I make no apology for the fact that both past and present tense are used in this piece; also for the fact that both the imperial and metric measurement systems are used. I was raised on the imperial and it is these measurements which I continue to use in this piece.
Mention the 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, are usually 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 one hundred and fifteen thousand acres, which is small compared with other stations further up and out. Our livelihood depended on Merino sheep for their wool and a few head of cattle. The land, which is very barren, is comprised of such vegetation as salt and blue bush, mulga and gum trees among others. We average less than seven inches of rain per annum so cannot rely on cropping. Ours is among the first of the ‘big’ sheep stations heading north east of Adelaide.
Peterborough is the nearest town, being thirty two miles away. Along with my three elder 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 recently. 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 managed by an employed couple.
As can be gathered from the information above, 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, which usually did not have enough water in them 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. It 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 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 dingo-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 up north and rarely venture as far south as our station, but 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 as a pet at one stage. All were released into the wild once old and strong enough.
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 emphasis seemed more on local gossip, ‘high’ fashion and of course, drinking, then on 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 playmate 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 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 we 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 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 neither 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 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, the engine room, slaughter houses, shearers’ quarters, shearing shed, stables and assorted other buildings, resemble a small village.
And then there are the snakes and ‘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 up 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 and have suffered from this fear from childhood. I used to try to overcome this for the sake 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 a certain uncle who lived on a nearby station and who owned and flew a Tiger Moth aeroplane. This uncle used to make a habit of flying low over our station and 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, although still almost useable in emergencies.
The aforementioned creek could be quite dangerous but very exciting in 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 our creek coming down a ‘banker’ (meaning a usually bone dry creek suddenly filled to over-flowing 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, sometimes many 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 compared with mountains (we have those in the outback too), lush green pastures, rivers and 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 the beauty. You do not need a vivid imagination to really see the beauty out there … 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 a 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 of the outback 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 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 harmful, some not. Emus, eagles, eaglehawks, galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos, rosellas, cockatiels, wild canaries, budgerigars to name just a few. There are also hundreds of species of small 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 so often overlooked. It is not even acknowledged by many city folk or even some country towns in our own nation, which I think is so very sad.
So … this is my little effort to help acknowledge and salute it, as deserved.