Tuesday, 29 October 2013

THE HOMECOMING

LORNESLEIGH HOMESTEAD. LATE 1960s.
Source: Personal Collection.

Dad was hoping that Mum would stay in Townsville for a few months, given the state of our home after the flood, and because mine had been a difficult birth. Apparently I had a large head (which I was reminded about every birthday). 

The birth was further complicated by the fact that Mum’s regular doctor had popped off to the racetrack to have a bet. Evidently, he thought that my birth would take longer. Seems I was eager to arrive, and another doctor had to step in at the last minute to fill the breach.

Mum stayed at her parents’ house in Townsville after we were discharged from the Mater Hospital, but after six weeks’ away from the place, she had grown impatient. I was christened in a hurry and soon after we were returning to Lornesleigh Station.
The road to Lornesleigh was still muddy and the usually dry creeks were running, so it was inevitable that Dad’s old soft-top Rover would get bogged crossing a creek. Which, of course, it did. That meant my first night in the bush was spent in the back of a Rover, stuck in a creek in the middle of nowhere, being attacked by mosquitoes. Better get used to it, Little Fella, and welcome home!

Maud and the others were still cleaning up when we arrived the following morning. Mum got stuck in, just like everyone else. She was most upset that she’d lost photos and her favourite chinaware. The photos couldn’t be replaced. 
Sometimes, even many years later, Dad would ride back home from mustering cattle with a newly found teacup or a saucer in his saddlebag. A lot of china was found in the paddocks sometimes many miles away.

So, I started life in my new home, surrounded by the smell of decomposing stock and rancid mud, and swarms of mosquitoes. I’m so glad I was too young to remember it.     

***

Sunday, 27 October 2013

THE AFTERMATH

ABOVE. DAD'S LIST OF LOST AND DEAD HORSES/ BELOW. THE RIVER RUNNING NORMALLY.
 Source: Personal Collection.

Finally, the floodwaters were completely gone and Dad’s family were able to get into the place. His brothers, Uncles Dick and George, and his sister, Aunty Maud (who, along with her sister Lorna, was educated at an elite girls’ boarding school in Melbourne) were the first ones there. 
Aunty Maud, despite all her airs and graces, rolled up her sleeves, took off her pearls and helped sweep the mud out of the house.

Flood water isn’t really water. It’s a viscous kind of putrid mud that gets into every crevice of every- thing and sticks to it like glue. Every single bit of furniture, every cup and every plate that hadn’t floated out the door had to be scrubbed, washed, rewashed and washed again.  Most of the furniture was sent into Charters Towers for restoration.
 I still own a display cabinet that survived the flood and only recently had the high water mark removed when I had it recently repaired.

While all this was going on, Mum was still in hospital in Townsville. Meanwhile, my uncle Bill and his wife Margaret were sitting cosily in the homestead at Mount McConnell Station, telling everyone that Lornesleigh had sustained little damage.

 “They only lost a few doylies,” were Margaret’s exact words. When she heard, Mum said she would have been happy if Aunt Margaret had choked on that.

The real loss amounted to twenty good horses, five hundred head of cattle, and an awful lot of personal effects. Which were all uninsurable, because the homestead happened to be in a floodplain, like all homesteads were. 
  For the ease of the water supply.  Of course.

Part four coming soon.


Friday, 25 October 2013

A GHOULISH KIND OF SOUP

ABOVE. MY FATHER, TOM BELL ROWING THE RIVER.
 BELOW. DAD'S RECORDING OF THE RECEDING FLOOD LEVEL.  

Source: Personal Collection.

When the waters had receded enough to allow them to descend from the ridge, Dad, Gallagher and George Riggs found that the floodwater had covered the entire Lornesleigh homestead in a layer of mud that had reached up into the second storey. 

 Later calculations put the height of both the rivers in flood at nearly sixty feet. The water might have lapped around their thighs, but with the taste of brolga still on his lips, that wasn’t going to be enough to keep Dad out of the homestead.

He found Mum’s dog and his tom cat curled up together on a bed in the upstairs bedroom. Now, that was pretty funny, because, natural disasters aside, the two usually hated each other. Dad and the others grabbed tins of food from the pantry and returned to the ridge, along with the dog and cat. The dog didn’t mind being carried, but the cat panicked and clawed him. So, Dad let him swim to the ridge.

The thing about floods, especially in North Queensland and especially on a cattle station, is that everything gets churned up together into a disgusting, ghoulish kind of soup.

 I’ve never understood idiots who go deliberately seek out floods as an opportunity for a dip. There are snakes swimming among the dead livestock, there’s excrement from the septic tanks, kerosene, diesel and all manner of poisons. And of course, crocodiles survive when everything else drowns.
They knew all that, but Dad and the others had no option but to wade through the water. They got back to the safety of the ridge with the tinned food, but all of the labels had been washed off, so it was a lucky dip as to what they were going to eat. Sometimes it could be tinned sausages. Sometimes it could be jam. They ate whatever came out of the tin without complaint.

