Tag Archives: Northern Territory

Flying-foxes in Outback Australia

Black Flying-Fox, photo courtesy of Nick Edards
Black Flying-Fox, photo courtesy of Nick Edards


The country was touched with gold by the late afternoon sun as Darrell and I drove the last kilometres of gravel road taking us to Wadeye, an Aboriginal community formerly known as Port Keats. Darrell Lewis is often described as a legendary bushman. He had been in Wadeye a week earlier, and had sent a text saying there was a flyout that surpassed anything he’d ever seen. I knew that anything that awed him must be truly fabulous. The flying-foxes were camped by day in the mangroves. There were probably several hundred thousand of them, at the least. Just on dark they had been lifting off – hundreds of thousands of wings beating through the still air, fanning out across the country to flowering trees and shrubs where they would spend much of the night feasting on nectar and pollen. As the main pollinators and seed dispersers for numerous Australian trees and shrubs, they are identified by scientists as a group of keystone species.

Darrell offered to take me to see the flyout, if I could get myself to Darwin. I arrived a week later, hoping like mad that the flying-foxes hadn’t all decided to go somewhere else in the meantime. Everyone out there was talking about it, though, and Darrell was getting texts saying it was all happening. Still, one never knows with flying-foxes. The scientist Kerryn Parry-Jones and her colleagues reported on a camp of about 80,000 individuals in New South Wales where almost the whole mob decamped on one night in June 1989.

As we drove we saw smokes on the horizon where people were burning the country. Closer at hand, the fires had been and gone. The sun lit up the black trunks and brilliant new branches of cycads. We raced past ant hills with fluted tops, and past black and green cycad groves where new fronds formed shapes like wine glasses resting on top of tall black stems. We slowed down through paperbark swamps, and crossed small, clear running rivers. Through hot scrub and entrancing flats, we chased the lure of flying foxes.

Once we got to Wadeye we positioned the video camera, almost holding our breath as we waited. I filmed the sunset, and still we waited. The sky became a deeper mauve, the blue vault grew darker, and still we waited, watching the line where the mangroves met the sky.

When the first ones finally appeared, it felt like a treasure box had just sprung open. The horizon was almost black in intensity, and then it started to fragment as flying-foxes in their thousands separated from the trees and from each other, taking flight and heading off toward the west. Some travelled low across the sky, while others fanned out over our heads. The sky was thick with them, and we could hear their wings fanning the air. From time to time, one would turn and go back, but the vast majority kept going in the direction they had chosen for their night time feast. We were looking at ‘blacks’ – Pteropus alecto – one of the four Australian species. It is possible that ‘little reds’ (P. scapulatus) were there too.

We had no way of knowing how many there were. It is impossible to gauge the number of individuals in a fly-out unless one is an expert. And yet, large numbers are by no means impossible. Even in NSW where the numbers are in decline, there are reports of camps of 200,000 individuals as recently as the 1980s. I was reminded of what the naturalist Francis Ratcliffe wrote about his experiences with flying-foxes in his 1938 book Flying Fox and Drifting Sands. He described a cloud of grey-headed and little red flying-foxes in southern Queensland in the 1920s. At that time the populations were in decline because settlers had been killing them in large numbers. Here is his description of a flyout:

The scrub by that time was belching forth foxes. They rose up in thousands circled once or twice, and then joined the southbound stream. In three or four minutes a column of the beasts about a hundred yards wide was stretched away across the sky as far as I could see.

From a very rough census I estimate some of the flocks which congregate together for shelter in the daytime number hundreds of thousands. Not so long ago a few must have crossed the million mark.

Ratcliffe was writing at a time when flying-foxes were being heavily persecuted. He had, in fact, been brought out from England to carry out research with the aim of eradicating flying-foxes. Orchardists in NSW and Queensland had tried many methods; they’d they shot, poisoned, gassed, and burnt flying foxes. They’d cut down their maternity camps, created a great variety of forms of harassment to drive them away, paid a bounty for scalps, and even bombed them. In recent years other cruel methods have been used with the result that many flying-foxes live with increasing conflict and terror. And of course they are not alone in this: many animals, including humans, are today afflicted with terrible violence.

