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Re-tracing the Tragedy Track

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posted on 2022-03-28, 16:28 authored by Susan Angel
In the middle of the Great Depression, driven by the stories journalist Ernestine Hill had been filing from Alice Springs, the Packer and Murdoch newspaper organisations funded an expedition to the Tanami Desert in the Northern Territory to determine if these stories of a gold rush had any merit. The Sun-Telegraph Expedition in 1932 drew together an odd group of characters: a journalist working for the Packer organisation, F. E. Baume; a geologist from the University of Adelaide, C. T. Madigan, who later went on to map the Simpson Desert; and Melbourne photographer, Franz Marcard. The three travelled halfway across the Tanami to investigate this so-called 'gold rush'. Baume would later write a book, Tragedy Track: The Story of the Granites (1933), from the journey and investigation; and over one thousand acres of desert - tribal lands and sacred ground of Indigenous land owners - would soon be 'pegged out' by prospectors, then sold as mostly non-existent goldmines. Tales of Indigenous resistance to the prospectors dominated headlines at the time as the possibility of finding gold began to diminish. There were others who ventured here too to establish cattle stations and eventually an 'aboriginal reserve' on this land, which became Yuendumu. The land had been occupied until then and for thousands of years by distinctive Indigenous nations. In this 're-tracing' of the Tragedy Track story, many Indigenous people recall their stories of life on the track: of harsh justice for themselves, their relatives and forbears; the loss of precious water supplies and access to tribal lands. They recall working long hours for meagre rations and the devastating separation from their own children by government appointed so-called 'Protectors'. The Coniston massacre is not a distant memory and remains a wound in this landscape and history This PhD aims to 'write back' then, to the more mainstream stories of discovery and gold rush, and the subduing of the First Nation peoples of this region by government officials and prospectors. It writes back with new critical materials and interpretations of this first media story of the making of a track through the Tanami Desert. In doing so, it also follows the many overlooked or forgotten sidetracks which cross this road's path: these delivering no less significant stories of encounter between Indigenous and white colonisers and even researchers. The PhD and accompanying radio documentary draw here on Indigenous oral histories collected by the author in the region, as well as other historical and anthropological accounts associated with the region's transformation and ultimate settlement and division by the white colonisers. This becomes then a newly annotated history where it may be possible to hear a more critical articulation of this place across time. Explored through the lens of cultural geography, postcolonial theory and the history of Australian anthropology - an historical tracing and re-evaluation of anthropological encounters and 'research' in the Tanami as I sift through the historical evolution of racial discourses applied to Indigenous in this region, for example - a new multi-stranded multi-vocal story is sounded in both the radio documentary and the thesis. This creates, I hope, a new map and even key to the stories of the Tanami


Table of Contents

1. Laying the groundwork: re-tracing the Tragedy Track -- 2. Political, historical and anthropological context for re-tracing the 'Tragedy Track' -- 3. White man's dreaming track -- 4. Digging into the Tragedy Track: conflict and massacre -- 5. Strehlow's wagon: on the road to the Granites and Yuendumu -- 6. The Tragedy Track, cultural studies, postcolonialism and critical discourse -- 7. Audio ethnography and the cultural study of sound: two case studies -- 8. Telling stories with the shapes of time.


Bibliography: pages 299-309 Theoretical thesis. Accompanying radio documentary "Re-tracing the Tragedy Track audio (mp3)" can be found on

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Department of Media, Communication and Cultural Studies

Department, Centre or School

Department of Media, Communication and Cultural Studies

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Virginia Madsen


Copyright Susan Angel 2018 Copyright disclaimer:




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