Whispering Wire: Tracing the Overland
Telegraph Line through the Heart of Australia
Review by JOHN KEAN
Wakefield Press, $ 34.95, pb, 266 pp.
The Overland Telegraph Line (OT) carried news across the Australian continent for almost a century; the phenomenon of continuous communication invites metaphor. Author Rosamund Burton calls it a ‘whispering wire’ while others have characterised the OT as a ‘singing line’. I prefer the honesty of the Earl of Kintore, then Governor of South Australia who, in 1891 referred to the OT as ‘the thin red line of empire’.
The completion of the telegraph from Adelaide to Port Darwin in 1872 was a marker of colonial Australia’s growing confidence, and is still counted among the most impressive feats of the era. That it was raised in two years, across harsh and unfamiliar territory (to those charged with building it), was, in large part, due to the remarkable drive of Charles Todd (later Sir Charles).
The OT’s ongoing operation was managed by small teams at repeater stations, constructed at 250-kilometre intervals along Todd’s astutely drawn axis.
Each of the fortified stations was sited adjacent to a permanent water source. From an Indigenous perspective, the strangers took up these positions on familiar Country, where countless family members had been conceived, had lived and were eventually returned to the earth. At this local level, the repeater stations signalled a new era of dispossession and uncertainty. This was in contrast to the colonist’s assumption of linear progress.
More broadly, the OT was a conduit for invading pastoralists keen to expand their domains, the repeater stations providing a string of strategic bases from which their herds could spread. In effect, the OT created the ground zero from which the pastoral frontier could expand. Radiating from each telegraph station, hard men seized critical waters, displaced traditional owners and claimed the adjacent country for stock. Seen in retrospect, the OT was as much about the colonial occupation of the Australian continent as it was about the near instantaneous communication across space between distant speakers of the English language.
In Whispering Wire, Burton takes the reader on a journey from Adelaide, first by bicycle though the Flinders Ranges, then in a four-wheel drive from Farina to Alice Springs, and thence to Darwin by camper van, all the time seeking vestiges of the OT at deserted telegraph stations, and in the form of telescopic ‘Oppenheimer’ telegraph poles and shattered ceramic insulators.
Like Joanna Lumley encountering ‘the other’ on the banks of the Nile, along the Silk Road or on the Trans-Siberian Railway, English-born Burton introduces us to a sequence of outback characters where, in the nineteenth century, station masters bolstered Morse Code messages for transmission up and down the line. Burton’s tone is perky and interested; she is on a journey of a lifetime, discovering the remnants of a now redundant phenomenon. The promise of her reportage encourages those she meets to share a little of their understanding of the OT, and their lives in remote Australia. Alongside these encounters are brief ponderings about history, interleaved with descriptions of wine, drunk with roast ‘dorper’ lamb, and quandong pie.
It is only on reaching dusty Marree, where Burton tracks down an ex-railway man and environmental activist Reg Dodd (see Talking Sideways, Reg Dodd and Malcolm McKinnon, 2019), that more than a page is devoted to an individual and their perceptions of local history. Again in Alice Springs, Burton pauses for an afternoon to listen to Margaret Kemarre Turner describe ‘What it means to be an Aboriginal Person’ (see T.K. Turner, 2010) in an attempt to uncover how intercultural tensions continue to affect life along the line.
After the Alice, we trundle north to tropical swimming spots to experience the inevitable fear of crocodiles, a trope that pervades just about every outsider’s perceptions of the Top End. Burton’s experience of the OT is episodic, and her fleeting perceptions echo the skeletal messages that were transmitted, repeated and bolstered by expatriate operators all the way from Beltana to Peak and on to Darwin.
The periodic nature of telegraphic messages also bears a somewhat paradoxical similitude to the concept of ‘songlines’ in Australian Indigenous culture. Burton makes this analogy briefly when comparing the OT with the songline of Two Women of the Dreaming, who, according to the author, runs parallel to the whispering wire for much of its length. However this analogy is fragile as in contrast to the enduring distributed knowledge systems in songlines, colonial telegrams were ephemeral, pulsing through the hands of a series of operators to be recorded on paper on the other side of the world. It was there, at the ‘centres’ of empire where information was collated and history was made.
Burton’s Whispering Wire has its place in outback literature. It demands little more of the reader than to be a passenger in a rollicking journey through interest points and bear witness to daily meals. The book’s most enthusiastic readers will be found among those towing caravans up the dusty road beside Lake Eyre. Well–thumbed copies will be passed from hand to hand at the Coward Springs Campground. Whispering Wire will be a fixture at Underground Books in Coober Pedy and from the sparse shelves of the Pink Roadhouse at Oodnadatta.
For those whose curiosity is whetted by Whispering Wire, there is a growing literature on the history of the OT, and the men (and occasionally their wives), who tapped out the interminable Morse code messages, transmitting news to homesick colonists, and keeping the wheels of industry turning. Alice Thomson’s The Singing Line (2000) is a particularly well-written and thoroughly researched account of her journey along the line. Like Burton, Thomson is English by birth but has an intimate connection to the creation of the OT, for she is the great, great granddaughter of Alice Todd, the wife of the architect of the telegraph line, and the woman after whom Alice Springs is named.
My personal favourite is From the Frontier, (John Mulvaney et al., 2000), a volume that includes numerous letters from Patrick (Pado) Byrne, a reclusive stationmaster based at Charlotte Waters from 1887 to 1908. Writing to Professor Baldwin Spencer, Pado’s correspondence tells of his investments in various mines, the people of the Simpson Desert, the coming of the first rabbits to Central Australia, all the while proffering opinions on the great political debates of the time. Contrary to expectation, some of the stationmasters were intellectuals who learned of the world while transmitting the global news, as it happened, from remote stations.
It will be a long time, if ever, before the stories, perceptions, opinions and ponderings about the Overland Telegraph Line, the singing line, the whispering wire or the thin red line of empire, are exhausted.
John Kean has an enduring connection with Central Australia and its people. He has published extensively on Indigenous art and the representation of nature in Australian museums. His book Dot, Circle & Frame: The Making of Papunya Tula Art was released in May 2023.