In August 1931, three half-caste girls escaped from Moore River Native Settlement south of Perth, Australia, and walked almost 1000 miles in 9 weeks to get to their homes. In March (2018) the last of these girls, Daisy Kadibil, died at age 95.
I was so moved by Daisy’s obituary in the New York Times that I wanted to find out more. If this story sounds familiar, as it did to me, you might have seen the 2002 Australian movie Rabbit-Foot Fence, which chronicled their journey. I got the book and read it because I don’t trust movie versions of real events.
Follow the Rabbit-Foot Fence was written in 1996 by Doris Pilkington (her Aborigine name is Nugi Garimara), the daughter of Daisy, one of the girls. Much of what I’ll tell you I learned from this book.
Before the Escape
The British, then the white Australian settlers, took Australia from indigenous people, settling on their land, driving them out, creating fences to stop them from hunting, and giving them blankets (sound familiar?). Rabbit-proof fences were run through northwest Australia to keep the rabbits contained (it didn’t work.)
The settlers wanted to “keep up their Englishness,” and they set about working to “protect” the Aborigines from who-knows-what. They even set up a colonial Protector of Aborigines person. When Aborigines and Whites began intermarrying, the Australian government stepped in and decided to take these half-caste children away from their families. The girls were to be trained as domestics.
The three girls in this account were half-caste (Aborigine mothers and White fathers). Molly, the oldest, was 14, Daisy was about 8 and Gracie was 10 when their journey began. They were sisters, maybe cousins (it’s not clear which). All three were taken from their families in Jigalong, in northwest Australia and sent to Moore River Native Settlement.
When they got to the settlement, they found it a horrible place, like something out of Dickens, with padlocks on doors, bars on windows, watery stew, and “weevily porridge.” There were no sheets on the beds except for when visitors came. A concrete building with little light and no electricity was used for punishments.
The second day Molly decided they were not going to stay, and she, Daisy, and Gracie walked out in the morning. Molly had learned some bush skills, and she led them across a river and into the country beyond. Her father was an inspector on the rabbit-proof fence line, and he had told her if she was ever lost to follow it. All they had to do was find the fence.
They walked through rain, spent cold nights under bushes or in rabbit burrows, and avoided capture by not going into towns. They did stop at farmhouses and were given some food and they caught rabbits and birds when they could. They were also given a box of matches to start fires to keep warm and cook their food, but they were often afraid to light it.
Meanwhile, the authorities were looking for them all the way. One press release claimed that the girls had left because they were new and scared (no kidding!) and “We have been very anxious that no harm may come to them in the bush.” (Since they had grown up in the bush, that sounds pretty lame to me.)
The girls doubled back, took circuitous routes, and generally outsmarted the searches. It’s strange that no one thought to give a reward for their capture, because they did interact with people who could have stopped them.
Molly pushed them all the way, reminding them to be brave and overcome their fears. They had to travel through rough terrain and prickly bushes, which gave them scratches on their legs. The scratches became infected and they had difficulty walking, so they took turns carrying each other (except for Molly who was heavier than the other two girls).
The girls were in constant danger of being captured or starving to death, but they somehow managed to continue. Finally, they found the north-south fence and started to follow it, but now they were in more danger because the authorities knew where to look for them and where they were headed. By early September, the police were increasing their efforts to find the girls, but they still remained free.
On the run for almost six weeks, Gracie finally had enough. She went into a town and learned that her mother was supposedly in a town south of where they were headed. She flatly refused to continue, and she headed out on her own. Molly and Daisy continued, sleeping and eating little and moving as quickly as possible. After nine weeks of travel, they walked into Jigalong.
Immediately, their families took them deep into the bush, not wanting to have them caught and returned. Many years later, Molly said, “Long way, alright.” It certainly was; Doris says their journey was “one of the longest walks in the history of the Australian outback.”
After They Returned From Their Journey
Doris’s story includes information about what happened to Molly, Daisy, and Gracie after they returned and I can update to the present:
Molly trained as domestic help. She married Tob Kelly and had daughters Doris (the author) and Annabelle. In November of 1940, she was transported again to Moore River. She escaped, taking Annabelle with her but leaving Doris at the settlement “to fend for herself with the help of a relative.” Three months later Annabelle was taken from her. Molly never reunited with Annabelle, but she was reunited with Doris 20 years later. She died in 2004. Did you catch that? She was taken from her family TWICE, once after she was married.
Gracie also was taken back to Moore Rivers, worked as a domestic, married Harry Cross and had six children. She died in July 1983.
Daisy trained as a housemaid (do you see a pattern here?), married and had four children. Her grandson said she was a “wonderful storyteller.”
Why are These Girls Important?
I love their courage, especially Molly, who drove them every step of the way when Daisy and Gracie got tired, hungry, and cold. Three young girls, out in the wild, outfoxing a bunch of white men for nine weeks!
It may seem that their journey was a useless effort since they were recaptured. But their story, and the stories of others like them, helped turn Australian public opinion around. I found out that Daisy later in life was active on the Sorry Day Committee, so of course, I had to look it up. Sorry Day, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018, is “the day on which Australians express regret for the historical mistreatment of Aboriginal people.”
One part of Sorry Day is the Stolen Generations project. Their website says,
“Between 1910-1970, many Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families as a result of various government policies.”
The Stolen Generations project helps non-Indigenous people to learn the stories of these indigenous people and to “imagine new ways to live together more respectfully.”
(If you would like more information on why the indigenous children were removed from their parents, I found two articles (here) and (here). It’s tough reading.)