WHEN ERNESTINE HILL, the pioneering Australian journalist, visited what she called the “ports of sunset” on the West Australian coast in the 1930s, travelling rough with her swag and typewriter, she encountered bits and pieces of Australia’s maritime history that have since largely been overlooked. For when it comes to the geopolitics of Australia’s oceanic surrounds, the Indian Ocean is lapping at the less-significant back door of the national imaginary, while for the east-coaster, every new day dawns over the Pacific, the sun shining from the direction of our all-important easterly neighbours.
“From 1907 to 1914, Whim Creek,” Hill writes of a Pilbara port, “with hundreds of employees, shipped 50,000 tons of oxidised copper ores to London in the Singapore ships and its own fleet of three-masted barques.” And further south, at Carnarvon, she walks on the jetty, “a mile and a quarter in length, [where] five or six ships a month call, to carry away the loading of the six-ton wool trucks, and sandalwood from the desert, that is shipped to the East from Fremantle …” Here she spies “the weirdest vehicle imaginable, a railway trolley with a mast and sail, tangible evidence of a faux pas of long ago. When the Singapore ships are in, this sober little truck heaves up her square of canvas and, to the amazement of onlookers, goes sailing along the jetty, gay as a pearling lugger in the south-easter, to scatter the seagulls and come to her moorings in the railway yards beside the respectable freight engine.”
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