An Outback Project For Grey Nomads

Trevor Tough JP travels outback areas of Australia to track down the burial sites of pioneers.  Together with an old school friend, Alex Aitken they are finding some very interesting stories.

Plaques on Boab Tree at Old Fossil Downs

How did the project start?
I recognised that I have had an interesting, wonderful and exciting life and had been looking for a while for a project. You have to have some project to hang your passion on and I just couldn’t get excited about run of the mill volunteer efforts, regardless of how worthy the causes. I guess my experiences in the bush, with the military as a survival instructor and having done an exchange with British special forces in the late 1980s made these organisations seem a bit mundane for me. Also, various adventures like walking Kimberley rivers for 10 days at a time and kayaking in Antarctica has left me much more relaxed and at home in the open, especially the Kimberley bush, than I am in cities and buildings with crowds.

I saw an article on the ABC’s Landline program, about three old ladies trying to restore graves in their dying town’s cemetery in outback NSW. I am not interested in working on town cemeteries, as the local shires have a responsibility to do that. However, I knew of many outback graves across the Kimberley that were being washed and eroded away, so decided to work on those.

What compelled you to start the project?
I have a policy that each month I try to do something new, something that I have never done before. This project had the potential to create lots of “new” opportunities – and it has. Not only learning to run an engraving machine, but going new places, learning new stories and meeting wonderful new people. Making the ABC TV program was all new to me.
But the compelling reason was when I understood the urgency is that once the graves sites have disappeared from view, then the stories of the lives and deaths of these people are lost.

What is the aim of the project?
We want to preserve the stories and record the efforts these people put in to pioneer Australia, its outback and to lay the foundation for our country. These were resilient people, adventurous, self reliant and courageous. Not all were saints, plenty were rough diamonds, rogues and scalliwags. But none of them asked for support from the Government, none of them held a sense of “entitlement”. There were few rules or protections for these men and women. Their personas were vastly different from today’s protected and pampered society. There was no safety industry, no dole, no Government safety nets, no medical help, no rescue organisations. Some of the stories are about success and establishing pastoral properties or prospecting, but many are stories about effort, disappointment, hardship and loneliness.

What is your background?
I went to the Kimberley when I was 18 years old, back in 1966, riding horses and mustering cattle. By the time I was not quite 22, I started a shop in Kununurra. I got married there and our kids were all born there. After 18 years in Kununurra, we moved to Broome and had 20 years there in business. During that time I was involved with establishing an Army unit, called NORFORCE, doing my recruit course at the age of 33 and after 17 years service, retiring with the rank of Major. I was the OPSO (Operations Officer) for Kimberley Squadron, so over the years I have ridden horses, walked, helicoptered, driven, kayaked and boated over most of the Kimberley. I haven’t been everywhere, but I have been a lot of places.

Which area/s of Australia are you involved in?
Personally, the Kimberley will provide me with enough grave work to last me out. But we are seeking like minded people to do the field work and to conduct the research needed to mark outback graves all over Australia. So far we have had people from SA, NSW and the NT contact us after watching our ABC program, so we are making progress in our aim of covering the whole of Australia. We need many more helpers though.

How do you find the graves?
In Western Australia we have a wonderful couple called Yvonne and Kevin Coate, who have spent probably 30 years researching and finding pioneer graves. They have written a book called Lonely Graves Of Western Australia. Much of their research is from old newspapers, Coroner’s reports and local history records. So, we have a wonderful starting point to find and identify graves. They have very generously allowed us to use all their work, an act of enormous selflessness that just seems awesome to me. Other States are not so lucky, so researchers there will have to start from scratch in some instances and areas.

Who do the graves belong to…eg: stockmen, indigenous people, station owners, townsfolk?
We have really only just started, but already we have stories about all sorts of people from newborns, to a lady named Ellen Moher, aged 34 years who died in 1885  “as a result of a beating and starvation by her husband”.

One young man, Charles Henry Pite survived a plane crash at Halls Creek in 1934, only to get aboard another light aircraft later that day and along with the pilot, to be killed in a second crash, at Ord River.

