Sunday, October 7, 2012


Here we are, as promised.

I offer no apology for the fact that both past and present tenses are used in this piece; also that the imperial system is used (even though the metric is used in Australia).  I was raised on this and continue to use it in 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 and plenty of red bulldust, usually come to mind.  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 was 115,000 acres, which was small compared with other stations further up and out.  Our livelihood depended on Marino sheep for their wool and a few head of cattle.  The land, which is very barren, it's true, is comprised of such vegetation as salt and blue bush, mulga and gum trees among others.  We averaged less than seven inches of rain per annum so could not rely on cropping.  Ours was among the first of the 'big' sheep stations heading north of Adelaide.

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

There were times when we actually did have heavy enough rains to isolate us completely but with today's technology this no longer happens.  In those days (and I am only going back thirty or so years) 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 the last few years.  With improved roads and transport my niece and nephew were able to attend the local primary school in Peterborough.  Both then followed the lead of the generation before them and attended boarding school in Adelaide.  While the station is still in our family, it is now managed by an employed couple.

As can be gathered by the information above, rain water was and still is very scarce.  While all (or most) stations have several large concrete tanks, dam water was used for personal bathing, washing and dish washing.  The water looked dreadful, like wishy washy mud, but to many it was 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 which usually did not have enough water in them in which to swim.  However there was the very rare occasion when water was plentiful, thereby allowing us to swim 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 on the toe by a yabby (similar to a crayfish or lobster and just as tasty).  A good deal of outback Australia's 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 about this as they cause more damage to the fence than anything else does.  In fact, dingoes are plentiful further 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 our stock.

As children, we often rescued orphaned 'joeys' (baby kangaroos), emus, the odd kids (baby goats as most would know), lambs and calves.  We also kept a carpet python snake as a 'pet' at one stage.  Let's just say it decided to take up temporary residence on our tennis court and we decided not to try to make it move on.  All these babes were released back into the wild once old and strong enough to survive by themselves.

Entertainment was a little different out there.  Travelling over one hundred miles for any kind of social occasion was very much the norm.  'Local' towns held annual horse racing carnivals where the focus was certainly more on local gossip, drinking, 'high' fashion, drinking, eating, oh and did I mention drinking - rather than the races themselves.  Races?  What 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 rather co-managed the station with my father, his brother, 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 Perth, 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, cattle for their milk and its bi-products, lamb and mutton, vegetables and fruit.  However much of this had to stop due to drought.  We even produced bread from our own 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 have been preserved, along with our old milk separating cellar, although none is used.

Like most stations we have a couple of 'outstations'.  In better years one of these held a family of about fifteen children; the other has been empty as long as I can remember.  Now both stand abandoned and empty.

The 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,a long with the engine room, slaughter house, shearers' quarters, shearing shed, stables and assorted other buildings, resembles a small village.

And then there are the 'creepy-crawlies'.  The worst and most venomous snake is the Common Brown but we also have had visits from the King Brown, which lives further north.  Another common species is the afore-mentioned Carpet Python, which is harmless.  As for spiders, the harmless Huntsman is easily the most common and they can grow to be enormous.  I am afraid that I am very much an arachnophobic (see note below) and have suffered from this fear since childhood.  I used to try to overcome this for the sakes of my daughters - but that didn't work - they are now worse than I am!  We also have the Redback spider, which is a cousin to the Funnelweb, although not as venomous.

Among my childhood and teen memories is one relating to an 'uncle' who lived on a nearby station and who owned and flew a Tiger Moth aeroplane.  This uncle used to fly 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 into the huge creek bed at the front of the homestead searching for those little parcels; a bit like an Easter egg hunt.  We also had an airstrip, as did and do most stations, only ours has been overgrown by salt and blue bush.  It would in all probability cause an emergency instead these days.

The aforementioned creek could be very dangerous but also very exciting in heavy rains.  It didn't even have to be raining on the station; as long as there had been heavy enough rains upstream, the chances were very high of our creek coming down a 'banker' (meaning a usually bone dry creek suddenly filled to overflowing with water).  I have only witnessed it once but would not have missed it.  Imagine standing in a completely dry creek bed and suddenly hearing an almighty roar - looking in that direction and seeing a huge bank of water, usually feet deep, coming straight for you, taking all in its path.  These 'bankers' have been known to drag fences, trees, windmills, junk, animals and anything else that gets in the way as far as the creek travels.  We have found items on stations over two hundred miles away.  

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, boring, 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 really beautiful if one bothers to take the time to really look and appreciate the 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 rain, 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 is as impressive as that of the lusher areas too.  As previously 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 of which are harmless, some not.  Emus, eagles, eaglehawks, galahs, sulpher-crested cockatoos, rosellas, cockatiels (which have a different name in each Australian state), wild canaries, budgerigars to name just a few.  There are also hundreds of species of smaller ground-living birdlife.

Like every nation, Australia has many features of interest for the tourist but I just feel that the outback, which really does have just so much to offer, is too often overlooked.  After all, it does make up most of the nation but still so often goes by unnoticed.  So - this is my little effort to help acknowledge and salute it - as deserved.

I have also just decided to start adding parts of my auto-biography in here.  This will give an even better look at life in the outback and also includes some rather amusing stories about my 'brushes' with spiders.

Stay tuned.

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