Camping with a bush legend

A camping trip to Cape York with novelist Xavier Herbert opened up ANN McGRATH OAM to a world of beauty and inspiration.

In the early 1980s, the Australian novelist Xavier Herbert invited me to join him on a camping trip in Cape York in far north Queensland.

At the time I was working as a lecturer in Darwin and completing my PhD on Aboriginal labour in the northern cattle industry.

To gain a feel for the Northern Territory's past, my supervisor at LaTrobe University had recommended that I read Xavier Herbert's novels.

After Capricornia, I read Poor Fellow My Country. These historical novels shockingly portrayed white Australia's greed and cruelties and, in particular, men's often secretive relationships with Aboriginal women.

Although the first novel won the Sesquicentenary prize for literature in 1938 and the other the Miles Franklin Prize, few Australians read these novels today.

Yet they leave a powerful imprint.

When I first arrived in Darwin to do my research, I realised I was seeing the north through Herbert's eyes.

I met Herbert in person at the Finnis River Land Claim, one of the earliest Aboriginal land claim hearings held in the Northern Territory.

He and I were both appearing as witnesses.

Herbert had a long relationship with the Kungarakany claimants the McGinness family, renowned Aboriginal rights activists proud of their Aboriginal-Irish heritage.

When Herbert unexpectedly phoned me at work some time afterwards, I was thrown.

This was the teaching break; how dare he intrude upon my PhD writing?

Additionally, an uncomfortable gender thing was going on. I was 24, Herbert was 79 years old.  

His wife Sadie had died the previous year, and he made no secret of his desire for a female helpmate who he would reward with the chance to write his authorised biography.