Swim at Valley Pool
My diary entries for the next few days are pretty run-of-the-mill. But rest assured, dear readers, the adventures are about to start! In the meantime, here’s some background information about my life before we set off to travel…
BACKSTORY. Part 5: Australia. In June 1987, at the end of my first season as a shepherd and casual musterer at Dry Creek Station, I went to Australia for two months. I had relations who owned cattle stations in Central Queensland whom I wished to visit, and family friends in the southern state of Victoria.
It transpired that three other shepherds that I knew were also travelling to Australia to compete in the rodeo circuit there. By coincidence, we were all on the same flight to Sydney and although I had reservations about travelling with these three rogues, who had acquired reputations as hard drinkers and hard fighters, I agreed to travel with them up to Queensland.
On the day of my departure, June 12th, my brother drove me to Christchurch. With a few hours to kill before going to the airport, he went off to attend to some business. I went to visit Linda Key.
I had met Linda earlier in the year at Dry Creek. Her mother, Helen, a widow, had married the station’s owner, Brian Beattie, in the late seventies. Her first husband, Robert Key, Linda’s father, had been killed in an accident. The Key family had owned Mount Crichton Station, near Glenorchy, at the head of Lake Wakatipu, a famous high country station in a remote and beautiful part of the South Island. Following her husband’s death, Helen sold the station and moved to Dry Creek.
Linda had spent her teen years at a prestigious boarding school in Christchurch then attended Christchurch Polytech. But she occasionally came home to Dry Creek, often with groups of her friends, and it was here that we had met. We had become friends and even though relationships between staff and family were generally frowned upon in the High Country, I had resolved to ask her out. However, the opportunity to do so hadn’t, as yet, presented itself, so on the morning that I was due to leave the country for the winter, I mustered up my courage (pun intended) and walked down to the Hereford Hotel where Linda worked as assistant manager.
I had always been painfully shy around girls. They scared me. I’d never had a steady girlfriend and the relationships that I had managed to cultivate were always somewhat tenuous and short-lived. But now, for the first time in my life, I decided to face my fears. I had nothing to lose. I was going to be out of the country for weeks so if she laughed at me and told me to fuck off I could simply flee. And so, bristling with feigned confidence, I presented myself at the hotel’s front desk and enquired if I might speak to Linda Key. My fear of rejection, was, however, unwarranted. She wasn’t there. She had phoned in sick that day. Deflated, and quite relieved, I left a note saying something lame about being sorry to have missed her and that I would be staying in Queensland for the next few weeks. As an afterthought, I left the address of the station where I would be staying: Mena Park, Blackall, QLD 4472. We drove to the airport, met my three compadres, and flew to Sydney.
The first week of the trip was…well, it was quite an adventure. The three fellows I was travelling with, Barry “Ginty” McGimpsey, Robert Kitto and Larry Williamson, were somewhat lacking in etiquette and played the “Cowboys in the Big City” role to perfection. My diary entries from those few days perhaps best illustrate the chaos:
FRIDAY, June 12. Spent the night in King’s Cross*. What a fuckin disgusting hole that is. Sluts and druggies and deros everywhere. Got a smack in the head from a deadbeat watch-seller for giving cheek. Got a taxi out to some house in Manly where our gear was. Slept the night in a chair.
*Sydney’s infamous Red Light District
SATURDAY, June 13. Went and saw Barry’s cousin in Crow’s Nest* whose name is Sharon. Pissed up all day. Saw a car crash outside her place. Went to a pub for a few drinks and drank wine all day at her place. Tea at a place called the Curry Bazar was horrible. Went to a party in Manly. Utterly boring. I hate this place.
*an inner suburb of Sydney
SUNDAY, June 14. Overcast. Looked around Sydney. Went up the Tower*. Pissed up. The boys and I decided to buy a car. I’m not all that keen but what the hell. Spent all day in seedy bars in The Rocks. The noise, the traffic, the people. It’s bloody awful. Pissed up in a couple of pubs in Manly and had a burger at the Cadillac Restaurant.
*The Centrepoint Tower.
MONDAY, June 15. Wet. Pissed up. Went to zoo. Zoo is good but because it’s in Sydney I didn’t enjoy it. Went into downtown Sydney and looked around. I was really up-tight by now. Had a few beers at Centrepoint then over to Shale Pub in Manly. Met a couple of helicopter mechanics and had tea with them. Walked home by myself along the beach in the rain. Felt very lonely and homesick. Want to leave here so badly now I can hardly stand the thought of another day here.
TUESDAY, June 16. Wet. Bought a car for $500*. No key so spent half the night trying to hot-wire it. The car was in some suburb on the far side of Sydney from Manly. But it’s our way out of this fuckin shit-hole. Larry drove us back to Manly over the bridge**. Packed up our gear and were set to go but to my utter dispair we coundn’t get the cunt to unlock. Stuck in this shit-hole for another night. Why did I stay with these bastards?
* A 1976 Holden Kingswood stationwagon.
** The Sydney Harbour Bridge.
WEDNESDAY, June 17. Fine. Packed up The Brown Beast* and fucked off out of Sydney. At last. Escape!! Went as far as Qurindi** and stayed with a friend of Anna Harper’s***. The city goes on for miles & miles. How do people live here? We travelled country roads to Lydell Power Station where someone had a spare key for the The Brown Beast, Tommy¹. Went to the Royal Hotel in Qurindi and got in touch with Anna Harper. Went out to her friend Lisa’s place with another friend, Vicky. All 3 girls are Kiwis. Chris Rea² was playing on the stereo when we got there and I relaxed for the first time since getting to Aussie.
