MAGGIE’S CAMP IN WALES PART 1.
My freelance radio career….Establishing Fred’s Backtracks Tours….
And meeting Maggie.
Between 1997 and 2005 Bev and I operated a tour business (Fred’s Backtracks) that involved taking people into Australia’s vast and remote outback. Maggie from Wales was one of our clients but before I tell you about Maggie and where she lives in Wales I should like to describe how we managed to get into the tour business.
In late 1994 the manager of our local ABC radio station interviewed me about a new range of ceramics we were developing. After the interview she informed me her regular arts presenter was unable to present his program the following weekend and she wondered if I might like to do it. I said yes not knowing I would still be on air three years later.
It was New Years Day 1995 when I first went to air and the basis of the program involved interviewing local non-Australian born residents about what happened in their home country on New Year’s Eve. The program was a resounding success and the manager decided to keep me on. I didn’t want to present a music show every Saturday so I turned my energies to interviewing people about their lives and the places they lived.
Once I had exploited the local talent I began roving further afield. Being out bush for weeks at a time meant editing in the field; the tailgate of my car and my camp table became my editing suite.
In the 1990s reel-to-reel recording machines were used and the stalwart was the famous Swiss-made NAGRA. The inventor was Polish and NAGRA is a Polish word for ‘will record’. Editing was done using a razor blade, with the unwanted sections of the tape cut out and discarded and the wanted sections joined with sticky tape. I marvel to this day how simple yet effective this method of editing was.
The program earned the nickname of ‘In bed with Fred’ as it went to air at 6.00am on Saturday mornings. Listeners were enthralled with the program content and some contacted me and asked if I had ever thought about taking people to the places described in the show. I took up the challenge and ‘Fred’s Backtrack Tours’ was born. Before taking you into the outback on tour I would like to share with you a few stories relating to my ‘In Bed with Fred’ programs.
During the three years of reporting I had the pleasure of interviewing some remarkable characters, for example Mrs Dowd, the owner of the Cuttabri Wine Bar. Cuttabri is a small settlement in northwest NSW which came to prominence in the late 1800s as a camping place for teamsters. One teamster decided there was more money in selling grog than carting goods so he built a bar and began selling wines and spirits.
Mrs Dowd had many stories to tell about people who frequented her establishment and of course I recorded them and put them to air. One story she told me related to a previous owner of the wine bar who at night plugged an extension lead into the light socket of the public telephone box at the front of the building enabling him to get free electricity.
Another story she told me was about two sleeper cutters who attempted to convince her they were drinking there the previous night when in fact they weren’t. They were attempting to establish an alibi as on the night in question they had murdered a man. An excited Mrs Dowd exclaimed, ‘The body was in the back of the ute when they were talking with me’. When I asked Mrs Dowd what time she opened and closed her reply was ‘I open when I get up and close when I go to bed’.
Another bush talent I interviewed was Billy Baccon who lived in the Pilliga Forest as a child. He told me about the tragic death of his mother and how he earned the title of ‘The Little Aussie Hero’.
Billy lived with his parents and two siblings (one a babe in arms) in a bush hut at Dead Horse Gully in the western Pilliga Forests. The Pilliga, often referred to as a million wild acres, is a vast arid forest in central NSW.
Billy’s father was a charcoal burner and to supplement his income he often went away fencing. It was when he was on one of his fencing forays that his wife, whilst hanging out the washing, collapsed and fell into a state of unconsciousness. Young Billy immediately sprung into action and after erecting a shade over his mother gathered up his siblings, placed them in a handcart and pushed them ten kilometres to a neighboring property to raise the alarm. The track was sandy and the day hot and it took him all day to get there.
Unfortunately by the time Billy’s neighbours arrived back to where his mother lay she had died. The coroner came three days later, examined the mother and determined she died from the effects of a brain hemorrhage.
Following Billy’s efforts to get help for his mother the media coined the phrase ‘The Little Aussie Hero’. Well-meaning folk contacted his father offering help in raising Billy. One offer involved him moving to the city, but he had an uncomfortable experience there and returned to the Pilliga to work with his father. Billy’s mother is buried beside a creek at Dead Horse Gully and every year until he was well into his eighties he drove from central Queensland and tendered his mother’s grave which is marked with a thick ironbark slab.
Many interviewees were talented and skilled people, for example, the Woolbrook bush baker.
