EDGE OF THE OUTBACK
I offer no apology for the fact that this piece is written in both past and present tenses. Nor for the fact that I have used the imperial measurement system, as opposed to the metric. I grew up with the former and this is the way I have always written this piece.
Mention the Australian outback to most people, be they from another nation or other parts of 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 about 115,000 acres large, which is small compared with other stations further up and out. Our livelihood depended on Merino sheep for their wool and meat and a few head of cattle. The very barren land comprises of such vegetation as salt and blue bush, mulga and gum trees among others. Ours was among the first of the very big sheep stations heading north east of Adelaide.
Peterborough was and still is the nearest town of any size, 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 the School of the Air and correspondence school.
There were times when we actually did have heavy enough rains to isolate us completely but with the technology of today this no longer happens. In those days (and I am only going back thirty years or so) 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 a few years ago. With improved roads, transport and technology my nephew and niece were able to attend the local primary school in Peterborough. Both then followed the lead of the generations before them and attended boarding schools in Adelaide. While the station remains in our family today it is now 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 and even in the creek (when there was any water), which 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 yummy). A good deal of Australia’s outback 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 out in the outback. Our station is surrounded by a supposedly dog-proof fence. However it seems no-one told the kangaroos 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 we do get the odd stray. They rip the stock to pieces – not to eat – just for the fun of it. Rabbits, kangaroos and other pests eat the spear grass and general vegetation, what there is of it, which is food for the stock.
As children, we often rescued orphaned ‘joeys’ (baby kangaroos), emus, the odd kids (baby goats as most would know), lambs and calves. Even a carpet python took up temporary residence on our tennis court at one stage. Also known as the ‘Children’s Python’ these snakes are harmless, so we left it there. It didn’t worry us and we didn’t worry it. It eventually slithered off in search of greener pastures – which would have been jolly hard to find out there so it could be still looking….!!! All these babies were released into the wild once old and strong enough to survive alone.
Entertainment was a little different out there. Traveling over one hundred miles (one way) for any kind of social occasion was very much the norm. Indeed if you weren’t prepared to travel, your social life didn’t exist. ‘Local’ towns held annual race meetings where the interest was on drinking, ‘high’ fashion, drinking, local gossip, oh and did I mention drinking???? And then there were the horse races – what horse races??? We actually had race horses at one stage but that was well before my time.
Up to the age of eleven my only real play-mate was my cousin. Her father, along with mine, co-managed the station for many years. My cousin and I were eventually send 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 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 bread 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 were preserved, along with the old milk separating cellar, although neither is used any more.
Like most stations we had a couple of ‘outstations’. In better years one of these held a family of about fifteen children (note: the eldest two daughters of this family have both written about their lives and provided me with a ‘Where Are They Now’ about their siblings. This will appear in the book (about stations) that I am currently working on); the other has been empty as long as I can remember. Now both stand empty and abandoned.
The homestead itself is typical of many country homesteads: huge rooms, very thick stone walls, huge open fireplaces, very high ceilings and completely surrounded by wide verandahs. This building, along with the engine room, shearers’ quarters, shearing shed, stables and assorted other buildings, resembles a small village.
Then there were, still are and always will be the ‘creepy crawlies’. The worst and most venomous snake is the Common Brown but we have also had visits from the King Brown, which lives further north. Another common species is the aforementioned Carpet Python. As for spiders, the harmless Huntsman is easily the most common and they can grow to be enormous – and very scary, make that downright terrifying, to a self-confessed arachnophobic like me. I have suffered from this fear since early childhood. I used to try to overcome this for the sakes of my daughters – but that backfired. Now we are all as terrified as each other. We also have the Redback spider, a cousin to the Funnelweb, although not as venomous.
Among my childhood memories is one relating to a certain ‘uncle’ who lived on a nearby station and who owned and flew a Tiger Moth aeroplane. Uncle Ron had a very welcome 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 creek (always dry) at the front of the homestead searching for those little parcels trying to find them before the dogs did, as much as each other. We also had an airstrip, as did and do most stations, only ours has been overgrown by salt and blue bush and hardly usable even in emergencies – in fact it would probably cause an emergency if a plane tried to land these days.
The aforementioned creek could be very dangerous but equally exciting in heavy rains. It didn’t have to be raining on the station (which was just as well as we rarely had rain at all, let alone heavy ones) – as long as there were good enough rains upstream the chances were very high of the creek coming down ‘a banker’ (meaning a usually bone dry creek suddenly overflowing with incredibly fast moving water). I have only witnessed it once but would not have missed it. Imagine standing anywhere near a creek and suddenly hearing an almighty roar in the distance to begin with, but getting closer very quickly – looking in that direction and suddenly seeing a huge bank of water rushing along the week, 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 water travels. We have found items on stations over two hundred miles away. Some things have never been found.
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, unending desert with very little, if anything, to offer, especially when compared with mountains (we have those in the outback too), lush green pastures, rivers, waterfalls, flowers and other flora and fauna. Yes I concede that the outback could well be considered ‘ugly’ – but it is not. It is beautiful. If one bothers to take the time to really look and appreciate the beauty. You do not need a vivid imagination to really see that beauty – there are mountains, beautiful scrubs of trees and wildflowers in abundance. Just the colours of the hills and valleys at dawn and sunset and after one of those very rare rains, 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. As previously mentioned kangaroos abound out there, but not koalas. These gorgeous creatures are fussy eaters in that, while Australia has numerous types of eucalyptus trees the koala will only eat the leaf of one species and this is only found in certain areas of the nation. Other fauna includes hundreds of different sorts of lizards and snakes (both of which are reptiles), along with many other creatures, some harmful, some not. Emus, eagles, eaglehawks, budgeridards, galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos, rosellas, emus, cockatiels (which are called something different in each state), wild canaries to name just a few. There are also hundreds of species of ground-living birdlife.
Like every nation Australia has limitless features of interest for the tourist but I just feel that the outback, which really does have so much to offer and is, after all, the backbone of a nation, is so often overlooked and grossly misunderstood. It does also make up most of the landmass of Australia.
So, this is part of my little effort to help acknowledge and salute it, as so badly deserved.
Written by Lannah Sawers-Diggins
Read more about Lannah’s work here: