When you hear people use the word “country” up here in far north Queensland, they don’t mean a nation, or the opposite of “city”.
Country means an area of land, usually defined by its natural features, rather than fences or lines on maps. The word demands an adjective – rough, magic, hard, dry, old – to help tell the story of why that place is special to you. Could be a small patch of scrub or a vast expanse. It’s what it means to you that shapes the way you use the word, even how you say it.
Indigenous people talk about “country” in a way that stretches European understanding of the word. Their perspective is shaped by an abiding spiritual connection to land. It’s full of story places, going back to creation times. Their right to live on the land and use its resources requires them to look after it, physically and spiritually.
When Europeans came to FNQ, they wanted to raise cattle, to look for gold. Their ideas of ownership were alien to local indigenous beliefs. In some places, differences were accommodated. In others, conflict ensued.
By the late 1800s, Aboriginal men were working as ringers and cattlemen, mustering and droving all over FNQ. It took a century for them to win the right to be paid the same as white workers, but few doubted their skill.
Victor Lawrence has spent most of his life working as a cattleman on Rokeby Station, near Coen. The area is his traditional country, but its current status as a national park, and his medical condition, limit his access.
In Coen, Victor told me about his life as a top cattleman, and why Rokeby Station is so important to him.