BACKSTORY PART 4: The Shepherd Years.

At Dog Kennel Corner, where Burke’s Pass opens onto the wide Mackenzie Basin, I turn onto the Haldon Road and drive south through a gateway of low hills.  Merinos graze behind rabbit-proof fences as the road steps out across the barren expanse of the Whalesback Flat towards the distant Grampian Mountains.  Rows of stunted pines, silver and olive against the beige background of the hills, lean stiffly downwind, their trunks permanently deformed by the blustering nor-westers.

Grampians Station circa 1981. L-R Me, Stuart Falconer, Richard Parsons.

The road crosses Red Hut Creek and, a few kilometres further on, the Mackenzie Stream.  Both are dry, their beds strewn with lichen-covered rocks, matagouri and desiccated foxgloves.  A battalion of pylons marches across the Whalesback and disappears into the Mackenzie Pass.  More than thirty years have passed since I last drove this way.  But apart from a few kilometres of newly-sealed road, nothing seemed to have changed.  The sky is still huge, the landscape still empty and the wind still dominates it all.

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I first drove down the Haldon Road in November 1981.  I was eighteen years old.  My cousin had jacked up a job for me at Grampians, a 38,000 acre station with a reputation for its tough, hard-drinking shepherds.  A heading dog sat on the passenger seat of my Morris 1300.  I had a huntaway, a crate of beer and a pair of hob-nailed boots on the back seat, and no idea what lay in store for me.  I had long dreamed of being a high country shepherd.  But as the snow-capped Grampian Mountains grew closer, I wondered if I belonged in such a gigantic landscape.

I had spent the previous eighteen months working on a sheep farm in Cattle Valley, half-way between Fairlie and Geraldine. I had lived alone in an old cottage, ridden a motorbike (a Yamaha Ag175) every day, driven an old Nuffield tractor…and learned almost nothing. The farmer and his spoilt son had seen me as nothing more than a slave to be used and exploited. The son, Richard Scarlett, had gone so far as to tell me that they owned me. Asshole. But the experience had primed me to learn and had equipped me with a desire to become a high country shepherd who worked in the mountains on proper farms, not shitty little farms “down country.”

The manager of Grampians, Peter Kerr, had hired me as a temporary shepherd for a three-month trial. On my first morning, he had given me the nickname Fungus and set me to work moving sheep around the woolshed and yards. It was shearing time and there was a lot to do. I fitted straight into the gang of shepherds, worked hard, listened and learned. After I’d been there a few days, Kirby (as he was called) sent me and another shepherd to kill muttons for the cookshop. At Scarlett’s I’d never been taught the proper way to skin a sheep. When Kerr turned up at the killing shed to check on our work he found me hacking the skin off my mutton with a knife. The proper way to do it is to punch the skin off the carcass with a closed fist.

“Jesus Fungus,” he shouted. “It looks like it’s been run over be a fuckin’ train.” From then on I was assigned to kill dog-tuckers (skinny, old sheep killed for dog food) until I learned to skin a mutton properly. Eventually, though, I became very, very good at killing muttons and even now, 38 years later, I can still skin, gut and prepare a sheep in under seven minutes.

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Shepherd Boy, 18 years old, Grampians Station, 1981.

Beyond the Snowy River – another dry gulch, spanned by a white-painted bridge – the bitumen gives way to gravel and the memories come flooding back.  Although I haven’t thought about them for years, the fences, cattle-yards, hay barns and paddocks are indelibly imprinted in my mind.  I spent countless hours walking along this stretch of road behind mobs of sheep and herds of cattle.  My constant companions during those days were my dogs: Jill, Toy, Mick, Bess, Dale, Tex, Tornado, and twenty or so others whose names are still as familiar to me as those of my children.

Off to my right, sleek Hereford-Angus cattle mooch on swampy flats dotted with clumps of willows.  Lucerne shimmers in the wind.  A steel hay barn stands sway-backed and lop-sided at the corner of the Hoppy Paddocks, a dozen small fields where we trained our sheepdogs and shot rabbits by the hundred.  And through it all runs the chalk-white line of the road, slung between hollows and over rises; a road of memories drawn across the landscape and through my mind.

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Feeding out, winter 1982.

The driveway up to Grampians leaves the road beside a slender Lombardy poplar and climbs to the foot of the hills. It is eerie to see the station buildings again after so long.  The woolshed and sheep-yards, the shearer’s quarters, the cookshop and shepherd’s quarters: they all look just as I remember them.  The buildings are a little threadbare perhaps, but not old.  Like me they are just older.

