Daisy Bates in the Desert: A Woman's Life Among the Aborigines

Daisy Bates in the Desert: A Woman's Life Among the Aborigines

by Julia Blackburn

View All Available Formats & Editions

In 1913, at the age of 54, Daisy Bates went to live in the deserts of South Australia. Brilliantly reviewed, astonishingly original, this "eloquent and illuminating portrait of an extraordinary woman" (New York Times Book Review) tells a fascinating, true story in the tradition of Isak Dinesen and Barry Lopez.


In 1913, at the age of 54, Daisy Bates went to live in the deserts of South Australia. Brilliantly reviewed, astonishingly original, this "eloquent and illuminating portrait of an extraordinary woman" (New York Times Book Review) tells a fascinating, true story in the tradition of Isak Dinesen and Barry Lopez.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Departures
Sold by:
Random House
Sales rank:
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt


There was once a woman who lived in the desert. There had been no rain for a long time and her eyes were tired from the dazzling brightness of the sky above her, the red monotony of the sandhills that surrounded her like a vast ocean. She wanted something green to look at so she took the stalk of a cabbage and leant it against the smooth trunk of the acacia tree that stood near her tent. Then she sat and stared at it, her thoughts drifting in the heat of the day.

I wonder how long that cabbage stalk managed to keep its colour and did the woman ever laugh when she realised it was still there, a sentinel standing guard over her after everyone else had gone home. Or did she not feel there was anything to laugh at, sitting in the doorway of her tent and gazing out, mesmerised by a fragment of green?

She looks down on the softly breathing skin of the lizard that sometimes sits on her lap in the afternoon, basking and catching flies. She imagines the sound the rain will make when it does finally come, like the pattering of flies' feet on the canvas of her tent. The rain will break through the layer of metallic scum that covers the surface of the water in the tank that is almost empty. The rain will bring back the birds with their shining feathers; it will bring life back into the desert and then she will watch as groups of naked people again make their way towards her camp. She looks down at the cloth of her long skirt which used to have a dense blackness but has now been turned into a strange patchwork of dull dark greens. She sees herself as a child in Ireland running through fields of deep grass; herself as a young woman watching a coastline receding into the far distance; herself as an old woman, here in the desert.


There was once a woman who lived in the desert and her name was Daisy Bates. I have set out a series of photographs of her on the table in front of me, like playing cards in the opening sequence of a game of patience. I look at the movement from youth to an extreme old age and in spite of the camouflage of time it is not difficult to recognise the same defiant face and the same stiff-backed body.

The young woman has an ear-ring hanging from the small lobe of her right ear and she is staring out into a sideways distance with pale eyes. How old is she, twenty perhaps? In that case she has seventy-one more years of her life ahead of her, all that battling and hammering at the gates of people and circumstance still to come. I try to decide from the expression on her face if she is as wealthy as she later said she was, or as poor as it seems she might have been. Daisy Bates was a liar, of that I am sure, but the extent and the exact details of her lies remain a difficult territory for which no good maps have survived.

I make a jump through time and here I have my subject in early middle age, at the mid-point in her life, just as I am now, with the past and the future in a state of delicate balance. She has white-gloved hands folded on a black-skirted lap, a high-collared white shirt, a black tie, a black turban of a hat that looks as if it could also be used as a tea-cosy, and terrible dark glasses with round owlish frames that make her appear sinister, frightening, fierce, dangerous, difficult in every way that a woman like her could be difficult. I think I can just see her eyes through the dimmed glass and it seems again as if she is staring away from the lens of the camera, but now there is something disdainful in her expression, as if she does not want to waste her time looking ahead when there are so many more important things to be seen in another direction.

