This is the third in the series of snapshots of my life. The second was last month.
In the ten years leading up to 1973 much had happened in my life. Surprisingly, I'd worked in eight different schools in the decade. Itchy feet had a lot to do with it, which also helps to explain the fact that I'd lived in South Australia, the Northern Territory, Papua New Guinea and Victoria in those years. More importantly, I had married and started a family.
In 1973, at the ripe old age of 28, I was living in Finke, a few kilometres north of the NT/SA border, on the railway line to Alice Springs, with Theodora (Doortje) and our daughter, Jacqueline, born in April 1972. Daniel would be born in September.
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In the 1960s I worked in one-teacher schools at Muloorina (a sheep station), Hesso (a railway fettlers' camp) and Moline (a uranium mine). None of the school buildings at these places exist today. Hesso and Moline (in Kakadu NP) have reverted to bush. Muloorina no longer has shearers quarters, or even sheep. The antithesis of city life that these places instilled in me remains to this day. I enjoyed the freedom of being my own boss with day-to-day running left up to me, but more importantly I came to appreciate the vast open vistas and always the 360° horizon that is now in my blood.
Setting dingo traps, Muloorina Station, 1965
I had twelve months in Darwin working at Nightcliff Primary School, and then in 1970 went to New Guinea. I spent a year on the north-west coast in the West Sepik province, at a small village called Leitre. The nearest centre with any facilities was Vanimo, about 50km west along the coast, where Doortje was working as a nurse.
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The Leitre School had three teachers, one of whom was white, and I was nominally in charge. Although Thaddeus and Luke came from other parts of New Guinea, and were not local, they had infinitely more knowledge of customs and language than me and either should have been the head teacher. The children were a pleasure to work with. They had ambition and motivation to be at school, wanting to learn English and "get on in the world". The average age of my class was 13 or 14 so their attitude was somewhat unexpected. They even paid to come to school! There was a local custom that school "fees" were paid in kind, and each Monday morning bananas and other fruits of the home gardens were accepted and used to supplement our diets. Bananas were least valued and therefore we got mostly bananas but nevertheless it always felt to me that we were stealing from the poor.
The only other white person at Leitre was a priest. He seemed a reasonable bloke (as priests go) except that he did have a bee in his bonnet about the status of white people. I had the job of mowing the airstrip, which involved roughly a week of afternoons after school every couple of weeks or so depending on the grass-growing season. The priest could have given employment to someone but he didn't trust locals to use the mower (it was an industrial-type self-propelled unit—walk behind and steer—before the days of ride-ons—I loved it for the mindless exercise). Conversely, I wasn't allowed to use a "sarif" and I couldn't forgive that.
A sarif was the tool that locals used to cut grass to keep the jungle at bay around their gardens and houses. It was made from mild steel, about four feet in length, an inch wide and a few millimetres thick (you do the conversions). At one end the edge was beaten or hammered to produce a knife edge which was further sharpened with a file, and at the other end a handle was made by wrapping old strips of cloth around the end. The sarif was used like a scythe by bending the back and stooping so that the sarif was parallel to the ground.
It was back-breaking work but for the exercise as much as anything, I learnt to make my own sarif and was taught how to use it effectively. Imagine my shock when the priest came "out in the midday sun" to tell me that this was a native occupation and I was letting the side down and would lose respect for the ruling classes, etc, etc. My response was along the lines that if I wanted to use a sarif I would. (My recollection is that life at Muloorina—I once played table-tennis against shearers to save my beard— and Moline in particular taught me to stand up for myself). W. Somerset Maugham would have loved the whole scene.
Doortje visited Leitre every month or so by plane to conduct a clinic. During the term holidays or when I could cadge a plane ride to Vanimo, I spent "rest and recreation" time there (I even walked the fifty kilometres along the beach), with the result that Doortje and I got to know each other. Oh, all right, we fell madly in love! I can't really explain it. There are lots of factors but I think the eyes have it! On Doortje's side, she possibly thought that I was a hippie, so I'm a bit surprised that didn't end in disappointment.
