Article: Books in the Outback

By Mavis Thorpe Clark

Published in People magazine, 15 March 1961

Lonely women say it's so nice to have Harold Darwin around the house

On the first day of every month, from April to December, a blue panel van driven by a tall, sandy-haired man wearing glasses sets out from Port Augusta on 1600-mile round trip through South Australia's lonely and largely arid northwest.

Inside the van is a four-gallon barrel of water, a four-gallon drum of petrol, sleeping-bag, tinned food for a fortnight, an extra tyre tube, a spade, an assortment of tools and 1,000 books.

The driver is Harold Theodore Darwin, retired schoolteacher, poet and man of ideas, and the van is his mobile library.

The trip takes him 18 days, provided there are no engine troubles, broken springs, bogs, or other time-wasters.

He calls on 57 outback homesteads, and several remote railway sidings, travels tracks that are not marked on the map, and covers stretches up to 80 miles, over tough country, without sign of habitation, and scarcely ever the sight of another vehicle.

He charges 1/ a book and lends an average of 800 books on each trip.

He goes as far west as Commonwealth Hill station, the largest fenced sheep station in Australia, and as far north as the cattle station of Billa Kalina, 100 miles from the opal-gouging hamlet of Coober Pedy.

Remarkable journeys

He crosses and recrosses the Woomera Reserve. This was the area over which explorer John McDouall Stuart, in 1858, made one of his most remarkable journeys, opening up this vast area for a sheep walk, a journey he described, on reaching safety and civilisation, as "a rough, terrible trip."

Darwin has been a widower since 1946. He will be 71 this year, and could be expected to be content with his Adelaide home and the care of his almond trees, but it never sees him for more than a few days each month.

Bush bred, he loves the outback station people and, particularly children. He understands, too, the need and value of books to people whose outside contact is often only the weekly mailman.

The first conception of the idea tor a mobile library for the outback came to Darwin when he was a county schoolteacher, but it was turned down by higher authority, so when he retired a few years ago, he put his idea into practice on his own. He felt he was still strong and vigorous and he knew the needs of the people he wanted to serve, particularly the children, whose education depends correspondence lessons and the School of the Air.

He began his library in 1958, using a small car pulling a small roof trailer containing neatly packed bookshelves, whose contents had cost him several hundred pounds.

Not an inch wasted

Since then he has purchased another van. Three sides of the van have bookshelves slightly tilted to steady the books as the van bucks its way over the sandhills.

Every corner of the van holds something necessary, each in its own place and so neat and orderly that only the books are noticed. Even the hollows of the cross-pieces of tubing of which the shelves are made utilised. They contain lengths of wiring of varying thickness ready for any road emergency when the wiring-together of some mechanism may mean the difference between being held up and being able to go on.

He has his own simple catalogue system, merely noting the number of books borrowed and not the names. He admits he does not like clerking and, as his office is open-air, he does it the easiest way.

Adult customers enter the van by a side door near the driver's cabin. The children's section opens up on the outside. Double doors open to show them the rainbow hues of the reading matter he carries for them.

Some of his young customers live under rugged conditions such as the girl of 10 living in a railway fettlers’ camp on the Transcontinental line. She came to his van dressed in a jumper that had shrunk upwards and was too short in the arms. She wore no shoes either and as the settlement is on a site where there is nothing but stones - red, rounded gibbers like newly-dug potatoes - this was hardly conducive to comfort.

There were 14 children in the few railway fettlers' houses and when the van arrived there they all came running to it, though it was evening meal-time. Their cry was "Got any comics this time, Mr Darwin?"

As it happened he had a boxful of them, tucked in a corner, ready. They were not new - he gathers them wherever he can for such demands as these. A few of the children ran off to read them, but the majority hung around until he had finished business with the adults, and was ready to tell them a story.

He read them "The Littlest Angel." There were interruptions. Someone wanted to know what the ring was around His head. "That's His halo," 
said Darwin.

"Yes...I know," put in one girl. "We had 'em made out of silverpaper for the concert."

An interesting point about Darwin's borrowers is that Australian books - especially about the country - are extremely popular. Arthur Upfield, E. V. Timms, Neville Shute, are always out on loan. Steele Rudd's 
"On Our Selection" is still asked for. His clients borrow Australian poetry, too; Paterson and Ogilvie are nearly always out, but seldom any "foreign" poets - the Scotties even do not ask for Robert Burns.

As well as fiction, Darwin carries reference books, books on the various sports, a half-shelf of religious works - including a Bible. These go out a good deal, Lloyd Douglas being most popular.

People on the out-stations are his best customers. At the head station, with, usually, a community of about 20 people, Darwin often leaves 50 books.

Some of the borrowers are New Australians. These hasten to the van almost before he pulls on the brake. Rather self-consciously, they browse like the rest before making their selection.

Learning to be a cook

There are aboriginal borrowers, too. Two female cooks on one station are regular readers. On another station, a shy, 15-year-old girl with thin arms and legs and a quiet, pleasant voice, who was learning to be a cook selected a girls' story of school life.

At many of the homesteads, Darwin has become a recurring visiting member of the family. He is given comfortable accommodation for the night, and quite often a fill-up of petrol to carry him on.

On a recent trip he discovered that a kindly check is kept on his movements by his customers. He had stripped a big-end in his engine on a lonely mulga flat and, when he didn't arrive on time a station wife set out to locate him. He was found 12 miles out, on a road where no one passes.

"That was one time when I was sorry I didn't carry a gun," he smiles; "I reckoned that by the time I'd eaten all my tinned sausages and vegetables, a kangaroo steak would have been very tasty."

Among the railway sidings he visits are Kingoonya - the unofficial capital of the north-west-and Tarcoola, where he does brisk business. Kingoonya has 20 houses and Tarcoola 30.

