Willow Bank, Littlehampton

Willow Bank was fifty acres of farmland on an eastern facing slope. There were nine main paddocks, my favourite being the ‘top’ paddock, which was still partly wooded, including many large gum trees. Right in the middle, with a commanding outlook across a valley to a couple more farms was the farmhouse. Behind the farmhouse was a smattering of sheds, the largest being the hay-shed, the rear of which was a tall corrugated iron structure, while the single story to the front of it had timber slabs for walls. Another shed, with a couple of ‘bails’ for milking cows by hand, was also of wooden slab construction. At one end of this shed was a full blacksmith’s complement of utensils, with an anvil, and a coke-burning ‘forge’ which heated steel to almost white hot when air was cranked through it. Tongs and heavy hammers completed the outfit. At the other end of this shed was a chaff cutter. Behind the milking shed was a dam, which collected the run-off from the top paddock. A windmill also fed the dam from a bore, and this was the main water source for the farm. House water was supplied by tanked rainwater from the house and shed roofs. There was also a small spring-fed dam amongst the southern paddocks, which seemed to be full all year long. A deep well at the front of the house rounded out the water supply.

Willow Bank

There was also the stone barn, which served as a garage for the car, a workshop, and a repository for all manner of interesting junk. A loft above housed even more interesting stuff, turning up old shotguns, powder flasks and ball bearings, old photographs and so on. The barn would also later serve as the table tennis room. Beneath the barn at the downhill end, was a small damp room which served as a cool house, and below that a cellar containing a milk separator and a butter churn. A brick shithouse serviced by a large bucket, which required emptying into a hole every month or so, stood lonely at the back. A small section of the back verandah contained a bath, for which water was heated as it ran through a cylinder, through the centre of which a flue, heated by wood chips ran.

The house was built of solid stone, with four main rooms, a separate kitchen out the back, and my parent’s sleep-out on the front verandah, elevated because of the slope of the land, and served by a set of concrete steps enclosed in curved borders. Leaning on the rail on the verandah one overlooked the ‘lucerne paddock’, a railway line which ran slightly uphill to the left and separated the farm from Junction Road which ran past below, and the rolling farmland opposite. Mount Barker’s wooded summit peeked over the horizon from three miles away as one glanced to the right, and further to the right – a quarter of a mile away, the soporific village of Littlehampton nestled in its valley, albeit somewhat disturbed by the interstate traffic to and from Victoria along the Princess Highway which split the town. Littlehampton was light years from the dramas I had endured over the previous seven or eight years, but in a very real sense represented my true homecoming.

1956 looms large, even today, as the year I moved back to the town of my birth. It was the year of the Olympic Games in Melbourne, the year I was happy at my school and making friends, and the year I realised I was more capable at school-work than my miserable experience at Grange Primary had led me to believe. Magazines such as Pix, which was pure Australiana, featured photos of the huge Murray River flood of that year, which saw the river swell to miles in width, and the towns along its length drowned in metres of water. Pix also featured Aussie tales of crocodile hunters, Australian humour and bikini babes.

It was like a re-birth for me after the years in hospital, and although there was always some torment about my affliction, I generally made friends, and eventually threw away my crutches and splint, and became much fitter, even participating in chasing the Aussie Rules footy around, playing cricket, (badly) and eventually playing competitive tennis, (I developed a rocket serve which compensated for my lack of agility somewhat.)

This idyllic period however, was to suffer a rude interruption. I was told that I would be going into hospital again in 1957, for an operation on my hip. I guess it was necessary, because my left hip had been ravaged by the TB, and now that new drugs had the disease under control, the intention was to stabilise the joint by fusing it to the pelvis. This, as it turned out, resulted in a shortening of my withered left leg by more inches, and of course resulting in a life-time of restricted movement. Sadly, I recall one day at the school before the operation, when I ran freely on the oval, impressively enough for a friend to comment on it. I never ran freely again after 1957.

My recollections of hospital life were not so far removed from my memory as to make me sanguine about returning; it was an extremely traumatic experience after my taste of freedom. I was returned to the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, and as we still owned the house at Grange, my mother was able to visit easily.

There was no anticipation of the severe pain to follow, and I went into the operation with wide eyed innocence, even to the point of naivety when they shaved both my left hip and my right shin.

“Why are you shaving my shin?” I asked. “They like to keep the area clean,” was the bland answer.

A shy young parson who came to visit me the day before the operation, intrigued me with his nervousness, rather than alarmed me. The next day I was wheeled into the operating theatre in a semi-drugged state, and hours later I woke up with excruciating pain in both my left hip and my right shin, and clad in plaster from my waist to the toes of both legs. My mother was there.

“Why does my right leg hurt too?”

“They took some bone from your right shin, to help to splice your hip into place.”

As bad as the pain was, there was an even deeper hurt at not being told what my operation would entail.

Now that I had had a taste of home, a hospital bed was intolerable, and what seemed to be weeks of pain killers, enemas and lousy food was eased a little by an escape into Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I floated down the river with Huck and Jim, and longed for the days of a similar freedom.

I finally went home, still clad in plaster for another month, and when it was finally cut off and I began to painfully move about, had to suffer the trauma of being put into plaster again for a month, though only on the left leg this time, as the knitting had not established itself sufficiently. Finally I found myself back at Littlehampton School again, my left hip forever fixed in place, and the leg considerably shortened. For weeks the slightest bump on my leg caused sharp pain, but gradually the pain eased. One day a bone shattering bump from a lad I was playing footy with (keep-the-ball-away-from-the-other-team game) dumped me squarely on my hip. I guess it was my punishment for playing the part of a double agent, pretending I was on one side, then claiming victory as I clasped the ball when the recess siren sounded. For weeks every move was sheer agony, but I never said a word to any one. There was no way I was going into either hospital or plaster again.

At the same time as I was emerging from my incarcerations, rock ‘n roll was rattling the windows and kicking at the doors, and humanity rocked into the second half of the century. Youth snarled at the ‘squares’ and the squares tried to ignore us as they worked at blowing the planet into the next millennium.

One Thursday evening I attended ‘picture night’ at the Littlehampton War Memorial Institute, to see a movie called “Loving You”.

Here a black-haired blue-jeaned punk with a sneer on his face, a pelvis out of control and a voice like a coyote howling at the moon, said it all for us. For a few fleeting years, Elvis was God. Thrust into the glare of the public gaze, a legend barely out of his teens, Elvis was The King. Then Uncle Sam called him into National Service, and Elvis, at the bidding of the crook who managed him, did the all-American boy trick, and allowed himself to be shipped off to Germany for two years, as his Mother died.

When he returned, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker signed him up for a string of crappy movies for eight years, and although Elvis made a triumphant come-back in 1969, the boy’s career had been handed a severe back-hander. I slicked back my greasy hair, threw a sneer on my face, tightened my jeans and told myself I was tough.

Back on the farm I pursued the obsession with guns I had nurtured over the years, a legacy of all the cowboy comics I had consumed no doubt. My brother Dean, and Dad were both rabbit shooters, and rabbit was often consumed at our table, along with the sheep Dad would kill and dress and hang in the cellar. I would rise with the sun, and take my single-shot .22 and dog ‘Ruff’ off into the bush in the hills behind our farm. I now realise that I never really enjoyed the killing of rabbits, but the long walks in the early light were wonderful. One day I topped a familiar ridge and found that the bush-covered valley had disappeared, and had been replaced by a shining ocean dotted with islands. It took a while to realise that the ocean was a sea of mist, and the islands the tops of trees.