There are station managers, prospectors, stockmen, shearers and many young men who died of malaria, drowning, snake bite and suicide. With the pearling industry, the coast is littered with burials of men who died from diver’s paralyses, or the bends, known nowadays as nitrogen narcosis. Many more seafarers in the industry died of beri beri or scurvy, in reality diseases of malnutrition. Interestingly, beri beri and scurvy also killed drovers and young cattlemen who also had little or no fresh food and lived for months and years on salt beef and damper.

How many graves have you identified?
On this trip we made plaques for about 20 and then decided it was too slow making them on the spot. So, to complete our planned program we decided to catalogue the graves we found and I now have about 60 plaques to make. We will take them up next trip, in June 2016 to install those and also make some more along the way. I would guess there are hundreds to be done across the Kimberley and thousands across Australia.

How many unidentified graves do you think there area?
Well, the unknown graves we just don’t know. But already we have found at least six that were documented, but had not been found before

How do you mark the graves?
We engrave an aluminium plaque which is half A4 size, 210mm wide by 150 high and we have developed a sensible layout which records the person’s name, occupation, cause of death and the date. It also has our website and a reference number to our database, so that their story can be written down and preserved and if more information becomes available, we can add to their records if needed. If we know the grave is close by, but we just can’t find it, we add a topline which says “Near Here Lies”. If it is in the open, we hammer a galvanised steel post into the ground and bolt the plaque onto it, using insulators to prevent electrolyses between the steel and the aluminium. Our preference is to attach the plaques to Boab trees, which will outlast steel posts by centuries. We think out plaques will last at least 50 to 100 years and hopefully by then someone will refurbish them.

Will you put the graves/photos online?
Yes, we are doing that already. The website and database is available free to anyone who wants to use it. Can you imagine what a wonderful source of information and history this website will be in 20 or 50 years? Pity I won’t still be around to play with it!

Do you get any financial support (eg: service club/s, government/council/private).
We are self funded. We have received some help from our school friends and one large company. Other companies have been very generous with discounts and helping us by cutting the blank plaques and helping us to buy steel posts.

What are some of the conditions you encounter (ie: climate, animals etc) We do it very comfortably compared to the pioneers. We drive around in air conditioned 4WDs, fitted with car fridges and gas cookers. Some of the tracks we take into old abandoned homesteads are a bit of a challenge though, but it is a matter of taking things steadily.

How many people are involved?
Basically it is myself and an old school friend Alex Aitken and our wives. Alex and I were mates at high school, but he had to leave when we were 15, to go home to run the farm when his father became very ill. We met again last year at a 50th reunion of our class and we just picked up where we had left off all those years ago. I was telling Alex about my ideas of marking outback graves and he committed on the spot to join me. Pretty nice, really! It turns out we are a good team, Alex does all the website stuff and also comes along on the field trips. I learned how to use the engraving machine and am mostly into doing the field work and encouraging others to join us.

What are some of the ways people can be involved?
We really need people who have an interest in a certain area, maybe because they live close by, or have family pioneer involvement. We want these people to develop a sense of “ownership” of their patch and really get into the research, local contacts and the field trips to identify grave sites and document the stories. Some people will want to do the research and others will be keen on the field trips. They need to build their own teams and really work an area.  Then, they can feed all their information into our system and website database. For those who would like to form field teams, we ask them to read our website record of our first meeting, where we set down the “integrity” of how we want to operate. We do not want to be a burden to the station folk and we ask for nothing, apart from their permission and involvement on their property and perhaps to top up our drinking water.

Are there things that people can be involved with that don’t require actually being in the area
Absolutely yes! There is an immense amount of work to be done in researching the stories. Old newspaper articles, Births Deaths and Marriage records, Coroner’s Reports and reading books about the lives of pioneer characters are all good sources of facts and anecdotal information. The Trove website is an enormous resource, but it all takes time and people who are willing to search out the information

If people would like to involved, how do they make contact
They can leave a message on our website www.outbackgraves.org or phone Alex on 0417 176 275 and myself on 0418 957 207 or by email trevor@outbackgraves.org and alex@outbackgraves.or

We welcome their interest and help and will respond to their enquiry quickly.

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