I imagine that the next picture I have chosen was taken somewhere on the Nullarbor Plain, the no-tree plain of southern Australia; you can see it stretching out around her and behind her, a parking lot of featureless land disappearing into infinity without even the distraction of a little bush or the rise of a hill. Daisy Bates is sitting on a chair in the middle of this expanse, her back as stiff as ever, and I can't see any sign of her tent. A wooden tea-chest is on the ground quite close to her and a large but unidentifiable object with a sheet draped over it is a bit further away on her left; she might be in the process of moving her campsite and then these things would be some of her worldly goods, packed up and ready to go. She is wearing an elegant, unbuttoned, black and white striped jacket, with a soft hat of indistinct shape pulled down on her head, and she is looking sad and serious but rather beautiful. There is a white cloth spread out on her lap and on it is perched a human skull without the lower jaw. Perhaps this photograph was taken to illustrate her belief that the Aborigines were a doomed race who would soon all be dead and gone with no one but herself to care about them and witness their passing, but again there is no way of being sure; it could also be the skull of a white man or woman.

Finally here is Daisy Bates when she was nearing the end of her life, a woman in her late eighties with the skin of her neck slack and reptilian and the lines on her face cut so deep that her chin seems to be attached by a hinge like a ventriloquist's dummy, while the creases down her cheeks and across her forehead could surely be felt by hands lightly searching for them in the darkness. The photograph was taken by the English society photographer Douglas Glass. He was in Adelaide for a few days in 1948, waiting for the boat that would take him back to England, and he began to make inquiries about Mrs Bates. He had read her book, The Passing of the Aborigines, and he must have heard quite a lot about her because by then she had become something of a legend, particularly in that part of southern Australia. Everyone he asked said she was dead; died some years ago in hospital, died just recently at Streaky Bay, no, at Yuria Waters further along the coast. They said she was very sad, demented, misguided, good, brave, bad; natives all gone and left her-beggars and derelicts, drunks and syphilitics-natives still there, with her to the end, dreadful sorrow. Eventually he tracked her down and found her living in a little suburban bungalow just outside Adelaide and being looked after by a lady friend she didn't seem to like very much. She was apparently delighted to meet Mr Glass. She dressed herself up in her best suit, the one that had been made for her in Perth in 1905; she clasped her umbrella in one hand and her handbag in the other and she posed on the verandah, an aged empress on her throne. There were daisies growing in the garden and she picked a few of them and held them between finger and thumb, gazing thoughtfully at her own namesakes. She went inside her little room and sat down to pretend to be reading some of her papers with a magnifying glass, the light from the window shining through the white strands of her hair. She led Mr Glass outside into the scrap of garden and showed him how she could touch her toes, swing her arms like the blades of a windmill and how well she could skip, up, up, up. 'Look, Mr Glass! Look at me!' Mrs Bates at the age of eighty-nine skipping in a field of daisies, or at least next to a flower bed in which a clump of daisies are growing. She laughs and says, 'So, Mr Glass, you must send the photographs to the newspapers. That will show them that I am not dead yet and don't intend to be either, there is still so much to be done.'

I would imagine that Mrs Bates told Mr Glass all about her life, especially her life once she had found her direction and was living in the desert. Her voice was deep, soft and clear even when she was very old, and even when she was very old she presumed that any man who pleased her would love to hold her in his arms if only she would agree to being held. I imagine her talking and talking for hours without a pause; the monologue of an isolated person who allows the threads of private thoughts to surface in letters and conversations, even in conversations with strangers. But perhaps by now she is much too old to talk like that and instead she sits there on the verandah, drinking tea and smiling, providing only tiny and truncated snippets of information that drift in the air like smoke.

If I could dictate the words, turn my idea of her thoughts into my idea of her speech, then she would begin by saying, 'I was once very beautiful, Mr Glass, but now as you can see I am very old instead,' pausing to let him stare and smile at her with the tolerant intimacy of someone who will not be staying long, inviting him to undress her of the burden of her age. She does not tell him that every morning she still stands naked in front of a mirror and because the sandy blight has made her eyes so dim she again sees before her, shimmering in the glass, the pink and delicate apparition of a youthful body. She does not tell him, but she looks into his eyes and there for a fleeting moment she can see herself as she once was.