Ross and Claire White live on the station in a neat gable-roofed station house framed by willows and poplars. They moved to Grampians in 1985, the year before I left, when Ross took up the position of the station’s Head Shepherd.  We spend a pleasant hour drinking tea and reminiscing about musters and dogs and shepherds who came and went.  Outside, the  wind bustles dust and leaves across the yard.  Cloud shadows play on the hillside beyond.

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Station Life in the early 1980s, Grampians Station.

Although I had only been hired for a three month trial, a bit of good luck saw me taken on permanently at Grampians. Well, good luck for me at least. No so for Stuart Falconer, another of the Gramps shepherds. (The Grampians, incidentally, are named after a range of hills in Scotland. But we shepherds always referred to the station as Gramps). We were driving home from the Burke’s Pass pub in the middle of the night after shearing finished. We were all drunk, including the driver, the station’s Head Shepherd Jeff Taylor. On a long stretch of gravel we encountered a Hereford bull jogging along in the middle of the road. No amount of tooting or engine-revving would encourage him to step aside, even though we were moving quite fast.

“I’ll get him, Jeff,” said Falconer, who was sitting beside me in the back seat holding a quart bottle of beer. And with that, he leapt out of the moving car. There was a heavy bump, the car lurched and someone said, “fuck, we ran over Stu.” Jeff backed up and there he was, sitting in the dirt rubbing a bleeding and obviously broken ankle. He was still holding his beer in his other hand though.

So with “Missa Faarkner”, as we called him, out of action, I was taken on full time. I worked at Grampians off and on from 1981 until 1986.  Many of the formative events of my early adulthood – getting drunk for the first time, the death of my mother, losing my virginity – took place during those years. But looking back, I never really fitted in as a shepherd.  Although I was good at my job (I would do it in various places for fifteen years), and I did my best to fit into the work hard/play hard lifestyle of the shepherd, my mind was always elsewhere.  I longed to see the world and while my workmates were boozing in the quarters I would often be lying on the hill behind the woolshed staring up at the stars, dreaming.

Beneath the timber and tin roof of the Airstrip Barn, set back off the road beside Station Creek, I sit on a bale of meadow hay listening to the voice of the wind.  An arch of cloud stretches from one end of the sky to the other.  My mind drifts back to a warm October night in 1985 when my girlfriend and I lay here on a blanket, listening to Bryan Adams in the enveloping darkness while our lives changed forever.  It was the first time for both of us and although her name doesn’t need to be recorded here, I remember her and that is all that matters.  I smile at the memory, leave the barn to the caress of the wind and drive on.

The road passes Curraghmore and Streamlands – small stations pressed against the flanks of the hills – climbs to a wide saddle and descends to Grey’s Hills Station.  The shepherd’s quarters, next to the big old woolshed, were the venue for raucous parties in which the shepherds and tractor drivers from all along the road would drink, fight and swear.  My rear view mirror frames the station buildings dissolving into dust.  Shingle rattles against the underside of the car and I turn the stereo up a few more decibels.

Music was my window on the world while I lived down the Haldon Road.  We had no TV at Grampians; newspapers arrived once a week on the mail truck.  News of big events such as Chernobyl and the Challenger Disaster took weeks to filter through to our corner of the high country.  Like all good shepherds I listened to country music.  But I had a secret addiction to rock music and it was through the stereo in my Holden ute that I learned about the world beyond the hills: about drugs and love and oceans and passion and war.

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Musterers, Blue Mountain Station, 1987. L-R Peter “Chiz” Chilwell, John “Chopper” Darling, Rod Buick, FAJB, Michael “Mick” Gillingham.

When I left Grampians, in May 1986, I went to work at Dry Creek Station, a 38,000 acre property in the Orari Basin, north-west of Fairlie. As well as my work at Dry Creek, I worked as a casual musterer (a contract shepherd for hire) on a number of other properties.

It was my dream job. We rode horses, lived on mutton and spuds in backcountry huts, baked in summer and froze in winter. We had our breakfasts at 3am and spent our days walking the hills. With a sandwich and a slice of fruit cake in my pocket, a stout manuka stick to balance on and a team of dogs behind me, I learned the resilience and self-reliance that defines me to this day. I had a holden ute, a saddle and a team of dogs. I was young and free and alone in a mountain world.

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My ute, a 1976 Holden Kingswood HZ.

19/5/89

CAMBRIDGE

We had told Eddie and Pauline that we would be taking today off and had planned a trip to Cambridge.  

