Letter from…The Outback

Susan Bradley lives on a million-acre cattle station in Northwest Australia. Her life changed when four aboriginal elders asked her to help promote their culture to future generations

I am writing this letter sitting under a laden mango tree. Corella cockatoos and rosella parrots are chattering as they feed on the fruit, and frilly-necked lizards dart to catch grasshoppers as the birds dislodge them from the trees. The sun is only just raising its head over the horizon, but the temperature is already over 30 degrees. Totally silent save for the birdsong, it’s the beginning of another day in this beautifully isolated landscape.

I have lived on cattle stations for over 40 years. I call myself a pastoralist in this world of labelling. Cattle station life and cattle production have been my family’s livelihood, but my outback life changed 20 years ago when four aboriginal elders asked me to help them to share their stories.

These old men were concerned that their culture, laws and traditions were being lost to future generations. Their strong ties to the land, which remain the basis of their beliefs, were neither known nor understood by other Australians.

My outback life changed 20 years ago when four aboriginal elders asked me to help them to share their stories

Susan Bradley, Pastoralist

It was a time of extensive mining exploration in the Kimberley. These elders were worried that significant sites would be destroyed. After listening to their concerns, I agreed to invite Australians of influence to the Kimberley for a week-long workshop in the teaching of Ngarinyin culture, tradition and mythology.

These old aboriginal men believed that once the newcomers took the country into their hearts, it would not be damaged. There would be two-way learning, two-way sharing, as the guests camped out in the bush, sitting around the fire, or on a riverbank, listening and absorbing the mythology and traditional stories of their culture. 

Little did I realise that this isolated land contained treasures and wonders much more significant than good cattle-grazing country. I had been living with my eyes half-closed, not realising what the sandstone outcrops were hiding.

The huge terracotta rock formations, deep gorges, waterfalls and overhangs contained the most ancient and beautiful art galleries in the world. These hidden, unique galleries can only be accessed on foot (not for the unfit or faint-hearted). But this only adds to their mystery.

Susan Bradley letter from outback
Australians are protecting and promoting rock art paintings to uncover the country's early civilisation

The Kimberley holds unique evidence of early people, evidence that could reveal when and how Australia was populated. It may provide an insight into the development of human cognition through understanding cultural, social and technological changes in ancient peoples. It may demonstrate climatic change patterns and timelines, as well as the response of the inhabitants at the time to those changes. The quantity and quality of the ancient rock paintings and engravings is unsurpassed.

The Kimberley Foundation is now dedicated to solving these mysteries through science. We have established a Chair in Kimberley Rock Art at the University of Western Australia in Perth (over 3,000km to the south), and the board consists of passionate Australians determined to research, protect and promote the rock art paintings that we believe will, through scientific research, uncover the stories of Australia’s prehistory and early civilisation. We are working hard to raise the funds to continue this work.

So, as I sit here writing this letter in this isolated landscape, watching the pre-wet season clouds rumbling in, I wonder who will be reading this on the other side of the world, and if I have been able to convey in so few words what a different but privileged life I lead.

How fortunate I was that those old aboriginal men, all now passed on, chose to share with me the stories of their rich and ancient culture. I hope I honour their memory.