Far-Northern Memories by H. (Bert) Rowe 31st July, 1973.
After many years of talking and thinking about it, I definitely made up my mind that I would go back to the district where I was born. I was born in Farina, in the Far North of South Australia, in the year 1891: there were three others of my family born there.
The only distinction Farina could lay claim to, at that time, was that it was the gateway to what was known as the Innamincka Track, where all the stations on the track used to send their teams (both bullock and horse teams) to deliver their wool clip and to take back their provisions, which meant that, when the teams were in, the town was lively and prosperous.
At that time, the town consisted of two hotels, butcher and baker shops, a saddler shop, a big store and a blacksmith shop, which was owned by my father. He was the only blacksmith north of Hawker, at the time, and he was kept busy.
Recently, a holiday weekend gave us the opportunity to make the trip. Our destination was Marree (known as Hergott Springs, in my day). As we had only three days to make the trip, we decided to leave on the Friday night, and make Quorn our object that night – two hundred miles away. My son and his family, with my wife and myself, left our Ascot Park home at 6.30 pm on a cold and frosty night.
After wending our way through heavy traffic, we eventually bypassed Gawler – one hour later (25 miles): we were still a long way from Quorn. As our car had air-conditioning, it was quite cosy inside, but very cold outside.
On we went through Rhynie, Auburn and Watervale, which brought back to me many memories of the cricket matches I had played on their ovals, in the Mid-North Cricket Association.
We arrived at that lovely Mid-North town of Clare before 9 pm, with its shops in the main street all ablaze with lights and its citizens doing their weekend shopping. After leaving Clare, we passed through Yacka and Georgetown, and took a wrong turn. By some instinct I was certain we were on the wrong road, so we turned back and were again on the right road to Wilmington, where we arrived at about 10.30 pm. At last we were headed for Quorn, 24 miles away, where we arrived at 11 pm. We stayed at the Old Mill Motel, which was supplied with electric wall-heaters and electric blankets, for which we were thankful, as it was still very cold.
Before breakfast next morning, I went for a walk around the town and was agreeably surprised to see that Quorn was not the ghost town that I thought it would be. Before the advent of Leigh Creek coalfields, we had to stop at Quorn for the night whenever we travelled on the train to the city: but, thanks to the tourist trade and being the gateway to the Flinders Ranges, Quorn is still very much alive, with four hotels and its nice motel and its shopping centre. It suffered a big loss in business and population when the railway bypassed it from Leigh Creek to Port Augusta, but it has survived.
After viewing the museum at the Old Mill Motel, we drove around the town, filled up with petrol and headed for the wide open spaces of the North. We crossed the Willochra Plain, passing the deserted towns of Gordon and Wilson, and arriving at Hawker about 10.45 am. Hawker has a population of about 500 and is the centre of pastoral and farming interests, set against the magnificent background of the Flinders Ranges.
We looked around the town, taking a few moving pictures, and then headed for the last town in which I had lived in the Far North – Parachilna – and what a town! Today, it consists of the hotel, post office and railway station. I walked around to see if I could find any old landmarks, but they had all disappeared. Even the house I had lived had gone, so I had my photo taken on that spot, with the Flinders Ranges in the background.
Parachilna, in my day, was a very busy railhead for the Blinman copper mine and smelters, with its dozens of teams of all descriptions – horses, donkeys, mules and even camels – carting coke to the smelters and copper-ore to the railhead.
It brought back old memories of hot nights, nights when it was too hot to drink in the bar of the pub. The teamsters used to have a kerosene-tin bucket filled with beer and would drink it out on the street. They would start singing and step-dancing and sometimes it would finish up in a fight – but everybody was happy. They were wild and woolly days, with plenty of money to spend.
There were not many women in the town, then – not more than a dozen – so you can imagine how they were in great demand when a dance was held in the pub dining room. The only other outings they used to have were the picnics which were arranged on a Sunday, up in the gap in the ranges. Everyone would go and enjoy a good day’s outing.
Motor cars, in those days, were non-existent in the district: our only means of transport were horses and traps, or on horseback. My father, at that time, owned a well-bred racing mare and foal, which I always rode to the picnics. Once, somehow, she broke loose from the other horses and galloped off into the ranges. It was a very frightened and unhappy lad who went home and reported her loss.
Next morning, I was told to borrow another horse and not come back until I had found her. After about an hour’s riding across the plain to the gap, I could see a cloud of dust ahead and, to my delight, it was Mavis and her foal. I called her and she came to. We returned home in triumph – an experience I will never forget.
As a man grows older, he begins to understand some of the things he didn’t understand when he was young. In these days, we hear a lot about the loneliness of old people in our society. It was also very much in evidence in those days when I live in Parachilna.
The hotel was owned by an old man named Mr. W. Darmody, who was retired, and the actual management was done by his niece and nephew, Miss Annie Darmody and Jim Darmody, and they employed two waitresses and a cook, who were generally engaged through an employment agency in the city.