With much of the water gone, Dad was able to confirm with his eyes what he already knew in his heart and in his head. The trees everywhere around the place were littered with dead animals. The corpses of stock and wildlife hung off the limbs along with bits of canvas, sheets of tin and everything else that had floated out of the homestead and out of the sheds. Dad was most broken hearted by the loss of the horses.

 The temperature in early September being around 30 degrees Celsius (86 deg Fahrenheit), it wasn’t too long before the stench of death became overpowering, as the bodies of cattle and horses drowned in the flood started to decompose.
PART FOUR TO FOLLOW SOON.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

TRUE TALES OF THE OUTBACK. THE FLOOD. TWO.

Dad returned to Lornesleigh as soon as he found out about the first flood. By the time he reached the boundary of the property, the Cape River was now in full flood.

 He was met at the top of a ridge near the house by a stockman named Gallagher, and George Riggs, the mailman. The ridge was about a mile or so from the homestead. The water swirled around the ridge, turning it into an island and they knew they’d have to wait there until this second flood subsided, stranded without any food or proper drinking water. 

 Fortunately Dad had his rifle, but only a limited supply of bullets. Not knowing how long they’d be stuck there, they’d have to resort to living off the land.

Dad was a bushman, born and bred. I guess you could say he was Crocodile Dundee and Macgyver rolled into one. Without exaggeration.

 He was equal to any challenge and I never ever saw fear in his eyes. If there was a solution to a problem, he’d find it. Or invent it. There was nothing he couldn’t fix with a length of number eight wire and a set of pliers. He was also a boxer, a show rider and a crack shot with the rifle.

 But back to the flood. With nothing to eat, the livestock either drowned or gone, the kangaroos all on higher ground, all he could find was a Brolga in flight. In case you don’t know, brolgas are birds, a bit like a crane. Anyway, Dad took aim and brought it down with a single shot. They cooked it up and Dad said that it was by far the worst food he had ever tasted.

When the waters finally started to subside a week later, the trio waded into Lornesleigh to survey the damage—and obtain better food supplies. 

Part three coming soon.


Monday, 21 October 2013

TRUE TALES OF THE OUTBACK. THE FLOOD. PART ONE.

Source: Personal Collection.


This is a photo taken during the 1958 flood at my uncle's property, Cranbourne Station. The waters got to the front stairs.


About two weeks before I was due to be born, it was decided that Mum would leave Lornesleigh and travel five hours to Townsville on Queensland’s northern coastline.  A caretaker named Sparrow Lavery (I have no idea what his real name was) was left to look after the place, since Dad had driven Mum there, to wait out the final stages of the pregnancy.
 Mum was brought up on a sheep station near Julia Creek, so she knew better than to wait around for labour to begin, before making her move.

 And just as well. I was in a hospital getting born when my parent’s station went underwater after a massive downpour of rain. 
Not just once, but twice within a week.
Homesteads were always located near rivers for ease of getting water, so flooding of a homestead was going to be inevitable. Our homestead was situated near the junction of the Suttor and Cape River.  They were two major rivers that fed into the larger Burdekin River. After weeks of rain, it was the Suttor that flooded first.

Old Sparrow had been watching the levels of the rivers rising but would not go on the transmitter radio to get any further information. He was scared of the thing, and no matter how hard Dad tried to teach him how to use it, he refused to learn. That turned out to be a big mistake. 
 Sparrow was in the homestead kitchen one morning having breakfast, when he heard an ear-splitting rumble that sounded like thunder breaking overhead, coming towards the homestead. He knew what it was. 

  It wasn’t thunder but a massive wall of water breaking the banks of the Suttor and crashing towards the homestead. All Sparrow had time to do was grab one of Dad’s rifles and rush to saddle up Dad’s precious horse, Simba, before the homestead went underwater.
 Exactly what happened next remains a mystery to this day. Sparrow went missing for a week before turning up at Harvest Home station (the property adjacent to ours) and Simba went missing. Sparrow never was the same again and he never ever said precisely what happened that day to anyone, not even Dad
.

More about the flood and Simba later.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

TRUE TALES OF THE OUTBACK. PART TWO.

Source: Personal Collection.


Yes, that's me on a horse aged three. My mother is leading the horse but I'm sitting by myself, minus shoes of course.


I grew up on a cattle station called Lornesleigh. It was part of a much bigger holding owned by my family’s company, the Mount McConnell Pastoral Company, that was one thousand square miles in size. 
We were among the first settlers in the north— my family had lived on that same land for nearly one hundred years.

