My Australian Outback Experiences
In my two and a half years in the outback ‘centre’ of Australia, in desert, and ruggedly picturesque areas, I had many unique experiences and met many different eccentric and colourful characters.
A few snippets of the many memories.
I spent many days in Birdsville, far SW Queensland. In 1967 I helped with arrangements for the first ‘Birdsville Cup’ horse race meeting for several years, after many years of drought. The Birdsville school teacher, whose name I have forgotten, a very nice bloke from Brisbane; painted the name BIRDSVILLE HOTEL on the verandah eave, because half the name had disappeared when part of the old hotel fell down. The name is still painted in the same Times New Roman print style and colour.
I used the left over dark green paint which had been used to paint the hotel bar floor, and an old hacksaw blade as a ruler, to paint ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ on the simple men’s and women’s loos at the race course. The original names had long since weathered into non-existence. On the race day it was obvious that most of the aboriginals could not decide which ones were the men’s or the women’s.
Gwyn Hughes, the owner of Clifton Hills Station, took me for a flight in his Cessna aeroplane. He used the race track to take off, and we did a grand circle over Birdsville and neighbouring country and then came in to land on the race track again, except this time there was a race in progress, and we and the horses were heading straight for each other, so the race was abandoned with horses and riders heading off in all directions.
On another visit to Birdsville, the publican decided that he would leave the hotel in my hands for a week and head off in his truck to Marree, 520 Km south into South Australia, on a dirt track, to get a load of fuel, which enabled him to be paid some cartage fees from the Shell Company for whom I worked. His only directions for me were to keep the fridge full of beer, and hose the sand off the verandah. That was an enjoyably interesting week with the regulars, being a couple of local station owners, the odd stockman, and a few aborigines who were reasonably well behaved even though they drank themselves into a state of being very noticeably less than sober. A couple of tourists from the other side of the world dropped in, and were quite amused and enchanted with the whole place.
On another occasion, on a very hot, quiet Sunday afternoon, when nobody was around, I think most of the population of less than one hundred were asleep; I heard the sound of tins being thrown onto the gibbers, which are typical outback smallish smooth stones baked into varying shades of red from many years of baking in the sweltering sun. It was coming from the back of the hotel, so I walked around to see what was going on. There was no one there, just a couple of old 44 gallon fuel drums with the tops cut out, which were used for hotel rubbish. The odd tin came flying out and bounced on the gibber covered ground. As I got closer, two very large crows flew out; they were were the culprits who were after scraps of food, and any empty tins that were in the way they just picked up with their large beaks and threw them out over the top; and there was quite a collection of them.
The town water came from a sub-artesian bore from which the water emerged at almost boiling point and flowed continually. Each time I was in Birdsville I would use the hose to clean the engine, because the heavy mineralisation and temperature of it was very effective in washing off the dirt and grime.
On another occasion the hotel ran out of meat, so the Birdsville publican, Norm Porch, contacted George Morton, the owner of nearby Pandie Pandie Station through which the Diamantina River flowed, (most of the time,) and so we jumped in the truck and met George about halfway between Birdsville and his homestead. George used a high powered rifle to kill a bullock in a mob near the river. I found it not particularly enjoyable to be helping to cut up an animal that was still warm and placing the large pieces on the truck’s tray top and putting small gum tree branches over it to discourage the flies. When we were back at the Birdsville Hotel we carried it into the outdoor safe for hanging until the next day. We took some of it straight into the kitchen where Norm’s wife Elva started preparing and cooking it. An hour or so later I was sitting in the dining room, and the steak and vegetables were in front of me, being so fresh from the animal, not only the smell of it was off-putting but it was as tough as an old boot; so I was forced to abandon the main course, except for the few vegetables. I think that helped to reduce the appeal of meat away from me.
My first trip to Birdsville was in a cattle truck, with Mel Noden who drove for the trucking company QMB - Quorn Marree Birdsville Transport. We delivered the mail and other supplies on the way up the Birdsville Track, and it was on that trip that I first met Eric and Val Oldfield on Mungerannie Station which is about halfway between Maree and Birdsville. I am still in touch with Val; Eric died some years ago. Val has written a book named ‘No Beating About The Bush’ which is an interesting account of her’s and other wives experiences living on stations along the Birdsville track. Many years later she asked me to recall stories of those days and speak at her Book Launch in Holdfast House at Glenelg, an Adelaide, South Australia, historical beach suburb.
Heading north along the Birdsville Track we stopped at the Mirra Mitta bore to make a cup of tea. The water which continually flows under pressure through a very deep old bore hole from the artesian basin, is close to boiling point, so tea making was instant. After completing the mail and supplies delivery we left Birdsville very early in the morning and joined a fleet of other trucks in the Simpson Desert, where we loaded cattle from some remote yards and took off on the long trip back to the rail head at Marree to offload them, well after dark. After loading in the Simpson Desert I heard some of the Aboriginal stockmen discussing what they would do after many days of rounding up the cattle. One said to another “what are you doing this weekend?’ and he replied; “I think I’ll be going into the ‘big smoke’ this weekend.’ The term ‘big smoke’ usually refers to a major city, and I thought he meant Port Augusta, which, although it is about 1,740 Km south, it was the only place which could barely qualify for such a description; Adelaide being far too far away – 2,050 Km. However I found that he meant Birdsville, so I quickly realized the relative value of even a very small town when it is the only settlement within reach.
On one trip up the Track in my then Ford station wagon, and being the first vehicle after very heavy rain, I encountered a very wide area of deep looking water north of Mungerannie. I threw a few stones into it and used a stick to try to judge the depth which appeared to be too deep for the Ford. I eventually decided that having come so far I had to be assertive in my determination to keep going, so I secured everything inside the wagon – 12 volt fridge, flying doctor radio transceiver, spare fuel, and many other items, and started off a fair way back, deciding to hit the water so hard at high speed, that with the influence of the wide steel protective plate specially fitted beneath the front section of the vehicle, it would act as a type of ski, and enable the vehicle to ski across. I hit the water so hard that the force of the water pushed rubber sealing over the top of the rear bumper, and being impossible to push it back, that is where it stayed from then on. Water sprayed everywhere and I had to be careful to keep the front wheels straight, as types of rudders, to stop it from veering off course. I hit the other side a bit off course and shot up the side of a big sand-hill on one side of the track. In trying to reverse back to the track I became temporarily bogged, so I had to dig around the wheels and use some course woven matting, which I carried, to give them traction and prevent sinking into the sand again. That whole episode certainly elevated my pulse rate.
Some of the place names in the Birdsville Track area of the outback which I remember with affection are: Mungerannie, Killalpaninna, Kopperananna, Naterannie Sandhills, Cannuwaukaninna, Gilpininna Dam, Etadunna, Cowarie Station, Pandie Pandie Station, Lake Etamunbani, Oorawillannie Station, Clifton Hills.
An very interesting book is ‘Mailman of the Birdsville Track’ which tells the story of Tom Kruse’s life in the outback. He was awarded an MBE for his dedicated service to the people. He was the subject and star of a well loved film ‘Outback Mailman’ which was shot in the 1950s by the Shell Film Unit, and was shown on the ABC. I spent several hours with Tom at his Adelaide home a few weeks before he died at the age of 93. We reminisced over many aspects of outback life and the different characters and situations. He was appreciated very much for his kindness and all the help he was in difficult situations in both his own predicaments and breakdowns, and his consideration for the needs of station people needing help and supplies.
Tom was a Christian so we had a happy conversation about the magnificent eternity we both looked forward to. His funeral was attended by well over a thousand people so that was a reunion for many of us.
On another occasion I became hopelessly bogged in my Toyota Land Cruiser between Mount Willoughby Station and Oodnadatta. It was the only time I was ever bogged in it, but I was the first vehicle to use that track after heavy rains, and I was trying to skirt a shallow lake on a clay-pan, and the Toyota just slid sideways into the mud and sank to the floor with all four wheels spinning. I set up my flying doctor radio transceiver with its tall telescoping aerial, and called the hospital in Oodnadatta, told the nursing sister of the problem, which she relayed to Yarislov Pecanek (Pek,) the Oodnadatta Stores owner who was also my Shell agent. Next day he flew out in his Cessna plane, landed nearby on some elevated sandy ground which was not too soft, and assessed the situation, after which we needed maximum engine power to get the plane rolling on the sandy surface, for take-off, and we flew back to Oodnadatta. As we flew, ‘Pek’ pointed out which water covered sections of the track were hard or soft under the water.
We got in his diesel Land Rover and drove back over the long distance through lots of stretches of water along the track to where I was bogged. We used the Land Rover to pull the Toyota out, only just doing so after several rather aggressive tries, because there was such a suction between the clay-pan and the underneath of the Toyota. After victory over that problem, I followed him back to Oodnadatta, and it was good to stay at the old pub (hotel) that night.
I enjoyed visiting Kenmore Park Station which is west of Kulgera and south of Ayers Rock. Ken Warriner was the manager at the time in 1966-1968. He was a good looking, fit bloke who was obviously open to a wild life when the opportunity presented itself, and he recalled some of the stories. One night in the homestead, ‘Georgy Girl,’ a song sung by ‘The Seekers,’ was playing and the governess, a girl from Brisbane ran out of the house crying. She was not an obviously attractive girl and I quickly got the impression that she had left Brisbane to get away from not having a boyfriend or boys seeking her, but here she was having been caught up emotionally by a song about the life she was hoping to escape.
On the way to Kenmore Park from Kulgera I had encountered a group of Aboriginal women (gins) who were sitting around in the sand, amongst the bushes, with a large group of dogs, which were all very thin and wiry, and who they slept with huddled together to keep warm on cold nights. I stopped to photograph them and as I was leaving, a few of the men returned from hunting with spears and indicated that I should not delay in leaving; so I left that scene behind in the dust from the Toyota Land Cruiser. On the way to Kenmore Park I dropped into another station homestead where an attractive well dressed woman came to the door. She was the wife of the owner, who, at the time was at one of his Queensland stations. She was the daughter of a well known Sydney surgeon, her children were at boarding schools in Adelaide, and she was obviously a little bit drunk. I got the impression that she obviously drank to quell the loneliness, and to numb the contrast of her remote life way out in the outback, compared to the life she would have lived in Sydney. We had a good long talk and then I hit the track again.
After leaving Kenmore Park I drove via Victory Downs station and Kulgera across to Finke where I attended the Finke Easter Race meeting (east of Kulgera) where I was appointed ‘Clerk of Scales’. It was a very entertaining weekend with horses with names such as ‘Knobbly Knees’ and ‘Hairy Bum’. There was a great atmosphere of outback friendliness, casualness, and goodwill.
I left Finke and drove due south across country more or less following the old train track.
I successfully covered the distance to Oodnadatta and arrived in front of the old hotel after sunset, and hopped out to find that I had a puncture in one tyre, so I decided that the best thing was to remove the wheel and tyre and mend the puncture right there. While I was doing it a few rain drops started falling which fortunately did not get any heavier, and then I heard a smashing of glass and a piercing scream from the side of the hotel, so I shot around to see what was going on, and found that it was an aboriginal woman who had dropped and smashed her freshly purchased flagon of port, and she was devastated over it. I was thankful that it was nothing more serious.
I have many pleasant reflective memories of the oceans of colour of desert wildflowers in spring, the different colours of the earth with very individually coloured patches of different geological phenomena and formations.
I sometimes stopped to reflect in the complete silence and seemingly endless space.
I reflected on the seeming timelessness of it all, and how it was so completely distant, unattached and unaffected by the so-called civilization of society with its many different dramas of human suffering and wars. Why does there have to be so much drama; why can’t everyone live peacefully, supportively, and co-operatively? There are so many paths that humanity can choose to take, why do we so often take the worst path?
There must be a CREATOR, WHO is watching humanity make a mess of so many things!
When I was driving between Bedourie in SW Queensland and Betoota – a tiny hotel settlement which no longer exists – it had become dark, and I had to stop to open the gate in the ‘dog fence’ – which existed to keep dingos out of the sheep country – and I decided to turn off the lights and the engine, to just take in the absolute silence, and the crystal clear atmosphere, which allowed the stars to shine so brightly, as an almost dense mass in the night sky. It was one of those special moments which remain filed away in one’s memory.
The only interrupting sound was the occasional crack of the exhaust system as it cooled down.
Tom Agnew was an infamous Irish character living in Copley, who had a pet kangaroo named Donald, a very friendly kangaroo, however Donald’s life was unfortunately terminated by the Leigh Creek coal train.
Tom had a real ‘Steptoe and Son’ type of collection of broken down vehicles, machinery, tractors, parts, and even an original Model T Ford locked in an old shed. There were things strewn everywhere over about one acre (quarter hectare) he was always going to get around to fixing things up, but it never happened. His ability as a diesel mechanic was put to good use, and was called on to do many jobs, one regular customer I remember was Arkaroola Station, now a resort. On one occasion Tom asked the publican to make sure his dog was fed for a few days, because he was going away. No one asked where, assuming he would probably be doing some work at Arkaroola. About ten days later a post-card arrived from Tom addressed to his dog, the card was posted in Dublin, Ireland, where he had gone to catch up with some relatives.
He used to say in his strong Irish accent, “One of the nice things in life was to meet nice people.”
He died in 2013 and is buried in the Copley cemetery, not far from the village.
There was much outback socializing at the annual Kingoonya Race Meeting, a tiny railway settlement with a hotel, which is now very quiet due to the newer railway line from Port Augusta to Alice Springs being some distance away.
There are more memories to be added. Being towed for 650 Km. Mount Little station. Easter races at -------. Driving back down to Oodnadatta - mending puncture – the screaming -