Columns produced debonair style
The best trip I ever made for the column was not overseas, but a tour of the north of Australia. It was the best tour for fun and personal excitement and the best from the newspaper point of view. Some schools followed it as a daily project and one of my happiest possessions is a bundle of letters received from every member of a class at Cheltenham State School.
It came as a surprise to discover that the cheapest way to see the great north of Australia was by light aircraft. I still had the old fashioned idea that the cheapest way to travel anywhere was in the family car with perhaps a tent on a trailer. I had three friends who were making a holiday tour to the north and they needed a fourth man to make up the party. The three were Frank Reinehr, a lease and finance broker, Imants Dizgalvis, a lawyer, and Alfred Heintz, a public relations consultant.
Frank Reinehr, an amateur pilot, hired a light plane from the Royal Victorian Aero Club, and he worked out that a 10,000 mile flight around Australia could not cost us more than £150 or $300 each. This was cheaper than we could do it by car, because for the trip we proposed, by journey's end there would be no car left at all.
Flying in Australia is very safe indeed. There are few mountains and millions upon millions of acres of unoccupied flat ground. At non-monsoon time good weather can almost be guaranteed. Over most of the area we flew there had been little rain in seven years and from the time we left Melbourne until the time we returned we did not see a single cloud.
So what is needed for the trip is reasonably competent flying skill and absolutely first-class ability at map reading. I learned to fly in the populated south. If one became lost one looked for a railway line, or even flew past the railway station at fifty feet and read the name plate on the railway platform. In the north there are no railway lines, precious few roads and marks on the map such as waterholes, rivers and creeks cannot be relied upon. The chances are they have not been there for years. So the pilot navigator cannot afford to make an error — it can be very hot and thirsty out in the desert. Our aircraft was a beautiful little thing, a Beechcraft Debonair.
It was a low wing monoplane with retractable undercarriage and with a cruising speed of 140 knots it could outpace at DC3. It had a two-way radio and radio compass — anyone can buy one for about $28,000. Flying this way had the advantage of total freedom. We could fly almost anywhere we wished. If we saw a billabong, a mine or even a mob of kangaroos we could dive down to investigate, circle and take our photographs. There were two disadvantages. Frank Reinehr restricted us to twenty pounds' luggage a head, which wasn't much because that weight had to include a sleeping bag. The aeroplane was already well loaded with axe, tools, water and emergency rations. We cut down weight by making sure there was only one of everything aboard, such as one torch, one can opener, one transistor radio and for ultimate refinement, just one electric razor. We did consider one toothbrush but we felt this was going too far.
The second disadvantage was that, once the Debonair had landed we were utterly without transport. And the type of places where we landed there was hardly likely to be an airline bus service waiting to take us into to town. So we had to use bush methods. For example, our first stop was the opal town, Coober Pedy, 600 miles north-west of Adelaide. We were told that the system was to fly low over the road house until someone came out to the strip with a station waggon. We did that. We buzzed the road house and within two minutes a station waggon was moving out in a cloud of dust.
Until recently few people went to Coober Pedy unless they had to. It was too remote, too hideously uncomfortable, but suddenly it has been discovered by the tourists and now it is an overnight stopping place for all the parlour buses.
From the air Coober Pedy looked frightful; no vegetation, no grass, utterly bald, like a photograph of Mars. What's more it is the right colour — a thirsty, Martian red. As we descended it was possible to see all the white holes, hundreds of them, the gouging of fifty years or more of opal mining.
The story goes that whenever the miners got boozed, which used to be every Saturday night, they would go off in the early hours, fall down the wrong holes and someone would have to go round with a truck to fish them out. We found that there was no policeman, no telephone, no TV, no licensed pub, but the place was almost jumping. There were twenty major buildings, five stores and everybody in sight sold opals, black opals, milky white opals, glorious opals that seemed to hold the heat and inner fire of that red desert.
Everywhere there were signs exhorting us to come in for 'Consultation Without Obligation'. An American trader had outside his store a model of an Atlas rocket, fifty feet high, built by welding 44-gallon drums one on top of the other. And in the best down-town New York tradition he had a sign: GOING OUT OF BUSINESS — ALL OPALS 30 PER CENT OFF.
Naturally it was a town full of characters. Mr and Mrs Jack Brewster had the road house. They arrived on an opal hunt sixteen years ago and they had stayed put because they liked the climate. When first he told us we were somewhat startled, because Coober Pedy has a record temperature of 132 degrees. Furthermore it can sink to the low twenties during the night, well below freezing. 'You got to understand,' said Jack, 'we get a nice clean, dry heat up here, not like that filthy heat you get down south. I went to Melbourne a while back. It was ninety-six for four days. I bloody near died. It was lovely to get home.'