Sometimes, when least expected, a fox and I would meet, and for a moment we would gaze at each other in amazement, then the fox would turn and streak away at incredible speed before I could raise my rifle above my hip.

On the farm we milked three or four cows, a job Dean would usually do, and I would turn the separator. Skim milk would go to the pigs, and fresh cream would be sold to Jacobs milk and cheese factory. About three hundred chooks would roam the farm laying eggs where we made nests for them, and often in nests they made for themselves. I would usually collect the eggs when I came home from school, gathering them in a cane basket. Mum would raise calves with buckets, which would be sold for beef when they matured and we also had sheep on the farm. Dad would also grow potatoes, which had to be artificially watered, and he would spend hours moving the aluminium pipes along for the next section, before running the motorised pump from the dam to feed the sprinklers.

The pigs were always a drama. Often we would come home from an outing to discover that that they had all escaped their pens (mostly wooden constructions assembled from old car crates the Old Man had gotten hold of). The pigs would somehow nose their way out, and the seven of us would spend the next hour or two trying to round them up. On one occasion a pig eluded us all for what seemed like hours, but finally, exhausted, it flopped under a sprinkler in the vegetable garden. We had to drag it from the mud and flop it into a wheel-barrow to return it to its pen.

After exploring various options, Mum and Dad selected a Rayburn stove for the kitchen. This slow combustion stove could cook, bake, and heat water for the home, and would rarely go unlit, dampened down at night and fired up for breakfast in the morning. The firewood was gathered from wood-fall on the farm, and carted to the saw-bench, a large jagged circular blade sitting at its centre, which was spun by a belt on a pulley driven from the pulley on the old Farmall tractor. I would pass the branches to Dad, he’d cut them into lengths with the screaming steel and the tractor roaring in unison, and throw the wood into a heap, which would then be carted down to the house and stacked in the wood-box.

Discussion of the Rayburn brings back a painful childhood memory. A second cousin had married a great guy called Ken Hoppy. I recall their marriage, their many visits to the farm in his sparkling FJ Holden, the birth of their child, and the many ways he helped to contribute to the running of the farm. A real handyman, Ken installed all the copper pipes which conducted the hot water from the Rayburn through the house. He also built a table tennis table for us, which was carted up from Adelaide when completed, and set up in the barn. In those days before television, we would spend many many hours learning to whack that little white ball at each other, eventually resulting in myself, Flossy (Lynette) and Dean all playing competitively in the years to come.

Ken always seemed to be laughing. He would also come out in his FJ shooting rabbits with us, particularly on the Callington Back Road, a nearby dirt track I still rumble along often to this day.

One day cousin Dot rang the farm to ask if we had seen Ken, as he had not been home for many days, a complete mystery. Then one day Mum took a phone call, and I knew immediately that he was dead. It transpired that Ken had driven to the Callington Back Road in his beloved FJ, put a hose from the exhaust through a window, and turned on the radio and started the engine. No explanation for this was ever forthcoming. Nothing could have upset childhood innocence more than this total shock.

Usually I would walk home from the school at Littlehampton, a meander along the bitumen road which had creek beds to explore and various childhood diversions. Once, under a bridge which crossed the creek, I found some watermelons. I took some home, and boasted of my find, only to be taken aside by brother Dean to be informed that they were ‘his’, a result of some midnight excursions with his mates. (Dean was driving at this stage, and doing a motor mechanic apprenticeship at Gilbert Motors).

One day I was picked up by a friendly young man in an old jalopy, and given a ride right up to the door of the farmhouse. It turned out that the young man, who lived on one of the farms across the road, had noticed my sister Yvonne, and was taking the opportunity to get to know her by taking me home. They dated for a while, although his failure to secure his car on the slope at the rear of our farm-house resulted in it careering into the house one day. ‘Bob’ became quite close to the family over the years, although we all agreed in the end that Yvonne was well rid of him.

What mere words can sum up the joy though, of living at Willow Bank? I always liked to sing, and would roam around in the paddocks singing to myself a lot. I practised remembering the words of songs. There were a lot of Elvis’s songs, but also Roy Orbison, Del Shannon, all the major artists of the day, but perhaps a song of a completely different nature sums up that period of my life better than any other. I might have had a rifle in my hand, but I would pause on a hill overlooking Littlehampton, and sing to myself the following song, a more sedate hit of the day.

“There’s a village, hidden deep in the valley,

Among the pine trees half forlorn,

And there on a sunny morning,

Little Jimmy Brown was born.

All the chapel bells were ringing,

In the little country town,

And the song that they were singing,

Was for baby Jimmy Brown…..”

And the song of birth, life, love, marriage and death wasn’t Jimmy Brown’s song, but my song.

And Littlehampton was my village.

More Early Years

This period includes the final couple of years living at Grange, my emergence from my wheel-bed to crutches, and my attendance at a ‘real’ school for the first time in my life, in my tenth year. It then covers our move back to Littlehampton, to the fifty acres called “Willow Bank.’  
Living at Grange continued to be a combination of discovery and misery. My education was by correspondence, with Dean, Yvonne and my Mother sharing the ‘teaching’ or supervision roles. Sometimes I would be visited by a head mistress of the correspondence section, and although my learning was steady, and there was much to absorb outside the education system, I did lose a year of study during this period. One highlight of the period was a visit by one of my cowboy heros, the Hollywood actor William Boyd, known to the movie-going world as ‘Hopalong Cassidy”. A near neighbour, on hearing that Hopalong was going to pass nearby in an open car, came to our house and offered to wheel me up to Military Road nearby, to see this legendary (as he was then) movie star.

That was a great thrill, but a few days later the ‘Crippled Children’s Association’ had arranged for many in like condition to myself, to attend the wild west display at the Norwood Oval. Cowboys and Indians rode wildly about the arena, shooting each other off their horses with a lot of blood curdling screams, and I recall a ‘trick shooting’ display, wherein the horsemen would shoot target balloons as they galloped by, firing from under the horse’s necks, under their bellies, and every other combination you could imagine. It was very spectacular. Even more exciting, Hopalong came and shook hands with each of the line of ‘cripples’ in their wheel beds and chairs, including myself. My great eternal regret about that night, was the fact that Hoppy stopped just one bed away from me, and posed for the photographers with an excited boy. How I wished it had been me! One unfortunate spin-off from my Hopalong enthusiasm, was my old man’s labelling of me with the nick-name ‘Drop-along’, a moniker I hated, and which I was to wear for many years as the shortened ‘Drop’. It says a lot about the relationship I was to have with him throughout my life.

In 1956, soon after I had finally managed to start tottering about on crutches, I fronted up to Grange Primary School.

Although still encumbered by a ‘splint’ worn outside the clothing, which strapped around my left ankle, shin, thigh, waist and culminated under my armpits, I was able to hobble the five blocks or so to the school and home each day. Dean had moved on to high school by then, and Lynette and Max were still too young for school, so I was alone. One consolation was Aunty Gwen, married to my father’s brother, Uncle Ken. They had recently moved from their farm near Littlehampton, where my grandmother had raised George, Ken and Don, and their half-brother ‘Chappie.’ Gran Mount, (she had remarried after the death of her first husband in Fremantle, and moved back to her native South Australia) was a wise and wonderful lady, who had outlived her second husband when I first came to know her.

