QUARTERLY ESSAY 24 No Fixed Address



Eric Rolls

No Fixed Address is a fascinating and learned account of lives unknown to most of us. During one remarkable stretch the reader lives with Robyn Davidson among the nomads of Rajasthan. These are nomads by tradition and by their own naming. But I question her statement that “Traditionally oriented Aborigines are constantly on the move.”

After years of working on An Unknown People: Aboriginal Australians, I hesitate to call them “nomads” or even “hunter-gatherers”. They were farmers by fire; they managed the land to suit themselves but with absolute knowledge of the consequences of their actions. Even today the Gumatj people of Blue Mud Bay on the western shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria extend the fruiting of cycads from weeks to months by strategic firing. On Cape York, where the big game comprised eastern grey kangaroos in the south-east and agile wallabies in a wide band around the whole coast, the people maintained paddocks of green grass sprung by fire five to six kilometres apart because that is the distance kangaroos move when they get a fright. Moreover, they remember where they got a fright, especially when hunters made a good kill. So after the first succession of burns, the managers staggered the next lot so that the kangaroos met good food instead of unpleasant memories.

It is necessary to know how many people made such a wonderful job of managing Australia. There are sufficient early figures available to reckon the number who lived on the whole rich coastal strip from the Camden Haven south of Port Macquarie to the Queensland border and from the coast west to the Great Dividing Range. That 30,000 square kilometres nourished at least 60,000 people.

I cut out a rectangle of that size and applied it to areas of equal production on the map of Australia. By suitable reduction of numbers in less favourable areas, ending with one person per hundred square kilometres over a vast area of the dry Centre, the total population before smallpox came to 1,500,000, with the probability that it was 2,500,000. Fewer people could not have maintained Australia as it was maintained. There was no wilderness. Every square metre of land, even in the really difficult places like the upper reaches of the Johnstone River in north Queensland, was known intimately.

Substantial numbers lived in beautiful permanent villages, especially those in present western Victoria who engaged in eel farming. The Gunditjmara people were the first fish farmers, beginning work in 6000 BC to grow short-finned eels (Anguilla australis), the principal eel of those waters and the best to eat. Before they began work, tidal Darlot Creek was fed by the Condah swamps, which were fed in turn from the overflow of Lake Condah. By a complex system of walls and trenches and dams, the people turned a big area into an eel farm. They enticed young eels in from the ocean and held them in the waterways and constructed dams for up to twenty years.

All this work required people constantly on the site. Since they had wall-building skills, they used them to build comfortable houses, laying the plentiful black, trapezoidal, basalt blocks in circular walls one metre high, then finishing off with a roof of bark or plaited reeds fitted to a timber frame. The remains of 175 houses have been found. Undoubtedly there were many more.

The first move in building the eel farm was to dam Darlot Creek with basalt blocks to give control of its water. Then, by building stone walls a metre high and more than fifty metres long, and digging channels a metre deep and nearly 300 metres long, they connected the lake, the swamp and the creek so that they could manipulate the water flow and with it the feed flow. Rainwater draining into the swamps brought important food for the eels and fish, so did every tide coming up the creek. None of it was easy work. The basalt blocks were heavy; the only digging tools were coolamons with fire-hardened cutting edges held by both hands.

Altogether they modified 10,000 hectares. The extended swamps and ponds that they created grew plants with edible roots and tubers; they attracted waterbirds in thousands. They caught the eels and fish in woven cane traps placed in the maze of waterways. There was plenty to eat without much trouble getting it.

A rich society developed as soon as they had more eels than they could eat themselves. At the height of production the eels could have fed 10,000 people, about six times the number of those who grew them. So they smoked them for trade by cutting openings in the butt of hollow trees and hanging dressed eels inside over slow-burning smoky fires.

Word spread about the quality of the eels. People sought them from distant places, paying for them in goods that the Lake Condah people did not have: quartz, flint and stone axes, even spear-like wooden ornaments made from special woods in the Cape Otway ranges 200 kilometres away.

The Condah people also exported beautifully made possum-skin cloaks like those worn by their own lovely women. The cloaks were warm and they looked good.

A highly structured society developed at Lake Condah. Business, behaviour, life were controlled by several chiefs who had absolute control. They had four wives each; no common man was allowed more than one.

The Gunditjmara were not the only eel farmers. There was another system of traps at Lake Bolac on Salt Creek, an eastern tributary of the Hopkins River, 100 kilometres east-north-east of Lake Condah. The Jardwadjali people probably managed it. Up to a thousand people gathered there for a season of feasting and ceremony lasting from one to two months. As at Lake Condah the eels were principally short-finned eels, though there would have been a few less desirable long-finned eels among them at both places.

At Toolondo, south-west of Horsham in Victoria, the same people regulated the depth of water in swamps and made it easier to trap eels by joining two swamps with a ditch cut one metre deep, 2.5 metres wide and more than three kilometres long. They could cope with floods, they stored water in dry times. Near Mount William west of Ararat they put in six hectares of ditches. In a spell as Protector of Aborigines for New South Wales in the late 1830s, George Robinson described some of these works. He also mentioned many low weirs built of stone, sod or timber with circular holes in them to take plaited fish and eel traps. All these people lived settled lives.

