Hands of friendship bridge race divide

BOLLON IS pretty much a one-horse town, and one that has seen better days. But it is also the front line in Australia's bitter land- title war between Aborigines and white farmers. And here, miles from anywhere in the Queensland outback, a path to peace has been forged by two women whose backgrounds could not be more different.

Camilla Cowley is a farmer approaching the age of 50 who grew up in privileged surroundings. She went to boarding school, trained as a teacher and now runs sheep with her husband, Kerry, on North Yancho, their 22,000-acre property south of Bollon.

Ethel Munn is an Aboriginal woman approaching 70 who was born, near Bollon, under a tin "humpy", or shelter, and who lived on river banks well into her adult life. The two women might never have met had it not been for a landmark ruling by Australia's High Court almost two years ago. The ruling established for the first time that native title rights over traditional Aboriginal lands could co-exist with farming activities on the "pastoral leasehold" land that covers much of outback Australia.

Such leases were created in the last century to bring order to frontier Australia when white settlers forged into the outback and staked claims to holdings the size of small countries. As the leases passed from generation to generation, the rights of the Aboriginal tribes who had lived there for tens of thousands of years ceased to exist. Until now.

The court ruling was revolutionary. It overturned notions of exclusive land title that had existed in Australia since the British arrived in 1788. And it has created fear across the country's rural heartland, together with a black-white confrontation that threatens to take race relations back years. The conservative coalition government in Canberra, led by John Howard, has stepped in on the farmers' side by passing legislation that pulls the teeth from the High Court ruling.

In September 1996, Camilla Cowley opened a letter that sent her reeling. It was from a solicitor acting for the Gungarri, Ethel Munn's people. The letter advised that the Gungarri were making a native title claim over 3,000 pastoral leases, including North Yancho, the Cowleys' property.

"I had never heard of the Gungarri," says Mrs Cowley. "And I had never imagined that any Aborigines would want to claim our land. There was an awful lot of anger, and an appalling lack of knowledge among farmers. One said he was glad he hadn't surrendered all his guns because he'd need them to shoot the first Gungarris who came on to his place."

Soon afterwards, the Cowleys went to a farmers' protest meeting against native title, in the town of Mitchell. The atmosphere, Camilla remembers, was almost hysterical. And, when a vote was called on a motion to extinguish native title, the Cowleys put up their hands, along with everyone else. Everyone, that is, except two people who sat quietly at the back of the hall: Ethel Munn and her husband, Gordon, the only Aborigines who had dared to attend. Mrs Munn stood up and said: "I've worked all my life and paid my taxes like you. The only difference between you lot and me is the colour of my skin."

Something nagged at Camilla Cowley that made her want to know more about the Gungarri and their history. So, after the meeting, she walked across the street to the local Aboriginal land office. Ethel Munn followed her in. The two women gingerly struck up a conversation that has led, two years later, to a close friendship and an agreement that is being hailed nationally as a model of how white and black rural Australians can meet each other over native title without rancour.

"Ethel told me they wanted just recognition and acknowledgement, and the right to come back to their country to visit," says Mrs Cowley. "They didn't want to take anything from us. When I realised what native title was really about, I could only applaud. I feel ashamed now over how ignorant I was about my own country's situation."

Mrs Cowley told her story in Bollon's sole cafe, where she drove to meet me in her four-wheel drive vehicle over a dirt road turned to quagmire by flood rains. To meet the Munns, I drove another 145 miles north, dodging hordes of kangaroos that the rains had brought out from the bush.

Ethel and Gordon, who says he "will not see 70 again", now own a 1,000- acre cattle farm near the town of Roma. For Mrs Munn, the native title dispute (she calls it a "debacle") has been as much a journey of discovery as it has for Mrs Cowley. While Mrs Cowley has helped to organise meetings between farmers and Aborigines to get them talking, Mrs Munn has set up talkfests specifically between black and white women.

"It's the men who've been standing up and shouting misinformation," says Mrs Munn. "The women aren't stupid. We've got a better chance of getting it right."

There is still hostility among many farmers, and some of Camilla Cowley's old friends and neighbours have shunned her for the stand she has taken. One woman at the local church turned her back on Mrs Cowley; others have attacked her in the Catholic newspaper.

Nevertheless, later this year, the Cowleys plan to have a formal ceremony with the Gungarri at North Yancho, where they will acknowledge the sharing of the land for their different purposes.

Ethel Munn says: "For us it means access, so that future generations can say, `That's my mother's and grandmother's country, and those people at North Yancho are prepared to let us go there'."