One cook had lived there for about three months when she suddenly died – she was about sixty and a widow. She knew no one in the town, only the hotel staff. As there were no doctors or police in the town, they had to get in touch with them in Blinman before she could be buried. The police tried, through the agent, to get in touch with relatives or friends, but they failed to find any and they gave the order to go ahead with the funeral, which became the most unfuneral-like funeral I have ever seen.
Old Charlie Brooks, the boots at the hotel, was sent to the local cemetery, which was about a mile along the Blinman Road, to dig the grave. My father, being the only skilled tradesman in the town, had to make the coffin – he did this for all the Far-Northern towns in which he lived. As there was no such thing as a hearse in any town in the North, the only means of conveying the coffin to the cemetery was a horse and dray belonging to the hotel.
On the day of the funeral, the cortege consisted of Jim Darmody and my father walking ahead, myself sitting on the front rail of the old tip-dray driving an old white horse (which was blind) following with the coffin, and Charlie Brooks walking behind with a long-handled shovel over his shoulder. Jim Darmody read the burial service. It was one of the loneliest funerals I ever saw – and yet another of the experiences I will never forget.
Whilst on the subject of the Darmody family, I recall another memory of a dog named Lassie, which was owned by them. One of old Mr Darmody’s friends had been paying him a visit and, as he was an old drover, he wanted a sheep dog to take with him up the Innamincka track. He was given Lassie – much to my sorrow, and that of everybody in the town, as she was a great favourite with everyone. Lassie was put into the dog-box of the brake-van on the train and taken to Farina, eighty miles further north, where she arrived in the dark.
About a fortnight later, after we had finished work, I happened to glance up the Northern Road and I could see something coming towards me: I waited awhile and, much to my surprise and delight, it was Lassie – footsore, weary and hungry. I took her over to old Mr. Darmody and, with tears in his eyes, he said: “I will never do that again”. Lassie had come home and she was still there when I left Parachilna.
The main source of milk in Blinman, in those days, was goats. Nearly every family had a flock of them, so naturally there was a demand for billy-goat carts as a means of carting wood and water from the local well. The homemade variety of a box on two wheels wasn’t big or strong enough for the job, so they wanted something bigger and stronger made on the model of the old English wagon, with four wheels and an undercarriage, and with two pairs of shafts, so that they could yoke up anything from two to eight goats, as a team.
The first order for one of these wagons to be built was for one of my cousins, Ted Roberts, and my father turned the job over to me, to help me to learn the trade. The second one was built for another cousin of mine, Jack Whitford, who was later well-known in the North as Superintendent of Roads. The third was for Lance Nicholls, whose father, at that time, had the mail service between Parachilna and Blinman. I have still got the photo of myself and that wagon, taken in Parachilna about the year 1904. Lance Nicholls still lives on Warraweena Station in the Flinders Ranges, I believe.
In those days at Parachilna, my father was a friend of Mr. George McDonald, who was the manager of Lake Torrens sheep station and each year at shearing time, he wanted extra hands to do the mustering and to be handy around the place. He always asked if I could help, and as I loved riding horses, I was very eager to go.
Lake Torrens Station was owned by Mr. Frank Whyte, who also owned another property name Deep Well, out from Farina, and they brought the sheep from there to be shorn at Lake Torrens Station. Of course, they had to be taken back again – a distance of about 100 miles, and, one year, I two other lads and Mr. Brown were the party to take them back. I was appointed cook.
My first experience at cooking a damper was a great success, because I followed exactly the instructions on the baking powder tin; there was no self-raising flour, then. My second attempt was a complete flop, because I tried to take a large quantity and somehow it became unbalanced. No one could eat it, but it did come in handy as ammunition, the next day.
Our route was through the Flinders Ranges, which we entered on the third day, in beautiful weather, amid beautiful scenery. We camped that night at the old Leigh Creek Station, where the vermin-proof fence crossed the main road. We were about to turn in for the night, about 10 o’clock, when we heard a terrible clatter and some profane language. Presently, a man came up to the campfire, wheeling a bike with a buckled front wheel: he had run into the gate which he had not known was there. He was the last of a gang of shearers who had been shearing at Wooltana Station and, as he was in a hurry to get to the Leigh Creek pub before it closed, his language was not too polite.
After a wonderful trip in the fresh air, sleeping under the stars, we eventually arrived at our destination. Deep Well Station took its name from a very deep well at the homestead: I can’t remember the exact depth, but, when you dropped a stone into it, you have to wait a considerable time before it hit the water. It was the deepest well in the North. Bores were the main source of supply of water in those days.
On Sunday, we three lads were taken into Farina to stop at the pub, so that we could catch the Monday morning train home. At dusk, we noticed a man coming down the Marree Road, wheeling a bike with a broken pedal. We were amazed as, at first, we thought he was an aboriginal, the first we had ever seen with a bike; however, he had been burnt black by the sun. He was Francis Birtles, the overland cyclist, a man who was making history. He was on his way from Port Darwin to Adelaide by bike, the first man to cross Australia from North to South in this way – a distance of over 2,000 miles, which was a wonderful feat.
That night, as we had an empty bed in our room, he was put in with us, and what a tale he had to tell! We sat up half the night to listen to his adventures; he told of his troubles with the hostile tribes in the Northern Territory, when he was lucky to escape with his life; the difficulties he had had crossing creeks and rivers; the problems of riding a bike with no roads, through sand and gibbers, and only the overland telegraph line to guide him. He was a brave man who, after finishing that trip, went on to other cross-country feats and later became an author, writing several books.
We left next morning for home – I for Parachilna and the other two lads for Hawker. Our droving for that year was over, much to our disgust.
I don’t know whether meeting Francis Birtles had any effect, or not, but I still ride a bike.
The Blinman mine was discovered in the middle of the nineteenth century by a man named Blinman. After it was put into operation by several companies, it was closed down for a long period, but was finally reopened in 1902 by the Tasmanian Copper Company, with Mr. C.M. Henrie as manager. After a few years of prosperity, it was decided to open a smelter at Leigh Creek, so that they could utilise the coalfields for their steam-engines – but they never turned a wheel.
On a tour of inspection of the plant, Mr. Henrie died suddenly at the Copley Hotel. A new manager was sent, but he promptly closed everything down. Another bubble had burst! That meant that Parachilna, as a place of business, was finished and it has never recovered.
My father had taken on a business in the Barossa Valley and I was asked to ride the mare, Mavis, down there. At the age of 16 I left Parachilna on a Wednesday morning, and rode to Hawker, 57 miles away. I stayed at the hotels in the various towns overnight, and received many queries as to my journey.
The next day I rode on to Carrieton and left on the following morning for Black Rock. This was a truly memorable day as, on the way, I was dive-bombed by magpies (it was springtime and the nesting season). I saw my first motor car, which the horse would not pass – she shied and the motorist stopped the car to allow us to pass, then Mavis bolted; to finish an eventful day, I was told, on arrival at the Black Rock Hotel, that the publican had the D.T’s! I was scared, and locked myself into my room that night.
Saturday night was spent at Yarcowie and, as I sat on the pub verandah, I could hear many raised voices in the bar. At last, one of the blokes came out and said that they had been discussing a horse out in the stable. He asked if it was mine and if it had been a racehorse: he also said that they were betting on its name. I answered ‘yes’ to the first two questions and said that we called the horse ‘Mavis’. All abets were cancelled as the names that the men had been arguing over were all those of stallions!!
I rode on to Burra and, after dinner in the hotel, spent Sunday evening with the aborigines from one of Kidman’s droving plants, who were on their way back North. Racialism didn’t seem to be a factor, at that time’ certainly not in my life.
On Monday I rode to Kapunda – 50 miles, the second longest ride of the journey – and, next day (the seventh) rode the last nine miles to Greenock where, after nearly 300 miles, the journey ended. I sent a telegram to Adelaide – ‘Arrived Greenock be home tonight’ – and caught the afternoon coach and train to Adelaide, where I was met by one of my sisters…..
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Back to our journey of 1972:
We left Parachilna about 1.30 p.m. for Beltana, another of the deserted towns of the North which in the old days, was a prosperous and pretty town. We arrived at the old railway station, where we met Mr. Hull, who had purchased the old buildings to live in, so he could study old relics in the district for the Historical Society. We drove across the town, which is in ruins, and met a busload of Scouts from Adelaide, who were re-building a stone wall.
A function in connection with the Smith of Dunesk Mission was to be held in the hall, the next day (Sunday), when they expected a large crowd.
This Mission led to the foundation of the Australian Inland Mission and the Flying Doctor Service, as John Flynn served as a missioner, there.
We asked the Scouts where the old blacksmith’s shop was, as my father had been the last blacksmith to work there, nearly a hundred years ago. Needless to say, it was in ruins, but the bench and lower part of a vice were still there.
After the importation of camels into Australia, an attempt was made to breed them at the old Beltana Station, as it was thought they were the best means of transport in the dry North. Teamsters and drivers of horses hated them because, when they met them, the horses were frightened and quite a few accidents were caused. However, the camels proved themselves in the dry, empty, northern parts of the State.
We headed North again for Copley and Leigh Creek, not stopping on the way, as we thought we would have more time on the return journey. We were disappointed with what we had seen; apart from a modern and well laid-out town, the coalfields were just a big hole in the ground, with a large machine extracting coal from it. The most interesting part was the huge mounds of overburden taken from the top of the coal-seam and scattered all over the place, like Miniature Mountains.
We passed the small town of Lyndhurst and on to Farina, the town of my birth, and how different it was from the town of my birth! We passed down the main street and I could recognise the old hotels, shops and other buildings, but, of course, they were in ruins.
The only things which were the same were the gibbers, which Farina was always noted for. There was only one house which we thought looked as if it could be inhabited. Farina was a ghost town.