At a sing-sing, Kamberatoro, PNG, 1970
(the happy couple in the mid-distance in white)
Anyway, Doortje might choose to explain what it was all about (and still is). My strong suit could have been the songs.
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As far as I can recall, I must have bought a guitar in 1966, and while teaching myself the rudiments, began using it in the classroom instead of the recorder, but using only the top three strings for chords while my fingers grew accustomed to the contortions required.
I wrote my first song that has survived, the "Fish and Chips Song", in 1967 at Hesso. I can remember playing it that year at Christmas at Glenelg—the reason I've never felt confident in public is because I try to run before I can walk!
I bought my first serious guitar in 1968, back in Adelaide from the NT for term holidays. It was a steel-string Yamaha that I still have (although it's since been converted to a 4-string "dulcimer"). In 1968 I had a good tutor in the mining community of Moline in the NT. An Irish backpacker who spent his dayshifts underground extracting ore, Sean spent many evenings at the wet canteen with cigarette and beer accompaniment, teaching me bar chords and walking 12-bar blues, and breaking into song when the audience occasionally demanded, with me going through the motions. We had a shared appreciation of Johnny O'Keefe!
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At Leitre, I had plenty of time to practise guitar and write songs. Just how much time is illustrated by the fact that I became adept at playing darts. For an hour at dusk each day it was impossible to sit still while mosquitoes were on the prowl. It was necessary to make it difficult for the blighters to land. I would set up on the mark, throw three darts, a couple of strides to retrieve the darts, and then set up to throw again, keeping up these movements for an hour. I played "501" on my own and became good at throwing doubles and bulls. After an hour the mosquitoes went back to sleep (mostly) and I could cease moving and play guitar.
Round about this time I began writing songs for Doortje. She was in Aitape Hospital after being involved in an accident that dislocated her collarbone. The van Doortje was in was forced off the road into a gully by an oncoming log truck as it rounded a bend. I sent her a "get-well" letter-tape that included Mission Road Blues, a talking blues that was my take on the accident. It was awful—I have never attempted to sing it since, but I gather its reception in Aitape was passable.
More successful was Vanimo, which describes walking from Leitre to Vanimo, about fifty kilometres, to see my sweetheart. There was a track through the beachside jungle but mostly the journey was on the beach—there was no shade, and because of ocean waves the beach was steep so that my left leg had to step high in the loose sand for kilometre after kilometre, but the motivation was sufficient! I sang the song at the Vanimo pub to much acclaim—one bloke who played rhythm accompaniment on the tabletop declared it had great rhythm!
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In 1971 I went to Victoria and lived on the dairy farm of Doortje's parents in Gippsland. For a few months, I worked around the farm, mainly fencing, and learnt to milk cows twice a day. The smell of hot milk and fresh manure and urine was overpowering at first but not as bad as getting up at the crack of dawn to work! Then I got a teaching job in Sale and Doortje started work at the Sale hospital. We were married in May. The Grade Three kids in my class turned up to the wedding! We had the reception on the farm, both outdoors and in, for family and close friends. The atmosphere was relaxed and informal, and I've been a fan of do-it-yourself ever since.
At the wedding reception, 1971
Towards the end of the year when the Commonwealth Teaching Service was mooted, I went for an interview in Melbourne and was appointed to teach at Berrimah Primary School in Darwin. I was eager to show Doortje the Territory and she was eager for adventure.
Some of the adventure in 1972 involved being marooned in the new grey northern suburbs of Darwin. Jacqui was born in April, and being a stay-at-home Mum in the days before air-conditioning (or even television) can't have been fun. I bought a motorbike to commute to work so at least Doortje had the Kombi when needed. Nevertheless, we met friends that year that we've kept in touch with ever since.
It was interesting that there were three male teachers on the staff and all were expected to apply for promotion. None of the dozen women did and were not expected to! I gained my first promotion in the CTS and was appointed head teacher at Finke, a one-teacher school! But we were glad to get out of Darwin.
Earlier, we planned to go to Europe in the Christmas holidays, mainly to visit the Netherlands, Doortje's birthplace. We had passports and tickets for three of us, but when it came to getting cholera injections which were mandatory, we were told Jacqui was too young. After much consternation, we decided to go anyway, and Jacqui would stay with friends for seven weeks! I was worried she wouldn't remember us!