* The car was a dreadful brown colour.
** A farming town in Central New South Wales.
*** An aquaintance of Kitto’s from home.
¹ Ginty called everyone he met “Tommy” for some reason so the car also had that appellation added to it’s name.
² My favourite singer at the time.
THURSDAY, June 18. Mild (Hot, even). Left at 8:00 and headed north. The old girl boiled just out of Qurindi but we found water at a nearby well. Drove to Bogabri* to pick up Brigette Greenslade. She is an empty-headed blond bint. I don’t like her. Got away at about 2:30 and drove. Boys are pissed. Car boiled again but we stayed mobile. Drove on into the night through roo** country. I prayed we’d get to Blackall by morning and recited The Man From Snowy River*** in my head to stay awake. The car shit itself in the middle of nowhere between Surat and Roma¹. The bottom pully² flew to bits & we were stuck. The boys were blotto³. We camped in the car.
* Another NSW farming town.
*** The epic bush poem by AB “Banjo” Patterson
¹ Small towns in Outback Queensland
² The bottom flywheel pully on the engine which drives, among other things, the cooling fan.
³ Passed out drunk
FRIDAY, June 19. Hot. Woke up in the bush. Sort of mist hangs round the trees. I got a ride to Surat in a truck-load of ice-cream. Got a mechanic to come out & put a new pully on the Beast. $60*. On the road again. The boys topped up and wasted by 1:00. Stopped at Morven pub and the boys were thrown out. Ran out of gas at Augathella**. Hitched into town, got some gas & a ride back with the cop. Boys nearly shit when I pulled up with the cops. Finally got to Blackall¹ at 6:30. Jesus what a relief. Met Terry Vail² at Tattersall’s Pub. Larry threatened the owner and the boys were booted out. They headed for Cairns³. Slept in the back of Terry’s truck then at his girlfriend’s place.
* The boys contemplated bashing the mechanic and fleeing without paying. I talked them out of this idea!
** A Central Queensland farming town.
¹ Blackall, a farming town in the centre of Queensland was my destination
² My cousin
³ They were going to compete in a the Cairns Rodeo.
Ginty, Kitto and Williamson disappeared in a cloud of dust down the road out of town. I never saw any of them again. I spent a few days with my relations at Mena Park. The station comprised a thousand square miles of dead-flat scrub, interspersed with stands of bloodwood, scribbly gum and mulga. The station ran merino sheep and Brahman cattle. It was shearing time so there was plenty going on and I was able to work with the station hands, mustering sheep on horseback and driving out to distant parts of the property to check on water supplies.
From Mena Park, I had arranged to go and stay at Evora, another sheep and cattle station, owned by my second cousin Tom Hunter. Evora was located an hour’s drive from Mena Park along a rough 4WD track graded through the red dirt of the Outback. I stayed there for a week, helping out on the station, which was slightly bigger than Mena Park and also ran merinoes and cattle. Every day, Tom and I would drive out to a different bore (water supply) to check that everything was operating properly.
In the Australian Outback, water is the key to successful farming. The carrying capacity of the land is defined not by the amount of feed it can grow but by the amount of water available for the stock to drink. The Great Artesian Basin, a vast underground aquifer containing billions of litres of water, lies beneath much of Central Australia. Deep wells, known as bores, are drilled into the ground to access this supply of ancient groundwater (some of which fell as rain millions of years ago), which is pumped to the surface by windmills. These skeletal frames of steel, with their whirling tin blades and triangular tail-rudders, are the iconic image of the bush. For me, these long drives to isolated bores, with their cooling ponds (the water from the aquifer is almost boiling when it reaches the surface) and long rows of drinking-troughs, were the perfect antidote for the dramas of travelling with the cowboys.
From Evora, I planned to travel by bus and train all the way down the Eastern Seaboard of Australia to the town of Bairnsdale, a provincial town in Gippsland, in the state of Victoria. My brother had spent a year in Bairnsdale as an AFS exchange student and the family that he had lived with had invited me to come and stay. I wanted to see Gippsland with them, take the train over to South Australia to see the Grampian Mountains (named after the same Scottish mountains that Grampians Station had been named for), and explore the Snowy Mountains, where Banjo Patterson had set his epic Outback poem The Man From Snowy River, which had helped keep me awake during that seemingly endless night drive in Queensland.
All of these thing I would do during my time in Australia that winter. I would meet people from all over the world, live in backpacker hotels and YHA hostels and become, as it were, a traveller. But before I left Evora, something happened which changed my life.
I had arranged to catch an overnight bus from Blackall to Brisbane. On the afternoon that I was due to leave, a stockman from Mena Park arrived with something for me. It was a letter. It had arrived that morning in the weekly mail delivery to Mena Park and he’d driven across the rough track to bring it to me. Another twenty minutes and I would have been gone. The letter would never have reached me and my life, perhaps, would have taken a different route to the one that has brought us, dear reader, to this point. I still have the two pages of neatly-written foolscap that the envelope contained. It had been posted on the 23rd of June in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was from Linda Key…