Ken and Gwen lived on High Street, Grange, which was not too far from the school, and which I walked daily. Their children were John, Barbara, Shirley and Kaye, all older than me. Their house was a little oasis for me. Most days I called in for a glass of cordial, and importantly, a rest, after a long day of struggling around on crutches, absorbing the taunts of the other children, and fighting back with whatever means I could. This was generally restricted to spitting at them, hitting out with a crutch, and to lashing them with my tongue. Occasionally I would corner one of my tormentors in a locker room where they could not simply run away, and by then my shoulders had developed considerably, owing to the constant use of crutches, and I was able to hold my own with a bit of biffo. One day, in a quiet lane on my way home, I found myself at close quarters with one of my tormentors, and to his surprise and horror, I jettisoned my crutches and launched myself at him, landing heavily on top of him. I don’t recall him bothering me again. 

Grange Primary School was of course in the suburb of Grange, which I believe was named after Captain Charles Sturt’s cottage, ‘The Grange’ which happened to to be opposite the school. It was (and still is) maintained as a museum. Sturt was the explorer who had undertaken the epic voyage down the river Murray in 1829-30, following the river to its termination of two lakes, the Coorong, and the disappointing outlet to the sea. Nonetheless his explorations revealed much potential for further settlement and colonisation, and he was later to conduct further exploration into Australia’s desert interior (optimistically carting a whaleboat with him, hoping for an inland sea) and was the first to drive cattle from the eastern states to the fledging settlement of Adelaide. Sturt was appointed Surveyor General during his residence in what became the city of Adelaide, and the suburb of Grange. He retired and spent his final years in England. Sturt Street, where we resided, was of course named after him.

My grade four class had fifty three students, and a teacher called Mrs Renfrey. She was a teacher with an enthusiasm for history, and a large plaster relief map of South Australia dominated the front of the class. Her detailed descriptions of Flinder’s voyage along the coast in 1802, as he mapped the coastline and met with the french explorer famously at Encounter Bay, fascinated me, as did her equally vivid description of Sturt’s river trip. I was also particularly excited by her sparse description of Captain Collet Barker’s death by spearing at the Murray Mouth, just over a year after Sturt had visited the area. Mount Barker, named in his honour, was visible from the farmhouse at Littlehampton.

Although this first foray into the wider world had many positive aspects, the time spent at that school was in general very stressful. There was a sadist deputy headmaster who delighted in wielding his cane. One day in an unpaved shelter during lunch, he came across children playing, and he lined everyone in the shed up (except me) and gave them three cuts each across their calfs, for ‘raising dust’. I was also spared the Nuremberg type rally known as the school assembly, sitting in the class room while patriotic chants and allegiance to the queen were chanted, and the raving looney terrified everybody with his hatred from the dais. The stress, the exhaustion, the crowded school room and the preference for the ‘brighter’ students, saw me struggling through the year, and I was convinced that I was destined to spend another year in grade four. The death of my grandfather at Littlehampton was to change that, and before the year was out, we would be moving back to the town of my birth, and living in the house my mother was born in.

There are more random memories of living at Grange before the move to Littlehampton though. At one point we got hold of an old gramophone, (I think from Uncle Ken’s when he moved to the city) which played a collection of 78 records of diverse styles, ages and quality, provided one kept the spring wound up on a regular basis. There were country and western songs, like ‘You Only Have One Mother’ George Formby’s ‘When I’m Cleanin’ Windows’ Fats Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill’ ‘The Golden Wedding.’ And edging into the ‘hit parade’ in those days more like a weekly event on the radio rather then the wall to wall music of today, a phenomenon called Rock ‘ n Roll. I still have strong memories of music from those days, not only from the records and the radio, but Dean and Yvonne seemed to have quite a repertoire of songs which they taught me, and we sang together. ‘There’s a Hole in the bucket, dear Liza dear Liza…..,.. and ‘He sat by the window and smoked his cigar, smoked his cigar….’ and the like. Other songs like ‘Sixteen Tons’ and ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ were hits on the radio, and I once found my self on front of Mrs Renfrey’s class singing ‘Sixteen Tons,’ a potential budding career which never materialised.

The move to Littlehampton was incremental. Firstly we wound our way up the twisted route, around the Devil’s Elbow, stuck behind the semi’s for miles at a time (it was highway one after all) and into the time/space warp which was Willow Bank every week-end. As well as the clydesdales, we somehow came to be agisting a so called ‘show pony’ which Dean took to riding every week-end. This continued for some time, but one week-end this horse was particularly ‘frisky’ and threw Dean. He was never able to ride it after that. This beautiful tan and white spotted steed became very unpredictable, and could stand docile and be patted, then suddenly begin rearing and lashing out with its hoofs, forcing a very rapid retreat. A couple of years later, when myself and Lyn were too frightened to cross the yard for our evening meal, Mum came rushing out of the house to shoo the horse away, and ended up fleeing for her life to the kitchen. He departed the farm and our lives soon after that.

Somewhere in the middle of 1956, we made the full move back to Littlehampton, and the nightmare of Grange Primary School was behind me.

Returning to Littlehampton to live was the completion of the circle which had taken me away from what ought to have been an ordinary 1950’s childhood. To go to Littlehampton Primary School with an attendance of 100 in total, including my cousin Geoffrey Smith, and twenty to thirty students in my class, (which consisted of grades three and four, under Mrs Scott), was vastly different from the crowded chaos of Grange. I soon found out, with better supervision, that I wasn’t as bad a student I thought myself to be. 

The mornings began with an assembly outside of the main stone building, which contained in two rooms all of the grades from three to seven. We would swear allegiance to Queen and country, (I am an Australian, I love my country, I honour our Queen, I promise to obey her laws) raise the flag, and to drum and fife we would march the twenty or thirty feet or so into the rooms.

The Early Years

This is the first in an on-going blog which will seek to place on the record an occasional summary of my life, with photographs where applicable or available. The blog will cover my early life, a long period (four and a half years) in hospital, my emergence into the world from that period, and my progression through life with its highs and lows, unique, and yet a common journey to us all. It will cover the joys of marriage and starting a family, and the darkness of losing them. It will include my growing interest in indigenous culture and the culmination of that interest with my two years in a central desert community. It will lead back to the now, with the interests, skills and dreams which remain. It will hopefully deal honestly with my shortcomings. (but not too much).
I’ve always thought of Littlehampton as being my home town. It’s certainly the place which contains the happiest memories of my childhood, although through various complications which will be explained later, there were particular reasons why it was so special to me. In later years it was where I settled into married life, and where my three children were born. Certainly Littlehampton was where I first lived – in a house which is still there, next to the Country Fire Service station, though changed so much as to be unrecognizable. My actual birthplace, to be pedantic about it, was the nearby Mount Barker District Memorial Hospital, on 24th June, 1946. Mount Barker is situated 35 kilometers south east of the heart of the capital of South Australia, Adelaide. It lies in a fertile valley in the Mount Lofty ranges, and was one of the first districts to be settled after the arrival of the first English settlers in 1836.

The Mount Barker township and district takes its name from the outcrop also bearing that name, which was bestowed on this distinctive landmark after the death of Captain Collet Barker at the Murray Mouth in April 1831. The circumstances of Barker’s death at the hands of Aboriginal people, considering his previous rapport with the indigenous people of Raffles Bay, east of present day Darwin in the Northern Territory, and at King Georges Sound in Western Australia, were particularly tragic, and other links on this website explore these circumstances, and reveal something of a life-long obsession that I have with his life and death, and with the mountain which bears his name. Fate has decreed that at the time of commencing this little summary of a life, I am again residing in the district, in the township of Mount Barker, while the sleepy little village of Littlehampton I loved so dearly as a child has morphed into sprawling suburbia, and like the original residence, is barely recognizable.