The official passport photo, 1972
We stayed with Doortje's aunt and cousins, as well as other uncles and aunts, and using Holland as a base we made dashes to Scandinavia, the UK, the Alps and Italy. (The Dutch relatives found it hard to understand that we wanted to travel so much). I remember hitch-hiking in the north of England, with very little daylight in the middle of winter; a truckie gave us a ride and, because his wife was a nurse, took us home to his village to stay the night. The nurse insisted on driving us around in the dark to see the sights of the village, and then cooked a meal of the biggest, blackest mushrooms (direct from a nearby field) that I have ever seen.
I made the mistake of wearing an army surplus great-coat for warmth and we were surprised by the antagonism it caused. In Italy people may have thought I was impersonating a soldier. In a queue in a post office somewhere a person behind me started shouting and gesticulating, presumably because of stirred-up bad memories.
Speaking of the great-coat, In Tante Beppi's house, on the first morning after we arrived in Holland, we were sleeping in the third-story attic, which was cold to say the least, so we dressed in several layers of clothes, including coats. When we got downstairs, everyone was in T-shirts because it was about twenty degrees warmer! The central heating didn't include the attic.
Winter in Holland was about card-games, chess and singalongs, lots of cigarette and cigar smoke, Bols Geneva gin and always rowdy good humour. We enjoyed it immensely even though for the most part I didn't understand much of the conversation. Even translation was a cause for fun—someone would tell me something in English and another kind soul would helpfully translate into English.
We did get homesick and were missing Jacqui, but we were eventually reunited, with no apparent ill effects, and were on a charter flight from Alice Springs to Finke in late January.
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In 1973 Finke was a railway town (but no more since 1980), with a stationmaster and fettlers, their houses in single file along the line leading to the station and freight shed. The stockyards where cattle were uploaded onto cattle trucks were on the southern edge of the town and to the north was the long trestle bridge across the sand of the Finke River, which periodically flooded and washed the bridge away. I was told the speed limit across the bridge was zero kmh—I presume the engine drivers translated this to mean "proceed with care"!
There was a proper post office, a police station and a hotel. I suppose the population was about thirty Europeans or whites and fifty Pitjantjatjara people who were related to groups on the western side of the Stuart Highway which is about 150 kilometres to the west. The school had about thirty kids, of whom half a dozen were European, children of the postmistress, the publican and fettlers.
There was no bitumen in Finke. The streets were a mix of white corrugations and red sand. There was no green in the town except a smattering of oleander bushes along fence lines and a further exception, the lawn and gum trees in the school yard and house because a gardener was employed. Internal traffic was by foot. Our house was a stone's throw from the pub, post office and police station; the station and railway line were a further stone's throw. Aboriginal housing was within view although another family group lived over the sand hill past the school.
The Ghan passenger train passed through Finke twice a week if the bridge was intact, and Doortje sometimes took Jacqui for a walk to have a sticky-beak. The passengers would climb down from the train (there was no platform), taking the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere and stretch their legs; they were most anxious to know how Doortje could exist in such a place and how she could dare to expose a toddler to such conditions. I suppose they referred to the dust and flies—Jacqui often wore a flynet that covered her head to avoid eye infections.
We were lucky that the school house and school were brick buildings and more comfy in the weather extremes than most, which were corrugated iron and fibro cladding. The pub was a stone building set on an intersection, with the door to the front bar in the corner, like for example, the Birdsville pub. I am not sure the Finke pub is still there—it is certainly no longer a pub.
The road west went to Kulgera and the Stuart Highway. We only travelled on it once that year, since it was easier to travel by train. In those days the road south from Alice was only sealed to Roe Creek, not much further than the airport turn-off. Before Daniel was born in September we stayed in a caravan of friends in Alice during the school holidays and then I went back to work to wait for the due date.
The family grows, Finke, 1973
Jacqui would sometimes amuse herself for long periods by playing with the sand in the middle of a vast expanse of nothing but red sand; sometimes she was the centre of attention at recess time with all the school kids.
