April 2019

Trip to Temora

One of the highlights of the first three months of 2019 was the opportunity to visit the town of Temora in central New South Wales to attend a wedding on 9 March.

During the years I was head of the Office of Air Force History in Canberra the suggestion was often made that the staff of the Air Power Development Centre should travel to Temora, which is only a two hour drive from the national capital, to attend one of the famous weekend airshows put on by the Temora Aviation Museum.   Although the museum has one of the finest collections of historic military aircraft, sadly we never did find the time to make that visit.

Temora is a typical support centre for the agricultural activities carried on in the surrounding district.  With a population of 4000 people, it is a surprisingly big and bustling place—except on a Sunday morning when it is like any other rural town. Half the fun, from my perspective, was the experience of getting there.  This involved flying into Canberra the day before the wedding and taking a leisurely car trip along the Burley Griffin Way, through country that holds a number of fascinating reminders of historical projects I have worked on over the years.

First was the little town of Murrumburrah, just past Harden.  Here is to be found a memorial commemorating the birthplace of the 1st Australian Horse Regiment, which was raised in 1897 by James Alexander Kenneth Mackay, son of the local squatter who held nearby Wallendbeen station.  Mackay featured in my 1976 history of the Australian Intelligence Corps before the First World War, and I still recall the novel he published in 1895 called The Yellow Wave, which imagined an “Asiatic” (read Chinese) invasion of Australia.


During the Boer War in South Africa, Mackay and the Australian Horse largely parted ways. Following Federation the Australian Horse Regiment was absorbed into the Australian Light Horse under the military reorganisation of 1903, and Mackay returned to parliamentary duties in the NSW Legislative Council but still retained an interest in military affairs.  By the time the First World War began, Mackay was too old for active military service but ended up running the Army Reserve that was raised to provide for Australia’s home defence.  He retired from the military forces in 1920 as an honorary Major-General.

The memorial at Murrumburrah appears to lay claim to the entire tradition forged by all 13 regiments of the Australian Light Horse that served as part of the Australian Imperial Force during the 1914-18 conflict.  Incorporated into the memorial are tributes to the light horse in both the Gallipoli and Sinai-Palestine theatres of fighting, and the major battles of Romani and Beersheba.  None of this has anything to do the 1st Light Horse Regiment of Australia’s peacetime militia structure, but no matter, the memorial is an interesting and well-meaning commemoration of an important part of our military history.

After passing through Murrumburrah, the road to Temora passes Wallendbeen village which, as previously noted, is associated with the Mackay family.  Located at the roundabout junction of the Olympic Highway and Burley Griffin Way is Mackay Park.  Memorial plaques here commemorate both Kenneth Mackay and his brother Donald, the latter having made his name as an explorer, particularly of Central Australia between 1926 and 1937.  Donald Mackay’s expeditions took him to, through, and over “Lasseter country” before that term even had any meaning.

Mackay Park itself is a largely barren space, enlivened by a group of cast concrete sculptures paying tribute to the wheat industry in the district—nothing to do with the Mackay family at all, but at least there were enough attractions along the road to Temora to grab the interest of anyone with a sense of history.

Article for Australian Strategic Policy Institute

In early March I received an invitation to contribute an article for ASPI’s latest research series titled “North of 26° South” (reflecting the border demarcation line between the Northern Territory and South Australia). The series fits within the Institute’s program focused on “The North and Australia’s Security”, which aims to ‘develop a modernised way of thinking about the north and security by updating strategic frameworks that remain anchored in the 1980’s “defence of Australia” context’, and to ‘situate the north in a broader discussion on national security interests beyond Defence’.

Specifically, I was asked to write a piece examining how lessons the Army has learnt from the development of its North-West Mobile Force—or Norforce as it is more commonly known—might be used to shape the future role of indigenous people in the defence of the North.  Formed in 1981, Norforce is the regional surveillance unit covering the Northern Territory and the Kimberely region of Western Australia, and employs a high concentrated of reservists drawn from local Aboriginal communities.

Norforce has been a highly successful model for involving indigenous Australians in the defence and security of their home country, so naturally there are grounds for examining whether there is more that can be done to build on this experience to further strengthen Australian Defence Force capabilities in the north.  My article was posted online on 29 March at country-indigenous-australians-in-the-defence-of-the-north.

Australian Geographic revisits the Lasseter’s Reef mystery

In January I was contacted by the Canberra journalist who writes for the Canberra Times newspaper as “Tim the Yowie Man”.  Tim had taken an interest in Olof’s Suitcase when that was published in 2015 and gave the book generous coverage in his section of the Times’s weekly “Panorama” magazine.  He had just been tasked with writing an article for Australian Geographic magazine, marking achievement of the milestone of 150 issues since it was founded by Sydney businessman, adventurer and entrepreneur Dick Smith, back in 1986.

AG’s plan for this anniversary issue was to revisit the articles that appeared in the very first edition, and to update readers on where each of these stories now stood after more than thirty years.  The Lasseter’s Reef mystery had featured in that inaugural issue, so Tim was asked to survey developments, assess the evidence, and comment on the present status of the reef story—that is, whether it is now regarded as fact or myth.

Fortunately I still had a spare copy of my DVD documentary “The Truth about Lasseter” so I sent that for Tim to see where my latest delvings had taken me.  As I had a research trip to Canberra planned for mid-February, we were also able to meet for a more detailed discussion on the conclusions that I reached on the subject.  Although the involvement in the saga of my grandfather, Olof Johanson, remains only one element in what is, by any standard, a complicated mix, I was happy to fill Tim in on the reasons for the views I now hold.

Anyone interested in knowing the current state of play in the ongoing mystery should make sure they get a copy of the May edition of Australian Geographic.