Plains Folk

Northern Territory


By the time this essay airs, Suzzanne and I will be somewhere in the Northern Territory of Australia. I know, tough duty, but we can handle it.


Our main mission is scouting locations and services for a student study tour of the red middle of Australia, from Adelaide, South Australia, up to Alice Springs, or “the Alice,” as you say in country, thence on to Darwin, in the Top End. The axis tying it all together is the Ghan, the north-south transcontinental passenger service operated by Australian Railways. We’ve traveled the Ghan several times, but this will be our first expedition on the Darwin-Alice segment.


We’re not good at vacationing, we tend to work all the time, but we have booked a day of barramundi fishing on Coorroboree Billabong. We’ve also set aside a Saturday to attend a match of the Northern Territory Thunder, Darwin’s Ozzie Rules football club.


There are, too, a couple of Northern Territorial historical topics of particular interest to us as prairie people. For instance, few people here remember who it was who invested the defenses of Darwin when it was being hammered by Japanese air raids in 1942. That would be the 147th Field Artillery, of the South Dakota National Guard. We need to see where those South Dakota Coyotes dug in.


We’ll also follow up on a lead gathered from a previous trip to South Australia, where alongside a lovely stone country church, we read this on a historical marker: “In commemoration of the departure of the pioneer missionaries from Bethany / 22nd October 1875 / To establish the Hermannsburg mission among the Aborigines in Central Australia.”


It turns out this little Bethany Church, in a German settlement, was the hearth for Lutheran missionary activity taking place 800 miles north, around the Hermannsburg mission, in the desert heart of Australia. The missionaries at Hermannsburg, it also turns out, were the teachers of Albert Namatjira, the incomparable landscape painter. We need to walk the red-earth, white-stucco mission grounds there at Hermannsburg.


The northern trek of the Lutheran missionaries highlights a notable theme emerging as, in our travels and teaching and writing, we reinterpret the history of the heart of Australia. Like Americans, Australians tend to view their history along east-west lines. They celebrate the crossing of the Blue Mountains by Blaxland, Wentworth, and Lawson the way we celebrate Daniel Boone crossing the Alleghenies.


There is another expansionist frontier of the Australian continent, however, and it runs south to north. The exploration of the interior, the building of the telegraph line that connected of Australia to the world, the missionary frontier, and the building of the railway on which the Ghan today operates—these are all enterprises originating in the south, at Adelaide, and reaching out to the Top End, or Darwin. The north-south axis is another way of looking at Australian history.


It is a way of looking at things to which we are accustomed from experience on the prairies, where long drives stretched the cattle industry from San Antonio to Calgary, where custom harvesters traverse the prairies north and south every year, and where today, the petroleum industry has repopulated the northern plains with Texans and Oklahomans.


If the sharks and crocodiles and snakes don’t get us, we’ll drop you a line from the Northern Territory.


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