There was another move, before there was anything registering in my memory bank; to an isolated back-road residence a couple of kilometers from Littlehampton – a region called Shady Grove. 

Shady Grove was a small settlement established by members of the Unitarian Society. The Unitarians, who still own the small church (which is still used at least four times a year) hidden in a bush block across the road from where we moved, are a small ‘l’ libertarian organization, who defy the literal constraints of most established religion. My Mother’s Father, Cecil E Smith, and his father before him, were involved with this church, and it was to a house owned by Cecil that we moved. My Mother, displaying the financial acumen she was to show throughout her life, negotiated with Cecil to rent the Shady Grove house at a modest cost, enabling her to rent out the Littlehampton residence at a profit – a useful way to augment her income while her husband, my Father, completed his army service and recuperated at Daws Road Repatriation Hospital. My Father, Donald Wilkie Innes, had spent part of the war years in the army at Darwin in the Northern Territory, which was bombed constantly by the Japanese during his tenure. On his return he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a not uncommon complaint among ex-servicemen of the period. Don had married my Mother, Dorothy Victoria Smith, who was six years his senior, in 1940, and by the time I was born I had been preceded by my elder sister Yvonne, born in 1940, and my brother Dean, born in 1941. A sister, Lynette, was born in 1949.

Whyalla photo. Clockwise, Dean, Me, Lynette, Yvonne  1949

Needless to say, I have no memories of this period of my childhood. When Don was discharged he resumed his pre-war job, driving a truck for Cleggett Bros Carriers, who operated a daily trucking service from Littlehampton and regions, to Adelaide and back. The family later moved to Whyalla, near the head of Spencer Gulf, an industrial town which processed iron ore, and which was a ship-building town. An isolated northern city in an outback climate mitigated by its proximity to the sea, Whyalla was an apex of the so-called ‘iron triangle’ consisting of Whyalla, Port Augusta, and Port Pirie. These industrial cities were established to a large extent because of the riches generated by the mining giant BHP, who virtually ran the towns. BHP, (Broken Hill Propriety Limited) prospered through the massive mineral wealth which was extracted from the mines of Broken Hill, – a remote location just over the border of New South Wales, – and from the iron ore mined at nearby Iron Knob, to the west of Whyalla. Don got a job driving a bus, a long route which took in the whole of the Eyre Peninsula to the south and west of Whyalla.

I do have some fleeting memories of Whyalla – just snatches of events and situations which lodged in my brain. A vague memory of playing with small cars with my brother Dean, and propping up the sheets in a bed with pencils to make a shed for the cars. – An evening with a brass band playing, and a huge shape slipping out of my view at an alarming rate (years later established as a probable ship launching). – Walking through thick scrub with my Father carrying a rifle, obviously hunting rabbits. – An air show. – My Mother chopping the head off a chook with an axe in the back yard, muttering angrily as she did it, and freaking me out terribly. – And one day being aware of a terrible pain in my hip. There are no more memories of Whyalla.

One of the clearest memories I have of my early childhood comes next, at the age of three and a half. I am in a taxi, pulling up before a granite-fronted building. It is the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, now known as the Women’s and Children’s Hospital. My Mother is with me, but later I am with strangers, who are attempting to amuse me with soothing words and cuddly toys. The Whyalla home, to which I shall never return, is 400 kilometers away. It is 1949, and 400 kilometers is a long long way.

The following years seem to be more of a bad dream (of which there were plenty) than a reality I have lived through. They were years lived with strangers. They were years of being bed-ridden, strapped from ankle to armpit in a steel frame, and years of incredible fears and discomforts. My memories are of being wheeled along sterile corridors, laid under giant x-ray machines, being surrounded, totally naked and vulnerable, by doctors, students, nurses, as they discussed the ‘case’ before them; of days of multiple injections, with the smell of the ether as the needles were prepared heightening the fear and trepidation; of constant enemas. I was by no means alone. There were others suffering from the same affliction I had, which was a TB infection of the hip, and there were numerous cases of polio. Many of these patients, like myself, were destined to spend their childhoods ignorant of the outside world.

I don’t know what it would be like, in the unlikely event that a child would be hospitalized for such a long period in today’s world. Certainly there is provision for Mothers to spend time at the hospital with the children, with living quarters provided, though that would never have been possible with my mother; she did have three other children to care for after all (and one to come). Changed attitudes would make it unlikely that a child would spend so much time away from their home, but distance was one of the obvious reasons, given the seriousness of my case, why going home was not an option. The busy lives of nurses, doctors, specialists of all kinds, and the many patients and duties they needed to attend to, meant that there was no-one ‘spare’ to tend to the fears and insecurities of a single child in my situation, and although there were isolated visits and many attempts to provide some comfort and entertainment for us kids, it was never enough to calm the torment we were experiencing.

There were moments of relief to some degree. Perhaps the limited pleasures one was occasionally fortunate enough to experience were magnified by the circumstances. Certainly there are highlights which linger in my memory to this day. 

One much savored change to my situation, was to be moved to an annex of the hospital, an isolated and imposing building perched on sand-hills, with ocean in sight to the west, and a swamp to the east. Escourt House had been built, as I recall, by a retired sea captain and certainly the view was spectacular. It was not specifically built for hospital use, and in fact the eastern side of a large room was not even enclosed, but had curved brick arches open to the elements. Mosquitos were just one of those elements. 

Escourt House Today

The isolation of Escourt House had other consequences. The nurses who lived and worked there were not under the same supervision as were those at the ACH, and there were times when they literally ran wild. At one time there was a young and very wild man who spent some time at Escourt House. Who he was, and how he came to be there I don’t know, but he carried a shanghai in his pocket, which he used to catapult rocks all about the place. One night as the time came to turn the lights out and us kids were being somewhat restless, the wild man took over and went along to every bed and gave each kid a slap in the ear. Another time he set a newspaper alight on the concrete floor, evoking a scream of fear from me. There was no real danger of a fire starting, as the place was all concrete and brick, but my lack of experience with fire had contributed to my fear. He cursed as he stomped the fire out with his rubber boots, and slapped me around the ear. On another occasion there was a real wild night, possibly involving alcohol now I think back to it. (I would not have known what alcohol was at that time.) There was a lot of running about in the darkness, with laughter and shouting, all of which we were aware of and excitedly relating to each other. This night culminated in the pursuit of one of the nurses across the outside yard, and a flying tackle by the stranger, which brought her crashing to the ground, knocking the wind from her and causing obvious distress. A day or two later, he was gone. No such excitement was ever likely to occur in the sterile environment of the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, which may have been better administered, but was not a patch on Escourt House for variety.

Other events which took place at EH added special memories to those days. The open space lent itself to a visiting movie show. The beds would be wheeled into position, a screen hung, the tripod and projector set up in the middle of the room, and we were introduced to the joys of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, westerns, newsreels, and cartoons. These nights left indelible memories of course. There also seemed to be a radio going a lot of the time. Early in the mornings there would be country music, not of the kind one hears today, but the yodeling cowboy type, (I’m Gonna Tear Down th’ mailbox, Tear Down th’ mailbox, I never Get No Letters Anyhow) with artists such as Smokey Dawson, Tex Morton, and the various American singers they were emulating. Other popular songs of those days linger in memory. “Irene, Good Night” – “How Much is That Doggy In the Window?” – “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and dozens more. Also connected to radio were the visits by 5KA personalities “Uncle Jack (Fox) and Aunty Margaret,” who came on a regular basis to chat with each of us kids, who would send a “cheerio” to our relatives at home, which would be recorded on reel to reel and played on air later in the week. We would also be presented with a chocolate frog.