Our adventures started early.  We got up at 6 a.m. and showered, packed up some stuff and got out the bikes. The distant rumble of thunder told the story of what we were in for and as we cycled along the lanes towards Wormley, the air was full of the sweet, damp smell of approaching rain and bolts of lightning flashed across the sky.  Thunder crashed overhead and we were getting a bit nervous of being out with such a storm going on. We were halfway between Wormley and Broxbourne when the downpour hit us and soaked us to the skin. But, despite the rain we carried on and caught the 7 a.m. train.

The trip to Cambridge took one hour, the train stopping at every station as it travelled past canals and tree-lined fields then through the rolling grain growing area of Hertfordshire.

By the time we got to Cambridge the sun was out and we biked into the centre of town and had breakfast at a little café. We banked our wages and wandered around the market which has been held on the same spot for 1000 years. We decided that the best way to see as much of Cambridge as possible was to get a ticket on a sightseeing bus that would enable us to get on and off when we wanted to. So, we caught the first bus of the morning and sat up on the top in the open air and listened to the commentary telling the long and fascinating story of Cambridge.  The town was founded in 44AD by the Romans (the High Street still follows the exact path of the Roman road). They were there for 360 years until the fall of the Roman Empire and then in the 5th century the Saxons came and ousted the Danes (Vikings) who has established a fine inland port. The Cam River is navigable from the sea right up to Cambridge.

The university was founded in 1209 by scholars who had fled from rioting in Oxford. The first College was Peterhouse and was founded in 1284. The newest College is Robinson which was founded in 1977 and there is now a total of 31 colleges:  24 undergraduate, 6 postgraduate and one teacher training. The names of the colleges include Kings, Sidney Sussex, St Johns, Christ’s, Jesus and Trinity. The latter is the largest and richest of the colleges and is the largest landowner in Britain after the queen and the Church of England. Most of its land was bestowed on it by Henry the 8th after it’d been taken from the monasteries and it is said that it is possible to walk from Cambridge to Oxford without leaving Trinity Land.

Some of the other sites we were to visit were the American War Memorial and Cemetery where more than 3300 white crosses bear witness to some of the American servicemen killed in Europe in World War 2. Included on the wall of remembrance are Glenn Miller and Joseph Kennedy.  We visited the round Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built in 1138 and one of only 5 round churches in existence, and drove past the College Library which contains over 4 million books on 86 miles of shelves.

Around midday, we got off the bus and hired a punt and spent an hour on the calm and peaceful waters of the Cam, along behind the colleges – this area is known as The Backs. After a lazy hour of punting we had a shandy in a nearby pub then caught the bus for another 2 hours of getting on and off looking at the hundreds of lovely old buildings.

We got off for the last time outside St Mary’s Church and climbed to the top of the tower where we had an impressive view out over the old university town. Then we wandered down a back alley to get to St John’s Chapel.  What a wonderful building. We were both or struck by the beauty of it – a huge rectangular gallery with the only partition being a wooden bridge halfway along where the huge organ was mounted. The sunlight streamed through the huge stained glass window on the western end of the chapel and the huge columns rose up to fan-shaped vaults 80 feet above.  The acoustics were perfect.

From there we wandered the streets and bought a pizza for tea which we ate after having to move from one park to another after being accosted of by drunken, foul-mouthed beggars.

After our feast of pizza, garlic bread and Coke we cycled round nearly empty streets back to the river, where we bought a drink each at the pub and sat outside on the banks of the river and watched the punts and ducks drift slowly by as the sun set lower and lower behind the skyline.

Our day in Cambridge was at an end and we biked back to the station and caught the train back to Broxbourne.  It was cold and dark when we arrived so we left our bikes at the station and got a taxi home.

Here are a few interesting bits from the history of East Anglia.

  • BURY ST-EDMONDS AND MAGNA CARTA.  Bury St Edmunds is named after King Edmund of Anglia who was martyred in 870 by the Danes for his Christian beliefs.  The 15th of June 1215 is rightly regarded as one of the most notable dates in the history of the world. Those who gathered at the high altar in the great Abbey church in November of the previous year could hardly of known the consequences that were to flow from their proceedings. The granting of Magna Carta at Runnymede marked the road to individual freedom,  parliamentary democracy and the supremacy of the law.

          The principles of Magna Carta which had their foundation at Bury St Edmunds and           have been developed over the centuries by the common law,  are the Heritage not               only of those who live in these Islands, but of countless millions of races and Creeds           throughout the world.