The Wangkamana people on the strange, short Mulligan River in south-west Queensland led prosperous, settled lives as pituri farmers, a narcotic high in nicotine producing a drowsy sense of wellbeing. Not only were they the best growers of the plant, they had the best pituri to begin with. These people had so many resources that individuals specialised in their work. There were hereditary makers of canoes, shields, spears and boomerangs, hereditary fishermen, rain makers, medicine men, hunters, messengers, heralds, tree climbers. Among the women were yam hunters, basket makers, hut builders. Above all there were those who specialised in the cultivation and the packaging of the pituri. They carefully burnt off old growth to stimulate the production of new shoots, which produced the best pituri. They dried the narrow leaves over a fire, then pounded them with the ash of yarran (Acacia omalophylla), which, by a strange chemical change, freed the nicotine in the leaves when they were chewed.

They considered the packaging as much as a cigar maker displaying his cigars in an engraved wooden box. The most expert women wove bags out of coloured string wound from the common verbena (Verbena officinalis) that grew on the Diamantina and Georgina rivers and from broombush (Melaleuca uncinata) growing on sandhills. They dyed the string with red and yellow ochre and sometimes with the blue clay found in the Diamantina. They packed the leaves and ash tightly into the coloured bags. In times of plenty, the growers called neighbours to help with the picking. No doubt they paid them in pituri.

Up to five hundred people waited at Goyder Lagoon to buy the remarkable drug as carriers brought it down. Goyder Lagoon was one of the principal trading centres and hundreds of traders lived there for months at a time. That country is now so lonely and so remote that not even a track runs in there.

The Karuwali on the Diamantina River in western Queensland lived for long periods in solid, dome-shaped houses. They built a frame of coolibah branches lashed together with grass twine and kangaroo sinews, then covered it with layers of grass or spinifex mixed with wet sand. The final coating contained spinifex gum. When this layer dried, the outer surface was brick hard. Walls and roof were 25 to 30 centimetres thick, making them cool in summer and warm in winter. Alice Duncan-Kemp, author of Where Strange Paths Go Down, who knew the people, considered that these houses were more impervious to rain and high winds than some early white homesteads.

There is an old song, one of the world’s great poems, in northern Arnhem Land called “The Goulburn Island Cycle”. It begins, as most songs do, with establishing the site, building the atmosphere. They are preparing for the wet season, encouraging the storm clouds, by building their wet-season homes. Some are built to float and are tied like swans’ nests in the lagoon that is on the mainland opposite the Goulburn Islands. The majority are solid two-storey constructions. The stringy-bark roofs are spread with a slurry of termite mounds that is forced between the overlaps. It dries hard and waterproof.

The poem is thousands of lines long. Here is how it begins:

Erecting forked sticks and rafters, posts for the floor, making the roof of the hut like a sea-eagle’s nest:

They are always there, at the billabong of the goose eggs, at the wide expanse of water.

As they build, they think of the monsoon rains – rain and wind from the west, clouds spreading over the billabong …

For a time, after good rain, the people who lived in the dry Centre became hunter-gatherers. They usually lived at wells or spring-fed waterholes, or at dams that they constructed to catch runoff from hills. They also diverted water to irrigate favoured grasses. They walked along the sides of sandhills throwing out grass seed from little emu-skin bags sewn with sinews from kangaroo tails. They burnt small areas to keep Solanum growing happily.

They built accommodation that suited the climate and the general conditions. There was little timber for building so they surrounded basins scooped in the sand with balls of spinifex (Triodia spp.) tangled together in several rows. The spinifex walls gave good protection from the sand that often blew in uncomfortable storms.

The rain gave them the opportunity to spread in small groups over a wide area and spell the animals and plants that had supported them for months. When the new waters gave out, the plants began to die and the animals to vanish, they came back to the stable waters and a settled life. Always they stored surplus food.

A.C. Gregory, on Coopers Creek in search of Leichhardt in 1858, reported that:

the natives reap a panicum grass. Fields of 1000 acres [400 hectares] are there met with growing this cereal. The natives cut it down by means of stone knives, cutting down the stalk halfway, beat out the seed, leaving the straw which is often met with in large heaps.

One man reported seeing sixty Aborigines engaged in harvesting seeds. Most people harvested all the seed they could while it was available, then stored the surplus in kangaroo-skin bags and wooden dishes about 30 centimetres deep and 1.5 metres long. Stores of a tonne of grain were reported.

Aboriginal Australians as the first bakers, the first astronomers, the first fish farmers, the first artists, the first historians, the first people to form strong religious beliefs, the creators of great poetry are unknown to the majority of Australians.


Eric Rolls was born in 1925 and brought up in northern New South Wales. He is the author of many highly praised books, including A Million Wild Acres, Sojourners, Australia: A Biography and Celebration of the Senses. His forthcoming book is An Unknown People: Aboriginal Australians.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 24, No Fixed Address. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 25, Bipolar Nation.


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