'Why, what was it like when you returned?' I said. 'It was pretty good, about 126 to 128 for ten days. I tell you, I prefer Coober Pedy. Adelaide's just as bad as Melbourne — it stinks in the summer.'
When Jack arrived in Coober Pedy he said he could hardly walk with arthritis and he had a caliper on his leg. Now he was completely cured. He put it all down to the wonders of the climate and daily massages with goanna fat. He was slightly irritated at how much it had all cost him. He bought that goanna fat from the Aborigines at the rate of ten shillings a goanna, which he felt was an overcharge, for the Aborigines still ate the meat afterwards. We felt for him, because clearly, goanna fat was not on the free medicine list.
If one talked only to Jack Brewster it would be easy to get the idea that the heat is no concern. The fact is, to escape the heat most people live underground. There was even an underground department store and a subterranean branch of the Bank of New South Wales. The opal seams are found in a soft limestone so the digging is not over difficult. Altogether there were more than eighty underground dwellings. Down below the temperature varies only between sixty-eight and seventy-eight all the year round. What's more there is no dust, no maintenance and no flies. Although just lately they seem to have acquired a more sophisticated fly which has been tempted to come underground.
Make no mistake, those underground dwellings can be handsome. I visited the home of Ettie Hall, an opal dealer. It was large with several rooms. There were kangaroo skins and lino on the floor and pictures on the walls. Actually the walls, chalky with red ferrous streaks looked beautiful, like an abstract art mural. Then just to complete the decoration Ettie had pushed in chunks of opal here and there.
I mentioned that Coober Pedy had no water supply. There was a town water tank but because of a long drought it had been dry for five years. So the water was hauled from an artesian bore eighty-three miles away. The price delivered was $2 for forty-four gallons. At that price one had to be extremely careful of the stuff and there were few bathrooms in Coober Pedy. It was more patriotic to have a daily dust.
The fascination for hunting opals is strong, if not stronger than looking for gold. As you wander about the diggings the temptation to stay, to start digging is almost too hard to resist ...the old fascination of seeming to get something for nothing. Opal mining has one big advantage. Any two men with a pick and windlass can do it. But it is a rough, incredibly harsh existence, and begging Mr Brewster's pardon, a quite appalling climate. It was impossible to find out how much the average miner earned. Obviously a miner could dig for fifteen years with no luck and suddenly find an opal-loaded piece which he had been using as a door stop all the time.
So regarding their earnings they are as secretive as head waiters. The standard answer is: 'Why should I tell you? Look, mate, you sweat your guts out for ten years, nearly starve, and suddenly you make a killing. The tax man gets to hear and takes half. I'm not crazy, mate.'
Yet somebody was making money. Great quantities of opal were in evidence everywhere. We made our purchases, thirty per cent off, he hoped, and took off into the cool morning air. Our flight plan was Alice Springs via Ayers Rock in the centre of the continent. My tourist booklet said that the rock was so large it could be seen 100 miles off. But on this day we had to stick on our compass course of almost due north, peering, looking. Then suddenly, out of the gloom, it loomed up right in front of us, fifteen miles off ...enormous.
We were like every other tourist who had ever seen it. 'My God, it looks like a whale.' And so it did, the world's largest monolith, smooth, rounded, rising 1,200 feet abruptly from the flat plain. We circled around it in our little Debonair taking pictures and it seemed we could almost pat the whale on its ample behind.
The stone was a rich, dirty ochre-red. Not quite as red as it appears in the picture post-cards, but red just the same. We landed alongside and we had the most fascinating background for lunch I can remember, the great silent thing looking down on us.
Beside the rock one gets a feeling of awe, different from the awe of looking at a great mountain. Upon seeing it for the first time it is possible to understand why the Aborigines treated it as sacred. It is so alone, so remote, 300 miles out from Alice Springs and it is not as if there were any foot hills to prepare you for it. Ayers Rock rises incredibly out of the flat near desert. I remembered the words of one writer: 'You stand there like an ant looking at a cathedral.'
As I said, the tourist postcards depicted the rock much redder, even a deep blood red, but we learned that it changed colour during the day. In the morning it was grey, in the afternoon a mid-brick but to be there at sunset was the real experience. As the sun went down it became this blood-red colour, like a great burning coal.
An airline pilot told us the best sight of all was the Rock in the rain; the water cascaded down and the whole monolith seemed to seam, even boil. Walkabout magazine recently gave the quote 'Ayers Rock, after the storm and bathed in sunlight, appears like a shimmering, silver-grey blanc mange that could easily wobble over.'
There are motels which can accommodate nigh on 200 a night in the national park at the Rock. The geographers, the geologists, the serious men at the universities loathe the idea that it has been discovered by the tourists. The holocaust almost shook the Rock itself when someone suggested putting a chair lift to the top. The fury was almost as great at the idea of a handrail being built.
