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A little known breed - those patrol officers of the Australian bush

Fitz - Desert camp
An Australian patrol officer's desert camp


TUMBY BAY – It’s often thought that the patrol officer system was unique to Papua New Guinea but similar systems existed in different parts of the world, especially in African colonies administered by the British.

There was also a patrol officer system in Dutch New Guinea before the Indonesians took over.

And patrol officers also worked in remote parts of Australia amongst our indigenous people.

The patrol officers in Australia were mostly employed by the Commonwealth Government in the Northern Territory but a few states also had their own patrol officers.

Quite a few of them trained alongside kiaps going to Papua New Guinea at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in Sydney and some of them switched between the Australian and Papua New Guinean services.

In Australia they were mainly active in the remote areas of the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia, particularly where there were large Aboriginal reserves.

One of their most significant roles occurred in South Australia and Western Australia during the British atomic bomb tests of the 1950s and later at Woomera and Maralinga during the rocket testing programs of the 1960s.

Two men stand out during this period, Patrol Officers Walter MacDougall and Bob Macaulay.

Walter MacDougall was appointed in 1947. He was an impressive figure, standing 1.9 metres tall with red hair, craggy face and eyes of bright transparent blue that would blaze when he was upset.

One hand had been disfigured when he blew off a thumb and forefinger in an accident with a Winchester rifle.

Macaulay, who was appointed in 1956, was dark haired and shorter with a studied manner and a seemingly inexhaustible patience. He had come to the job upon the recommendation of Professor AP Elkin of Sydney University, under whom he had completed an honours degree in anthropology.

Their patrol area was more than a million square kilometres and patrols often covered 1,500 kilometres a week. Both were natural loners. As MacDougall once observed, he felt restricted encountering the first gate on his way back to civilisation.

In typical patrol officer fashion, both men went would stand up strongly for the people they’d been sent to administer.

In doing so they ran afoul of their superiors, who viewed the nomadic Aborigines who roamed over the vast Central Australian reserves more of a nuisance than anything else.

The duties of the Patrol Officers were similar to their Papua New Guinean counterparts but the big difference was that the PNG kiaps were guiding their charges towards eventual independence while the former had the more difficult task of smoothing the way for Aboriginal people as they ran headlong into modern civilisation.

Here are some thoughts from one of Macaulay’s patrol reports:

“Having waited several hours in camp I climbed a low hill to see if there was any sign of the people approaching the camp … An elderly man appeared and told me he had nothing that I would want and that he had only a woomera and one spear which he showed me and then placed to one side: then he advanced slowly lifting his feet high so that I could see that he was not dragging a spear held between his toes.

“I advanced to meet him and invited him to enter my camp … some considerable time later a young man and a group of women and children entered the camp. They then told me how they had hidden and watched our every movement earlier in the day and how they had to continue their day’s hunt without the aid of spinifex fires through fear of betraying their exact position.”

Patrol Officers were still working in South Australia when I returned from Papua New Guinea. When I undertook fieldwork in what was then the North West Aboriginal Reserve, I sometimes accompanied Patrol Officer Don Busbridge, who had been trained at the Australian School of Pacific Administration.

Fitz - Patrol Officer Dot Forbes
Dot Forbes - skelim pikinini ia
Fitz - Patrol Officer Don Busbridge
ASOPA-trained Don Busbridge

There was another Patrol Officer, Dorothy Forbes. Dot patrolled the vast deserts of the west.

So if anyone ever tells you there were never any female patrol officers you can tell them they are wrong.

The Patrol Officers were gradually absorbed into the larger government welfare agencies and departments of Aboriginal affairs. There were quite a few of them around in the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs in the 1980s bumping over the sand hills in their LandRovers but after that they just quietly faded away.


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Peter Salmon

Phil, Another well known NT Patrol Officers is of course, Ted Egan refer https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Egan

Peter publishes the highly regarded Ex-Kiap website. You can find it here https://exkiap.net/ - KJ

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