These memorable and enjoyable occasions, as pleasant as they were, were more than balanced by moments of fear and distress. As a child, there was always a place called “The War” which we were somewhat aware of through the medium of the many hundreds of comics which were readily available. The war, of course was something which happened somewhere else, but when I heard on the early morning news that “bombs are falling” (probably the Korean War) I immediately became fearful, and remained in terror all of that day. Every time I heard a plane fly over, I shook with fear. Finally, after darkness had fallen that night, one of the nurses noticed my distress. “What’s the matter Robert?’ – “They said on the wireless that bombs are falling.” I replied tearfully. – “Oh, don’t worry about that, that’s on the other side of the world!” And I was okay, but I had spent a full day in absolute terror before someone had time to notice my state. There were other times when visitors seemed to go out of their way to instill fear into us. Cretins who came expressly to put the fear of God – or rather the Devil into us, came into this category. We were told about the horrible consequences of hell and eternal flames if we didn’t live in perpetual fear, and Satan was lurking in much of my waking hours, and in particular the darkness – and my dreams. If there was any doubt about the kind of things the Devil could inflict on a sinful child, there was always the violence of the Punch and Judy show to reinforce it. After Punch beats his wife to death with a bloody great stick, he is dragged screaming into hell by the horned demon, who seemed to be constantly evoked to keep us in line. Him or the “Bogeyman”.


One of the worst of the days at Escourt House comes readily to mind. Because of the bed-ridden state myself and others were in, and the lack of exercise, there was a constant concern about our lack of ‘regularity’ and two of the less savory ways of dealing with this were enemas, or the administration of a foul tasting concoction called licorice powder. I absolutely despised licorice powder, and I put up a huge fight as three nurses held my arms, and my mouth open as they tried to force the vile mixture down my throat. Frustrated at my screaming and struggling, I was carried, strapped in my frame, out into an isolated section of the garden, and left there alone, with the assurance that the bogeyman would be along to deal with me in due course. Not wishing to make the acquaintance of the ‘bogeyman’ the Devil or any other perils of the creeping darkness, I determined to drag myself back to the ward, and still strapped to the frame I clawed at the ground with my scrawny arms, a foot at a time, across a lawn, past an astonished gardener sitting on the verandah, somehow negotiating a screen door, along some long corridors, and finally peering through the glass swinging doors to the ward, whereupon I was spotted, given a couple of slaps, and put back into my bed, the nurses somewhat shocked by my epic odyssey.

Despite the way these events appear when viewed on the page, it would be wrong to assume my life was all misery. Imagination was the tool which helped to steer myself and my peers through our days, and in the eventual absence of any memory of the outside world, our lives, to us, were normal. There was no television, no doubt to our advantage, but apart from the radio, to which I am devoted to this day, there was reading. I can’t recall any teaching taking place at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, but it was certainly there at Escourt House. I can remember a teacher called Miss Wilson, repeating the sounds of the letters to spell out a word. “Du..Rrrr..Uuuu…Mmmm – just say the letters slowly and hear the sound it makes……. ” and suddenly the sounds had formed an image of a drum in my brain, and the whole world was available to me in this magical form. We were read all the classic fairly tales, of Red Riding Hood, The Three Pigs, Hansel and Gretel, Three Billy Goats Gruff, (horror stories most of them) and we worked our way through the ‘primers’ of the day -‘the cat sat on the mat’ etc. But there was a lot of other reading matter, from the Noddy and Big Ears type books, to what must have been many thousands of comics. 

Comics took me to the worlds of many diverse characters, from Felix the Cat, to the wide range if Disney’s world, to cowboys, Superman, The Phantom, The Shadow, and numerous other journeys of the imagination, many of whose characters have failed to survive. What ever happened to “Lash Larue” for example, who countered the baddies of the west with nothing but his skills with the whip – snaking out to expertly snatch the gun from the villain’s hand before he could fire, or “Ricochet Ross” who never shot straight at anyone, but cleverly bounced his bullets off rocks, trees, buildings, sometimes off two or three things en-route to his target, generally knocking the guns from the villain’s hand. (These goodies were so good that they never actually killed anyone, ‘though they were always ready to give the black hats a bloody good hiding). Other publications, such as the “Eagle” magazine, with its diverse characters, mostly English, were devoured with relish. So Dan Dare, with his off-sider Digby, would do battle through interstellar space with the evil ‘Mekon’ and his grotesque oversized forehead, while PC 49 battled with the street crims on his daily beat, with his traditional bobby’s helmet and clipped mustache. These, and many hundreds, if not thousands of other characters came alive in my world, and took me outside of the four walls which limited, to large degree, my physical world. One strong memory, buried at the rear of a traditional western comic, remains strong in my memory. It told a simple story of the ‘Indians’, much vilified in film and comics, before the advent of the white man to the shores of their country. They were depicted journeying on their canoes, through their beautiful country, hunting, singing, and relating closely to the nature around them. It was not so much a story, but a sympathetic description by some enlightened writer, more than fifty years ago, of another side to the story. The fact that I remember it would suggest that it was a view of the world which lodged in my brain. A seminal moment? Perhaps so. Another time I saw a black and white newsreel, which showed an Aboriginal man sitting on the sandy soil, and drawing circles within circles with slow sweeps of his fingers. It was a total mystery for me.

Recent visit to Escourt House with friends.

The time spent at Escourt House fills my memory much more than that at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, undoubtedly because it was much more stimulating, but possibly because I was there for more of the time. Other memories of Escourt House include some visits by Scottish pipe bands, including the sword dancers, and some kind of a wild west show, with a Buffalo Bill type character replete with buckskins, beard and mustache, and mounted on a white horse. I recall pondering such mysteries as to where the smoke from the chimneys goes, (and never getting a satisfactory answer) and I recall having the conviction (or delusion) that somewhere, sometime in the future, there would be a judge who would rule on the injustices which had been visited on me by unfair decisions by nurses or whoever – that whatever wrongs there were in the world could be righted. A travelling barber would visit to give us all a haircut, as he sang songs. Sometimes a person called my Mother would visit, though so irregularly, because of the distance from home, that I did not really know her at all. I don’t recall seeing any of the rest of my siblings or my father during those years. One day the nurses read me a letter to say that I now had a baby brother called Max. Another time (obviously before I could read competently) I was given a letter from my mother, and after hours of pleading to find a nurse to read it to me, to no avail, I tore it up in frustration. It torments me every time I think about it. Like all kids, I guess, we discussed the deep mysteries of existence, including such incomprehensibles such as “we live on a planet called earth, which is a big giant ball” and “the sun is another big round ball on fire, which floats around the sky and shines on us'” as well as other matters, such as atomic bombs, and racing cars. Sometimes we were asked (by teachers?) to remember the people who had died in the war, but I found that a bit hard, because I never knew them in the first place. Once I was placed on the floor in my frame as some nurses were making my bed, and found myself looking straight up their dresses as they stepped over me.” What can you see up there Robert?” they laughed and teased me, and I had to turn my head in embarrassment. Obviously another of life’s deep mysteries. One day a new nurse came to see me, and informed me that she was my second cousin. For the first time in my memory, I had a nearby adult who cared for me.

