The Olive Pink Botanic Garden in Alice Springs can merely hint at the amazing woman who first established it in the 1950s.

Story By Ken Eastwood

A nasty old witch. Fighter for justice. A hospitable, intelligent woman. A cantankerous troublemaker. Worshipper of plants. A fine lady. Principled anthropologist. A woman who shot at children. A funny old darling. These aren’t descriptions of different people – just the one.

Welcome to the enigma that was Olive Muriel Pink, one of the 20th century’s most eccentric and fascinating Central Australian characters. Like the colourful contradiction in her own name, she was a wild blend of character traits, wrapped up into a formidable package. She was an audacious anthropologist, observant artist and an ardent Aboriginal rights campaigner. She carried out her most important work in remote arid lands of Australia, on her own and against great difficulties, during some of Australia’s toughest times.

As a testament to her, the 16-hectare botanic garden in Alice Springs that she founded in her seventies and worked on right up to her death in 1975, is being assessed for heritage listing (see page 92). It receives an estimated 35,000 visitors a year. A new aural history about Miss Pink has recently been launched at the garden, 125 years after she was born.

Outgoing curator of the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, Colleen O’Malley, describes Miss Pink (as she was always called – never Olive) as “an amazingly strong and committed character – quite eccentric. There was a love/hate relationship with people who knew her.”

One of Miss Pink’s main goals in life was to try to establish a reserve or sanctuary for the Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert – now primarily achieved with the declaration of large areas of Aboriginal land in that region. “She was way ahead of her time in terms of social justice for Aboriginal people,” Colleen says. “But she campaigned not just on Aboriginal issues, but anything that got in her craw. She was a thorn in the side of bureaucrats everywhere, yet well respected because she was so intelligent and passionate.”

Born and raised in Tasmania, Miss Pink was an artist and art teacher, before moving to Sydney. Her art skills saw her become a tracer at the Public Works Department and later at the Railways Commission of New South Wales. Her wide and varied interests included attending lectures on ornithology and humanitarian issues, and she began to develop a specialised interest in Aboriginal people of the arid lands. Her life story has been recorded in Julie Marcus’s book The Indomitable Miss Pink: A life in Anthropology, and memories of her recorded in a new audio trail at the gardens, compiled and edited by Dave Richards.

At the age of 42, she made her first trip to the outback, visiting long-time Aboriginal welfare worker and student of Aboriginal life, Daisy Bates – then 67 – at Ooldea, SA. The trip changed her life. As Miss Pink learnt from the Aboriginal people, chatted with Miss Bates and sketched and recorded birds, she fell in love with the wide red land and its native inhabitants. “I’d give years off my life to be out among them now,” she wrote afterwards. “I am trying to leave no ‘stone unturned’ that may get me to Central Australia.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #65

Outback Magazine: June/July 2009