I Saw A Strange Land – Arthur Groom

I owe my thanks to Nicolas Rothwell (Northern Australian journalist and author) who highlighted this book in his best reads of 2013 that featured in “The Weekend Australian” on 21/12/2013. Even though this book was first published in 1950, Rothwell chose it as his best read as it “inveigled its way into my heart, made its home there and drew my thoughts often to the half-forgotten author who set down its words”.

The book is a record of Arthur Groom’s journey through Central Australia, through the Lutheran missions, walking the MacDonnell Ranges and then on foot, with a camel train, (with Indigenous Guides) from Hermensburg to “Oolra and Kattatuta” (Uluru and Kata Tjuta nowadays or Ayres Rock and the Olgas until 1999). As many of you would know I’ve been working in the Central Australian desert for the last three and a half months, so this world is close to my heart. I frequently get asked to describe the place and quite often I’ve been lost for words, how to describe the remoteness, the sheer size of everything, the ancient landscapes and more. It would appear as though Arthur Groom has found connection with the lands and has captured the essence of all of these elements.

There were times when I reflected upon the unusual journey in search of respite and clarity of
thought. The world and its problems were distant and unreal. The great monoliths in the desert
were so symbolic of defiance amid desolation that I could not fail to gain at least some strength of
purpose at the sight of them. I do not think any of the few white men who have travelled slowly
towards them in a desert pilgrimage, have not been affected in the same way.

Amazingly the same issues that we seem to face today were issues back in the late 1940’s, even
though you can see a change in attitudes there is still a sense of helplessness.

The native needed vast space in his own domain, freedom, unlimited movement, and time to
gather his own bush food and water so necessary to provide a diet that was instinctive to him, and
as definite as the centuries. The country was far too poor to support large community groups, and
thus most of the time they must hunt and collect bush foods in small groups or families. Every
advance of the white settler interfered with known supplies of food and water. Gradually the
bewildered remnants of once strong tribal units either moved into the nearest white settlements
and lost their tribal beliefs in beggary, or turned to the Mission for help; but unhygienic
congregation about the Mission soon eliminated natural greens and roots; and there was no
immediate compensation.
It set up and appalling problem in humanity that has been understood by very few people.

Page after page of this book I could quote as it addresses the core of the indigenous problems
about 70 years ago, you cannot help but wonder why the subtle change in attitudes but so little
progress?

Thousands of years of wandering stripped the Central Australian aboriginal of independent ability to
plan a future, and made him master only of the moment. His dwellings always have been
temporary crude things of sticks and leaves and grass, built in a few hours and abandoned at the
mystic call of far-away food, water, or tribal ceremony. He gorged himself today, starved
tomorrow, and shared his temporary possessions. He believed in his descent from spirit and dream
forms of totemic ancestors in an amazingly intricate and ceremonial network, which still baffles
many of the world’s foremost anthropologists. A curiously talented race, with the minds of
designing mathematicians yet little ability to count; whose great strength and past lay back in the
ages of legend and ceremony; whose future was never their own concern, but the pawn of
circumstance; a people who could not think ahead, but feverishly worshipped the traditions of the past.<

Second hand copies of this best seller from the 1950’s exist in abundance (my copy was marked
as “fine”, I’d describe it as poor as it is heavily yellowed and warped but for $12 I can’t complain)
and I’d urge you to seek out a copy as the description of his journeys, his dated but concerned
attitude to the indigenous people and defining of our own remoteness in such a harsh landscape is
a story that has also come back to me on many occasions. The only concern I did have was the
referrals to various locations and with a dated map of the region it was a little hard to locate
exactly where he was travelling as some of the cattle stations no longer exist or are referred to as
something else nowadays. Having said that I’ve learned about a number of still existing stations
such as Angus Downs, Palmer Station and more. A great book for anybody travelling in Central
Australia – Alice Springs may not be as rough and ready now but imagining the times he describes
is not too hard.

The black and white photos throughout also show that little of the landscape has changed in the last
70 years, I just snap them in colour.

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