Monday musings on Australian literature: Kimberley dreaming

Waterhole in the Kimberleys

Waterhole in the Kimberleys

The Kimberley region of Australia is a place of dreams. The most enduring and significant of these are, of course, those belonging to its indigenous inhabitants who have been there, it is believed, for around 40,000 years. Jump forward to recent centuries and we find new dreamers – the pearlers, the gold prospectors, the pastoralists,, the farmers (with their ambitious Ord River Scheme), the miners and, most recently, the tourists.

It is a huge region occupying an area that is about three times the size of England and it is beautiful, with its beaches, gorges, waterfalls, rivers, lakes and stunning sandstone and limestone rock formations. It has a long and rich indigenous culture and a fascinating, if not always admirable, colonial history. In other words, it’s a region that is of much interest, historically, culturally, socially and geologically.

The most famous book about the region is, surprisingly, a history,  Mary Durack‘s Kings in grass castles (1959), which chronicles her family’s story from their migration from Ireland in the mid-19th century to their life as Kimberley pastoralists in the mid-20th century. Durack wrote other histories, as well as novels, children’s books, and articles. She wrote sympathetically about the indigenous inhabitants and provided practical help and support to indigenous writers and artists.

Many Australian writers, including some I’ve mentioned in recent Monday Musings like Ion Idriess and Henrietta Drake-Brockman, have set writings in the area. Novelist Dora Birtles describes the town of Wyndham:

Wyndham lay flat under the moonlight, its main street, its corrugated iron roofs, its mud flats by the mangrove edges, drawn into main relief, in highlight and dark shadow like the strong, rough contrast in a lino-cut, white and black. The salt pans glittered sharp as ice. It was not without beauty in its starkness…

Other writers who have written about the area include Leslie Rees and Randolph Stow, who worked at a mission for several months and used this experience in his novel To the islands.

A more recent Australian writer who has set writing here is Tim Winton, in Dirt Music. In an interview he said:

Lu gets to see something of the endurance and power of Aboriginal wisdom. For someone like him, a southerner if you like, with farming connections, he’s mostly been exposed to indigenes as victims, and being in the remote parts of the Kimberley he sees more power, more confidence, more evident, extant culture that resonates, educates him in an oblique way.

But I’ll conclude with a poet I don’t know, because his description conveys a wonderful sense of the region, some of which reflects my own, admittedly brief, experience:

Fire-red mountains, fissured and caverned,
lilac-hazed ranges, red-purple ravines,
have reared round, receded, and reappeared
all  day through my vision. This is the region
of baobab trees, of monstrous obese
baobabs squatting in chaos of sun-fired,
sun-blackened boulders in the ranges’ ravines.

— Ronald Robinson, “Kimberley Drovers”

Thanks to Peter Pierce’s The Oxford Literary Guide to Australia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, for the bulk of the literary background in this post.

16 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Kimberley dreaming

  1. I have long wanted to travel in this region although it seems beyond my hopes at the moment. Lovely poem – makes me think of travelling through Burkina Faso! I remember reading To the Islands in high school and loving it.
    Ps must thank you for the Deborah Robertson recommendation. I truly enjoyed Careless.

  2. I read the Mary Durak when I was a teen and just loved it! I do wonder about how it would stand up to a reread now, so I think I will start with just remembering with fondness.

  3. Mummum, my brain is melting and I want to be in the Bungle Bungles with you. I want to lie down amidst “sun-blackened boulders in the ranges’ ravines” and write my own kind of poetry rather than reports. Miss you.

    • You can always write poetry anywhere … But I do thank you, Hannah, and your school assignment for introducing me to the Bungles. did you know that they really only came to public notice in 1983?

  4. One of the best books I have read read on outback Australia and Aboriginal Culture is The Songlines ,by Bruce Chatwin. This book is a memoir of his travels in outback Australia where he meets a variety of characters that make up the land. It is a bit like reading someone’s dream. I have never been to the Kimberley Region but is one place I must visit.


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