The Woolbrook baker was a master at his craft and even though he worked alone he managed to supply a number of small towns in the region. The loaf he is holding above is called a ‘married loaf’ and when broken in half it was a ‘divorced loaf’. When split one half was concave, the other convex and called the baker’s kiss. As a child I often collected the bread from the local baker and on the way home I peeled the baker’s kiss from the loaf and ate it.
Another talented guest on my show was Pilliga telephonist, Carol. Pilliga is a small town at the northern reaches of the Pilliga Forests and a little to the west of Cuttabri. Carol was a great storyteller because being a telephonist at the local manual exchange she knew everything that was going on in the district. In the days of manual exchanges the telephonist played an important role in not only keeping lines of communication open but also in maintaining the health of the community. Locals turned to her for advice and help on many occasions. At one time a mother telephoned Carol and asked if she would babysit via the telephone as one of her other children had gone missing and she needed to look for the child. Carol agreed and the mother placed the telephone handset in the baby’s cradle so Carol was able to monitor the baby. Whilst the mother was away searching the baby began to cry so Carol sang a lullaby to soothe it. She also monitored old folk living alone by telephoning them each morning and to remind them to take their medications. And then there was the local who won the lottery. Carol was able to listen in to the lucky winners being notified. Subsequently there were champagne celebrations at the exchange that day.
I closed Carol’s interview with the song ‘I Just Called to say I Love You’ by Stevie Wonder and even hardened bushies with not a gene of romance in their blood were stirred. Avid readers of this blog know that every now and then I suggest they listen to a song on You Tube and the last time I did this was when we were in Dieppe France. I suggested the reader listen to Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’, which I thought about as we sailed away from the French coast to England. Go to You Tube now and listen to Stevie Wonder but be warned, it may bring a tear to your eye.
Another great talker was Walcha bushie Tib Chandler. Tib was in his nineties when I interviewed him. He was a jack-of-all-trades and during his working life had many occupations. The basis of my interview revolved around the jobs of his youth. My first question of Tib related to his first job: ‘Me and me brother went grubbing out stumps on Yarrowitch Station. We asked one and sixpence an acre but the boss said we were ways too high and offered us a shilling (ten cents) an acre’. Next question was how many acres they did: ‘Around 400 and me bloody brother left me to it!’. What other jobs did he do: ‘I went snigging logs with the bullocks and then I went farmin’. I started ploughing so early in the morning that the frost would be settling behind me on the turned soil’. Just prior to the Second World War Tib flew to Sydney: ‘I kinda liked this flyin’ business so I decided to join the Air Force but they wouldn’t have me because (and pointing to his eyes) this eye wasn’t as good as that eye so I went to patching aeroplanes, a bit of wood and a patch of cloth here with a dab of glue. We made ‘em fly’. Tib also worked in the steel town of Port Kembla south of Sydney where he made ‘stabbin’ knives for the army’.
The interview with Tib was conducted in an old shed and behind us was an old car, which inspired me to ask what his first car was: ‘An Essex 6 cylinder gutless wonder we used to call it. Hit a bloody tram in Sydney and it didn’t hurt the car at all’. My next question was whether he had a licence: ‘Yes, I got it in Walcha and when I went for the test the police sergeant asked me who taught me to drive and I told him I learned myself, around the paddock a bit’. Before the sergeant could give Tib the licence he had to ask one more question. ‘What must you go past no faster than 20mph?’ Tib’s reply was, ‘a bloody pub I suppose’. Of course, the correct answer was a horse!
Once my radio career came to an end we set up our touring enterprise and prior to actually putting the coach on the road it was necessary for Bev and I to carry out extensive research. For us the research trips and the planning of the proposed coach journey was the best part of the business. We were able to spend time together in some of the most beautiful and remote parts of Australia and in the process learn about the vast Australian continent and its people.
Researching and getting to know the route involved us driving the roads to make sure the coach we hired would fit through gates, check that bridges were safe to cross, if the coach was able to traverse creeks and rivers and negotiate sandhills along the way. Normally coach touring companies kept to sealed roads and more populated areas but our forte was to get off the beaten track and show people places that usually only 4WD enthusiasts visited.
Following are some photographs showing a few of the things we discovered, our camping spots and people we met when researching. During our research trips we sought out the unusual, for example the shoe tree on the eastern edge of the Simpson Desert.
When we first started driving past the shoe tree there was only one shoe swinging in the breeze and in a matter of a couple of years the number increased to the extent the post reached breaking point. I surmise the property owners living down the road hung a single shoe as a direction signal then outback travellers thought it an amusing idea to add a few more.
