Herb Wharton's first book ''came about in the strangest way''.
The winner of the $50,000 Australia Council Award for lifetime achievement in literature, presented in Sydney on Thursday night, says: ''I didn't finish primary school, because I went droving.''
Wharton at 76 still looks like a sun-hardened drover, but he is a gentle man who tells the story of his life in a soft voice, often ending with a laugh at himself.
Wearing riding boots from the dump and an Akubra hat snatched from a dog's mouth, 12-year-old Herb left his family home in the Aboriginal camp at Cunnamulla, Queensland, on a six-month cattle-droving trip.
For years he criss-crossed the country as a drover, stockman and labourer, spending his money in the pub ''if they'd let you in'' and getting into an occasional fight. But his parents - of Kooma and Irish background - had made sure their 11 children learnt to read and write.
''I used to have to get chased to school sometimes with a strap or a stockwhip,'' Wharton says. ''I still don't spell properly.''
He was always scribbling down stories and poems on scraps of paper, which he never threw away. After he gave up drinking, he got serious. At home in a shack in Cunnamulla, he wrote a letter to his mate Stan Coster, a songwriter for Slim Dusty, who had asked him explain his views on politics and life.
From that, he says, ''I decided to write five poems that told the history of the world''.
The poems were about the drovers, the station owners who thought they had settled the land, and the Aboriginal Dreaming tracks that preceded them by thousands of years.
He cleaned offices in exchange for use of a computer until a grant from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board of the Australia Council paid for a typewriter. With help from another friend, he entered some poems in the David Unaipon Award for unpublished Aboriginal writers, given by the University of Queensland Press, and was highly commended.
''They didn't want to publish them but they wanted the strangest thing,'' Wharton says. ''They wanted to offer me a contract to write a novel, and a couple of thousand dollars. I'd never seen so much money.'' After wondering ''how the bloody hell do you write a novel?'' he began a story based on his life.
Unbranded, published in 1992 when he was about 55, launched a writing career that has produced the novels Cattle Camp (1994) and Where Ya' Been, Mate? (1996) and an autobiography, Yumba Days (1999), written during a residency at the Australia Council's Paris studio. His poems are collected in the recently self-published Kings with Empty Pockets.
Wharton has gathered oral histories for the University of Queensland and is an advocate for Aboriginal writing, storytelling and cultural understanding. He is a life member of the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame.
Sophie Cunningham, who chairs the Literature Board, says: ''Herb has captured the unique and untold story of our pastoral industry as it disappears. He has an incredibly spare, unromantic and strongly visual style; he writes in the yarn mode but brings something unique to it.''
Wharton has never married or had a family (''not that I know of''). If he had, he says, he would not have led the unencumbered life of travelling with a swag that inspired his writing.
Although he moved to Brisbane for a few years to further his writing, he has returned to Cunnamulla and bought the shack where he wrote his first words.
He will use the award money to pay off his mortgage and his credit card. He continues work on ''a big book about the history of the world''.