An old lady is talking to a young man, wanting to charm him, to impress him with the complex uniqueness of her story so that he can carry some of it away with him when he goes, help her to outlive herself. Here she is, speaking, and if she says more than maybe she ever did or could say in a real conversation, that is because I am allowing her to speak with her thoughts just as much as with her voice.

'I lived in the desert for almost thirty years,' she says. 'That explains why the lines on my face are cut so deep. Look, you can see how the sun has burnt dark patches on the skin of my hands, my face, my neck, in spite of the protection of gloves and hats with long veils. My eyes are so tired, Mr Glass, and sometimes in the early morning when I wake up I seem to open them into a storm of heat and dust.

'I was five years at Eucla, on the south coast by the high steep cliffs. That was not my first camp, but it was the place where I first felt that I had cut the few remaining ties that held me to my own world. In the spring I could listen to the whales singing to each other in their wonderful solemn voices. The sound carries quite far and mixes with the sound of the waves and the sound of the air being sucked through the long underground tunnels in the limestone; the land there is all hollow, a honeycomb under your feet. I wonder if you have ever heard whales singing, Mr Glass, or seen them thrashing about in the water, male and female dancing together.

'Then I was sixteen years at Ooldea, much further inland and more bleak, but so lovely in its way. Perched there in my little campsite, the edges of my tent weighted down with empty kerosene cans filled with sand to stop it from flapping off like some great bird-and it would have, you know, it would have flapped away when the strong south winds were blowing. Perched there, doing what I could, close to where the Trans-Australian Line cut across those quiet red sands, making a track that could be followed by the sparrows, the rabbits, the foxes, the cats and all the whites, low whites mostly, and it was because of them I needed a revolver, not because of the natives. Ooldea had always been an important place for the Aborigines, there was fresh sweet water to be found there all the year round even during the most severe droughts. Then the water was gone, or at least most of it was gone because the trains used so much, but stiff they went on coming, passing through just as they always had done. It was a crossroads and a meeting place for them and you had the sense that there was a huge crowd there at all times, the dead as well as the living, watching and talking together. I suppose that might explain why I stayed so long, I felt at home there.

'In my dreams, Mr Glass, I often find myself back on the Nullarbor Plain, pushing a wheelbarrow along a stony track with a kerosene can filled with water balanced on it, like poor old Sisyphus with his boulder, up and down every day and no one to help him. I dream there is a storm, a wind rushing through my tent, blowing open the metal trunk in which I kept my papers, snatching up a flurry of torn pages, used envelopes, the battered notebooks I stitched together, everything on which I had accumulated a record of my life; an important record of an important life. In my dream I run this way and that, trying to catch hold of a list of names, a description of an insect, a bird, a tree, the stories, the laws, the traditions of the people who became my friends and who called me Kabbarli, the Grandmother. I can still see the faces of the men, the women and the children who set up their camps close to mine and came to talk to me in their sing-song voices. Sometimes if I stare out at a far horizon it's as if I can just distinguish a new group of them coming towards me out of the red desert, shining and naked.

'I have kept some photographs of the Aborigines, but not many, they don't photograph well. This man with a white beard is my dear friend Joobaich, one of the last of the Bibbulman people from the Perth region, and this woman sitting in the sun surrounded by empty bottles and old tin cans is his niece Fanny Balbuk, a wonderful storyteller. I gave her the woollen hat she is wearing and I think I miss her more than anyone else I have ever known-I wonder if you can understand that, Mr Glass. And here is Binilya, a cloud woman from Tarcoola, with Dowie and Jinjabulla. If you look carefully you can see that they are blind. We sat together at a place near Eucla for almost three years but the time passed by so quickly. This is me holding my umbrella, my royal umbrella I call it, and each of the women standing around me had eaten at least one of her newborn babies. Cannibalism, but nobody was willing to believe me, not even when I had collected all the evidence.

Meet the Author

Julia Blackburn is the author of three books of nonfiction, Charles Waterton, The Emperor’s Last Island, and Daisy Bates in the Desert, and of two novels, The Book of Color and The Leper’s Companions, both of which were shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She lives in England.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >