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Bill Carpmail (10th Sept 1886 to 23rd June 1979)

Nostalgic visit – Farina 1958


William Carpmail

1886 – 1970


William Carpmail, known as Bill or Will in equal measures, had always wanted to return to a place called Farina where he spent seven and a half years in the 1890s. His parents, John Carpmail (known as the Colonel), with his wife, Emma, was stationed there in the South Australian Railways. (John Carpmail was known by all as the Colonel although he never served in the armed forces. Family records mention that he looked like someone who was a colonel, but the identity of that person is unknown).  Farina was one of many postings John occupied, including Irrapatana and William Creek, on the Great Northern Railway up towards Oodnadatta.

As a young man Bill was unable to join the armed forces due to an eye disease, but in time he was able to provide a stable home for his wife, Ivy, and their two daughters, Beryl and Ina, as well as a haven for other family members who fell on hard times during the depression. He saw to his parent’s welfare in later life and by 1958, with the encouragement of my parents, Ina (his daughter) and Bob Laver and other family members, he could see his way clear to revisit his history.

So, in late August 1958, Bill then 72 years old, finally had the opportunity to realise that dream when he and two grandsons, Peter 13, and Ian 11, headed off in an early model Austin A40 on a journey back in time to a special place of his youth.

Because the event was over 60 years ago, details are sketchy at best, but I did keep diary of the trip – an eleven-year old’s view.  My brother and I were able to remember the basics and, with some research, fill in a few of the gaps. For a couple of young boys, this trip was as exciting for us as it must have been for Grandpa but for different reasons.

We left Adelaide at 8 am, me having the front seat because I always managed to be car sick if I sat in the back of any car, and some time that day we drove through Lochiel, and the dry salt lake of Lake Bumbunga. We stayed overnight in Port Pirie with the family of a friend of Bill’s, visiting the smelters the next day before heading off to Port Germein. Then across to Murray Town and onwards through Melrose to Wilmington where we stayed the night in the hotel. I made mention of the Flinders Ranges and wrote, ‘known for their beautiful scenery’.

The following day, we drove through Horrock’s Pass and back on the main road to Port Augusta, then onwards through Pichi Richi Pass, and in my words, ‘a beautiful pass’, further on to Quorn, Hawker and Wilpena Pound. The road from Port Augusta was unsealed in places if not all the way, but to Wilpena Pound it was definitely a goat track. I noted we were almost stuck in mud when we arrived which indicates that it must have recently rained. We were told by locals that it rarely rained but even the smallest amount was treasured, irrespective of the difficulties it caused. We moved on through Blinman, Parachilna Gorge to Parachilna where we spent the night.

Note: – Later, I document extensive rain and floods further north.

The next day after a pub breakfast we headed off to Beltana, then Leigh Creek. At that time Leigh Creek was a thriving mining project and we were able to look around in amazement at the massive open cut mine. Trains with over a hundred ore trucks regularly left the site, blocking off level railway crossings for ten minutes or more at a time. Grandpa got a great kick out of counting them.  The roads around the complex were sealed, from memory, but on the north side the road became bulldust. We saw many kangaroos and emus and for us boys, that was very exciting.

Copley zipped by in the dust and the next stop was Lyndhurst where we filled up with petrol. From there, it was only a short distance to Farina and all three of us were excited. By then I had ‘got good at’ not being car sick so I was demoted to the back.

Farina, still a small, functioning township in those days, slowly became visible out of the desert as we approached. Some of the buildings were still standing, evidenced by a few old faded photos, taken with a Brownie Box camera. Had we thought about it at the time, I’m sure we would have taken more photos than we did. In those days, photos cost money for films and development and I guess that might have been a factor.  It is highly possible we did take more but they have been lost over the years or faded and thrown out. We visited Farina twice more over the next five years and the following photos are all that remain of those trips.

I documented that we had lunch in the old station yard, and I distinctly remember this because it was hot and there was no shortage of flies. We wandered around town, looking through the rubble and items of yesteryear. From memory, Bell’s store still stood because we did go in and talk to someone who Bill told us was Mrs Bell. I think Patterson’s house was there, but it may have only been walls and part of the roof, and a handful of other buildings stood, obviously still lived in and many other dwellings in various stages of ruin or liveability. It was 1958, all too long ago, and there is not enough information to tell us much more from the photos. Anyone reading this story and looking at these photos may be able to fill in a few gaps.  

More photos taken by Ina and Bob, my mother and father, who made several visits to Farina over the years, are attached. My sister Rosemary visited Farina several times over later years with her young family as well. At the time my brother and I went with Bill, she was considered too young. She never lets us forget it, either.

Grandpa showed us the schoolhouse and we compared it with a photo he had of the children and staff, taken in 1896. He located and part way climbed the ‘lunch tree’ where Bill and some of his mates ate their lunch back in the 1890s. Kangaroos seemed to show no fear of us as they clung to what little shade was available, and emus strutted around.  Whirly-winds and dust spirals kept us company.

Some of the railway cottages were still fully standing and, at a pinch, probably habitable in 1958.  On a later visit in 2018, we had trouble locating the ones he lived in. These days there is evidence of the floor only and over the years the walls had been reduced by the elements and salt damp. Some of rock had probably been used to restore other buildings, the roofing iron and anything else useful would have been taken by anyone who needed it if it was any good. The cottage ruins are just inside the southern entrance to the town, south of the recently restored Ganger’s/Fettler’s hut.

