In search of the real rabbit proof fence

Rabbit Proof Fence with bush in the outback

Bruce Newton

Posted April 18, 2017

On the trail of one of Western Australia’s disappearing historic icons.

It is a path less travelled, yet intrinsic to our national story. The rabbit-proof fence is one of the great construction achievements of our history, and there are rewards aplenty in seeking out its remains in the orange-dusted heart of Western Australia.

The rabbit-proof fence is best known for the 2002 film of the same name. Based on a book by Doris Pilkington Garimara, it followed the epic journey of three Aboriginal girls along the fence from confinement near Perth back to their home in the north of the state.

A true story, those girls in fact followed all three fences that were built more than 100 years ago in a futile attempt to hold back the rabbit plague sweeping across the Nullarbor from the east.

Rabbit-proof fence No. 1 was completed in 1905 and stretched 1834 kilometres from the south coast at Bedford Harbour near Esperance to Eighty Mile Beach on the north coast. It was claimed at the time to be the longest fence in the world.

Completed in 1907, the 1165-kilometre rabbit-proof fence No. 2 was constructed further west, running from Point Ann on the south coast and parallel to No. 1, until turning north-east near Yalgoo to eventually intersect with No. 1 west of Wiluna. The shortest fence, No. 3, ran east-west from an intersection with No. 2 near Yalgoo 257 kilometres to the coast at Kalbarri.

Car next to rabbit proof fence

These three fences took hundreds of labourers five years to build and consumed hundreds of thousands of pounds. Workers carved the fences and the maintenance tracks that ran alongside them out of virgin bush by hand, digging the ditches, cutting down trees and shaping the posts as they went.

Now only selected sections of the fences are still used for their intended purpose, with wild dogs, foxes and emus now the target rather than rabbits.

The officially maintained sections of what is now known as the state barrier fence are off-limits to all but maintenance crews. Great swathes of the original fences have been taken over by farmers to mark boundaries and other sections have fallen into disrepair. A significant piece of history is slowly disappearing.

Allan Rogers, a farmer who has spent his life beside fence No. 2, has campaigned for years to gain official recognition for the fence and those who built and maintained it.

As president of the Cunderdin Historical Society, Allan leads the campaign for a rabbit-proof fence commemorative project to be set up there. Cunderdin, on the Great Eastern Highway, is where trains arrived from Fremantle with supplies to build fence No. 2.

But Allan is in his 80s, and he and a small group of supporters have been trying without success to gain funding for the project for more than a decade. “It’s dedicated to the men and women who built the longest fence in the world,” he says. “We learned from their endurance.”

Worthy as it may be, commemorating the fence is clearly a concept not everyone has been able to grasp, not helped by the fact the fences traverse 34 shires.

Man holding wire fence

As we drive north through the wheatbelt country hunting for No. 2, we find the occasional signpost and plaque. At Wubin, No. 2 is commemorated in a small museum. Next to the fence just outside town we find the grave of a worker who succumbed while it was being built.

But for the most part the fence is unnoticed and unmarked, not even listed on all maps. Every now and then we find an original section, distinctive with its jam tree posts, white gum strainers and hexagonal wire buried six inches into the ground to foil the burrowing rabbits.

Finding a section of fence is a triumph, the hunt made worthwhile by the spectacular and vast country it dissects. Like a red arrow, the gravel road runs to the horizon. It dips into a long, shallow valley and then up the far side. A thin strip of scrubby trees mark its width, then the fence, then beyond that endless wheat fields stretch to all points of the horizon, merging into the faded blue edges of a massive sky.

It takes 20 minutes or more rolling at a steady 100km/h, orange dust swirling over and behind our Nissan Patrol, to drive from one crest to the next. Get there and it’s as if we haven’t moved; the same red thread, the same thin demarcation line of grey-green, the same wheat fields, fence and sky.

We are here during harvest and squadrons of GPS-controlled headers march across the fields. It’s baking hot, the wind whipping in from the desert, flies coating us every time we step from the Patrol.

Occasionally we divert into small towns near the fence. They are often tired and worn, one in every three or four showing signs of vitality. Some, like Big Bell, are officially marked on the map as ghost towns. Little is left there apart from the remnants of a pub and a church, the two houses of Aussie worship.

Open road in the outback

Wheat fields give way to blisteringly white salt lakes, then north of the tiny, baked community of Yalgoo to rocky, harsh desert country studded with scrubby gums and wattles. It’s incredible to think that to our north and east the No. 1 fence still has more than 1000 kilometres to run to the Indian Ocean.

It’s also remarkable to consider that for the first 40 years of their existence the fences were maintained by hundreds of ‘line runners’ who kept their section in good order. They lived in primitive, isolated conditions for months at a time; rode horses, camels and bicycles. Many were refugees, loners, and World War One survivors unable to cope in society.

As one line runner wrote to his girlfriend in the 1920s: “Be prepared for a rough time when I get down there; because I am half mad, hair down my back, grey, no teeth, clothes all in holes, no socks and only one boot. Thought I better tell you that so you may be able to find me in the crowded streets.”

By the 1950s the line runners had gone and the rabbits had long since found their way to the WA coast. Myxomatosis had thinned their ranks, making farming east of the fences far more viable. The rabbit population continues to fluctuate today thanks to the calicivirus.

Through it all the fence has remained for more than 100 years, bisecting an enormous landscape not often seen by outsiders. A journey along its length is a trip into our history and heartland undoubtedly worth taking.