Thursday, 15 October 2015


In the days before written history Noongar men and women met on Herrison Island and make preparations for important ceremonies.  The Noongar still camp on the Island, but their encampment serves a more desperate purpose.

After meeting at Herrison Island the tribes would split by gender.  Men and boys and men would walk the north bank of the Swan River till they reached Mout Claremont.  There boys would undergo ceremonal chest scarring and and return as men.  For over 200 generations father and son have asended the mount and performed the sacred initiation ritual.  This law was ancient when Abraham and Issac first asended their mountain.

On the southern bank the women performed their own rites.  What they where I do not know for I am not a Noongar woman and some stories are not for sharing. 

Men on the north bank, women on the south bank, the Noongar walked the Swan river in accordance with the law of this country.  As they approached the sea the men crossed the Swan at the tidal shallows located downstream from today's Sirling Highway.  Here the tribe is reunited and Noongar women meet the young men they once know as boys for the first time.

In the days of the Great White Queen captains Stirling and Fremantle sailed across the world to survey the Black Swan River and establish a township.  Part Indian Ocean naval supply station, part whale processing depot and a large part real estate speculation, the Swan river colony faced difficult beginnings, not the least because it wasn't the fertile land suited to European agriculture that the colonists thought they were buying.

By the time the grief stricken Queen donned her veil in rememberance of her beloved husband the town on the Swan had become a thriving settlement - a place that starting to strain under the restrictions of a river that could only be navigated using shallow draught boats.  If the emerging city of Perth was to take its place within the mighty British Empire it needed a deep water port.  This was a problem worthy of the colony's engineer in chief Charles Yelverton O' Connor.

Work gangs under the instruction of O' Connor dug, cut and blasted away at the mouth of the Swan river for eleven years to create a port worthy of the greatest ships of the scientific age. As shipping traffic grew and the colony was gripped by gold fever, little thought was given to the shallow crossing point once located at the mouth of the Swan.  

The Noongar gave a great deal of thought to C Y O' Connor's act of desecration.  They sung songs of sadness to the waters forever changed by the intrusion of new tidal flows, to the creatures affected by the disrupted salinity and erosion and for the land that formed the stage for their coming of age ceremony forever destroyed.  As they sang C. Y. O' Connor set to his next task - the one he is most remembered for - a water pipeline servicing goldfields of Kalgoolie .

The Goldfields water pipeline was a massive infrastructure project, nation building in the truest sence of the word (Kalgoolie gold miners were not fans of federation, projects like the pipeline helped change their mind).  It was mad, heroic civil engineering - an epic mega structure to rival the projects of that great engineer of the Victorian age, Isambard Brunel.

The Goldfields pipeline was to be the worlds longest water main, 5 million gallons of water per day, 330 miles inland via eight pumping stations.  Its 2.5 million pound price tag had the potential to bankrupt the colony and there was no guarantee that it would even work. 

The Goldfields pipeline would take over six years to complete, the project would lose its political champion to the federation debate and throughout construction C. Y. O' Connor was subjected to relentless personal attack from local newspapers.

On the 10 March 1902 C. Y. O' Connor mounted his horse, rode into the surf, put a pistol to his head and blew his brains out.

The traditional explaination for C. Y. O' Connor's death is that the stresses associated with managing the Goldfield Pipeline project, along with technical difficulties (the pipe and reserviors along the way took longer to fill than expected, resulting in an embarrasing lack of water in Kalgoolie when the pipe was first turned on) got too much for O' Connor and he committed suicide.

The Noongar have another explaination, one where the spirits of the land and the power of ceremony are central.  In this version of the story, songs can kill and the Noongar sung O' Connor to death as punishment for deceration of the Swan River.

Why am I telling you this story (other than because its a ripping yarn blending local history, heroic engineering and gothic horror?)  Maree and I have changed our plans.  We aren't going to tour the south-west of WA.  We are heading east - into the wheatbelt and gold fields following the pipeline. 

1 comment:

  1. When I worked for the PTA I was surprised to discover it was another thing founded by C.Y.O'Connor. They even have a photograph of him on their list of "CEO"s.
    He wears a spiffy white hat and a grin like a naughty boy (Unlike every single photo following him).