I had not heard of the Rabbit Proof Fence until the movie of the same name was released in 2002. This, in turn, was based on the book, Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence, by Doris Pilkington, published in 1996. But the fence and the media are quite different stories.
As I took the ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ turnoff between Merredin and Coolgardie, it was with mixed emotions. What did it represent to me and to Australia?
A wide rest area enables you to read about the history of the fence, constructed between 1901 and 1907. The construction took place in several sections and this part, finished in 1903, is the place where it started and is named No.1 Rabbit Proof Fence, as a consequence.
The claim that is the longest fence in the world is not true, as when it commenced in 1901 the longest fence already existed, in Queensland. It is, however, the second.
When Australia was settled in the early 1800s, many Englishmen/women missed things from home and arranged to introduce them. Few of these were good for the country, although some, like sheep and wheat, were good for the development of a new nation. Well, rabbits were on the ‘bad idea’ list of imports, their purpose being to provide something to hunt for a Victorian grazier. They thrived in the place and spread quickly to the other eastern and southern states. What did they do? – not much. The following cartoon, appearing in 1880 in a NSW edition of Punch tells the story.
By Contributor(s): Queensland figaro and punch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Within a few decades they made their way across the Nullarbor and were at the Western Australian border. Hence, the fence was built.
There are gates every 34 km for access and huts every 48 km, so that the Acting Chief Inspector of Rabbits and his team of 25 boundary riders could inspect and maintain the fence on bicycle, dray, horseback or camel. In terms of pest protection, it was successful until the early 1930s when drought brought as many as 100 000 emus to the fence line. The rabbits had declined due to droughts and the introduction of targeted disease, so the fence was realigned to protect agriculture from the emus and became known as the State Barrier Fence.
The longest fence in the world?
As an Australian, we have the vast distances to complete such a fence. We also have the second longest road in the world. The Dingo Fence, extending from South Australia to Queensland over 5600 km, was built to keep out the dingoes and wild dogs. In that, it has been fairly successful, but is not maintained as well as the Rabbit Proof Fence.
A shameful part of Australian history is the Stolen Generation. They are the Indigenous people who were taken from their parents and families over a 70 year period, by government officials. Doris Polkington’s mother escaped from such a settlement with her sisters. The account was recorded in her novel, Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence. In order to get home, they followed the Rabbit Proof Fence for 1600 km, through desert, avoiding officials. The movie faced strong criticism and was confronting for many Australians, but it helped to reach the point where, in 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appologised to the Aboriginal People of Australia for stealing their children and all that resulted. Rabbit Proof Fence is an extraordinary movie but I haven’t read the book.
An unbelievable story from the fence, is the one I read in Wikipedia, copied here verbatim:
In 1929, Arthur Upfield, an Australian writer who had previously worked on the construction of No. 1 Fence, began writing a fictional story which involved a way of disposing of a body in the desert. Before the book was published, stockman Snowy Rowles, an acquaintance of the writer’s, carried out at least two murders and disposed of the bodies using the method described in the book. The trial which followed in 1932 was one of the most sensational in the history of Western Australia. A book was published about the incident called Murder on the Rabbit Proof Fence: The Strange Case of Arthur Upfield and Snowy Rowles. The incident is now referred to as the Murchison Murders.
A pause for critical thinking…
Safe travels, wherever you are going and whatever your goal. Take water and a hat. Every day we make history.