wild and now form the free-ranging herds, which are found today.

Suggested activities: Identify the breeds of camels around the world. What are their uses today and by whom? Research why the camel is suited to an arid environment. These topics may deal with the hump, body temperature, and his ability to reabsorb moisture into the body.


September 13, 2001

Hermannsburg Mission

Hermannsburg, a small village 125 km west of Alice Springs, is a one-time mission settlement established by two German Lutheran pastors. These pastors, A.H. Kempe and W.F. Schwartz, arrived in Central Australia in 1876, bringing with them cattle and thousands of sheep. Kempe and Schwartz wanted to introduce Christianity to Aboriginal people, while at the same time offering the Aboriginals protection against the white Australian settlers threatening their lives. In return for safety, food, and clothing, the pastors expected the local Arrernte Aboriginal people to attend the Lutheran church, adopt white cultural traditions, and abandon their own way of life. As the Arrernte were facing the extinction of their community, they agreed to adhere to the pastors’ policies. Kempe and Schwartz thus established the first township in Central Australia.

When Pastor Karl Strehlow arrived in 1894, he restored the mission, which had fallen into disrepair. Strehlow dedicated his life to studying the culture and language of the Arrernte who had joined the mission community. His son, Ted Strehlow, continued his father’s interest in the Arrernte, and wrote several books on their traditions and culture. He gained the friendship of the Arrernte people, who entrusted him with many of their sacred items, in the hopes that with Strehlow’s protection the objects might survive the slow degeneration of their traditional lifestyle. These items are now in Alice Springs, held in a vault at the Strehlow Research Center.

The buildings of the original mission still stand today. These include Carl Strehlow’s house, a church constructed in 1897, a home for colonists helping the missionaries, a smithy, tannery, and meathouse. There is also an old schoolhouse, built in 1896, used to teach Arrernte children traditional school subjects and also skills such as gardening, carpentry, and needlework. The Manse, Pastor Strehlow’s family home, is now a museum that exhibits the watercolor paintings of Hermannsburg artists. And across from the Manse is the Hermannsburg Art Gallery, which houses the earliest watercolors ever done by Aboriginal painters, including those of Albert Namatjira, Australia’s most famous and beloved Aboriginal artist.

September 21, 2001

Aborigines & Land Rights

HISTORY – Yuendumu

Today we visited an aboriginal community called Yuendumu, around 230 kms NW of Alice Springs along the Tanami Track. We met with Simon Fisher from Warlpiri media who told us some of the fascinating history of the town and the Warlpiri people.


In the 1920’s and 30’s Simon’s grandparents were taken forcibly off their land – a place called Vaughan Spings - by the government and relocated about 70kms away in an aboriginal reserve called Yuendumu.

“They wanted the land for cattle because of the springs. Water has always been one of the most contentious issues between the pastoralists and the Warlpiri people. The conflict over Vaughan Springs has still not been resolved even today”.

In the 1970’s there was a movement towards self-determination and return of land to the traditional owners during the Whitlam labour (left wing) government. This started the turn of the tide for the rights of aboriginal people in Australia.

“We got some of our land back and the right to self-determination and decide our own affairs: things like politics, education, social affairs and health.”

At around the same time a bilingual program started in the local school, allowing Warlpiri children to speak our own language inside school”.

“Up until this time we were only allowed to speak English. It was part of the policy of assimilation by the government. But now we speak both, which I believe is the way forward for our generation: keeping our indigenous way but also learning the western way, so other people can learn from us”.

I also asked Simon whether he had a message for children around the world. This was his answer:

“Educate yourself. Education is the key, for the people of Australia but also all around the world. It is the future”.

Suggested learning activities: examine the history of indigenous people in your community. Do you know of an indigenous person you might be able to interview? If so, ask how their family got to live there and other questions about the history of their community.

September 23, 2001

The Tanami Track - Early Explorers

I looked out at the endless stretch of desert covered with termite mounds. It’s hard to imagine Nat Buchanan, a pioneering cattle driver in 1896, covering these vast spaces with herds of cattle. He was looking for an overland stock route that had adequate water for stock crossing. Herds of cattle also wouldn’t have to detour so far north if a southerly route was suitable. The desert crossing was feasible although no new sources of water were found. The southern stock route never materialized.

In 1900, Allan Davidson was the first European to explore the Tanami Desert thoroughly. He set out looking for gold and mapped possible sites with amazing accuracy. Gold was discovered in several locations, which produced a flurry of activity. The conditions were extremely harsh. That fact and the lack of much mineral, deterred most miners. The biggest mines were the Tanami Mine, which closed in 1994, and The Granites, which reopened in 1986.


During the 1920s, a geologist named Michael Terry, crossed the Tanami Desert searching for minerals. He utilized different modes of transportation, one of which was camels, the other, Morris six wheeled vehicles. In 1928, this became the first motorized transportation to cross the continent.

The Tanami Track cuts up through the heart of the Tanami Desert. It travels for 1000 kilometres from Alice Springs to Halls Creek. The remoteness of the landscape lends itself to the person looking to ‘get away from it all!’

Suggested activities: Research trails that have led to settlement. Why were these trails important and for what purpose were they originally intended? Are the trails still in use today and what is their historical significance?

September 27, 2001

Albert Namatjira

Aboriginal Rights and HISTORY

Albert Namatjira 1902-1959


The aesthetic beauty of the landscape we travel through each day is inspiring. Even the landforms’ sameness within the span of a day or two via bike can become a sensory experience. Patches of cornflower blue petals growing from a clump in the middle of the dusty road can provide pleasure. The richness of this environment provides much beauty.

Albert Namatjira, from near the Hermannsburg Mission, was a master at capturing landscape images. His story demonstrates the ability of art to transcend cultural and language barriers.


Albert was an Aboriginal of the Arunda Tribe. He learned to read and write at the Mission school and earned a living as a blacksmith and handy man on neighbouring stations.

In 1934, Albert was introduced to Rex Batterbee, a watercolour artist, who held an exhibition at the Hermannsburg Mission. Batterbee’s artwork impressed Albert and within the next year, arrangements were made for Albert to guide and act as a camel boy for Batterbee’s next trip through the Red Centre. In exchange for his work, Albert was instructed by Batterbee and demonstrated the drive and application of a true artist. The country near his home provided Albert with an opportunity to showcase his talent for painting with watercolours.


In 1938, Albert’s work was exhibited in Melbourne and in following years exhibitions were held in Queensland, Western Australia, and New Zealand; his work could also be found in American and English collections. A book by Charles Mountford, “The Art of Albert Namatjira,” was published in 1946.


His success as a painter brought fame to Albert and recognition to the Aboriginal community. Because of this success, he was the first Aboriginal to be granted full Australian citizenship in 1957. However, with fame came a recognition not granted to other Aboriginals. Albert was able to purchase alcohol, which was outlawed in the Aboriginal community. He served a gaol sentence for eight weeks for supplying liquor to other Aborigines. The trial was controversial and the subsequent publicity shattered Albert. He died of pneumonia within three months after being released.

Albert’s paintings reflect a love for his native home and, it is said, the Dreamtime of Albert’s culture. His work today is appreciated world wide as it was in his lifetime. This pride was shared by the cultures of his country, which here-to-fore was non-existent. He experienced the best and worst of both worlds, but his paintings remain a celebration of the land of his people.


About September 2001

This page contains all entries posted to Australia Lesson Activities - History in September 2001. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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