How dare they desecrate the primeval splendour of the world's largest monolith! One could go along with the idea that there should never be a chairlift, but the handrail was a different matter. This rock was was bare and smooth. There was not a thing on which to gain a grip and tourists have been dying from falls at the rate of one a year. So at the start of the 1965 season the keepers of the Rock did build a handrail to the top. From the air, it could just be seen, that's if one knew where to look.
You see, Ayers Rock has become the North's greatest tourist asset. Connellan Airways run special trips. Despite the fact that it 1s 300 miles from Alice Springs every tourist goes there, at the rate of 13,000 a year or more. It has even hurt the tourist trade in Alice Springs. We were told some bus companies were running a new type of cheap tour. They went in for the rugged stuff. They took along camping gear, so that the passengers could eat by the road side and sleep under the stars. What's more, they did the most hideous thing possible — they spent no money in Alice Springs.
Of course, Alice Springs is very capable of looking after itself and sadly we just missed that most remarkable of all functions, the famous Henley on the Todd Regatta. You must understand that except in remarkable circumstances the Todd River is no more than a dry creek bed. No lovely Thames River for a Henley here, but bone dry sand and a background of ghost gums.
Therefore, in order to conduct their rowing, yachting and water skiing events there has to be some interesting improvisation. For the rowing eights they have eight men with ropes who pull the cox, chariot style in a 40-gallon drum. The yachts have masts, sails, everything but bottoms, and the crew run inside, holding the yachts up around their midriffs. The course is across soft sand, fifty yards around the buoy and back again.
The event, naturally, is not entirely dry. Inevitably there is a mock-up of a ship anchored there by the banks of the Todd with plenty of cold beer stowed aboard.
Our next port of call was the great cattle station, Victoria River Downs, in the Northern Territory and we felt this was to be the climax of the tour. I had spoken to the owners, the L. J. Hooker Investment Corporation Ltd., and they said V.R.D. would be only too happy to put us up. The manager was Bob Millar, who until recently had been Army commandant of the Northern Territory. They would advise him at once of our arrival time.
It was a long flight far to the north and it was a great comfort, just on dusk, to see the Victoria River Downs air strip come up under the wing tip. A wrong turning in that country could have been a serious embarrassment. The nearest town was Katherine, 295 miles to the east. It was a comfort too, as we landed, to see a utility truck driving up to the end of the strip to meet us.
A tall character in a broad-brimmed hat got out of the utility. 'Who are you fellers?' 'We're a special flight from Melbourne. I think you know all about us.' 'Oh? I thought you must be the Flying Doctor, dropping in for a visit. 'You mean, you didn't know we were coming?' 'No,' said the V.R.D. man. 'I don't reckon the Colonel was expecting anyone. He only got back from Darwin with his Missus half an hour ago after going to the Darwin Show. He's just driven 500 miles. Anyway, hop in and I'll drop you off at the homestead.'
It was all beginning to sound ominous. Nobody appreciates guests after having driven 500 miles. We were deposited with our bags at the front gate to the homestead. It was a classic piece of outback architecture — galvanized iron roof, veranda all round with a leafy bower leading up to the front door. It was a terrible moment. The Colonel was standing on the veranda looking down at us, we stood at the front gate looking back at him. Alfred Heintz gave a little chuckle: 'You organized this one — she's all yours." So I walked up the path as if I were late for school, and facing the headmaster.
I explained to Mr Bob Millar (he does not like being called Colonel) that I was a journalist, that I was travelling around the north with my three friends, writing a daily column. I explained my contact with L. J. Hooker's. Mr. Millar said that in this part of the world there wasn't exactly a daily 10 a.m. postal delivery and he asked to see my credentials. Credentials? That was awkward. I picked through my wallet and eventually found a battered Overseas Telecommunications card which gave me authority to reverse the charges on cables. It was just good enough. Mr Millar took us over to comfortable quarters which were used for visitors and said: 'Dinner will be in half an hour. We don't exactly dress for dinner, but we always make ourselves look respectable by putting on a tie.' With that he departed.
We were still in trouble. Under our keep-down-weight-at-all-costs policy we had only two ties amongst four people. Imants Dizgalvis said: 'I've got it. We shall cut our two ties in half so that we have four. Nobody will notice if they're a bit shorter." So with our one penknife we cut the ties in half. It was a mistake. Once cut in half the ties would not go around anybody's neck.
'We're still not defeated," said Imants. 'We'll take our shoe laces, attach them to the tie bits, and that will do for the part that goes around the neck.' That did not work, either. Alfred Heintz said: 'This is still your good bit of organizing — go and own up. We have no ties.'