Bev has an acute eye for the small things and clients loved taking a walk with her searching for the minute under foot.
Shield shrimps are prehistoric and belong to the group of crustaceans called branchiopods meaning gill feet. Their eggs lie dormant for years in the desert sands and when it rains they hatch and appear in their millions, much to the delight of itinerant water birds.
It is best when travelling in such remote places to have company. In the case above Bev’s brother accompanied us. European visitors who hire 4WDs and venture into the remote outback sometimes come to grief when their vehicles become bogged or break down. They unfortunately decide to walk to the nearest settlement for help but often they never make it and die of exhaustion along the way. There are two cardinal rules in the outback: leave gates as you find them and if you become lost or suffer a breakdown, stay with your vehicle. Even locals come to grief when not obeying the rules.
Explorer Charles Sturt in 1844 was the first European to cross the Gibber Desert whilst looking for the great inland sea that was believed to exist at the time. The annual average rainfall here is 140mm (a little under six inches) therefore one could be forgiven for thinking that there would be no living thing out there. This is not the case, one critter which survives is the wingless grasshopper. The following photograph shows one.
At first it’s hard to comprehend how a surface such as that in the above photograph is formed, however it is not all that complicated.
If you were to dig a trench in the desert and then look at the side of the trench you would see stones scattered throughout the soil at different levels. Erosion of the plain surface caused by wind and rain washes away the clay particles, leaving the stones behind. The natural surface of the plain over thousands of years gets lower and lower and the stones move downwards and eventually touch each other.
Having an area of country on your property like this is a valuable resource as rain run-off over the dense stone surface reaches the edges of the plain and irrigates grass growing around the periphery of the stony plains. In effect, a gibber plain is an efficient natural irrigation system, no check banks or channels to maintain nor any pumping of water required.
Our first extended tour was to the Yowah opal fields in western Queensland. Yowah boulder opal is unique among opals as it is set in ironstone nodules called nuts. One of our clients picked up a nut in the main street and when cracked open it yielded a valuable stone.
There is a belief that these opal fields acquired the name from ‘yow’ when an early fossicker hit his thumb with a hammer when cracking open a nut. One of the unique features of Yowah was the camping area bathrooms. Baths were set within a cubicle with no roof. To take a bath clients filled the bath with hot artesian water and lay there gazing at the stars.
The gentleman standing back (right corner) was Bill who loved talking with the locals and when we stopped near a pub for morning tea or lunch he would go off and gather local gossip and facts. When we resumed our journey I would have him on the microphone to tell us about what he had learned.
The gathering of history of the regions we passed through when on research trips was easy, all we needed to do was talk to the locals. I include the following photograph because of its colour. Ian was in the employ of the Innamincka Pub as a jack-of-all-trades. His job was to make sure our tour clients were entertained and happy and he also knew what was going on in the district, past and present.
Our clients reacted favourably to our approach to touring. For us the reward was being able to show people, especially those from the city, the wonders of nature in the remote and vast outback. Each year we ran five tours into remote regions but one of the most popular tours was to Birdsville and it was on this tour that Maggie, visiting Australia from Wales, joined us.
The only time of the year to venture into the Australian outback is in winter and even then if it’s a warm winter the Australian bush fly comes hunting. There are around 20 000 species of flies in Australia and at times you feel they all want to land on you at once, but in reality there is only one attracted to humans and that’s Musca vetutissima. This fly is attracted to secretions on human skin, which they feed on in an attempt to survive and help mature their eggs before they are laid. The bush fly does not bite, it caresses you. It has a soft fleshy sponge-like mouth that enables it to suck secretions from the skin. They are particularly attracted to moisture around your eyes, hence the fly veils. Those who do not wear fly veils are constantly waving their hands in front of their eyes in an attempt to keep the flies at bay. This has led to the saying, ‘Barcoo salute’. The Barcoo is a river in western Queensland.
Fortunately not all regions in Australia suffer from fly infestation, the fly problem is restricted mainly to the outback cattle regions. Maggie’s encounter with the Australian bush fly is something she has never forgotten.
With flies in our eyes this post comes to an end. The next post, the Australian Outback and Maggie Our Friend in Wales Part 2 will take us to Birdsville and to Gilwern in Wales where Maggie lives. We hope you stay with us and don’t forget to post a comment and if you want to be alerted each time we do a post click on FOLLOW.