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Smith, Walter (1898–1990)

by R. G. Kimber

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Walter Smith (1898-1990), cameleer, prospector and bushman, was born probably on 2 July 1898 at Arltunga, Northern Territory, eldest child of eleven children of William Smith, a goldminer of Welsh descent, and his wife Topsy White, of Arabana-European descent. He was also known as Walter Purula (Perrurle) and Wati Yuritja (Man of the Water Dreaming). Although he had no formal education, his father taught him the rudiments of writing and to speak fluently in English. From his mother and his grandmother, who lived with the family for many years, he learned to speak the eastern Arrernte and Arabana languages. His happy childhood was spent primarily in the company of other Indigenous children; he gathered ‘bush tucker’ foods and honed his tracking and direction-finding skills.

By the age of 12 Walter had a wiry strength. With a strong mate he could use a windlass to wind up a bucket of water from a well or mineral samples from a mine and had become a bushworker rather than a ‘playabout’ boy. He had good mining skills, could build fences and yards, sink wells, make green-hide ropes and plait whips. About this time he made his first major trip to the Simpson Desert, using camels, accompanying hundreds of Arrernte to a large clay-pan, where they engaged in traditional hunting and gathering activities, and ceremonies. It was the last great Simpson Desert gathering; the 1914-15 drought and the 1919 influenza epidemic killed so many senior people with deep knowledge that ceremonial gatherings thereafter took place on the desert-fringe cattle stations or at the edges of outback towns.

Left destitute when William Smith died in 1914, the large family moved to Alice Springs assisted by the Hayes family of Undoolya station and the police sergeant Robert Stott. Walter then worked for the Afghan cameleer Charlie Sadadeen, meeting the train at the railhead at Oodnadatta, South Australia, and carrying the load by camel team to Alice Springs. Occasionally he went as far as Katherine. He also found himself ‘riding along’ with the bushman Joe Harding, who did a bit of ‘tea-and-sugar bushranging’—stealing horses and traversing the southern Simpson Desert to Birdsville. When travelling from Oodnadatta to the Western Australian goldfields with the legendary bushman Joe Brown, he was initiated at a Pitjantjatjara ceremony. Harding and Brown later took him as a reluctant accomplice in cattle-duffing and camel-stealing (‘borrowing’) ventures, which were common at the time. In 1927 Smith operated a camel-hauled scoop on the extension of the railway line from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs.

On 11 February 1929 at the Oodnadatta police station, Smith married Millie Carnegie; they had no children. While he was away on a prospecting journey to the western deserts, government officials removed Millie to Nepabunna Mission in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia. Smith never saw her again. Working as a gold prospector, gem fossicker, dogger (dingo trapper) and, in the 1930s, as a miner at Tennant Creek, he was also a meteorite and fossil collector in the Simpson, with the most knowledgeable of all Simpson Desert people, ‘Sandhill Bob’. Museums paid him for his specimens. As was expected of bush goldfield workers, Smith rode horses and camels, mustered cattle, shepherded goats, built bush huts of stone and brush, and butchered animals. He understood over thirty desert languages and dialects and learned the traditional law, customs and songs of many groups.

On 26 January 1961 Smith married Mabel Williams at Alice Springs. Perhaps the most widely travelled cameleer in Australia, he worked in the desert areas of South Australia, western Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. He was the last of the Red Centre’s cameleers, retaining working animals into the 1970s, mainly for prospecting expeditions. For some years he lived at the home of his sister Ada at Alice Springs, before moving to the local Old Timers’ Home in 1983. Survived by his wife, he died on 14 June 1990 at Alice Springs and was buried with Catholic rites in the local cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Kimber, Man from Arltunga (1986)
  • R. Kimber, ‘Mulunga Old Mulunga’, in P. Austin et al (eds), Language and History (1990)
  • P. Smith (ed), A Ton of Spirit (1990)
  • D. Carment and B. James (eds), Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol 2 (1992)
  • R. Kimber, ‘Journey to Dalhousie Springs’, in This Australia, vol 5, no 1, 1985-86, p 41
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. G. Kimber, 'Smith, Walter (1898–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-walter-15740/text26928, accessed 18 November 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012