'So I went to the front verandah and apologized to Mrs Millar. She said: 'You tell them I don't care what they've got on. I can't have a drink until they come.' And so she began to laugh. The tropical ice was broken and we received the full treatment of northern hospitality. We had a very happy time at V.R.D.
Actually VR.D. is a self-contained township. It has to be. In the wet season the north becomes a great ocean of mud and the roads utterly impassable. So the last road supplies arrive in October and there are no more until the end of April. This means that the store keeper has to start thinking seriously about Christmas early in October. Admittedly aircraft continue to call twice weekly, but when the monsoons are really punching it is impossible even to drive to the airstrip.
The doctor calls every six weeks, the dentist once a year, the barber, never. As one hand told me: 'Up here your missus cuts your hair.' It is not the biggest cattle station in Australia, but its dimensions are still somewhat impressive. It is 185 miles from the north-east to the south-west corner and the area is 5,494 square miles. They have 2,000 miles of roads, 80,000 head of cattle, and 2,000 horses.
When we arrived, Hookers had spent $2 million on the property in the previous six years, mostly on 750 miles of fences and thirty-eight bores.
It was late July and this was the season for shipping the cattle to the abattoirs at Katherine. There the meat was frozen, packed into cartons and shipped out of Darwin to Britain, the U.S. and Japan.
At one time the cattle went off to market on the hoof accompanied by the cattle drover. All this has been immortalized in Australian verse and song. But the day of the cattle drover is practically done. Here we found something else — the road train. Imagine a really massive diesel prime mover. Across the front is a bar as big as a railway girder, to shield it, among other things, against kangaroos that jump in the night. Behind the driver there is a small compartment with a bed. One driver sleeps while the other is at the wheel.
Then attached to the prime mover there are three or four large trailers, known as 'dogs'. Each dog is capable of carrying twenty to twenty-two head. The cattle that travel in the last dog go in a cloud of dust and if conditions are really bad they can die of suffocation or they can be ruined as quality beef by the bumps they receive. This is the most eloquent argument for good beef roads in the north.
But the startling thing about Victoria River Downs is the bird life. From the time we got out of bed in the morning we heard the sound-effects of the thrashing of wings. Birds came across in clouds by the thousand — brown whistling eagles, corellas, galahs, budgerigars, marvellous little thrushes and down by the river there were the enormously dignified brolgas and jabirus.
Mr Bob Millar said that the place to see the budgies was out on the downs country, fifty miles off. They visited at this time every year for breeding and they were there by the million. The young tame budgies had not seen humans before and they would sit all over the car, on one's shoulders, on one's hat. What else? Kangaroos, of course, were everywhere. Then there were emus, buffalo, wild horses, wild donkeys, wild pig and every so often there would be a visit by a little group of wild camels, left behind by the camel trains which were popular over the desert fifty years or more ago.
Right beside the homestead is the Wickham River and seven miles off the great Victoria River. There were crocodiles in both. Bob Millar said that one year after the wet they found 600 small crocodiles in a Wickham River water hole. Yet this did not stop the Aborigines from swimming.
'The best thing,' he said, 'is to be able to pick your crocodile. The fresh water croc has a long nose and he only eats fish. The blunt-nosed salt-water fellow will eat meat. He can travel over land and we have a lot of trouble with them pulling cattle into the water.' He assured us that he, personally, did not swim in the river.
There are fifty Europeans on the property, ten families and 159 working Aborigines. Life begins daily at 6.15 am. The noise of the birds is suddenly blotted out by the noise of a dozen radios turned up full steam, so that everyone in the house can hear. This is news time and the radio news is mighty important in an area where the newspaper arrives ten days late.
We met the boss Aborigine, a tall, very stately, neatly dressed gentleman, King Brumby. He wore a plate around his neck with his name upon it to signify his tribal rank. We chatted with King Brumby at length, took his photograph and then went off to meet another, equally stately Aborigine called Jabiru. Bob Millar explained that Jabiru and Brumby did not get on. Jabiru was from another tribe and something of a threat to Brumby's power. Actually we sensed this at once. We were just talking to Jabiru and taking his photograph when King Brumby came over, nudged me in the ribs and said: 'Don't take any notice of him. Him civilized bugger.'
Bob Millar explained that the trouble all started when Jabiru went for his citizenship papers and actually received his how-to-vote forms. Jabiru could not read them but immediately he sensed their importance and asked him to lock them in the office safe. Thereafter Jabiru took on a new dignity. No longer did he want to be called Jabiru. In future he would be 'Mr White'.