We now headed for Marree, thirty-two miles away, and, after a very dusty trip, we arrived at 4.30 p.m. The dust was very bad on the road; when we met a truck or car, we had to stop to allow dust to settle before we could see the road ahead.
Like other towns in the North, Marree was not the bush town I remembered as Hergott Springs. Except for the pub, post office and one or two houses, the old lay-out of the town was altered, with all the most fascinating features of the old town gone. To my mind, it was too modernised, with its motor cars and electric lights.
In the old days, the town had three distinct features: on the west side of the line was the European section and all the business sector: on the eastern side was the Afghan town: and, further out, were the camps of the natives, which consisted of a number of wurlies made of old bags, flattened kerosene tins and a number of sticks. The camps were shifted every few months for the purpose of hygiene. The wurlies were round, about four feet high, and, to enter, you had to get down on hands and knees and crawl in – everybody in together, dogs and all. It seemed, at times, that there were more dogs than people.
One of my brothers, John Guy Rowe, was born on 5th November (Guy Fawkes Day) and all of us lads used to work for months ahead to prepare a big bonfire to celebrate both events, burning the guy and letting off fireworks. It was a gala night, attended by everybody – black, white and brown.
Our main supply of bags and rubbish came from the abandoned camps and, after one strenuous Saturday spent collecting fuel, we arrived home for tea with my brother squirming and scratching all the time. When asked what was wrong with him, he said “nothing”, but, later, when we had our Saturday bath (water was scarce), he was found to be alive with lice and his clothes had to be burnt. I was lucky, I escaped. What great days they were! By a coincidence, on this trip it happened to be cracker night and it brought back old memories of the past.
The aborigines of those days were a lot different from what they are today: they were a happy, simple people and always grateful for anything given to them. In dry times, when game was scarce, they had a struggle to exist and the Government used to supply them, once a month, with rations.
Every Monday morning, we used to have a couple come to do our washing and chop wood. At the end of the day they would be supplied with rations and a few sticks of tobacco and, of course, they were fed during the day. They generally brought all their relations. They were said to be of royal blood, so we were honoured.
I cannot remember any of the local aborigines being in trouble with the law, but quite often, when the Oodnadatta train arrive, there was a van-load of wild aborigines from the Northern Territory being taken to Port Augusta gaol for spearing cattle, which they needed for food. They were generally chained together like animals, with one white constable and a black tracker in charge.
The Australian aboriginal is gifted with wonderful eyesight. I remember once my mother and I visited one of our family graves in the cemetery, about a mile and a half away over stony ground, and when we returned home, she found she had lost her gold brooch. I was sent over to the police station to see if the tracker would help find it. He came over and picked up our tracks at our house; we followed them and when we came to gravel, I would say, “Where tracks now, Fred?” and he would point to a small stone that had been slightly moved – only very keen eyesight could have noticed it. Happily, we found my mother’s brooch not far from the grave we had visited.
The natives never seemed to need a doctor: I suppose they had their own remedies. There was one old lubra who used to come into the town, always accompanied by another carrying a tin of water from the bore. When she took a fit, she was brought around by the water. You could always trace her movements by the damp spots on the ground. The remedy was rough, but effective.
There were a few of the aborigines employed usefully about town and outlying stations, but they never seemed to visit the camp. Racialism, in those days, was not a problem: as lads, we all played together – black, white and brindle – with never a care in the world. There was no effort made to educate the native children in the local school, as none attended whilst I was there, but, in later years, a bigger school was built and I believe a lot attend, now.
On the Saturday night of our trip, we stayed at the Marree Hotel and, after dinner, visited the front bar and parlours, and it is quite safe to say that the majority was aboriginal: wives and girl-friends were in the parlours, all were smartly dressed in the latest fashions and seemed to be enjoying themselves, with plenty of money to spend. The younger generation, through education and mingling with the white settlers, had easily adapted to the white man’s environment, which is not always in their best interest.
I was disappointed to find that the Afghan side of the town had gone. It used to be the most fascinating feature of the old town, with its Eastern influence, its two mosques, camels and three date-plantations. Every morning and night, at sunrise and sunset, we would hear their priest, the imam, with a very mournful cry, calling the faithful to prayer.
In front of the mosques there was always a small dam, with bore water running into it, neatly covered around the edges with boards to eliminate the mud, and before they were allowed to enter they had to take their boots off and wash their feet, leaving their footwear outside. Often there was a strange collection of footwear outside the mosques, some with the toes turned up, in the Eastern tradition.
The mosques were built by the Afghans themselves, mostly of mud and straw, with a thatched roof, the walls about four feet six inches high, with a space of about six feet before the roof began, wide open to the elements and sightseers. The walls and floor were spotless, clean and white; there were no seats of any description, and the worshippers stood for a while, then knelt with their heads touching the floor, and always facing the sun. We were often spectators.
