Sunday, April 8, 2012


The following is the reproduction of a piece I wrote many years ago in an effort to give some insight into my world, my passion, my early lift.  Called 'Edge of the Outback' it has been edited/rewritten/proofed many more times than I can count and I am continually adding to it/changing it as time moves on.  It has been sent to every corner of the globe, printed in quite a few international publications and even read over the ABC here in Australia - enjoy.

I offer no apology for the fact that this piece is written in both past and present tense.  Nor for the fact that I have used the imperial measurement system, as opposed to the metric which is used in Australia.  I grew up with the former and it is the way I have always written this piece.

Mention the true Australian outback to most people, be they from another nation or Australia and visions of a vast, barren desert, miles upon miles of virtually nothing except a bush here and maybe a tree there are generally conjured up.  Overall not an attractive picture, so most would think.

How wrong can one be.

I was born in Adelaide, capital of South Australia and raised on a sheep station in the north eastern pastoral district of that state.  The station is about 115,000 acres large which is small compared with other stations further up and out.  Our livelihood depended on Merino sheep for their wool and meat and a few head of cattle.  The very barren land still comprises of such vegetation as salt and blue bush, mulga and gum trees among others.  Ours was among the first of the very big sheep stations heading north east of Adelaide.

Peterborough still is the nearest town of any size, being thirty two miles away.  Along with my three elder brothers and our cousins I was educated, until the ripe olf age of eleven, by the School of the Air and correspondence school.

There were times when we had heavy enough rains to isolate us completely but with the technology of today this no longer happens.  In those days (and I am only going back thirty years or so) we had our own generator providing us with thirty two volt power, a telephone connected to a 'party-line', mail once a week and groceries monthly.  The wonderful Royal Flying Doctor Service provided our medical services in emergencies.

My brother and his family were living on and managing the station until a few years ago.  With improved roads and transport my nephew and niece were able to attend the local primary school in Peterborough.  Both then followed the lead of the generations before them and attended boarding school in Adelaide.  While the station remains in our family it is now managed by an employed couple.

As might be gathered from the information thus far rain water is very scarce.  While all (or most) stations have several large concrete tanks, dam water is used for personal bathing, washing and dish washing.  The water looks dreadful, like wishy washy mud, but to many, it is a real novelty to wash and swim in.  We also used to swim in the tanks; in fact this was more common than swimming in the dams and even in the creek, which was a lot of fun.  When swimming in the dams you just had to be careful not to be nipped by a yabby (similar to a crayfish or lobster and just as yummy).  A good deal of Australia's outback water is supplied by huge artesian basins.

While kangaroos are a dearly loved part of the Australian fauna they, along with rabbits and foxes, are also a terrible menace in the outback.  Our station is surrounded by a supposedly dog-proof fence.  However, it seems no-one told the kangaroos this as they cause more damage to the fence than anything else does.  In fact dingoes are plentiful further up north and rarely venture as far south as our station, but we do get the odd stray.  They rip the stock to pieces - not to eat - just for the fun of it.  Rabbits, kangaroos and other pests eat the spear grass and general vegetation, what there is of it, which is food for the stock.

As children, we often rescued orphaned 'joeys' (baby kangaroos), emus, the odd kid (baby goats as most would know), lambs and calves.  Even a carpet python took up temporary residence on our tennis court at one stage.  Also known as the 'Children's Python' these snakes are harmless, so we left it there.  It didn't worry us and we didn't worry it.  It eventually slithered off in search of greener pastures - could still be looking!!!  All these babies were released into the wild once old and strong enough.

Entertainment was and still is a little different out there.  Travelling over one hundred miles (or more - one way) for any kind of social occasion was very much the norm.  Indeed if you weren't prepared to travel your social life did not exist.  'Local' towns held annual race meetings where the interest was on drinking, 'high fashion, drinking, gossip, oh and did I mention drinking?  And then there were the horse races themselves - what horse races????  We actually had race horses at one stage but that was well before my time.

Up to the age of eleven my only real play-mate was my cousin.  Her father, along with my father, co-managed the station for many years.  My cousin and I were eventually sent to different schools in Adelaide and have never really been close since.  She married and remained in South Australia, not far from the station, whereas I married and now live in Western Australia.

We all learned to ride horses and motor bikes and to drive cars (on the station only) almost before we could crawl.  that just seemed to be part of life out there.

At times were were almost completely self-sufficient - raising our own chickens; milk and its bi-products; lamb and mutton; vegetables and fruit.  We even produced bread from our own bread ovens.  In those days we were fortunate enough to have an excellent cook, along with governesses and a 'cowboy'.  Those days are long gone now and we no longer produce any of the above, apart from the meat.  While parts of the sprawling homestead have been modernised for practicality the bread ovens were preserved, along with the old milk separating cellar, although neither is used now.