Once or twice we made trips to neighbouring cattle stations, to the Clarks at Andado or the Smiths at New Crown. Once we went for a barbecue out east in the Finke River with the stationmaster and his family. Gordon was a Scotsman and he managed to make our neck-hairs stand on end when he came slow-marching along the river through the smoke (or winter mist?) playing his bagpipes.
In the early seventies, the Finke Races was an annual event along with the Ball. All the station people came in to spend a couple of days out on the racecourse, for a full racing card and then a gymkhana, and in between got dressed up to the nines to spend most of the night dancing.
On Friday nights we had pictures at the school, which had a 16mm projector. We ordered documentary films on loan from the Film Australia catalogue. We'd have an interval and sell hamburgers made in a Sunbeam frypan to raise funds for the school. Once I was naïve enough to screen a film about Aborigines from the Centre, possibly one of C.P. Mountford's; it showed men's business and as soon as this became apparent, the room was cleared in an instant of frantic noise and movement. That was the end of movies for that week and an embarrassing lesson.
We had periodic visits from the Flying Doctor to conduct clinics, and when they discovered that Doortje was a nurse, the Health Department were keen to employ her. When this was arranged, it turned out that one of our bedrooms was to be used as the clinic, Doortje wasn't paid for six months, and then was paid a pittance according to the number of incidents that she treated, but was on-call forever. A baby was born in the "clinic", and there was a lot of suturing as the result of accidents or fights. One of the station boys (who shall remain nameless) drove head-on into the stockyards on his way home from the Ball, and Doortje spent the rest of the night (in her ball gown) nursing him until the Flying Doctor came at first light.
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When we came back from Europe we brought a Philips cassette recorder (we hadn't seen one in Australia). I first bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder while at Muloorina, but the cassette offered better possibilities for storing music in a convenient form and I began transferring records to tape and making compilations. Generally the records were in poor conditions and needed preserving somehow; while I left a lot of pop music, Beatles White Album, etc, in New Guinea, some of my favourite records that I would otherwise have lost to dust and maltreatment, have been preserved.
I was slow to make the switch from mono to stereo, partly because Alan gave us a speaker for a wedding present which he and Dad had made—it had a magnificent teak veneer cabinet and stood about a metre tall—so we only had one decent speaker.
Radio reception was poor at Finke, mostly limited to short wave. We did get exposure to country music, which was hard to avoid. I bought a Slim Dusty record! When I was still single and had time on my hands, I listened to medium wave radio at night in the outback when stations drifted in and out from at least three states; I can remember hearing Tasmanian stations at Muloorina. I would twiddle the dial until I heard a song that I liked, and with a bit of luck hear it until the end. This meant that I rarely heard the beginning of a song. There was a song that I thought I had become very familiar with, possibly by the Beach Boys, that gave me a shock to learn there was a whole different section of the song at the beginning that I'd never heard.
The painter, Laurie Bray, lived at Finke for a time and we bought three of his landscapes. I was encouraged to try my hand at oil painting. What I had in my head and what ended up on the canvas were never remotely the same. I did sell one painting though! To the same bloke who was silly enough to buy our Kombi!
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At the end of the year, four of us went south on the Ghan for the holidays, fully expecting to spend another year at Finke. We bought a brand-new VW Kombi in Adelaide, but when it was time to return to the NT, the roads were awash from Port Augusta to Alice in the wettest month for scores of years. After an abortive attempt when I could only reach Pimba, I returned to Adelaide and joined the rest of the family on the New Crown Cessna piloted by Bob Smith, for the trip to Finke. As a result Finke was one of the few schools in Central Australia to open with full staff on the first day of term in 1974.
A few weeks later I was appointed Principal of Papunya School but it was some time before we could make the move. When the roads to the south dried out, Andrew Smith drove our Kombi north, and then we were able to progress to Alice. This progress included being stranded between the Finke and the Palmer Rivers, but only for a few hours—the previous week a large contingent of travellers had required food drops by the army, including apparently a monstrous carton of tampons that splattered all over the road. We arrived in Alice only to spend more than a week in a motel before the roads out west were passable, and that's another story.
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Coming next . . . 1983
Coming next . . . 1983