When Carl Strehlow arrived at the vicarage of Obersulzbach in the countryside west of Nuremberg on Maundy Thursday 1892, he found two young women, Maria Eckardt and Frieda Keysser, sitting colouring eggs for Easter, their hands all stained with dye. He had come to collect presents from Maria for her fiancé Friedrich Leidig in Australia, whom he was replacing at the Mission Station of Bethesda on the Birdsville Track, the outback stock route linking the railway line at Marree with Queensland.
Frieda was only 16 while Carl was 20, but it was love at first sight and she decided there and then to marry him. Although of humble origins, he was a powerful personality with a keen intellect and a facility for languages, a man who wanted more than the world he was born into could offer. Frieda was an orphan and had been disinherited. She had found the man of her dreams.
Her relations were horrified: her family had fallen on hard times and her only chance was to marry well. Her prospects were good, for her forebears had belonged to the Establishment since time immemorial. Carl was the wrong man for her.
But it was pointless to argue: she may have been poor but she was strong-willed and incurably romantic, and the spell of that first meeting could not be broken. As soon as she came of age she set off to live with her dream husband in the wilds of Australia, stepping into a world quite unlike anything she – or anyone else – had ever experienced before.
For in the meantime, things had changed. Late in the afternoon of 2 July 1894, the Horn Scientific Expedition had reached the abandoned Mission Station of Hermannsburg eighty miles west of Alice Springs and Oxford-educated Baldwin Spencer, professor of biology at Melbourne University – later author and world expert on the Aranda tribe – looked at its collapsing buildings and population ravaged by syphilis, and dismissed the work of the mission as a mistake. The Aranda would be extinct within a hundred years, he predicted. Darwin’s theories made this a foregone conclusion. The Australian aborigine was fated to vanish off the face of the earth.
Three months later, Carl (now aged 22) arrived to revitalise Hermannsburg – and proved Spencer wrong.
This is the story of Carl and Frieda’s life together, their travails, their triumphs, their sorrows and their joys; the tale of a man and a woman who set out to make the impossible come true - and succeeded where others had failed, regenerating this broken community despite the turbulence of the period, while bringing up six healthy children themselves.
This is also a tale of strange experiences, for life was hard, and often short, and sometimes there was bloodshed. The frontier age was passing but the Mission Station remained cut off from the rest of the world. The railhead at Oodnadatta was a two week buggy ride away and medical help non-existent, so they sent five of their children to Germany for the sake of their education. Although the drift to the telegraph stations, the cattle stations and the railway line had begun, the aborigines were still largely nomadic. Blood-feud killings were normal, and fights. The ancient tribal ceremonies lived on; and even those who converted had strange visions, receiving hymns from angels, they said, and much else they refused to disclose.
Through it all, Carl was opposed at every turn by Spencer, who did everything in his power to discredit him, being consumed with professional jealousy for, to further his understanding of the people he worked with, Carl had exhaustively researched every aspect of their lives, and in the process came up with findings different from Spencer. These were published, causing a furore in anthropological circles in London. Yet no matter how hard Spencer tried to destroy Carl, he continued from strength to strength. Most annoying of all, the aboriginal population at the Mission was increasing: Spencer's 'doomed race' thesis was wrong.
It was a triumph, but for Frieda it turned to bitter disappointment for in 1922, just when she thought the long struggle was over (they had survived the War unscathed despite being German) and could be reunited with their other children, Carl became ill with dropsy. Loading a few possessions on to a buggy, with their youngest son Theodor the couple set off in a desperate race against time to reach medical help at Oodnadatta. Carl did not make it, dying at the lonely pub of Horseshoe Bend on the edge of the Simpson Desert, leaving Frieda - the woman who gave up everything for love – with no means of support to bring up their youngest son on her own. She was absolutely devastated.
Here, this part of the story ends.
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