Like many people who spend time around flying-foxes, Ratcliffe came to respect and perhaps even grow fond of them. And so it was with a touch of regret that he concluded that while efforts to eradicate flying-foxes would probably not be successful in the short run, the populations were in steep decline and it seemed possible that ‘the problem’ would take care of itself. Today both grey-headed (P. poliocephalus) and spectacled flying-foxes (P. conspicillatus) are endangered, and are protected (in theory) in accordance with the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

The awe I felt at seeing the Port Keats mob was tinged with the knowledge that in many parts of Australia flying-foxes are reviled and persecuted. Even as I treasured every moment of the flyout, I couldn’t help but hold in the back of my mind the sense that someday this sight might no longer be possible. For the moment, though, the experience was exhilarating.

We were not the only ones to feel the excitement. Darrell’s friend Mark Crocombe lives there, and he told Darrell that the previous night the flying-foxes had varied their track and flown directly over the community. The children were out playing, getting the most out of the last light of day when the flying-foxes flew over. The kids stopped their play, and they cheered!

Wadeye has its problems, as do many communities, but it also has its strengths. The great flyout was a wonderful moment for realising that this is how life is meant to be: country that is well cared for; animals free to lead their own lives of purpose and beauty. And amidst all this splendour, humans who respond in kind: the cheering children, the watchful and awestruck adults.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

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Parry-Jones, K. A., and M. L. Augee 1992 ‘Movements of Grey-headed Flying Foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) to and from a Colony Site on the Central Coast of New South Wales’, Wildlife Research 19:331-40.

Ratcliffe, F. 1938 Flying Fox and Drifting Sand: The Adventures of a Biologist in Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

For a longer essays on flying-foxes, see:

Rose, D. 2012 ‘Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time’, Environmental Philosophy, IX, 1, 127-140. (See: https://www.academia.edu/4539615/Multi-species_Knots_of_Ethical_Time)

Rose, D. 2011 ‘Flying Foxes: Kin, Keystone, Kontaminant’, Australian Humanities Review, 50: 119-136. (http://epress.anu.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/ch076.pdf)

For a conversation with the legendary bushman, see:



Gurindji Freedom Day and Land Rights

Courtesy of Darrell Lewis
Courtesy of Darrell Lewis

Forty-seven years ago the Aboriginal people of Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory of Australia walked away from a situation that had oppressed them for over half a century. Settler Australians had taken over the traditional Aboriginal homelands and placed a grid of cattle properties across Indigenous country. Those Aboriginal people who survived the early years became an unfree, unpaid labour force that kept the industry alive. They were not citizens of Australia, but rather ‘wards of the state’. In fact, Hobbles Danaiyarri, one of the men who taught me about the history of the region, said that during the long era from conquest to walk-off people had been ‘prisoners in their own country’.

The walk-off was meant to change all this, and its impacts were far-reaching. Locally, it brought the cattle business to a halt, and over the next few years the original mob was joined by Aboriginal people from most of the other properties in the region. From their walk-off camp at Daguragu they waited out the long-term negotiations that would enable them to return home with the prospect of land rights, and with decent wages if they still had jobs to return to.

This momentous event is now celebrated as Gurindji Freedom Day. It remains important because it continues to re-affirm people’s desire for freedom. Equally, the celebrations ask us to pause and consider what freedom might mean in a society that seems determined to equate that term with a neo-liberal vision of individuated self-interest and competition.

Historians have expended huge amounts of thought, research, and publications in debating a set of questions that to me are false dichotomies. The research questions, in brief, go like this: did the ‘Gurindji’ go on strike or did they walk off? Were they dissatisfied with the poor (almost non-existent) wages they received, or did they aspire to larger issues of land rights? Were they seeking to become integrated into the labour market, or did they want to regain possession of their traditional homelands? Did they want to assimilate, or were they holding out for a separate but equal status?