There was a fairly large population of Afghans in Marree, in those days, as it was the main centre for the camel-trains, and long strings of camels moved out to cart provisions and all sorts of merchandise to stations along the Cooper and over the Queensland border, also supplying those along the Birdsville Track.
It was amazing to see the variety of goods carried on camels, at times – anything from small rainwater tanks to telegraph poles: there was nothing they couldn’t carry. The load had to be tied on each side of pack-saddles with ropes, and had to be evenly balanced. It was a job that called for good judgment and experience. The goods were tied into bundles in the railway yard a couple of days before they departed, and weighed, on an average, about 7 cwt.
When the camels were eventually brought to be loaded, it used to cause a lot of interest and sometimes amusement, especially when they were breaking-in young camels, as they would get savage and try to bite the legs of the men loading them. Someone would have to stand in front of them, with a big stick in his hand, and give them a crack on the head when they tried to bite. They have long necks and can reach a long way back.
Many times we have seen the main street of Marree littered with broken cases of jam, pickles, tomato sauce and other goods, because the young camels had thrown off their loads and caused confusion amongst the others. Camels are slow-moving animals and, with their heavy loads, do not travel very far in a day, and the monotonous task of unloading and loading has to be done every day.
There is a mistaken idea that camels can go a long way without water, but this is not so; it is only those that have been trained to do so that can do this. They need water like other animals, but they do eat almost anything and keep alive where other animals would die. It was in the 1920’s that the motor trucks started to take over their work and, by the middle of the thirties, they had died out altogether.
The Afghans, being Mohammedans, were very strict in their religion; they never patronised the hotel or drank any alcohol. Every night, when the butcher was going to kill meat, he would go over to the Afghan town and pick up one of the men in his cart, to take to the killing-yard, as they would not buy meat if one of them had not stuck a knife into the beast. They were very fond of fruit and vegetables, but the local shops had to be careful that their smallgoods and bacon were not on display, otherwise they would not enter the shop. Pork is very much against their religion and they won’t eat it.
On the whole, the Afghan people were a quiet and peaceful group, but there were times when violence broke out and resulted in the use of firearms. One man was shot dead one night, and when the police and the tracker went to find the culprit, next day, they discovered that he had walked along the metal on the railway line towards Farina, but when he left the line, the tracker immediately saw his track and they caught him that night in the bush.
With the disappearance of the camels and Afghans, with their colourful dress of baggy calico pants, fancy waistcoats and long turbans, Marree lost one of its most interesting features and it is now just an ordinary Australian small town – much to my disappointment.
Marree stands on the edge of that geological phenomenon, the artesian basin, which reaches almost to the Queensland border on the Birdsville Track. The bore used to be situated in the railway yard and flowed down through the fence into a long trough outside, where all the stock used to drink; then it would run away in a stream for about a mile and a half and disappear into a swamp. The water was slightly brackish but good stock water. When rainwater was scarce, it was used to wash clothes, after it had been boiled and skimmed!
According to a geologist, the basin was like a huge pie in a dish, with a hard crust on top and, once the crust was pierced, the pressure would force the water into the air. There was a Government bore at Lake Harry, twenty miles from Marree, where the water was hot, but as you advanced up the track, the bores got deeper and hotter. I have heard teamsters say that, at some bores, it was possible to make tea with water straight from the bore. It had to be run off into cooling ponds before the stock could drink it………..
On the Sunday morning, we went to see if the bore and the date-plantations were still there, but I was told they had disappeared years ago. The date-plantations were a real oasis in the desert, in the old days, with the stream from the bore running along one side of them. When necessary, it would be used to irrigate the date palms. The Government controlled one, with a gardener, but the other two were owned by the Afghans, with their mosque in the centre.
The dates picked fresh from the palm had a different from those we buy, preserved, from the shops today. Sometimes we would buy them dried and, when we used to shake them, we could hear the stone rattle inside. They had a distinct nutty flavour.
What a different scene it is, today; with the bore and plantations gone, it is a desert. It is not the old town that I knew.
After filling with petrol, we decided to visit the cemetery where my youngest brother was buried in 1898 – seventy-four years ago. We were amazed that the lettering on his tombstone was as good as the day it was put there. I saw a lot of other names of people well-known to me in the old days – European and Afghan.
When I was about four years old, we had moved to Hergott Springs (Marree) from Farina, as my father had decided that business prospects were much brighter there. After living in the town for about five years, where some of us went to school, he decided to move the entire family to Adelaide, where facilities for education were better, as one of my sisters wanted to become a school teacher.
I and my brothers attended the Norwood Public School, but, after about a year, when I was so fed up with city life – which I hated – and had worried my parents so much that they eventually agreed to send me back “bush” with my father, I returned to Marree, much to my satisfaction. It was at Marree that I finished my schooling and also started to work.
The school, in those days, was a single room built of wood and iron. It was used for all purposes – dances, concerts, and all denominations used it for their services. On this trip, I notice that they have a much larger and more modern school, now, but not on the old site.