The nurse’s name was Dawn Towzer. She was the daughter of my paternal Grandmother’s brother, and for the first time in my memory, I had someone who was really concerned for my welfare. She would often spend time at my bedside, reading, talking, comforting. It is hard to remember specifically what we talked of, what we read together, or what it was that gave me a feeling of warmth and comfort, but it filled a huge gap in my young years, and the general memory and appreciation of her remains strong.

It is pointless to go through all I can remember of those days in fine detail – there are many many snatches of detail. I made some good friends, other kids I would meet up with in the hurdy gurdy shufle I underwent in those four and a half years. One was a boy called Peter Datsun, another very strong friendship was with a girl whose name I have forgotten. We would fantasise about the toys coming to life at night, about Peter Pan and Wendy, Robin Hood and Maid Marion, whoever else was in the comics or the movies. My obsession with the Walt Disney version of Peter Pan and Wendy, as depicted in the comics, was noticed by the nurses at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital when I was back there for a stay, and to my delight, in her own time, a nurse wheeled my bed to a nearby theatre, and I was able to view the full length cartoon in glorious colour.

Other highlights stand out during my hospital days. In 1954, the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth 2nd came on a visit to Australia, which was a really big deal. I can recall the morning in 1952 when we were told that the king had died, and it was a newly crowned and married Elizabeth who toured with her husband in ’54. I have three main memories of that visit. One is of being taken out on the lawn (in my frame) and spending a long time in the sun, waiting for the royal procession to pass by. I remember being frightened of the bees which were on the lawn beside me, and of getting a headache from being in the sun for so long, and I believe that it affects me to this day. I always wear a hat in warm weather, and get a headache if I don’t. After what seemed like hours, and certainly the sun had gone down, we caught a glimpse of the queen and her man going by in their black car, lit up by the interior light in their limo. One night someone, perhaps a member of the red cross, took me in a car trip to the city, and the whole of Adelaide was swathed in neon lights and decorations to welcome the new queen. That was the most memorable memory of the visit, though there was another very long day trip into Adelaide which is memorable once again for the long wait. I don’t recall seeing her that day. Every school child in Australia got a small bible to commemorate the coronation.

Other highlights of my hospital stay included being ferried into Adelaide to view the John Martin’s Christmas pageant, a large and spectacular event put on by the John Martin’s store to launch the Christmas buying binge. Marching bands, floats with fairy-tale figures, Disney characters, clowns, and at the end the appearance of Father Christmas, all combined to make a really memorable experience for us kids.

On 1st march, in 1954, a quite large earthquake hit Adelaide, but asleep in the ACH I was not aware of it. No buildings toppled, but there was considerable damage to buildings throughout the Adelaide and Adelaide Hills regions. One day I was told I would be going home. My parents had sold their house at Whyalla, and brought a house at the nearby seaside suburb of Grange, at 15 Sturt Street. I had no concept of what going home meant. One thing it meant was that I would soon rediscover the place which was my home at birth, Littlehampton.

15 Sturt Street, today

There was no memory of Littlehampton for me when the ambulance delivered me to 15 Sturt Street, and in fact apart from the fleeting memories already described, I had no concept of what living in a house with siblings and parents would be like. Apart from the adjustment to a life-style unknown to me, there were further complications. I was still confined to a bed, albeit one with wheels. I was also strapped to a frame and practically flat on my back at all times. Sharing the house were, in the range of ages, Yvonne in her 14th year, Dean, a year younger, myself, about to have my eighth birthday, Lynette, born in 1950, and Max in 1952.

The house was of a solid brick and stone construction, with square brick pillars supporting a verandah which looked out on a sleepy street. There were houses across the road, and to the right, a kindergarden, and next to that a bowling green. A divorced man lived to our immediate left, and an older couple with a dog to our right. The next block along belonged to St James Anglican Church, but much of the yard at the rear of the church, which fronted our street, was wooded, and immediately christened ‘Sherwood Forest’ by me as I passed through a Robin Hood phase.

Every morning a baker’s van, pulled by a clysdale horse would clop along the street, stopping and starting to the simple commands of the baker, who would dart from one side of the road to the other to deliver fresh crusty bread from a large cane basket slung over his arm.

I recall being at home for some time before my Father put in an appearance. He had been away on a shooting-fishing trip, and entered the house with a .22 rifle slung over his shoulder. He seemed stern and distant.

The hero of my life was my brother Dean, at twelve going on thirteen, a font of knowledge, wisdom and derring do. The wheel-bed which could have been such a contained world for me, was wheeled everywhere by Dean. He would take me, sometimes with other friends of his tagging along, to the beach a couple of blocks away, to the movies, to the Royal Adelaide show. To get to some places we would need to ride the train, so my bed would be wheeled into the goods van of the steam trains which ran past our back yard. (An uncle of mine who drove the trains would give a hearty pull on his whistle whenever he passed our house.) Gangs of us would play in Sherwood Forest – I would even play hide and seek, closing my eyes and counting as the others hid up trees and among the bushes, and spotting them from my prone position. 

Going to the movies was a major past-time. It was usually (if not always) the Saturday matinee. The Odeon cinema was some half a dozen blocks to the south, at Henley Beach. The standard fare seemed to be a cartoon or two, a gripping cliff-hanging serial, a minor film followed by intermission, then the major film. The proprietor wore a uniform akin to an American bell-hop, with a reddish/orange uniform with shiny buttons, and topped off with a little round cap at a jaunty angle. Dean would wheel me to the matinee while I was still in the bed, and the kindly proprietor would let me in for free. He sometimes had to come and take my toy gun off me, and ask me to quieten down as I rode with the goodies and shot at the baddies racing across the screen. The two years or so at Grange loom large in my memory, and seem to occupy a much longer length of time.

There were many situations which I found difficult to adjust to in those early days. Crossing a road (being pushed by Dean) would strike fear into me as I saw cars approaching, as I had no way of judging the speed at which they were moving, it being so new to me. Being wheeled out onto a jetty, and seeing the sea below between the cracks of the boards would frighten me, and in particular, being alone at night in my bed absolutely terrified me, perhaps because I was so used to having someone nearby in surrounding beds in the past years. I would spend hours imagining that someone was creeping towards me, particularly on hot nights which would get the floorboards creaking. I would be positive that an intruder had come right to my bed and was about to pounce, for agonising hour after hour and night after night. I always slept with my head under the blankets.

The mode of transport for our family seems unbelievable when I think back to it now. We had a 1952 Ford Prefect, for transporting five kids and two adults, but incredibly, I would still be in my frame for our trips. The top of the frame, which reached to under my armpits, would sit on the parcel rack in the back of the car, while the foot end would sit on the top of the front passenger’s seat, behind my mother’s head. The other four kids would squeeze amongst the remaining space.

Mum and the Prefect

One of the most enduring memories of my life was the first trip to the Adelaide Hills we did in the Prefect. We wound our way up the twisting Mount Barker Road, just a two lane road in those days, despite being the main route to Melbourne, around the hairpin of the Devil’s Elbow, grinding our way in second gear around the numerous curves, past the Eagle on the Hill hotel. The beautiful curving hills, the trees, and the sweeping views to the Adelaide plains below had my eyes popping from my head. I had seen such views in books, but did not realise such scenery existed in real life. It was literally like stepping into a fairytale.

We wound through wonderful country villages – Crafers, Stirling, Aldgate, Bridgewater, Hahndorf, and finally to the childhood town I had no conscious memory of – Littlehampton. Willow Bank was a fifty acre farm, perched on the side of a hill, and overlooking the picturesque village of Littlehampton a quarter of a mile away to the right, and surrounded by rolling farmlands. The long blue slope of Mount Barker Summit was visible over the brow of the hills opposite from the front verandah. A creek followed the other side of the road at the bottom of our driveway, and a railway line ran between the farm and the road. Long steam driven goods trains, passenger trains and rail cars would ply this line, which connected Victor Harbour to the south with Strathalbyn, Mount Barker and other hills towns; a slow trip through the hills via a few tunnels, and on to Adelaide.