King Brumby was furious and from then on he would call Jabiru nothing else but 'the civilized bugger'. To restore King Brumby's immense loss of face Bob Millar had to do something fast. He gave him a letter of introduction to his daughter in Melbourne, although King Brumby undoubtedly would never visit Melbourne, this was something pretty good. That also was locked in the office safe and status quo was preserved, which taught the 'civilized bugger' a thing or two.
Mr and Mrs Millar were devoted to the life and said they never wanted to return to the city. The life was adventurous and very satisfying, as long as one could sit a horse. The only formal entertainment was movies in the recreation hall every Saturday night. Admission was free. The only rule was that everyone, including Mr and Mrs Millar, had to bring their own chair. That Saturday night the show was Gun Fury. Oddly enough Aboriginal stockmen adore cowboy movies.
The Millars very kindly invited us to come back 'any time. Just drop us a line first,' they said. We flew on to Wyndham and on to Broome. We were intrigued by a pub in Wyndham which had a sign urging us to wear singlets in the bar. Broome went even further. There the order was 'Shirts, Please'. But the place we really wanted to see was just a spot on the map, Marble Bar. We knew only this, that it was the hottest town in Australia and one of the hottest in the world. It was a mining town 1,000 miles north of Perth and 140 miles from the coast.
We wanted badly to find some warmth. It was winter and before we left, our friends made kindly remarks like 'You lucky swine, leaving the chilblain belt for the lush tropical north. How little they knew — the whole continent was an icebox. At Coober Pedy the temperature was twenty-seven degrees and we slept fully dressed inside our sleeping bags. At Alice Springs it was thirty-eight, at Victoria River Downs, right in the crocodile country, it was thirty-four; and, glory be, they had a fire at the station homestead. At tropical Broome it was 379 — the lowest temperature ever recorded there. The previous low was 402, on 10 July 1899. At Broome, where such temperatures are unexpected, they provided no blankets in the hotel room, just sheets.
So we decided to head for Marble Bar. Here at last we would find the soothing balm of delicious warmth. At the airport we rang for a taxi and John Olive, the local taxi man, came out to the Marble Bar airport utterly covered in clothes and said: 'Talk about flamin' cold — it was 36.1 this morning.' That was the coldest day in Marble Bar for four years and sixteen degrees below normal. Even around 2 p.m. it reached no more than a chilly Marble Bar seventy-six degrees. Jack Jeffreys, a local storekeeper, told us it had been bitter for a week. He had lived in Marble Bar for thirty years and he had never known such cold.
The only pub in Marble Bar was the Iron Clad Hotel. Its windows were painted over to keep out the heat. There was a sign in the bar: 'Marble Bar is the hottest place in Horstrylia, but we have a very Kool Kop. Let's keep it that way — no singing or swearing or fighting in the bar.'
Actually, we found Marble Bar was a little sensitive about its reputation. There had been fearful suggestions that towns like Wyndham might be hotter, so I checked with the postmaster John Seiler. He agreed that other towns did actually score higher temperatures; Marble Bar's maximum was only 120.5, but there was an unrivalled consistency in the heat. The record was 160 consecutive days over the century. The centuries would steady down to a daily pattern in November and go through all December, all January and 1l February. Although, he said, they did have one refreshingly cool day the previous January. The temperature dropped to 88.9°.
The Shire Clerk, Bert Groves, insisted to us that it was a fine, healthy climate, but there were inconveniences. For example, it was agony trying to take a shower. The pipes from the bore were all above ground and water came out at scalding heat. The only thing to do was to shower late at night.
'I have known times' he said, 'when the water has been too hot to do the washing up and I have seen my wife put in cool water from the water-bag. The nights are tough, particularly when it is still 104 at 11 p.m.'
As John Olive told us, the best way to get to sleep on such nights was to have a few drinks. We found that it was not difficult to do that. Marble Bar was a mining town with 100 Europeans and as many Aboriginals in the immediate precincts. Because of shift work the hotel and the shops were open for long hours. There was 11 pm. closing Monday to Saturday and to ease the thirst on Sundays the old Iron Clad was open 10 am to noon and 4 pm to 6 pm. Their only day for a six o'clock swill was Sunday.
Most people we found had two refrigerators in their kitchen, partly because the extra space was essential and partly because of the fear of one breaking down. One time there was an occasional game of football in Marble Bar, but not any more — the sun-baked ground was like reinforced concrete. In summer there was no sport beyond an occasional game of darts at the Iron Clad. In the winter they played cricket.
Yet Marble Bar was flourishing, going ahead. Denis O'Meara, the mining registrar, told us it was the headquarters for the busiest mining district in Western Australia and the local tin mines were oroducing $2 million worth of ore a year. Also they were doing well with white asbestos and there was still a little gold mining.