My father was one of the best-known men in the North and he was generally the instigator of all sporting and social functions. Many a time I have heard men from drover’s plants or teamsters say to him, when they came to town: “What about a dance, tonight, Bill?” I would be told to ride a horse around to all the houses to inform them that there would be a dance that night. Everybody would turn up, and all the ladies would bring a basket of food for supper; sometimes the dance would go on until daylight.
Friday afternoon was generally the day when wild cattle from Kidman’s stations were yarded, for trucking to the Adelaide market next day. Our shop, being opposite the yards, was a good place to see all the excitement of the yarding, as it took a lot of hard riding before they were all safely inside. Often a beast would break away and get tangled up in, the railway wire-fence and had to be shot. There would be free beef around the town, next day.
About that time, a family in Quorn owned a dog known throughout the North as “Bob, the railway dog”. He very often used to take trips up North on the trains, looked after by the railway men. When North and South-bound trains left Quorn about the same time in the mornings, both pointing East, he had enough intuition to know which train to catch – which was more than some humans knew. He always travelled North.
A few years later, another “railway Bob” appeared, in the form of the Rev. R. Wilkinson, the Church of England minister of a large Northern parish. His only means of transport was a bike or the train – he always seemed to be on a train, hence his nickname.
On one occasion, he was in Farina and wanted to hold a service in Marree on a Sunday night. His only means of transport, that day, was his bike, and my father decided to go in a buggy and pair to meet him. As there were no such things as grids in the roads, those days, I had to go with him to open and shut the gates. To leave a gate open was – and is now – a crime.
About half a mile out of town, we had to pass through a big paddock belonging to one of the land-owning Afghan gentry who used to breed camels. He had imported, from Arabia, a large, double-humped camel to be used as a stud – the only one of its kind in the North. We noticed him feeding with others out on the plain, when we were going through.
After we had picked up the minister and were on our way back into town, the camel noticed us; he came towards us at an angle to cut us off at a smart trot. Not knowing what to expect, the three of us, as well as the horses, were a bit scared. When he got about twenty yards from us, my father handed me the reins and got out of the buggy, picking up a couple of stones. When the camel got closer, he let fly with a stone and was lucky enough to hit him on the side of the head. The camel let out a bellow and “turned tail” where he got another stone, and then galloped away, very much to our relief. We never did know what his intentions were. Camels have been known to attack men, at certain seasons.
I pointed out the spot where it had occurred to my family, on this trip – a spot I shall never forget.
The weather in the North in the winter time is the best in the world – beautiful sunny days and no wind. The only suitable outdoor sport to play was tennis: also, there were no facilities for other sports.
There was great rivalry between the Marree and Farina teams. Twice a year, they would meet in home-and-away matches and the excitement and barracking would do credit to a grand-final football match. There would be six men in each side and the match would last all day, with the rival barrackers wearing their team’s colours in ribbons and rosettes. At night, there would be a grand concert and ball, which would last till daylight. It would be a subject for conversation for a long time, and also good business for the local hotels, as it would bring a lot of people from the district into the town.
Another event of great importance was the annual race meeting, which was supposed to last for one day but was generally celebrated for a week, with something on every day and night – good for all-round business, as money flowed pretty freely. People would come from stations along the Birdsville Track, and other outlying stations, and make it their annual holiday.
I was always pleased when the meetings were over, as my father, in his spare time, used to train some horses for Mundowdna Station, to try out at the local races, and I had to get up at daylight, in the cold, and help him ride them on the track, which I didn’t appreciate very much.
The outback bushman has always been noted for his ingenuity when he gets into strife in the bush. He has had to be inventive because sometimes his life depended on it. I remember one time the Birdsville mail, which used to arrive once a fortnight on a Saturday at noon, was very late. It was only a large buggy, drawn by five mules or horses and driven by one of the toughest men in the bush, Billy James. When it eventually arrived, it had only three wheels – and a mulga stick! The back axle had broken off at the shoulder and, of course, the stick had to be renewed frequently: needless to say, we had to repair the axle. Only a tough man would have got the mail through.
At times, we would get word from Farina asking if we would go down and open the blacksmith’s shop there for a few weeks, as several bullock-teams were expected to come in from the Innamincka Track and would want a lot of repairs done. Bullock teams in a district meant a lot of work for a blacksmith, because all their equipment was repaired and made by the smith. All the saddler got out of them was a tail for the whip.
In most towns, there would be a public cueing-pen for nailing the cues on the bullocks. It consisted of three posts in the ground and two rails on each side, to which the legs were tied with a rope. We used to make hundreds of cues, as it took eight for a set, one for each claw. It used to create a lot of interest among the public, when the cueing was on, but those days and events are gone forever.
I mentioned before that ingenuity is an essential trait for the bushman, and recall two other examples of this. In the early days in Farina, my father employed a young lad named Joe Wright, who wanted to learn the trade. He lived with us as one of the family and was a brother to us, becoming a very good tradesman.