When I was born during a flood (but more about that another time), we carried about ten thousand head of cattle and one hundred horses. 

I lived with three uncles and four aunts, my parents and a cousin who were spread over four homesteads, ninety miles from the nearest town. And not a strip of bitumen in sight. It was pot holed, dusty, rutted and, sometimes, as dry as the proverbial dead dingo. No quick run up to the shop for a cup of sugar. Hell, no.

If we wanted to drive into town, the journey took three hours. The road was roughly a dirt track with lots of creeks to cross and many gates to open. 

My life was far from normal, whatever that means. In what way, you ask?

Well, I had a governess, (that was when Mum wasn’t trying to educate me herself as well as feeding the stockmen and keeping the homestead clean) and I didn’t go to school till I was ten. 

I learned to ride a horse almost before I learned to tie my own shoes. In fact, I never did learn how to tie my shoelaces until much, much later. 

What use were shoes except for a horse?

I learned to shoot and Dad tried to teach me to row a boat and drive a car when I was six. I’d have been fine, except that the boat kept going around in circles and the car kept running off the road. He gave up teaching me after I hit a log on my third attempt (in the car, not the boat).


There’s more to come in my next blog. Stay tuned.               

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

TRUE TALES OF THE OUTBACK. PART ONE.






Lots of people have asked me whether my first novel, Homecountry, is true. In case you haven’t read it, it’s a thriller set in the Australian outback, in a mythical town called Clarkes Flat. 
I like to call my book gritty because it doesn’t pull any punches.

Clarkes Flat doesn’t exist on a map. 

But maybe there’s a measure of truth in Homecountry, but only a little bit.

Like Peter Clancy, I grew up in the bush in northern Australia. For those of you who are not from here, the bush is what we call rural Australia. I lived on a cattle station as a kid (a cattle ranch, for my American cousins).

 It was a cattle station about the size of Luxembourg and three generations of my family had worked it, brought up their families on it and died for it. I was the fourth and, sadly, the last of a long line.

I loved growing up in the bush surrounded by stockmen, animals, crocodiles, and more things that can kill you than you could ever possibly imagine. That was a normal life to me.

I heard a lot of bush tales and I lived a lot of things most urban people could never imagine. One day, my sister in law, her eyes as big as saucers while listening to the stories said I should write down what I heard and saw.

Now, I’m not fussed on bush poetry. In my mind they don’t say how hard it really was, and they romanticise it far too much.  I feel much the same about the movies that have been made about bush life. What a load of crap.

 Most people wouldn’t last a minute in the Australian bush—it will kill you in a heartbeat if you don’t know what you’re doing. It can also be very isolating. 

My blog, if you stick with it, will uncover the funny, tragic, ugly and beautiful truth about the Australian outback experience, starting first with my own. 

It’s been a love affair that has endured a lifetime.


Sunday, 6 October 2013

FLAWS BEAUTIFUL FLAWS. PART TWO.







Peter Clancy has always harboured the ambition of playing with the big press boys on London’s Fleet Street. Why not let him. He has done his time in Melbourne.

Then I started researching the English press, with particular emphasis on the tabloid press. 

You know, those muck-racking papers with headlines like, The Member of Parliament Who Wanted To Be Spanked. The wolf-pack papers that hounded poor Princess Diana like a wounded deer. Gutter press as it is commonly known.  

Entre Peter Clancy into this den of evil. Am I going to totally alienate the readers out there by making him a London tabloid journo?
 I tell you, their methods of getting the story leaves much to the imagination.

 Of course, there’s the bribery of top officials such as police commissioners, employing private investigators who specialise in the dark arts such as phone tapping. 
There’s the badgering at the door step, of bereaved relatives for a story on their recently deceased loved one. They will even harass for a photo of the deceased for heaven’s sake.

Yes, they pay for tip-bites; they pay for major information from an expansive expense account. The tabloid journalists will even dress in disguise to be a footman at the palace or a cleaner at an opposition paper etc. 

It all sounds vile. There does not appear to be any heroes among these people. Though there are moments of humour in all this depravity.

I like the story about the journo speeding down the road to a possible front page scoop when he notices that he is being hotly pursued by an opposition paper. He tries to speed away but to no avail. He pulls over and they stop also. He gets out and leans into the driver’s window.

“Give me a break. This is my story,” He pleads.
“No way,” the opposition journo replies. The desperate journo quickly reaches in, grabs the car keys out of the ignition and throws them away. He then continues calmly onto his big scoop by himself.

The only way to make the character likeable in such an environment is to enter him into it, allow him to try to become part of it but there will be a Road to Damascus moment at some point. The character will then try to expose that environment’s short comings and corruption.

Throw in a few life threatening situations and the reader will mark him as a genuine hero. The world loves heroes.