Australian Pioneers and Explorers
'What stories of adventure will one day be written about these western lands. Stories of this one-time deep outback that is slowly becoming inside.'
1895 - 1962
Bill Harney was a drover, a soldier, a labourer, a fencer, a sailor, a fisherman, a ranger. But above all this he was a yapper.
He received only two years formal education and yet picked up so much from his yapping, and listening to others yap, that his knowledge was sought by academics, historians, jurists and linguists.
Bill left home to go droving out of Normanton in 1907. He was barely 12 years old.
'We plodded over that country at six miles a day with sheep, nine with cattle, twenty with horses. At that snail-like pace the country was explored.'
When the First World War interrupted life he enlisted in the infantry. He was only 19. After four years in Egypt and France, and twice being mentioned in dispatches, he returned to mustering wild cattle in the Northern Territory. There were claims that some of his herd was not wild so much as waylaid, and he was arrested for cattle duffing. Before the case was thrown out, Bill put his time in custody to good use, devouring classical works from the local library.
He cashed in his gratuity for war service and took to the sea. He bought a ten ton yacht, Iolanthe, and went fishing for seven years.
He spent the Depression years roaming the Territory, sometimes working, sometimes just looking for it. Days might be spent fencing, but nights were always spent yapping. He sat around campfires, swapping stories with explorers, surveyors, engineers, overlanders and roadmakers. Many were Aboriginal fires.
'I never tired of listening to the humour and insight of their stories.'
He yapped about his life, they yapped about theirs. 'Bilarni', as they called him, picked up a store of knowledge of customs, rites, languages and tribal law. So much in fact, that in 1940 he was appointed Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory. It gave him the opportunity to travel far and wide, seldom sleeping in the same place twice, yapping with new people every day.
In 1948 he retired to write a book. That became five books, and his reputation spread. He was in demand in the southern capitals as a speaker. He contributed bush ballads and articles on his wanderings to national magazines. He was an adviser to the National Geographic Society. He made radio broadcasts on the ABC and BBC. Now he was yapping to thousands at a time.
When tourists began to visit Ayers Rock in the mid 50s, the local Aborigines were concerned for the protection of their sacred site. They asked for Bilarni.
Bill was appointed the first Ranger at Ayers Rock and Mount Olga in 1956. Living and working out of his favourite accommodation, a tent, he issued permits to 100 tourists that first year. Like so many before they lapped up his vivid stories around the campfire, and marvelled at how much he knew, not just about Aborigines and the Rock, but about exploring, surveying, engineering, overlanding and roadmaking.
Many would pass it on. Many still remember it. And in that way Bill Harney still lives.