After we had shifted to Marree, the South Australian Government wanted to put down a line of bores from Coward Springs, eighty miles north of Marree, to the Western Australian border. It was necessary for them to have a blacksmith on the boring plant and, as smiths were scarce, they applied to my father to release Joe, which he did. The first bore; they attempted to put down was about sixty miles west of Coward Springs, in the middle of nowhere. As internal-combustion engines did not exist, in those days, it meant they had to use a steam-boiler for power which also meant water. They had to cart water from Coward Springs in a wagon drawn by camels, and every drop of water was precious.
Later on, they realised that a lot of water was being wasted in the steam from the exhaust, and they asked Joe if he could bend a length of bore-casing, sixteen feet long with four inch diameter, into a “U” shape, so it would return the steam back to the boiler and eventually condense back to water. What a job! Only a tradesman can appreciate the magnitude of the task even in a well-equipped workshop it would not be easy.
Fortunately, they were situated close to some scrub and there was plenty of dry timber about. First, Joe put three posts into the ground and secured one end of the casing between two of them with some chains; he then lit a series of fires along the casing, using plenty of wood. He hooked camels on to the other end of the casing and pulled it against the third post, gradually shifting the post along a few times until the casing was pulled into the desired shape.
We saw a photograph of it when he came home, and it looked a good job. However, as it turned out, after drilling down nearly a mile (over five thousand feet) they did not strike water of sufficient quantity to go any deeper and the whole scheme was abandoned.
Joe got good recommendations from his boss and later in life, he went back to the Government to work until he retired.
The other incident also was concerned with a steam-boiler, which was being carted bay bullock-teams to somewhere in the outback, near the Queensland border, when they discovered that it was gradually sliding off the back of the wagon. As it weighed nearly four tons, they were in a quandary to know how to get it back in its place. If it fell off, they would never get it back on to the wagon, so they decided that, as they could not shift the boiler forward, they would have to shift the wagon backwards.
They cut down some long poles and built tripods at each end of the boiler, then secured the boiler to the tripods with bullock chains, which were always in good supply with a bullock-team. They then jacked up each wheel separately and dug out a trench under it; in this way, they lowered the wagon. Everything was back to normal, the job had taken a week, but it was worth it. We are told that “necessity is the mother of invention” and nowhere does it apply more than in the bush.
The bush is also responsible for a variety of characters. A blacksmith’s shop, in the country, was a real meeting place for men who had some spare time to spend, and you heard all sorts of stories, tall and otherwise. Even the great Sir Sidney Kidman, sometimes accompanied by his wife, would call into our shop for horses to be shod or buggy repairs when he was visiting some of his stations up the Birdsville Track. He would tell a few stories himself. He used to tell of his early life, when he left his Kapunda Home, as a lad, with a one-eyed horse and one pound in his pocket. Later, he bought and sold another horse and made one pound profit – the start of his huge fortune.
In his early days, he concentrated more on buying and selling horses; it was later that he turned to sheep and cattle, to build up the Kidman empire. In those days, he was always known as Sid, never Mr Kidman. It was true, natural democracy in the bush.
He was a tall, upright man of over six feet, a typical bushman with his elastic-sided boots and wide-brimmed, felt hat. He was a strict teetotaller who never smoked or swore. When he was really angry with a man or a beast, he would refer to him or it as “a jolly tinker”. All his business dealings didn’t meet with the approval of the business people in the North, and sometimes, when he bought a property in a district, it was referred to as “the Queensland blight has come over the land”. He was supposed to have a wonderful memory and to be able to tell, to a day, where any of his mobs of cattle and droving plants would be. He was finally granted a knighthood and died a rich man, and parts of his vast empire still exist.
Another character I remember was an old man named Dan Dwyer, who always visited our shop once a year. He was the typical old, Australian swagman, with his spotless white moleskin pants and bowyangs, his white beard and huge swag, with his old, black billy. He used to walk all the way from Gawler, over 400 miles, because he hated the wet weather in the South. Dan always camped in the corner of our shop and cooked his meals on the forge. He would wait until the weather down South had cleared up, then he would walk back again. He always said, when he left us, “I’ll see you next year”, which he did for years. The last time we saw old Dan he became very ill in our shop, and my mother had to nurse him back to health for a month. She tried to persuade him to travel South by train, but he refused. He had taken his last walk: we never saw him again.
A well-known character in the North was an Indian hawker named Artmour Singh, with his big, covered van and four horses. He used to do all his trading up the Birdsville Track and, when he came back to replenish his stock, he always did his cooking on the forge. I can still smell his curries, for which he was famous. He later opened an emporium in Kingscote, Kangaroo Island, and retired a rich man.
Some of the most colourful characters were sons of well-to-do English families; known as remittance men, they were generally sent out to Australia because they lived too wild a life at home. Most of them used to work out on the stations until their remittance arrived, then they would come to the town and have a wild time. Often some would say that they were off to the city, but they never got past the first pub. They were always well-educated men, with all sorts of talents – some as artists and some as poets – and, if anything unusual happened, it was generally written up in verse by one of the poets, usually in humourous style.
