Abstract of Powell, S. ‘Why misguided humans have attempted to make their homes in it is more than I can comprehend': Francis Ratcliffe’s first impressions of Australia.
Francis Noble Ratcliffe was a twenty-five year old British animal ecologist fresh from Oxford University when, in 1929, the Empire Marketing Board released him to study the spread of flying foxes in the fruit growing regions of Queensland and New South Wales.
His credentials were a little more firmly established when he returned for an official survey of another hindrance to agriculture – soil erosion – in South Australia and Queensland in 1935. On both occasions, Ratcliffe conducted his research with no fleet of vehicles: he travelled solo, by train, on motorbike, and sometimes by hitching rides. While technical pamphlets were the expected outcomes, the 1938 publication of Flying Fox and Drifting Sand brought together what he called his ‘youthful wanderings’ in one of Australia’s most treasured environmentalist books.
The travelogue suggested that the author was won over by the rough charms of the far north, the outback and its people. He reserved his far less flattering first impressions of postcolonial Australia for his private letters. This article traces these off-the-record comments, leading to Ratcliffe’s contribution, long before he helped establish the Australian Conservation Foundation, to the exposure of environmental mismanagement in the country that he would ultimately call home.