I have written before about the images of Outback Australia in the 1920s that my brother and I were given during a visit to Sweden three years ago. These were among a collection of photographs that once belonged to our grandfather, Olof Johanson, and were carried with him when he returned to his homeland a few years after the Second World War. Many of these images were vital for establishing the case that Olof had a personal connection with Central Australia well before the controversial 1930 Lasseter’s Reef gold expedition, an episode with which he almost inadvertently became involved—read all about it in Olof’s Suitcase (Echo Books, 2015).
Other images in the cache of photographs are simply fascinating for showing the variety of places that Grandfather Olof experienced during the nearly 35 years he spent in Australia. Although it was the need to make a living that took him to Adelaide and the surrounding pastoral districts of South Australia (where he variously worked as a wool classer, mail carrier, stone cutter and dingo hunter), the eastern goldfields of Western Australia (gold miner), and suburban Melbourne (weaver of woollen textiles), not all these locations found reflection in the photographic record that he compiled. But some did, and demonstrate that he got to see places that few Australians today would even know exist, let alone think of visiting.
One such locality was Arrabury, a remote pastoral station situated about 100 kilometres south of the north-eastern corner of the state boundary of South Australia—only a few kilometres on the eastern side of the border, so that it actually lies within Queensland. It is an area described as one of the most isolated places in Australia, even today.
Arrabury was originally taken up as a pastoral lease in the 1880s, and by 1892 the property was selling wool at the Melbourne market. In 1917 the Arrabury Pastoral Company was formed, acquiring not only Arrabury’s 945 square miles but a number of surrounding leases covering a further 655 square miles of land—making for a combined total of 4144 square kilometres in today’s measurements! Although the property carried both sheep and cattle initially, it switched to stocking only cattle in the 1940s following repeated dingo attacks on the sheep. Now controlled by the Daley family, the Arrabury Pastoral Company still operates Arrabury and the neighbouring Cluny station to fatten cattle bred in Queensland’s gulf country.
Arrabury in 1927 (State Library of Qld) and 1930 (State Library of SA).
There are several good images in museums which provide a glimpse of what the Arrabury Station homestead would have looked like about the time that Olof Johanson most likely saw it in the period 1925-27. These provide additional context for the three of Olof’s photos that have captions confirming they depict Arrabury, in addition to another two which seem to be from the same sequence of images. As Olof would most probably have been working on the property as a wool classer it makes sense that he was there during the shearing season.
The captions on the back of these three images all refer to Arrabury Station.
These two images appear to also refer to sheep farming at Arrabury.
It may also have been Olof’s discovery of the impact that dingo depredations were having on Arrabury’s sheep that prompted him to take up hunting the native dog as a lucrative source of income, based on the generous bounties that several state governments in the early twentieth century paid for the destruction of what were seen as pastoral pests. Notably, it was ‘dingo-hunting’ that took Olof out into the north-western corner of South Australia just a year or so later, and across into the Northern Territory, when he made the discovery of what he subsequently came to believe might possibly have been the “Eldorado” that Lasseter claimed to be seeking in 1930.
Aside from speculating about what Olof was doing at Arrabury and the significance that the place had on the course of his later life, it might also be wondered what mental impact the experience of bush life in this most desolate part of Australia might have had on Olof himself. It was, after all, just a few years later, in July 1935, that a battered wife was finally pushed to shoot her brutal boundary-rider husband after sixteen years spent on an out-station of Arrabury. It can only be wondered whether Olof ever drew comparisons between the verdant terrain of southern Sweden which he knew from his upbringing and the harsh environment that he saw during his time in the Australian Outback.