The Dog Fence

James Woodford

Read January-February 2007

Just how many fences does Australia have? You may have heard of the rabbit fence, made famous through the book and then the movie, Rabbit Proof Fence, a chilling story of human courage and endurance amidst the indignity of the White Australia program. But as you read casually, you may also see it referred to as the Dog or Dingo fence. So what is the fence for, anyway? Rabbits or dogs?

Turns out Australia is crossed by about three major fences (and many tributaries). The dog fence—which is not the rabbit fence—is ostensibly the longest, traveling from the Bight in the south-center to just west of Brisbane in the east-center and through some dauntingly inhospitable terrain. Its express goal is to keep the dingoes, those wild dogs of the Australian continent, away from the sheep of the Australian south-east.

Woodford, a journalist who became prominent for his coverage of the Wollemi Pine, decides to traverse the fence. Now the fence is not adjoined by a paved road of any sort, so this requires traveling Outback-style, in a four-wheel drive with all the accoutrements. It is necessarily a trip for the rough leathery kind that stereotype Australia's interior.

That Woodford is not such a person by any stretch does not seem to bother him. Rather, for the first half, he simply hitches a ride with the men who maintain the fence, passing time with his observations; for the second half, he puts himself into the mercy of such men by taking a 4WD out on his own, knowing neither how to open gates nor how to fix a vehicle. It is a testament to the fencemen that they tolerate his incompetence.

In return, Woodford provides a rich account of the kind of people who inhabit this space. They are shooters, hunters, trappers; they are ruthless and hard-boiled, and live by the rough motto, The Only Good Dingo is a Dead Dingo (except, ironically, for the ones they keep as pets). It's enough of an existence to give some insight into the politically incorrect world of Australia. We also learn a little about Australia's remarkable wildlife, such as the strange flocking behavior of emus, and its reaction to feasts and famines. And in one particularly poetic (or ironic, given that he barely sees an Aboriginal along the route?) touch, he calls the fence a songline.

But Woodford is also sufficiently directionless that he gives us little insight into the fence itself. How exactly was it built? What is involved in maintaining it? How long does it take to patch a hole? What keeps it rooted in the shifting sands? How effective is it? What does it cost? What has its ecological impact been? These would all require research and thoughtful preparation, not simply driving around in a 4WD, and one senses the book was written in too much haste to have time for that. He could have taken a few tips from Sarah Murgatroyd.