As we travelled around it was easy to see why Marble Bar was a hot box. The town was at the bottom of a saucer surrounded by hills that changed in colour from purple to fire red. And there was a real marble bar, just a few miles out of town. This was one of the most incredible sights of the tour. The bar was a six-mile stretch of jasper, one of the most glorious of gem stones. The bar was on the surface, the stone striped in reds, browns, blacks and pale pinks, so it looked like a vivid veranda blind. When washed with water the colours bloomed. Furthermore, the Bar was magnificent to photograph in colour. One could not help but think that here was a tourist attraction that was practically unknown. American rock enthusiasts, the famous rock hounds, would kill for some of that jasper. Indeed all the shops, such as they were, sold bracelets made of agate, bloodstone, and other gems.
There was a tourist trade, though small. There was a small caravan park and the story was that a car and caravan passed through every other day. The ideal time, we were told, was to visit in the winter, so if Americans do arrive one day by the thousand, I hope they do not suffer from the cold.
It was at the Iron Clad Hotel that we met Ron Martin and Graham Norton, of Perth. They were on a grand tour of the outback for eight weeks, something they had planned for eighteen months. When they first mentioned it their wives were unswervingly hostile. When they bought their Land Rover the ladies would not even look at it. Yet somebody up there must have liked them. Several days before they left Mrs Norton correctly guessed the weight of a cake and won a free trip to Surfers Paradise. So all was well.
Now the Land Rover was caked deep in red dust. Ron and Graham had just returned from Jigalong Apostolic Mission, and they made it sound quite the most fascinating place in the West. This was the Mission where they looked after Stone Age man, and they urged us to go there. It was less than 300 miles to the east, only a few hours off, but perhaps it was not even marked on the map.
It was all up to Frank Reinehr, our pilot navigator. Frank is a conservative gentleman and it is a comfort to be with a conservative man on such occasions. He is the best map reader I have known. His secret is to study his maps long and hard before he sets out and he likes to see the right features coming up, port and starboard, every minute of the journey.
Frank sat up several hours that night studying his maps. Jigalong was indeed marked. It was the last little oasis of civilization in Western Australia. Beyond was the Great Sandy Desert and 1000 miles and nothing across to the South Australian border. It was a trip that called for careful navigation. Also we had to make sure the Debonair could carry enough fuel to get us there and back. We could hardly expect to pick up the correct fuel at Jigalong. Frank decided everything was possible, so we took off early the next morning.
As we flew we had misgivings. This time we really were unannounced, and it seemed selfish to call at a mission where undoubtedly they had little time to waste on visitors, but to the journalist the possibility of a good story was irresistible. We pushed on.
Frank Reinehr, as always, made no mistakes. We flew in straight across the mission and even from the air we could get the picture — bare, red earth with here and there clumps of saltbush and windgrass. The only trees were emaciated sticks of mulga, which gave only a hint of shade. They must have heard the sound of our aircraft from way off, because already a Land Rover was on its way to the strip.
We need not have worried. The welcome could not have been warmer or more friendly. In the Land Rover was the chief of the mission, Pastor Sid Denton, a big handsome man, who looked as if he could have been a very good footballer. He said he was a one-time carpenter which seemed a good occupation for a man in the church. Then with him was his assistant, Jim Plumb, a one-time boilermaker.
Pastor Denton took us to his house to meet Mrs Denton. The house was made of galvanized iron and one could only imagine the heat at the height of summer. We were told it was then that the whirlie-whirlies blew; it was impossible to see even across the road and next day the dust had to be swept out of the house by the shovel load. Attached to the front of the house was a square, covered with vines. This was a good place to sit when the temperature rose to 112 degrees or more. The idea was to spray the leaves with water and it acted like a good old-fashioned Coolgardie safe.
It was important to get Sid Denton talking and I took notes. The little settlement had eleven white people and 240 Aborigines. Here they catered for the Stone Age tribes that came in out of the desert.
Some had been discovered by Len Beadell of the Weapons Research Establishment who went out for six months at a time by Land Rover. Some were invited to come in by Native Welfare officers. Yet until they did come in many of these people had never seen a white man. The first group came in eight years ago, another arrived in November 1963. There were nineteen women with their children and they had been wandering without men for two and a half years. When asked what happened to their men they said that 'spirits' had taken them.
We couldn't find out any more,' said Pastor Denton. 'Among these people it is taboo to mention the name of anyone who is dead. They don't even talk about pregnancies. That's "woman's business".'
Another group arrived in November 1964 from 1,000 miles off by Jupiter Well. They were quite naked. Upon handing out the mission clothes the men put on the dresses and the women put on the shirts and trousers. They were terrified by the sight of a Land Rover coming towards them, but when they discovered there was a nice easy ride to be had by sitting in the back they abandoned fear with surprising speed. They conversed in their own desert language by voice and sign language. They were not over quick in learning English and Pastor Denton said with a sigh: 'But you should see how quickly they can learn the swear words.'
