At the edge of Australia’s imagination, you can find Bourke. For a town that I thought would be famous enough for the expression ‘Back O’Bourke’, most Melbournians I’ve spoken to have no idea where I am.
On a side note, it’s also been a poor reflection on my friends’ knowledge of Australian geography. When I’ve described the one-thousand-kilometer distance between Melbourne and Bourke, I’ve been surprised by how many people have asked, ‘is that still in Victoria?’
Sadly for people who have heard a bit about this part of the world, it comes with a terrible reputation. Bourke is notorious for crime, drought and unrest.
Sitting here on my last day in town, I have definitely been challenged. In Bourke I had hoped to find a place that defies the stereotypes. This hasn’t been my experience of Bourke. What I have found is a largely unhappy and segregated town. A river port that had its glory days over one hundred years ago when trade flowed down the Darling .
Bourke is a town where buildings have fallen into disrepair, glass lies shattered across streets and too many children play in the garbage.
Most young people I’ve met are bored out of their minds and the gloom kicks in as the years progress.
Of course there are contrasts that exist here and enough residents are doing well enough for themselves but if the saying goes that we’re only as well off as our poorest residents then Bourke is deeply deprived.
As a Melbournian and outsider I’ve been met with suspicion and a reluctance to talk by people who call Bourke home, I can understand that. There’s a basic question that people ask themselves when we meet “how can he possibly relate to my life here?”
It’s a fair question and the answer is: I can’t. I can only listen, intellectualise and empathise. Having my assumptions of Australia challenged and spending time here is something that has been really challenging but also necessary. I think that all Australians should spend some time here if they get the chance.
Bourke has drilled home how comfortable I’ve become in my own Australian bubble. It’s been a painful reminder of how little time I spend thinking about and even more importantly feeling the legacy of dispossession and subjugation that the bubble is based on.
For people who call Bourke and similar places home, it’s an even more complex picture with the added difficulties of drought, regional poverty and isolation.
At the edge of the desert, at the edge of Australia’s imagination lies a Pandora’s box that most of us keep buried deep away. That’s really not helpful for any of us.
(Bourke, July 2020, photos: Evan Wallace)