Corrigin is in the middle of nowhere. About two and-a-half hours southeast of Perth, it lies on one of the main highways of the wheatbelt region, which in each of its parts is simply named after the two towns it connects with the word “Highway” after. What surrounds it depends on your perspective; if you’re a farmer, it’s millions of dollars, the lifeblood of you, your family and your neighbours. If you’re an outsider, it can be a little disconcerting; massive squares of fresh green wheat, occasionally dotted with a plot of shining, golden canola swaying in the breeze. The highway and dirt tracks cut through these paddocks; driving through can sometimes feel like travelling down the seam of some enormous patchwork blanket, with only the occasional clump of trees, herd of cows or rocky outcrop to bring you back to Earth.
About ten minutes outside of Corrigin lies the shire’s claim to fame: the Corrigin Dog Cemetery. Sheltered snugly within a cloister of old Ghost Gums and Karri, Corrigin Dog Cemetery houses the remains of over 80 beloved pooches. Since 1974, it has constantly been the burial spot of choice for the mourning families of farm dogs and in-house canine ‘family members’ alike. From the road, it’s a startling distraction: a huge, sandstone-red statue of a Heeler in seated pose, its head pointing attentively at some unseen event, stares out over the bitumen. Visitors have clumped burial wreaths around its base and tied white ribbons around its paunchy stomach. Behind it stretches a somewhat orderly burial plot: four or five rows of graves, their little concrete slab covers set solidly into the packed red dirt, surrounded by flecks of granite and iron-rich rock. They’re markings are a mixture of decorative tableus, inscribed messages of love and one-word farewells like ‘BUNDY’ scrawled across large flat rocks.
When you walk through a normal human being cemetery, you do feel a sense of loss and sadness, as if you’re trying to empathise with the bunch of dead strangers in the ground around you. But walking through a dog cemetery is a truly heart-rending experience. It’s the pinnacle of emotion in the relationships people build with their pets. Messages like “Always Remembered” and “To Know Her Was To Love Her” break your heart when you think about just how attached these people were to what is essentially a dumb, endlessly obedient friend that you have responsibility for when it comes to feeding and caring for it.
The pets fall under a range of names, flowing in and out of fashion and delineating its 40-year history. Some gravestones bear the Pet’s name, followed by the surname of their adopted family. Buddy Sloan. Suzie Vivian. Snowy Bransby. The effect is sometimes bizarre: Scottie Tilbee; Doo Darls Caley. The curious interest in these graves comes from the types of information the families choose to leave at the gravesite. Some leave full poems about their dog’s life:
She chased rabbits, but only to play
She chased dolphins, just to say g’day
She swam like a fish, danced like a horse
Now she’s travelled the full course.
Some others mention “aged 17 years”, proud of their dog reaching that mythical age of laying on the grass in the sun all day and barking at passing children. Every single grave, no matter how many words their builders have inscribed on their surface, tells a particular story about that dog’s life. This being a rural pet cemetery, most of the entrenched animals are farm dogs, one of the synonymous emblems of the seemingly endless land that surrounds the cemetery.
The town of Corrigin itself is not much. Mostly comprised of the outlying farmers, Corrigin’s community is one of forced necessity; a school, an oval, a few wheat bins and John Deer retailers, mechanics and a tiny rural hospital. The obligatory country pub sits on the main intersection between Kunjin Street (the local stretch of the Brookton-Corrigin-Kondinin Highway) and Walton Street, which leads into Babakin Corrigin Road, which leads off towards the immense desert in the east.
Corrigin is proudly, yet often bafflingly to the few tourists, known as the home of the world record for “Most Dogs In Utes”, as you’ll notice from the occasional dilapidated ute (or “truck” in Americanese) dotted around various grazing paddocks. Since 1997, a succession of rural, barely-heard-of Australian towns has been hosting mass gatherings of drovers and farmers, their utes, and their dogs. The Corrigin local club president, obviously incensed by such towns as St Arnaud’s and Terang successfully placing so many dogs in utes, managed to sway the whole town into holding their own “dog in a ute” gathering in 1998. Almost 700 dogs in utes were recorded. The battle has raged ever since, with Corrigin holding the record since 2002 with 1,527. The Dogs In Utes battle continues annually.
To most people outside of these rural communities, the enormous sense of pride these people get out of placing their domestic pets in the back of utility vehicles may seem strange. But to the farmers, cattlemen, shearers and others of the Outback, it simply represents their lifestyle and their love for the country in a neat, domestically-marketable package.
Cattledogs are as intrinsic to Australian rural life as wearing khakis or having a penchant for drinking beer out of a can. They’re a national symbol of the tough, hard-working image of the Australian cattleman, and as such a symbol we readily adopt as part of the Australian psyche. They’ve been constant companions to rural workers the first arrival of British settlers, and the companionship between man and dog in these kinds of places is still given a large amount of cultural weight. They’re seen internationally as a typically Australian breed of dog, and are known as loyal and friendly pets. The Australian Cattledog breed itself stemmed from a farmer cross-breeding a British breed with domesticated dingoes in the late 1800’s; their pure, Australian-made origin is one of those tantalizingly patriotic tidbits of history we latch on to. They’re also becoming increasingly popular overseas as domestic pets.
Whilst the township of Corrigin is probably more than happy exhibiting their local dog cemetery as a tourist destination, it’s easy to believe that it’s much more than that for the local people. It’s a significant memorial to the farm way of life, the way in which life can be a glorious adventure but can be ended by little more than a leg tumour, a pork chop on a plate and a bullet in the back of the head. The lives of farmers and their animals relies so much more on survival and the cycles of seasonal life than the bulk of the city-dwelling population gives them credit for. It’s things like the Corrigin Dog Cemetery that remind us that behind the hard, sun-aged veneer of the Wheatbelt and the Outback, there’s plenty of heart.