I call these false dichotomies because they assume that in each either-or proposition, only one answer could be right. But life is rarely so simple, and I think all these propositions are correct to some degree. Of course people wanted equal wages. Of course they wanted their land back. Of course they wanted to maintain their own way of life in the midst of their on-going adaptation to the Australian nation. Of course they wanted to be citizens, to vote, to have a share in the society of which they had forcibly become a part. And of course they wanted to continue to be themselves.

The walk-off was a moment of refusal, and at the same time it worked toward new forms of accommodation. Aboriginal people have not only survived white conquest and colonisation, they continue to refuse total colonisation. This refusal lies at the heart of the walk-off, as I came to understand the story under the tutelage of some of the great leaders, including Tommy Vincent Lingiari (also known as Tommy, Vincent, and Lingiari in various combinations) and Hobbles Danaiyarri. Hobbles was a historian and story-teller. He had walked off from Wave Hill with the others, and he told his accounts with the conviction of a participant. His re-telling of an encounter between Tommy Vincent, the leader of the walk-off, and the Welfare agents and others who tried to persuade the Aboriginal people to return to work gives a vivid sense of the disparate views Settler and Indigenous people held about what was going on. Lingiari’s words stand today as one of the great expressions of Indigenous eloquence, made more powerful by the fact that the nation continues, day by day, and year by year, to treat Aboriginal people as a problem to be solved, and, perhaps in consequence, as yet another industry.

In Hobbles’s words:

Lotta welfare mob came up, trying to get strike mob back.
‘You can’t get your money’ (European speaker)
‘No. We don’t worry for money ’ (Tommy Vincent)
‘How you going to get a feed?’
‘Lotta feed in the bush’
‘Bring back the children for school’
‘We’ll find a school’
‘How about medicine?’
‘Don’t worry about medicine’
‘You might be hungry. You must gotta come back.’
‘No. My mind is to stay on strike. I can’t go back.’
‘Flour and sugar?’
‘We don’t worry.’
‘You must going to be hungry.’
‘I can’t go hungry here at the river – fish, turtle, goanna, that tucker grew me up. I’m not going back.’
‘But what about for money?’

This is where the story becomes most eloquent, as Tommy Vincent makes the final pronouncement, directed toward the wealth and power of the nation and of the property owners:

‘You can keep your gold. We just want our land back.’

As Hobbles tells this story, it is rich in irony. ‘Welfare’ is offering people goods and services that for decades been denied, or doled out in miserly fashion. The ‘Welfare’ position casts Aboriginal people as helpless and hopeless. Vincent Lingiari’s responses indicate that over the long decades when Aboriginal people had had to get along without adequate food, medicine, and wages, their knowledge of country, bush tucker and bush medicine kept them alive. And in the same decades, knowledge was added: how to ride horses and manage cattle, how to build fences and how to face up to white men.

A short documentary film made in 1966 is wonderfully instructive. In spite of language that is now dated, the story shows this same set of misunderstandings. White people talk about ‘giving’ land to Aboriginal people, as if the Aborigines were supplicants. Aboriginal people talk about remaining in country (or on land) that has always been theirs, clearly turning the ideas back around to show just who it was who had been taking other people’s country.

I have been privileged to work on Aboriginal claims to land across the Northern Territory over the course of many years. I have visited many sacred sites, heard many stories, and witnessed many people giving evidence about the matters that are dearest to their hearts. By now it is clear that getting the land back doesn’t solve all the problems of how to live well in the midst of enormous social and ecological pressures arising both externally and internally. But at the same time, Tommy Vincent Lingiari’s statement continues to articulate an enormous and enduring truth. If country, or land, is where the meaning of your life is located, then all the gold in the world is no substitute.

Gurindji Freedom Day is an opportunity for all of us to reflect upon how and where we find and sustain meaning in our lives, not only as individuals but as participants in the entangled relationships of land and country.

Further reading:
Hokari, Minoru 2011 Gurindji journey : a Japanese historian in the outback, Sydney: UNSW Press.
Rose, Deborah 1991 Hidden Histories. Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River, and Wave Hill stations, North Australia. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra. Winner of the 1991 Jessie Litchfield Award for Literature.


Film clip: Gurindji Strike: The Wave Hill Walk-Off

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