  • CROMWELL (LORD PROTECTOR OF ENGLAND) Oliver Cromwell was born of middle-class parents on April 25th 1599 in the last year’s of the reign of Elizabeth the First.  Born in Huntingdon, where he went to the free Grammar School ( along with Samuel Pepys) Oliver afterwards spent a year at Cambridge University (1616 Sydney Sussex College)  before completing his education at the Inns of Court, London.

         General Ireton,  although born in Nottinghamshire,  when the Civil War broke out,            raised a troop of horse and in 1643 served with Cromwell in East Anglia.  One of the          most famous quotes from Cromwell was “it is an odd thing Mr Ireton, that every               man who wages war believes God is on his side. I’ll warrant God must often wonder         who is on his!”

16/5/89

Eddie gave us a ride down to Wormley and then John, a regular at the pub, picked us up and took us to Hoddesdon.  We went to the library and got a couple of books,

We did a bit of shopping and had a beer in the White Swan pub.  Then we walked back via the public footpaths over Bass Hill. We stopped and sat in the grass out in the middle of a paddock and watched the sunlight playing on the hills and houses over on the far side of the Lee Valley.  The only thing about being this close to London is the constant roar of traffic on the A10¹ and the noise of aircraft overhead that destroys the peace and calm of the countryside. The air was full of the lovely sweet smells of spring and birds were everywhere.  I can’t wait to get to the remoter parts of rural England.

¹The A10 is a major arterial road linking London (the road begins at London Bridge) with King’s Lynn in Norfolk. Parts of the road follow the original Roman road known as Ermine Street.

15/5/89

After work Rene took me to Enfield.  I changed my two left shoes for a left and a right.  Wandered around for an hour or so then met Rene and she took me back to Wormley.  I walked up the road to the pub and took some photos on the way including a couple of some headstones in Wormley churchyard.

 

 

14/5/89

We had a couple of letters from Colin and Dill¹ and in them, written in Colin’s peculiar note-form were the paragraphs:

“A fellow shot a Black Power² member who was stealing petrol out of his car the other day, only one thing wrong, his mate got away. But it would be hard to hit a black moving target at night with a 303.” And: “Jill has just gone to bed in a huff because I wouldn’t let her slobber on letter or lick the stamp.”

¹Colin Johnson was the fellow renting our house in Geraldine. Dill, real name Jill, was an old sheepdog of mine who had been retired to Geraldine as Colin’s pet.

²Black Power are a New Zealand gang whose uniform is head to foot black leather.

13/5/89

Another row involving Bill, his demented girlfriend and some other girl. The police paid another visit…and another visit at midnight after some guy had punched out a window. He had badly cut his hand & Linda told him to go to Enfield hospital so the police met him there and arrested him. There was also a row in the public bar over a horse involving Garry, Marina¹ &, yes indeedy, Bill. Bill has now been banned from the pub.

¹Garry and Marina were another couple of regulars at The Woodman. I can’t remember the outcome of the argument but can remember very clearly the aftermath. Out in the car park Marina was shrieking incoherently at the other people involved as they sat in their car. Someone inside said “I’ve lost my chain” [necklace] I wanna look for it.” Garry promptly smashed his fist on the roof of the car and shouted “fuck chain…cunts!” We burst out laughing at this, the car sped off, and Garry and Marina began shouting at each other. Such was a typical Saturday night at The Woodman. (FOOTNOTE: Even now, thirty years later, the phrase “fuck chain…cunts” is still one we use occasionally to describe an adult having a tantrum over something trivial!)

3/4/89

Shifting House

We got up at about 9:00 & packed up all our gear then wandered up the road in the biting wind to cash a Travellers cheque and get some cream scones for morning tea.  We said goodbye to Sue and caught a taxi up to the station. A couple of people gave us a return ticket to Paddington that they didn’t need and that enabled us to get all the way to Liverpool Street.  It was hard work lugging our gear in and out of the tube stations especially for me with my cold clogging up my lungs, and if it had been rush hour we probably couldn’t have done it. We caught the train out to Broxbourne¹ and Ray² picked us up at the station and took us to The Woodman³ .  We spent the rest of the day unpacking and getting settled in.

¹ Broxbourne is a town on the north-east outskirts of London in the county of Hertfordshire.
² Ray and Joan Reeve were the managers of the pub where whe would be working.
³ The Woodman is a 17th century coaching inn located in the village of Wormley West-end, a few miles west of Broxbourne.