We spent the dying hours of the day, welcoming the cool of the evening as the sun headed further down in the west.  Bill pointed out buildings he could remember, and kept up his childhood stories to us, as we fossicked around. That night we all slept well at the Marree Hotel.

Next morning, woken by the crows and after an early breakfast, we couldn’t wait to go south again. Somewhere south of Marree we hit a washaway a bit too hard and had a blowout. Not sure what came first, blowout or washaway. I clearly don’t remember but Grandpa would have said, ‘Great Caesar’s ghost!’, or ‘Christmas!’, which were his favourite exclamations because a swearer he was not.

Luckily, we didn’t roll the Austin A40 but after our hearts returned to normal, it turned into an adventure because we had to change the wheel.  The axle was deep in bulldust and we had to dig out the rear end of the car without a shovel. Grandpa drove a bit slower from then on.

We arrived back again at Farina where we went for another wander around the ruins, down the creek and in the old station yards. We camped the night at the Farina Racecourse, a natural salt flat, large and solid enough to hold race meetings when it was dry which was most of the time. At some point about here we had some shots with Grandpa’s .22 rifle. The wildlife was in no danger because we all had poor eyesight.

Overnight it rained a little, so we decided to get going, Grandpa was not too keen on being bogged on the racecourse, miles from anywhere. The Austin A40 didn’t let us down and we managed get back to the main road as the rain increased.

Southwards to Lyndhurst, Leigh Creek towards Copley but the washaways and creek beds were filling up quickly and we had to carefully negotiate them. The bull dust had quickly turned to mud and by the time we arrived at Beltana the creek was a swollen torrent, totally impassable. The rain came down, so we returned to Copley. It is possible and probable that accommodation was not available to travellers at Leigh Creek, otherwise we would not have gone back on that muddy, dangerous, road to Copley.  We spent a couple of days at the pub which was an adventure for Peter and I. Staying at a pub in the outback like we were regulars, creeks in flood and being privileged to be there when the rain was actually falling from the sky in such a dry, arid landscape. I do remember rain seemed to be the only topic and created great excitement.

Bill was not a drinker, but I recall he did have a lemon squash with a traveller who he became friendly with. Bill Carpmail was a very outgoing person and would speak to anyone and everyone. After barely knowing someone, he would know their family history and even details of how much they earnt!

The rain kept up for another day but then eased and the next day word was out that the road was just passable with extreme care. Heading southwards again, I remember Beltana Creek still flowing aggressively and we waited, how long I don’t remember but it was less than a day. I do recall, however, seeing a couple of vehicles wade through the torrent and several hours later we gave it a go. Grandpa Bill Carpmail’s driving and our trusty, early model Austin A40, delivered us to the other side. I do remember clearly, the boiling torrent trying to take the rear end of the car with it, but we made it. South and onwards, through Parachilna, Hawker and Quorn, we crossed many rivers and creeks. Fortunately, as we headed south, they rapidly kept dropping.

We travelled home via Quorn and Orroroo, spent a night with friends near Clare, and arrived in Broadview a day later.

It was a great trip to Farina in 1958 and we all enjoyed it in our own ways. For Bill it must have been nostalgic, after about sixty years, to see the changes.

We did another two trips over the next few years. On one of the trips, I believe it to be 1963, we went to Lake Eyre, ending up at Muloorina Station where we met Elliot Price who was helping to facilitate Sir Donald Campbell’s bid to break the land speed record on the vast salt lake. Unfortunately for the British soldier of fortune, every chance he had to do the run on Lake Eyre, he was hampered by rain. And rain in that part of Australia was not only rare but when it did rain, there were always widespread floods. With Bill’s thirst for knowledge, and ignoring protocol and the importance of Campbell’s quest, he had no hesitation in driving straight into the homestead and introducing himself, and us, to Elliot Price. I recall we had lunch there and it wouldn’t surprise me if Grandpa deliberately fronted up at that hour for a free meal. Elliot showed us around the station and took us to bores and a hot water spring, as well as explaining the running of the station. After we left, Bill told us it was a pity we couldn’t meet Sir Donald who was, I think, in Adelaide at the time.

We should have been welcome visitors to the far north because on two of the three trips, as far as I can remember, we brought the rain. On another Farina journey we broke an axle in the Austin A40 and had to wait days at Copley for parts.  We spent several nights at the Parachilna Hotel waiting for the creeks to drop and Peter reminded me that the accommodation consisted of a bed in the lean-to at the back. Dinner saw us sitting around the kitchen table, watching the publican carve off slices of cold roast lamb, all this illuminated with candles placed strategically.

I did not have the opportunity to return to Farina again until 2018. With family, Peter, Rosemary, Alice and Lindsay, we spent a couple of days there, staying at Lyndhurst. Our mother, Ina, had just turned 100 but was unable to join us. We didn’t locate the old railway cottages until day two, working back from the old railway line. We vaguely recalled that the photos in 1958 were taken whilst standing on the line. Only the mound exists today with a few pieces of rotting sleepers and intermittent lengths of railway line.  

It is wonderful to see the old place coming to life in its own way. On behalf of Bill Carpmail, I’d like to thank all those who have put so much effort into bringing Farina back to life.

Old towns die and become memories –

Farina rises from the rubble with vision and stories

Ian Laver. 9/4/2020


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