The farm was occupied by Cecil E Smith, my mother’s father, and his wife Mina, whom he had married after the death of my Grandmother in the early forties. My mother had inherited Willow Bank on the death of her mother, but her father had life-long tenure. Though just twenty-two miles from Adelaide, (albeit a twisting and frustrating trip at times, as the road was shared by the semi trailers which plied the Adelaide-Melbourne route) the farm was a microcosm of local history, with sheds built from great slabs of red gum, a stone barn and house, a large hay shed, and in other sheds, horse drawn wagons, chaff cutters, seeders, and various other farm impliments of unknown purpose. There were a couple of clysdale horses, and some 1920’s era trucks and utilitys.

Although most of the land was cleared, the ‘top paddock’ behind the cluster of sheds still contained some magnificent towering gums. In short the region was a sleepy, sparsly populated patch of paradise, and returning to it really was tantamount to stepping into the pages of the books which had shaped my imagination for so many years.

Uluru Handover

I recently came across these short esays written soon after the hand over of Uluru in 1985. An interesting contrast to the version I wrote recently read here in my Aboriginal Culture blog category.
Flying To The Red Heart
Flying low in a Fokker over desert country , fairly featureless but for the shaping of the terrain by that scarcest of ingredients; water.

Etched clearly into the landscape, like the veins of the bloodstream, are the dry waterways, displaying clearly the arterial system which brings life to the desert. The largest of the trees grow obviously along the deeper water courses, with a corresponding fall off in foliage where the courses are shallower.

Although lacking other prominent features, the desert has been shaped by a devine hand, the subtleties overlooked by my news-paper-perusing fellow travellers. The page I’m gazing at is infinite, and the blending of reds, yellows, blues and greens are spread with meticulous balance. 

Even the cloud cover seems spread with a view to the maintenance of balance. The razor edged shadows below are evenly spaced, and the merest wisp is sharply defined. The clouds, between the viewer and the ground, are balls of cotton, all floating at the same level, and supported by nothing at all.

This harmonious landscape, as always, is defiled by the hand of man. Chiselled across the whole magnificent work are the twin scalpel lines of the Stuart Highway, and the railway track along which the Ghan makes its lonely journey. Bulldozed tracks appear constantly, beginning and ending nowhere in pursuit of riches beneath the surface.

At Cooper Pedy, the frenzy of the search for opal is revealed by bomb-blasted craters and the gouging of machinery; pockmarks on the face of the country exposing virginal whiteness beneath.

The paradox is completed with the knowledge that, tiny though the airborne projectile carrying us to the red centre may be, it too is intruding into the very air through which it passes; and leaving in its wake the shattering reminder to the desert, that not even its silence is inviolate.

The Ceremony

The Mutitjulu Community, previously a part of the tourist industry at Ayer’s Rock, but now inhabited by the semi-permanent Aboriginals who will be the title holders after the ceremony which is about to take place. View photos 

Caroline, just two weeks out of London is with me, having flown up from Adelaide on the same Fokker aircraft that morning, and I can’t help but experience the occasion through her eyes, as well as my own.

There is a crowd of perhaps 3,000 people, mostly Aboriginals, many of whom have travelled from interstate for the ceremony. There are also churchmen, police, media, politicians, and white supporters of the native population.

We have managed to find a good position at the left of the official table, which is on a red-earth mound, with Uluru the backdrop behind us. Caroline is surprised that the Aboriginals show no resentment at our proximity to the stage. Dozens of media representatives are gathered at the front of the crowd, to the chagrin of some. Camp dogs snooze peacefully in the shade of the official table. 

I point out Yami Lester, Aboriginal spokesperson and activist, and tell Caroline that his blindness was allegedly caused by British atomic bomb tests in the fifties. The excitement is growing by the minute, with Yami periodically addressing the crowd over the sound system.

“Would the people at the back come forward and fill the empty spaces?” and as the wishes are complied with, “Keep that area to the left there clear for the official party.”

A roped off area to our left as we face the crowd marks the passageway the official party will be using.

Then, “The Governor-General will be here in ten minutes.”

The scene is set. A sea of black faces, the red earth, and the red black and yellow Aboriginal colours on headbands, t-shirts and flags. Waiting for the representatives of white man’s society to ‘give back’ what had been theirs for 40,000 years.

“The Governor General has arrived,” says Yami, and excitement sweeps through the crowd. A flurry of activity from the crowd near the entrance, and a ‘parting of the waves’ as the official party enters the arena. 

Clive Holding, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, and the Governor General, Sir Ninian Stephens, look cool and comfortable in their light suits as they make their way to the table. They are accompanied by the Minister of the Environment and Heritage, Barry Cohen, and the GG’s aide de camp in his military uniform. We are in a great position for photography as the national anthem is played.

Yami welcomes the guests with poise, dignity and humour. He comments that he understands that it is Sir Ninian’s first visit to Uluru, and that “………it is just as well that he is able to make it today, as some people think that the Aboriginal people are going to tow it away after the ceremony.”

Sir Ninian then stands to speak, with the humility and dignity befitting the occasion. He refers to Uluru as being “……not only at the centre of Australia, but at its very heart.” As he speaks he pauses, so that Yami can translate his words into the Pitjantjatjara language for the bush people.

Finally, the moment has come. The large framed and glass encased certificate of title is handed to Nipper Winmatti, with a handshake from Sir Ninian. The excitement is electric as the title is lifted triumphantly into the air, and a small boy is lifted alongside it. This is a moment to savour. The boy and the title represent hope for the future, and redress for the intolerance and bigotry of the past.

The photographers and film crews are shooting furiously, and the excitement is at a crescendo, when the mood is rudely shattered. A light plane, circling the ceremony and trailing behind it a banner, snarls its message. “AYERS ROCK FOR ALL AUSTRALIANS.”

After a few minutes the plane departs. The crowd’s mood is till buoyant as the traditional owners sign the 99 year lease back to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, a joint management arrangement which sees the traditional owners with a majority on the board.

For me, however, the roar of a plane has for the second time that day shattered the fragile magic of Australia’s heart.

