Australia: Filling in the Ghastly Blank

  • Share
  • Read Later

Australia's first census was as simple as counting sheep — black sheep, that is.

On Jan. 26, 1788, when British Royal Navy Captain Arthur Phillip mustered his sea-beaten "First Fleet" on the banks of Botany Bay, he came up with a tally of 756 convicts (including prostitutes, purse snatchers, forgers, highwaymen and housebreakers), 211 military persons, 209 chickens, 74 pigs, 29 sheep, 19 goats, five rabbits, five cows, three mares, two bulls and a stallion.

It was hardly the Mayflower; yet in front of Phillip's molting, motley crew stretched a continent as vast and varied as the United States, its interior a "ghastly blank" of alkaline deserts, its outer rim a sun-bleached jawbone of barrier reefs and ragged mountains. Last week, as computers in Sydney and Canberra digested the raw data of Australia's 13th census in 178 years, it was clear that the ghastly blank was far from filled—and that for many a ruggedly individualistic cobber the ghastliest blank of all is a government census form.

Wallabies & Fossickers. In conducting the continent's most accurate head count since Phillip's day, Prime Minister Harold Holt sent 18,500 census enumerators into the cities, suburbs and outback to track down some 11.5 million inhabitants. Some traveled by plane, some by Land Rover, others on horseback, foot and even skis. Each carried a 33-question census form and a language guide in eight tongues as disparate as Serbo-Croatian and Maltese. When they dealt with the "abos" —Australia's bug-eating, boomerang-throwing aborigines—census takers had to use sign language after they had finally discovered their quarry in mid-"walkabout." Abos, after all, spend their lives on the prowl in the wastes beyond the Great Dividing Range, running down witchetty grubs and wallabies from Birdsville to Alice Springs. When intercepted, the abos tended to be surly, not because of any contempt for civilized counting procedures, but because a 1901 constitutional amendment demands that they be tallied not as "people of the Commonwealth" but rather as part of the natural resources.

Census men seeking out the "gold fossickers" in the Bathurst district of New South Wales—site of Australia's booming gold rush just a century ago —had to pick up directions at remote bush stations, then push into the hills and gullies. At the Turon River Valley they found a pocket of prospectors living in ancient humpies—huts whose name derives from the aboriginal oompi plus a cockney h—and one old recluse dwelling in the straight-up-and-down cliffs of the Macquarie River. In the southern snow fields of the Crackenback Range around Thredbo, Smiggin Holes and Jindabyne, pretty, blue-eyed Mrs. Yvonne Slypen, 30, slipped about on skis counting the locals—a job complicated by an influx of 2,000 visitors for the Giant Slalom ski championships in Perisher Valley.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2