I’ve just come back from a wonderful week in the sunny red centre of Australia – Alice Springs and Uluru. It was hot, being February, and there were an awful lot of flies wanting to be in my face all day. What amazed me the most, I think, was how much vegetation there is and how varied it is. Still, it is most unpleasant country if you don’t know where to go or where to find food and water, especially water, and it started me thinking about the early white European explorers.
My education was fairly typical in Australia at the time and I must admit that what I learnt about the early explorers was very dry and uninteresting. I learnt names and dates and what the person was famous for and it apparently made little impression because I don’t remember any of it now. What has brought the exploration of Australia to life was actually seeing the desert country they had to survive and struggle across.
So I bought a book at the exhorbitant Ayers Rock Resort rates – Tim Flannery’s The Explorers – so I could learn more on the plane trip back to Sydney. It is a marvellous compilation of extracts from the explorers’ own writings – from Abel Tasman and William Dampier and others almost up to the present day with Robyn Davidson, who travelled alone on camel-back from Alice Springs to Shark Bay in WA. These extracts bring the country alive – what it was like when first seen by white men and what they thought about it.
What has this got to do with genealogy, you ask? No, my ancestors do not come from Alice Springs, they come from western NSW, from the Albury-Wagga area and from Blayney. What my trip to Alice Springs emphasised was that you have to visit a place to understand the people who lived in it, and if you can find contemporary descriptions, or even paintings or photographs, then you even further ahead.
We all want to go back to England or Ireland or Scotland to see where our ancestors came from and get a sense of where we originated, but how many of us travel to the places in Australia where our more recent ancestors lived? Even in Sydney it is possible to learn much more about an area or suburb by visiting and doing some research.
Go to the local library and see what they have, or do a search in the catalogue of the State Library of NSW (SLNSW) at www.sl.nsw.gov.au or the National Library of Australia (NLA) at www.nla.gov.au. You may be able to get an inter-library loan of books about the town or area. And don’t forget pictures – the picture catalogues of both the SLNSW and NLA have many digitised images that can give you an idea of what the place looked like even if your ancestors do not appear in them. Newspapers can also show pictures and descriptions of the area, although harder to find.
The Society of Australian Genealogists’ new integrated library is now open. The library replaces the separate Australian and Overseas libraries they had been running and has much-improved computer access. There are still some kinks to work out, but it is much improved over the old 2-library system. Even the chairs are better. See www.sag.org.au for more details.
(Photo of Carcoar, NSW, taken 2008 by the author)