Kangaroo Dreaming

A wild leap of my life story into a period beginning in the early 1980’s, some 30 years later – which encompasses some dramatic changes. These changes lead inevitably to my future association with Aboriginal people and their culture. This is a brief (if I can control myself) but important chunk. I am married, living back at Littlehampton, and have a house, two children, and a mail round.
There was always something very different about being up and about at that early hour of the morning. Of course there are many whose employment has a similar early morning routine – baker’s vans, newspaper deliveries, milk vendors and numerous others, but in my case it was as a mail contractor that I did my morning round. I would pick up a van load of mail bags from the Mount Barker Post Office at 6 am every working day, and despatch them to smaller post offices across the hills. Along the way I would pick up mail posted from these offices, either in bags, or if it was just going to a post office along the route, in small bundles secured with rubber bands. It was a leisurely pace – indeed I was required to wait for a half hour each morning, my  ‘breakfast break’, while a bag was sorted for the army camp, and I would sometimes use this half hour to do a bit of a trundle around, to read, or to take some photographs. There is no better time of day to take photos than the early morning, whether it be sunrise, frosts, rain or fog, and the pace of the morning, the luxury of being alone on the road inside one’s head, was transforming – meditative even. I had a Buddhist friend around that time, (who subsequently became a Monk) and he often talked of the ‘chattering mind’ and I would studiously concentrate on being aware of my runaway brain on my morning trips. It seemed that I could attain a state of stillness at times, but strangely, as soon as negative thoughts entered my head, there would seem to be a manifestation of it – generally as a road kill. There would be a bird, or a rabbit, or a fox on the road, and as the weeks rolled by I found that I could not leave these crushed bodies there to be continually ground into the asphalt. I was compelled to stop and to remove them from the road, and as I did so, I developed a closeness with the victims. I handled them gently, and their eyes hanging out, their smashed bones, their strewn guts and the smell of them brought not disgust, but empathy out in me. Once I became aware of this mini carnage on my route, it seemed that it came to dominate my trips to some extent. For example, I would come upon a magpie which had been hit by a car, obviously in distress, and would have to make the decision to put it out of its misery, or to give it a chance to recover.There were mornings when I would come across no deaths, and some extraordinary trips when it was full of them. I would pull out of my driveway, and be compelled to drag a neighbour’s cat from the road, and half way to my first pickup point, come across three dead ducks who had swooped in unison into the path of a truck. For the rest of such mornings, there would be a continious harvest of death – foxes, rabbits, magpies, parrots, cats. On one such morning, shaken by the carnage, I was recovering my equilibrium when I reached one of my last stops for the morning, when the Post master came out to exchange bags with me.   “Did you see the…..oh it’s gone.”  “What’s gone?” I enquired. “There was a dead dog there in the gutter just a while ago, someone must have taken it away.” I didn’t tell him, or anyone else about these experiences, but sure found them inexplicable. Weeks could then roll by with nary a death, and suddenly for no reason, there would be a similar busy morning – scraping corpses off the road – or there would just be the odd shock of a magnificent red fox, or a tiny dead bird to break the routine.
One very frosty morning, after a trundle around during my break to do some photography, I came over a rise, and there lying on the road in great distress was a kangaroo. A woman driving to her work had hit the roo as it hopped into her path, causing minor damage to the grille of her car, but major damage to the kangaroo. She had stopped her car, and was quite upset, but I must confess my sympathies were with the kangaroo. Its rear legs were smashed, with broken bones and flesh protruding from the gaping wounds. It held its upper body upright with its paws, and I felt I ought to despatch it. I searched my van, and finding a long iron bar used for winding up the jack, I contemplated the unsavoury task of smashing the poor creature’s head with it. But it didn’t seem right somehow. Suddenly, a great cloud of steam whooshed! into the frosty air from the roo’s torso, like a soul leaving its body, and it gave a death rattle, and died.
“What am I going to do? Look at my car.” Her voice cut through that icy morning from another dimension. I dragged the ‘roo from the road, and attempted to calm her down. I assured her that the damage to her car was minor, that it was perfectly drivable. She had not witnessed the extraordinary sight there on the road. 
One pitch black night, somewhere between Uluru and Coober Pedy some fourteen years later, I will be faced with a very similar situation, but before that night, the cold war will end, the Soviet bloc will disintegrate, and Nelson Mandela will have ended his 27 year stay in prison to guide his country towards freedom. And the Berlin wall will fall. And nothing will be the same.
(Fourteen years later).

It is  two in the morning. I quite like driving at night, pushing on ’til I’m  really tired, then  rolling out the swag, firing up deadwood and crashing till sunrise.

There is a large truck a mile or so in front of me. As its tail-lights disappear over the  horizon, I flick my  lights to high beam. In the near distance, dazzled in the lights, is the  scene I witnessed on that  morning mail run some fourteen years earlier.

A kangaroo, its smashed rear legs splayed uselessly behind it, and propped up on its forelegs, faces infinity on a dark night under the stars. It is that frosty morning, yet it is different. I roll the old diesel Jackaroo onto the verge, and the engine rattles to a halt. From behind the driver’s seat I pull out the nulla-nulla Old Silas gave me. The jack handle was wrong, but the nulla-nula is right.

The metre of hefty fire-hardened mulga, tapered to points at each end, squats in my hands like a sentinent being, and it is  the road, the ‘roo, and  me. Under a silent milky way sky, I swing the nulla-nulla,  and the skull explodes like a melon. It feels as it should.

The ‘roo has joined the compatriot who departed this world in a whoosh of steam all those years ago, freed from its fear and pain, and there is   the completion of a giant circle.

I drag the ‘roo to the side of the road, fire up the diesel, and trundle  the black tarmac, under an endless sky.

****************** OOOO *****************
It is many years later, and my life has changed so much that I am pinching myself to comprehend it all. In 1984 I had become involved with a campaign to prevent a tower being erected on Mount Barker Summit, a previously untouched, apart from an access road to near its summit, block of natural bush, with magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. I was angry that this microcosm of what used to be, could be intruded upon in this manner. The tower was never really officially announced. There were just trenches dug alongside the road, barriers put up, and eventually a small article in the local paper, The Mount Barker Courier, announcing that a police communications tower was to be erected. Myself and a friend called a public meeting, in an attempt to find out more, but the work accelerated. My friend, who asserted that there had been ceremonial Aboriginal burials on the summit, addressed the Trades and Labour Council, who agreed to put a work ban on the site, provided a picket could be maintained, and within days a group of Aboriginal people had set up camp on the summit, stopping the work. It was a long and bitter battle, and by the time it was over, everything had changed. The story of the battle for the summit will be told in another place, but suffice to say that my life was now set on a course which would include separation from my wife of 11 years, and my three children, and which would lead to a deep involvement with Aboriginal people from there on. (Link to  The Tower. )Nearing the end of the Summit dispute, I saw a television news story in a pub, talking about the hand over (handback?) of Uluru to the traditional owners, the Pitjantjatjara people, on the next day. I determined to somehow get there, but how? There were no direct flights to Uluru, and no buses which could get me there on time. I tried a light plane company but that required a minimum number of passengers. Eventually I was advised that an Airlines Of South Australia Focker Friendship would leave Adelaide for Uluru the next morning. The next day, with my backpack, camera and sleeping bag, I find myself on a Fokker Friendship aircraft, flying out of Adelaide on a flight direct to Uluru, for a $70 stand-by fare. The low altitude flight over the desert sees me with my nose pressed to the window, marvelling at the colours, the contours, the clarity. Shadows of the merest wisps of cloud are razor sharp and dark on the land, and the land itself is thousands of shades of reds, oranges, browns, blues, greys, – while the sky’s blueness makes the puff-balls of white clouds seem even whiter. Below, even the slightest trickle of water has left its tell-tale surrender to gravity etched in the arid ground. Flying over what seems to be endless eruptions of pimples spurting white pus, the gougings of the opal miners near Coober Pedy show the presence of man. The only other signs are the steel rail, the thin grey line of road, and numerous graded tracks which never seem to go anywhere, as mining companies extend their feelers. I can’t believe that other people on the plane, also flying to the handover that afternoon, can read their papers and chat – oblivious to the wonders passing beneath us.I have not yet set foot on the red earth of the Northern Territory, but it has already captured me.As we reached Uluru the Fokker circled, tilting precariously around the perimeter, the great red creature crouching like the reptiles in its shadow, while the endless sea of mulga, desert oak, and red sand stretched into infinity in every direction. The sun hovered above, bathing the scene in intense light, and enveloping us in heat as we stepped onto the tarmac at Yulara airport. Click here for linked blog.