Then they had dogs. Aboriginals adore dogs and there seemed to be more dogs than people at Jigalong. They were an eternal problem; they had killed fifty sheep during the past year. Jim Plumb said that one group of Stone-Agers brought in some pure-bred dingoes. The dingoes were gentle and friendly with the tribesmen, but when a white man came near they were unbelievably savage. They tore their teeth up and down their chains and bit chunks out of a tree.
The group that came in seven years ago was terribly emaciated, although one learned that the condition of tribes depended very much on the season. How anyone could live for half a day out there was more than we could understand. Yet the last groups that came in looked very well indeed and a Gayelord Hauser undoubtedly would have said that they lived on a perfectly balanced diet.
Mrs Denton has learned a little about 'bush tucker' and she said it was surprising what food there was out in the desert. Helping at the house, Mrs Denton had a girl called Lois. Maybe she was seventeen, but who could tell. Stone Age girls do not have birth certificates. Her background was a mystery for she came in alone out of the desert riding a camel. 'Sweet seventeen and never been kissed,' said Pastor Denton. Lois went as close to blushing as an Aboriginal girl can, and giggling threw her arms around Mrs Denton.
Between Lois and Mrs Denton one could learn a little of bushtucker. There was, of course, kangaroo, lizard, snake, etc. There was a vine which Lois called Muda. It had a root like a sweet potato. Then there were little melons that grew from a type of underground nut grass. These were called bikky lemons. Of course, there were many types of berries and marvellous little fruits that looked like small tomatoes, called gingi-wirries. One could survive in the desert if one knew where to look.
At the mission children were separated from parents. The children slept in dormitories, wore uniforms and went to school. The parents had their own camp with steel pre-fabricated huts, and the children visited them twice a day. It was the parents who were the more difficult; it was a slow process converting them to the ways of the white man. For one thing, many refused to live in the pre-fabricated hut provided. Instead, right alongside, they built their own little humpies, or mia mias, out of sheets of galvanized iron and old bits of wood. Every time the wind changed, they turned them round to get the right protection from the hot blow and the dust.
When we arrived at their camp we heard an extraordinary wailing, which was not quite a wail. It was like a terrible primeval cry of pain. Then we saw all the tribal folk sitting on the ground, both men and women, with tears running down their dusty black cheeks. Mary, one of the old women, had complained of a pain in her chest and she had gone off to the mission hospital. There was nothing wrong with her that a few days in bed would not fix, but this was tragedy, an occasion of great grief. The lives of the desert people are closely interlocked.
The children were beautiful. There was one little boy, Michael, aged about eight, with a big, friendly tooth-flashing grin. He broke a leg and had to go off to hospital at Port Hedland for three months. They gave him such a marvellous time that when he returned he did not want to go back to his parents. There were tears and that night Michael had to sleep with Pastor and Mrs Denton, and they got him back to school only by subterfuge. Sid Denton said it was a 'good week before Michael would speak to him again'.
The school teaching was done by Mr and Mrs Rob Kirkby. Mr Kirkby said that the children were intelligent, some of them extremely so. Yet once they went beyond the fourth or fifth grade there came a slump, a lack of concentration. The children developed a shyness, a terrible fear of anything that might make them look stupid in front of their classmates. If asked a question and called for answers nobody would put up their hands. It was very hard to get them to understand the importance of education. They could not see the point of algebra or why anybody would ever want to divide 780902 by 45. And all the time there was the distraction of the parents, who had no wish to depart from their tribal ways. Occasionally they had quite brilliant students who should go on to some technical or high school, but the parents would not let them go. So here was the dilemma. What were they to do?
Pastor Denton said that one method would be to separate them entirely from their parents and bring them up without this difficult influence. But he felt that not only would this be inhuman, but when the children were sixteen or seventeen the inevitable would happen — they would have lost completely their tribal culture and at the same time there would be no depth of Christian understanding in our ways. They would become, like many others, wasters hanging around the pubs in coastal towns.
No, better to stay at Jigalong, where the nearest town was Meekatharra, 293 miles to the south. Some things can be achieved only with patience and over several generations.
As pointed out earlier, the beauty of travelling by light aircraft is that one can go where one wishes regardless of roads or railways, and in the outback every large property has its airstrip; an airstrip is as vital as the windmill, the pump and the artesian bore. An old school friend, Bob Lefroy, had a property, Boolardy, 120 miles from Yalgoo and 200 miles from Meekatharra, roughly, you could say, out in Central west. For the past twenty-five years he had been saying, 'Why not drop in some time?', but I never seriously thought that it would be possible.
