Exploring Lake Nash in the early 1920s

Lake Nash. Photo from Agriculture Australia.
Lake Nash. Photo from Agriculture Australia.

IT was not yet 1926 when a young jackaroo mustering near Lake Nash stopped what he was doing and looked to the horizon.

The lake is not far from the border between the Northern Territory and Queensland.

A cattle station since 1879, the country there is black soil over limestone plains and covered in Mitchell grass.

The fellow's name was Arthur Groom, and he had spied a family with horses and a wagon droving a herd toward the west: A man, woman and four children.

They were going to Central Australia, or so Groom would later write, "out" to the Sandover River Country, east of the Overland Telegraph Line to take up land somewhere "out there".

Though Groom describes the family's mission as "utter lunacy", the memory of them and their audacious intent haunted him for much of his life.

Soon after, Groom left Central Australia for Brisbane, where he had boarded to finish school, and took a job writing for the Sunday Mail newspaper.

However his time as a jackaroo on the Barkly, and the family he had spotted that day bound for the Centre, stayed with him.

Much later Groom would write: "Someday I would go back, and . . . find out the name of the man who had taken faith and loyalty and crossed the desert.

"Even more important, perhaps, I might find out what was being done to ease the passing of Australia's primitive man."

Groom subscribed to a Doomed Race theory of Aborigines, still popular at the time and which had long predicted a rather glum future for "Australia's primitive man".

The perception that Aborigines were a "doomed race" was popular among white Australians from the early 19th Century.

Extinction was the black man's expected destiny, a belief historian Russell McGregor suggests held sway until the 1950s, withering rapidly after the Second World War.

It is likely Groom had no inkling back then but his longing for the Centre, combined with an unwavering curiosity and a pair of stout legs for walking, would eventually lead to large tracts of Australia's inland being protected under a system of National Parks.

Born in 1904 at Caulfield in Melbourne, Arthur Groom, a fledgling journalist, would later become widely known otherwise as Australia's "father of conservation".

An outdoor photographer of some note, Groom lectured on survival during the Second World War to some 50,000 Australian and American troops at the Canungra jungle training centre.

His extensive walks of the ranges bordering New South Wales and Queensland led him to plead the case for protecting The Scenic Rim, much of it now Lamington National Park, and to propose a reserve along McPherson Range and the Great Dividing Range.

In 1930, Groom founded the National Parks Association of Queensland and served four years as honorary secretary.

In the service of his memory of the Barkly, Groom brought the same grand vision of national parks to Central Australia.

In fact, it is Groom, with his circle of bushwalking friends firmly in mind, who first crowned the Red Centre a "wilderness" in the sense of a retreat into nature.

As US mountaineer and conservationist David Brower points out, a wilderness is "a place where man has not yet set foot".

The Centre, on the other hand, had been populated for some 40,000 years or more.

Nonetheless, Groom envisaged the Centre as a wilderness for bushwalking tourists, an area of some significance that was under threat and in need of preservation.

He pursued the goal through one of my favourite books of the Centre, I Saw a Strange Land, first published in 1950.

In the book, Groom recounts his walks across Central Australia in 1946 and 1947, many alone and without support, others in the company of camels.

Groom was renowned as a long-distance walker.

About 1930, for instance, he walked from O'Reilly's to Mt Barney in Queensland and "selected a camp-site, talked to landowners and returned, covering 70 miles (113km), midnight to midnight".

Such astounding feats pepper many of the stories collected in I Saw a Strange Land, which proved quite popular, its first run of 3000 copies selling out in eight months and prompting a second edition in 1952.

Despite relative obscurity since, Groom's non-fiction is still mentioned occasionally in the Australian press.

In 2013, for example, journalist for The Australian newspaper Nicolas Rothwell wrote of his admiration for the work.

Rothwell observes how "Groom loses himself in the landscape, a realm of depths, a space where the horizons lure the traveller on".

In an obituary marking Groom's death in 1953 at age 49, the Centralian Advocate newspaper called the book "one of the best-read books on Central Australia".

Groom was the archetypal walking activist, his walks and books squarely aimed at promoting his conservationist ideals about the cultural and physical landscapes he described.

He might be compared with John Muir, the Scottish-American nature writer and advocate of preserving areas of wilderness in the US during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Articles by Muir in two 1890 editions of Century magazine, regarding threats to the Yosemite area and the Sierra, led to the region being declared America's first National Park.

An Australian imagining of wilderness was, from the outset, an urban imagining hinged on the difference between city and bush.

By the 1920s however such notions had nonetheless shaped an activity we call bushwalking, in which a "real" bushwalk means a walk in the wilderness.

But where did this leave the Aboriginal inhabitants of Central Australia?

Surely they represent something of a thorn in the side of Groom's idea of Centre-as-wilderness?

After all, they never did "die out".

Many tourists still think of Central Australia as a wilderness and it's a sticking point for some.

Troublingly, in Groom's imagining, a primitive Aboriginal person was the only one in keeping with his wilderness of the Red Centre.

A Central Australian Aborigine with aspirations toward the middle class would never do.

Of such aims, Groom writes: "I wanted to find out what degree of protection over the native men and women and the wilderness areas they roamed in, might be necessary to preserve intact the heart of our continent for the education and benefit of future generations".

Outspoken political commentator Marcia Langton best refutes Groom's idea of Central Australia as a sort of "museum" for primitive Aborigines in a recent article.

"The idea that Indigenous Australians can't adapt to modern life is a myth," Marcia writes, "and declaring their land wilderness' is a travesty of justice".

Topics:  bushwalk groom

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