© Tom McILveen

Winner, 2023 Silver Quill competition Serious WA State Championships, Toodtay, WA.

They came when the colours of season were turning
from green to magenta and burgundy red.
They came when the sun was a demon and burning
the souls of the living and bones of the dead.

On camels and horses, they rode in formation,
abreast of each other, together as one...
in silence they shuffled, without conversation,
immersed in the haze of a merciless sun.

T’was Robert O. Burke who elected to lead them
through desert and scrub where the skies never rained,
and William J. Wills who neglected to heed them,
when camels and horses and men had complained.

“If only we’d come when The Cooper was flowing,
we might have been able to follow its course,
instead of just wandering north without knowing
its true destination or primary source.”

If only they’d come at the start of September,
they may have been welcome and given respite
from summer’s inferno and hell of December,
that bleaches the Spinifex grasses to white.

Perhaps they were destined for fortune and glory,
these men who had ventured to places unknown...
but history tells of a different story –
of those who had died in the outback alone.

Soon others were able to venture and follow
the tracks that were laid by these brave pioneers;
as one would appear like a migrating swallow –
a hero, to conquer uncharted frontiers.

When Ernest J. Henry retired as a cropper,
his future and fortune were set to unfold.
Prospecting for metals he’d come upon copper,
as perfect as jade and as precious as gold.

The town of Cloncurry arose from the rubble
of diggings by miners and back-breaking toil;
as cattle and sheep came to graze on the stubble
of grasses that sprung from the newly tilled soil.

As stations were settled and numbers expanded,
the outback had seemed to be conquered at last.
For many had come with their swags empty-handed,
to bury the bones of an uninterred past.

The women and men who had come were rewarded
with treasures more precious than metals and ore.
For those who’d remained, would be duly afforded
a freedom they’d never imagined before.

The outback is more than just wide open spaces;
it’s more than just copper and cattle and sheep;
there’s something still sacred in uncharted places,
where wandering spirits of yesterday sleep.

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