Living in outback Australia in the earlier days must have been demanding. Nothing highlights this more than the epitaphs in Bourke Cemetery – “found hanging in the bush”, “drowned”, “shot dead by police” and “perished in bush”. Like many rural cemeteries, the inscriptions speak silent stories of a history of paddle steamer operators, drovers, farmers, bushrangers, Afghan camel train drivers, brave policemen, publicans and local celebrities.
Set in the burned khaki plains just outside town under the soothing beauty of coolibah trees swaying gently in the heated breezes, the sea of gravestones offers a fascinating hour reflecting on times past.
At one edge of Bourke Cemetery sits a small corrugated building. It was an early mosque and a place of solace for the Afghan cameleers that realised their expertise suited the parched outback of Australia. Their graves face Mecca one man living to a remarkable 107 years of age.
Haunting is the large number of youngsters that succumbed to either an outbreak of disease or reckless endeavour – one horrifying incident with moving inscriptions claiming three young lives when a horses shied at an 1888 picnic day. In another section, a formal row of nuns reminds of the times when a convent helped support the Catholic tradition in Bourke.
A reminder of the frontier feel comes with the inscription to a policeman who dies of gunshot wounds inflicted by notorious and infamous cattle duffer (thief) and bushranger, Captain Starlight. The bushranger’s story has been told in book and film on several occasions making these men into a kind of hero for their bravado and daring.
Another tale tells of a local kind-hearted madman, Barefoot Harry Rice who after failing to save his wife from drowning because he couldn’t remove his boots quickly enough, wandered the riverbanks barefooted for years afterwards in readiness to save anyone else from the same fate as his wife.
Most treasured in the cemetery is the plot of world renown eye surgeon Professor Fred Hollows. From having met the man and been deeply moved visiting one of his early eye hospitals in Kathmandu (an article for another day), Hollows is a personal hero of mine. The Hollows Foundation is my preferred charity – I can hardly imagine a finer gift than the gift of sight.
Buried within a motif of an eye made from small rocks (64 of them – one for each year of Hollow’s life) near an elegant but simple smooth granite sculpture and under poetic native trees, his grave area so tells the story of a simple but driven man who shunned the limelight but whose initiative against cataract blindness and trachoma has bought vision to more than one million people worldwide. His epitaph reads “Fred Hollows, Eye Doctor. The key he used to undo locks was vision for the poor“. People are encouraged to touch, climb or sit on the granite sculpture and contemplate the peaceful and beautiful surroundings.
It is a moving and simple tribute to a man whose life work has touched and continues to touch so many around the world.
Pick up an excellent little brochure from the local tourist office to help guide around the cemetery and wander through the decades of this historically-rich rural town.
This is the final article in the outback Australia series.