Like most stations we had a couple of 'outstations'.  In better years one of these housed a family of about fifteen children; the other has been empty as long as I can remember.  (Just an aside:  the eldest two daughters of the first of these outstations have been good enough to write about their lives and a 'Where Are They Now?' summary of their siblings all of which will be included in the book I am currently writing, about stations).  Now both these outstations stand empty and abandoned.

The station homestead itself is typical of many country homesteads, with huge rooms, very thick stone walls, completely surrounded by wide verandahs, huge open fireplaces and very high ceilings,   This building, the engine room, shearers' quarters, shearing shed, stables and assorted other buildings, resembles a small village.

Then there were and still are the 'creepy-crawlies'.  The worst and most venomous snake is the Common Brown but we have also had visits from the King Brown, which lives further north.  Another common species is the afore-mentioned Carpet Python.  As for spiders, the harmless Huntsman is easily the most common and they can grow to be enormous - and very scary to a self-confessed arachnophobic like me.  I have suffered from this fear since early childhood.  I used to try to overcome this for the sakes of my daughters - but that backfired.  Now we are all as terrified as each other.  We also have the Redback spider, a cousin to the Funnelweb, although not as venomous.

Among my childhood and teen memories is one relating to a certain 'uncle' who lived on a nearby station and who owned a Tiger Moth aeroplane.  Uncle Ron had a very welcome habit of flying lower over our station dropping bags of sweets attached to tiny parachutes, for us children.  This occurred annually, after he had visited the Royal Adelaide Show.  We used to love racing each other in the creek bed (which was nearly always dry) at the front of the homestead, searching for those little parcels and trying to find them before anyone else, including the dogs.  We also had an airstrip, as did and do most stations, only ours has been overgrown by salt and blue bush and hardly usable even in emergencies - in fact it would probably cause an emergency if something tried to land on it these days.

The afore-mentioned creek could be very dangerous but equally exciting in those very rare heavy rains.  It didn't even have to be raining on the station - as long as there were heavy enough rains upstream the chances were very high of the creek coming down a 'banker' (meaning a usually bone dry creek suddenly filling to overflowing with very, very fast moving water).  I have only witnessed it once but would not have missed it.  Imagine standing anywhere near a creek and suddenly hearing an almighty roar in the distance to begin with but getting louder by the second - looking in that direction and suddenly seeing a huge bank of water rushing along the creek, filling it to overflowing as it travelled, taking all in its path.  These 'bankers' have been known to drag fences, trees, windmills, junk, animals and absolutely anything that gets in the way as far as the water travels.  We used to find items on stations over two hundred miles away.  Some things have never been found.

There really is just so much more to the magnificent Australian outback than has been mentioned here.  To the eye of the uninitiated it probably still is and always will be a vast, barren, unending desert with very little, if anything to offer - especially when compared with mountains (we have those in the outback too), lush green pastures, rivers, waterfalls, flowers and other flora and fauna.  Yes I concede that the outback could well be considered 'ugly' - but it is not.  It is beautiful if one bothers to take the time to really look and appreciate that beauty.  You do not need a vivid imagination to really see that beauty - there are mountains, beautiful scrubs of trees and wildflowers in abundance.  Just the colours of the hills and valleys at dawn and sunset and after one of those very rare rains, are spectacular in themselves.  I have seen many magnificent paintings of different settings in the outback - they cannot be imagined, they are real, just as are those of snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, rivers and forests.

The fauna of the outback is as impressive as that of the lusher areas   As mentioned, kangaroos abound out there, but not koalas.  These gorgeous creatures are fussy eaters in that, while Australia has numerous types of eucalyptus trees the koala will only eat the leaf of one species and this is only found in certain areas of Australia. Other fauna includes hundreds of different sorts of lizards, snakes (both of which are reptiles), along with many other creatures, some harmful, some not.  Emus, eagles, eaglehawks, budgeridgars, galahs, sulpher-crested cockatoos, rosellas, emus, cockatiels, wild canaries to name just a few.  There are also hundreds of species of gound-living birdlife.

Like every other nation Australia has limitless features of interest for the tourist but I just feel that the outback, which really does have so much to offer, is so often overlooked.  After all it is the backbone of a nation, does make up most of that nation but still so often goes by unnoticed and desperately misunderstood.

So - this is my little effort to help acknowledge and salute, as deserved.

As is gradually becoming known the book that I am currently writing is also devoted to the sheep and cattle stations of our outback.

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