The Pumping Station, 35 miles from Port Augusta, where Murray River water is boosted on its flow to Woomera, is his last stop on the way home. A borrower there never takes less than 25 books at a time.

Sometimes Darwin finds there are occasions when a little chastening is warranted, such as the time when a new station cook on whom he was calling for the first time, shattered him by saying, "I'm washing today - d'ye think you could call around again tomorrow?"

"Madame," he told her politely, "I'll be 50 miles away by nightfall."

Darwin started his working life on a small farm in a sea of scrub. He 
wanted nothing but the outdoor life, so he roamed from one labouring 
job to another.

The holes in his boots became the calluses on his feet as he tramped in search of work. When this revealed nothing better than £1 a week as a rouseabout at a country pub, he realised that, without trade or training, life was always going to be tough. That was when he began to think about teaching as a profession.

While he studied he landed a job on a new branch railway line out from Tailem Bend, South Australia. To get the job, he and a mate left their heavy gear at the railhead, and walked out seven and a half miles to the camp where they were taken on. Then they walked back to the railhead where they picked up their gear, weighing close on 80lb and returned to the camp, a day's tramp of 22 1/2 miles.

Off to a world war

Text books helped to make up most of Darwin's swag. His working-mates thought he was a queer fellow, and left him to his leisure with his books. Eventually he qualified for entry to a teachers' training college, where he received only £1 a week, 15/ of which was deducted for board.

From there he graduated, at 23, to the teaching profession and spent 14 years as a country schoolmaster, with time out to go to World War I, where his right arm was shattered, leaving it permanently several inches shorter than the left.

Then he had to return to city teaching for the finishing years of the education of his two sons.

As well as the regular trips he makes now in his library work, Darwin has travelled widely in the Australian loneliness. In 1957, he covered 8,000 miles that took him from Alice Springs to Darwin, down the west coast of Australia and across the NulIarbor Plain.

As a guide to the outback, he is knowledge itself. To eyes used to grass paddocks and gum trees, the north-west has to be learned. Myall, mulga, bullock-bush, sandalwood, quandong, dead-finish, salt bush, blue bush, the bindi-i and mulga grass - and red sand, clay or gibbers, where green grasses should have been - the country could be a foreign land.

Previous Next

Harold Darwin tries to push his van out of a bog.

When it rains in the outback (it sometimes does), the man in the blue panel van has to drive carefully. An accident could strand him for days on end.

Six children crowd around Harold Darwin while he reads to them.

Fettler’s children from a few houses at remote Woocalla transcontinental railway siding welcome his arrival. They expect him to read to them for hours.

Harold Darwin chats with travelling draper.

The bush librarian is not the only traveller on the track. Often he stops for a chat with men who have a mobile drapery business. This meeting was on a desolate stretch between Lake Everard and Kingoonya in the north-west.

Three people outside a rough cabin.

Once flourishing goldmining town, Glenloth is now worked by only an elderly couple.

Harold Darwin changing a tyre.

Bush bred, Darwin, though he’s more than 70, feels perfectly at home among the blue bush. And changing a tyre is no real trouble.

Three children holding comics.

Aboriginal children are delighted by comics and magazines Darwin collects on his travels and hands out to them. One of the outstations on his round is at Mulgathing.


Outstations are his best customers.

Bullock team wade through waist-deep water.

Aborigines who ran into tyre trouble were extremely pleased to see Darwin. They were able to borrow a pump from him.

The Library Man can point out the wavering lines drawn by a kangaroo's tail where the animal has dragged it as he fed; he knows the tinkle of the outback bell-bird whose five dainty notes often mislead stockmen looking for a belled horse.

Strong poetic streak

He points out the glorious cyclamen of the parakeelya, which is food and drink to the sheep, the purple Salvation Jane - called Paterson's Curse in parts where the finer grasses grow - and the yellow cassia.

Like so many of the men who love the outback, Darwin has a strong streak of the poet in him. He has had a book of poems called "From Kosciusko to Carnarvon" published. A review in "The West Australian" said of this, "Harold Darwin is acutely alive to the strange beauty of the lonelier parts of the continent."

His favourite spot is in the Gawler Ranges, about 100 miles west of Port Augusta. Driving through these hills after part of the seven-inch annual rainfall has occurred and there are miles and miles of yellow or white everlastings, tiny white daisies or yellow billy buttons, and here and there the winking black eyes of the Sturt desert pea, Darwin feasts his eyes on their beauty. He forgets the potholes of the road. "I could almost jump out of the cabin," he says. "I want to get hold of it all."

Books for the isolated

Apart from the satisfaction of supplying books to isolated families, Darwin spends many of his solitary travelling hours planning new roads which he believes would be the key to opening up this vast territory.

He visualises such a road from the far north to link Stuart Highway commonly called The Bitumen - the road built during the last war between Darwin and Alice Springs - and the highway between Alice Springs and Mabel Creek, with a new stretch between Mabel Creek and Ceduna.

This would make Ceduna the port for wool and beef and cut the journey to the seaboard by 500 miles.

Darwin is also a colour camera enthusiast and, every trip, his collection of beautiful pictures grows.

He always carries his projector with him and is often asked to put on a show at various stations where he calls. In this way, many neighbours some hundreds of miles apart who only know each other as voices on the air are delighted to learn what they each look alike.

Sometimes Darwin is called on to photograph a new baby or a birthday party at remote out-stations.

On his first library trip in 1958, Darwin called at only 15 stations; now at the end of his third year he visits 57, and, everywhere along the track is praise and appreciation for 
the service he is giving.

See also Inspiration for The Min-Min or The Min-Min.