Here is an example of the verses we would hear – evidently written by the unknown “poet” after hearing two men in a pub discussing the relative merits of their sheep-dogs. Just why this particular one has remained in my memory, I don’t know, as we heard so many which I have forgotten:
You can talk about your sheep dog, said a man from Coopers Creek,
I know a dog that would simply knock you ratty.
He was owned by Daly, a drover cove, from Oodnadatee.
We were talking in the pub, on a Summer’s afternoon
When a blowfly comes a-buzzing around the ceiling.
Now up got Mike and said, ‘Look here, Pat,
I’ll show you what this dog is at heeling.’
There was an empty pickle-bottle standing on the shelf;
He took it down and put it on the table.
He showed the dog the bottle and pointed to the fly
And, in less than fifteen seconds – Gor, spare me days,
It ain’t a lie –
That dog had got the blowfly in the bottle. (Some dog!)
We would hear a lot of stories, from both black and white men, about the Gammon Ranges and how the name originated. According to the blackfellows’ legend, in the “dreamtime” it was the home of a huge snake that was supposed to keep out evil spirits. There used to be all sorts of rumbles, like thunder, and other weird noises due to the lack of earth amongst the rocks – not having anything to bed themselves in, they rolled down the side of the hills and caused those rumbles.
It is rather difficult to know where the Flinders Ranges end and the Gammon Range begins – it is somewhere North-East of Leigh Creek, in very barren country. In my days in the North, the word “gammon” was used a lot, by both black and white, young and old. If you were telling a story to anyone and he said that it was only gammon, it meant that it was a tall story and wasn’t true – that you were trying to deceive him. I have never heard the word used, down in the Southern part of the State, yet it is part of the English language.
I think the name originated in this way: someone, hearing the legend of the snake, called it “gammon”. I’m sure the sophisticated natives around Marree, today, would say it was only gammon.
When I set out to write this, I intended it to be about memories of my days in the North, but there is one tragic experience of my father’s I would like to put on record. It happened before I was born and was told to me by my mother. In those days, my father owned two horses and a covered-in buggy, which he used to travel around to the various towns in the North, staying as long as work was available.
About 1884, he shifted to Innamincka and, as he always wanted someone to help in his shop, his youngest brother came up from Adelaide to help him. He had never been in the bush before, and after he had been there some time, he was taken suddenly ill, with supposed typhoid fever. There were no doctors for hundreds of miles. My mother nursed him, but eventually he died; he was only twenty. My father, as the only skilled tradesman in the district, had to dig his grave, make the coffin and read the burial service over him – a task that no one would envy him. They were tough days in the bush: you had to be tough to survive.
Returning to our modern journey: we left Marree on Sunday morning at about 11.30, and headed for Parachilna, where we had to meet some friends. We called in to see the Aroona dam, which is three miles off the main road and was built by the Government to supply water for the Leigh Creek coalfields. It is a picturesque spot, with the blue hills in the background, and was well worth the visit.
There was a race meeting in progress at Parachilna when we arrived. After the race meeting, we, together with our friends, were invited to tea at a station between Parachilna and Blinman. Later, we drove on to Blinman, where we spent the night.
Blinman, like other towns in the Far North, has deteriorated: all its past glories have faded. Many times, when the mine was booming and the main mail coach was over-crowded on Saturdays, Joe Kipling used to call on me to drive another one around the old road, to deliver the Moolooloo Station mail-bag. As it is eight miles further, we generally arrived at the post office after dark. We carried no lights, so the road was left to the horses to follow. Thanks to the surrounding pastoral interests and tourism, the town has survived. We had passed many camp-fires and tents in the ranges as we drove along the road on Sunday night.
The next morning, at breakfast in the hotel dining-room, we struck up conversation with two other guests, who were visiting the town of their birth. One of them turned out to be a long-lost cousin of mine, young Joe Kipling from Port Augusta. His mother was my cousin, Ivy, a daughter of my uncle, Dick Roberts. In the old days, I had a lot of relations living in Blinman, but they have all drifted away.
After taking on more petrol and saying goodbye to our friends, we at last headed for home about nine o’clock on Monday morning. After a pleasant drive in lovely weather down through the ranges, we called in to see the Wilpena Pound Motel, which has been enlarged considerably. It would be a nice place to spend a healthy and quiet holiday.
We continued on the road to Hawker and, about halfway there, we struck the new bitumen road which is being built as far as Wilpena Pound. We arrived back at Quorn and lunched at one of the hotels.
It was a very interesting and pleasant journey, but I was somewhat disappointed to see the decay of some of the towns. After so many years, it is hard for me to realise that I have been back.
We arrived in the city, amidst the noise and bustle of traffic, at about 5 o’clock, and have settled down again to the humdrum existence of suburban life.
Our journey into the past is now behind us.