Boolardy was an interesting contrast to Victoria River Downs. V.R.D. was a very large cattle property owned by a large public company. Boolardy was an old family concern. The Lefroys with their relatives the Wittenooms and the Bruces came to the West with the first settlers more than 130 years ago. The property was 856,833 acres with 35,000 sheep. The lovely old homestead, with its rough-hewn mulga rafters, was built in 1880. The original homestead, built ten years earlier, was now a store. It was of mud brick and it had no windows. That was a necessary precaution in the old days, to keep out the Aborigines.
When we arrived there was water everywhere. Boolardy had received magnificent winter rains and the result was glorious. In semi-arid country nature has to make its spring when it can and it had erupted. The red earth had turned green and there were thousands of square miles of yellow, blue and white wildflowers. Even the mulga was sporting a pretty, wattlelike blossom.
In the old days Boolardy was very remote indeed. The wool was carted off to market by camel train, seventeen camels to a waggon. Camels were favoured because they required very little feed over long distances, which always meant a bigger payload. Supplies to the station came in only once every six months. Now they came in every fortnight, 200 miles from Meekatharra. And, of course, Boolardy had more comforts than provided in the old days, an anthill tennis court and a beautiful swimming pool in the garden beside the homestead.
Bob and Ruth Lefroy showed us around, across paddocks which almost inevitably were five miles square. Bob told a nice story about the size of the country. Four years before three shearers were coming down from Gascoyne Junction through Boolardy. They stopped their truck to open a gate and two wives with them went off into the scrub for a moment, as is necessary after one has been driving for several hundred miles. The men forgot all about the women and drove on. It so happened that there was not another gate for sixty miles. Here they decided to sleep the night, and what with plenty to drink, they did not notice the absence of the women until the following morning. They sped back. Meanwhile the ladies had walked seventeen miles and the men did not get a good reception. Wives rarely understand a situation like that.
Like most other properties, Boolardy employed Aborigines. However they were very different from those at Victoria River Downs or Jigalong. They had been at Boolardy for generations and they had mixed mostly with the Lefroys. Their English was perfect.
Instead of mustering the sheep on horseback they did it on the Iatest Japanese style motor-cycles. As soon as they started their bikes the sheep dogs would jump aboard. Unquestionably this was one of the most extraordinary sights of our time to see aboriginal stockmen roaring off on their motor cycles with a sheep dog dozing on the handlebars and another on the pillion. 'The word 'roaring' was correct. The men had taken the silencers off their machines. Seeing that the paddocks were all so large, if there was a fine shattering roar, one always knew where one's colleagues were operating. Bob explained that in such large paddocks it was a problem to find the sheep. One of his neighbours used a Cessna aircraft. The manager few the Cessna while down below the aborigines on the motor bikes had two-way radio receivers strapped to their backs. The manager directed them towards the sheep from 2,000 feet above. Bob Lefroy did not own a Cessna, but he had a Land Rover and a utility fitted with two-way radio and this way he could keep in touch with men who might be working, say, forty or fifty miles off down the other end of the property.
The area was literally hopping with wild life. The emus could be seen in marching platoons of anything up to thirty or forty, a gorgeous sight, galloping across the plains at speed. They would get up a nice tail wobble like a T-model Ford at sixty. However, Bob explained that they were not popular. The emus felt that the quickest way through a fence was to crash it, full tilt. On the other hand, a kangaroo was shaped like a wedge and it could fly through without disturbing anything.
After Boolardy we few on, town after town, air strip after air strip, until finally it became confusing. One morning at breakfast Alfred Heintz said to the hotel waitress: 'Well, are you going to turn on some of your famous Broome weather for us today?' 'It'll be a good effort if we do, love, said she, you happen to be in Wittenoom Gorge.'
Then there were fascinating local details that we noticed. For example, at Geraldton airport, the man who filled our tanks, the local refuelling agent, was also His Worship the Mayor of Geraldton, Cr. Charles Eadon-Clarke. This double role had complicated life for him during the last Queen's visit. The story went that after greeting the Royal Party in his official robes and chain, he had to whip into his overalls and start pumping aviation spirit into the Royal aircraft, after which he donned his ceremonial garb once more and raced in for the civic reception.
The trip proved more than anything else that Australia is a country made for the aeroplane. The Department of Civil Aviation made it all very easy; their men provided a wonderful service. They worried over us like a kindly policeman at a school crossing. They gave the weather information, the condition of aerodromes, checked constantly to see where we were and at one time when signals were weak, formed a chain of stations right across the Northern Territory to pick up our messages.
The total time flown was 56 hours 15 minutes and at $21 an hour the cost was $1,181.25. The only extras were accommodation, food, opals, jasper bracelets and such, which had to be classed as essentials, otherwise how could one get away next time.