The Tower

Warning. This article contains images of Aboriginal people who have passed away.

I have long been a ‘worshipper’ of Mount Barker Summit, if that is not too strong a word. Standing aloof and dominant over the surrounding lush countryside, this sandstone based and heavily wooded outcrop has been the commanding feature of the region for the millennia of black occupation under its original names, ‘Woma Mu Kurta’ or ‘Mountain on the Plain’ for the Ngarrindjeri people of the lower Murray and lakes, and ‘Yaktanga’, or ‘Rocky Head’ by the hills dwelling Peramangk people. But even the white-fellah name was bestowed on the peak before any European had entered the region.

Captain Charles Sturt, who journeyed down (and named) the Murray in the summer of 1829-30, was the first white man to record the sighting of Woma Mu Kurta, although he mistakenly recorded it in his journal as Mount Lofty. Flinders had named Mount Lofty when he mapped the coast in 1802, and as Sturt assumed the twin peaked summit he saw from the lakes was the twin peaked Mount Lofty, he recorded it as such. The loss of his chronometer some time earlier on the journey affected accurate calculation of the position. View more photographs here.

Captain Collet Barker, a compatriot of Sturt’s, was the next explorer to sight the summit a year later, but his view was from Mount Lofty, twenty kilometres to the north-west. It was Barker’s sighting which confirmed the existence of two separate mounts, and following Barker’s tragic death by spearing at the Murray Mouth, it was Barker’s friend Sturt who named the peak after him. Barker died on the 30th April, in 1831, and the summit was therefore named five years before the establishment of the South Australian colony.

The region was one of the first to be farmed, owing to the lush countryside and plentiful water, and the town which grew in its shadow with the same name has long been a regional centre in the sparsely populated Adelaide Hills. The summit was spared the wholesale clearing the surrounding land was subject to, owing to the steepness of its terrain, and poor soil. It therefore became a microcosm of surviving bush, and representative of what had been lost. It was also representative of the countryside the Peramangk had inhabited, and from which they traded and interacted with the Ngarrindjeri.

For more than 150 years the summit was relatively undisturbed apart from a dirt track to the top, two levels of parking, and a short walking trail to the summit proper. From here a 360 degree panorama can be observed, to the southern lakes, Mount lofty and the ranges to the north-west, Callington Hill to the east, and Brukunga to the north. A magnificent sloping valley of fertility leads the eye to the township in the near distance. View more photographs here.

On the northern tail, a quarry saw the first major assault on the mount, although this did not affect the general ambiance of the experience for those accessing via the track. All of this was to change; in 1984. One day while driving up the track I noticed that a trench had been dug along the left side of the road. I was curious about this, but became more alarmed when I read in the Mount Barker Courier that a police communications tower was to be erected. There was no further information, either of location, height, what procedure had been undertaken to allow a tower on the site, or anything at all; yet the work proceeded. One day I discussed the tower proposal with a fiery red headed lady friend of mine, who had a passion for environmental causes, and the ability to inspire both dedicated commitment, and unmitigated hatred.

We considered calling a public meeting, to which we would invite members of the State Government; in particular the Department of the Environment and Planning, the Mount Barker Council, and representatives of the Police to reveal the details of the proposed tower. Within a couple of days, Aurora was on television declaring the summit a ‘Sacred Site’.

I never had any doubt about the summit being an important and significant place for the Aboriginal People, and had in fact taken a group of Warlpiri men from the Tanami Desert community of Yuendumu (300ks north-west of Alice Springs) to the summit when I met them in Mount Barker a couple of years earlier. I had been running a taxi in Mount Barker from my Littlehampton home, and was surprised to pick up the group from the Hotel Barker one night. They had come south to accompany a group of women who were performing ceremonial dancing in Adelaide for a period. (Yuendumu being a ‘dry’ community, they were also taking advantage of the opportunity to enjoy a few beers.) I got to know these very traditional men quite well over the next few days, but never dreamed that I would be living and working in an adjoining community to theirs less than ten years later, but that is another story.  View more photographs here.

In 1984, eight years before the stunning Mabo decision gave recognition to land rights for Aboriginal people, Aurora’s flame-haired statement was analogous to a red rag to a bull. My determination right from the outset was to defend the summit from this intrusion as much as possible, to make the instigators answerable, and in the event that a tower did go ahead, to make such a fuss about it that no one would ever dare to try to erect another. I intended to fight the tower from a local environmental point of view, but an early rising tide of Aboriginal activism and awareness was to envelope the issue, and in the process, to reveal a deep seated sliver of racism and ignorance from a wide range of the community; a community which had never had their ‘right’ to take the land off of the original inhabitants questioned.

There was a particular night for me, which I recall as the hinge around which my reality was to swing over the next few months, but effectively for the rest of my life. I had arranged to visit Aurora this night, with the intention of formally organising the public meeting we had discussed previously. I was at home feeling totally buggered, and telling myself that I didn’t have the energy to take the issue any further, and decided to stay at home. I was still running my taxi service, and the phone rang. The customer wanted a ride from Mount Barker to Wistow, a rare destination, but one which took me past Aurora’s house. I completed my fare, but as I neared her house on my return journey, I was still intending to go straight home. As I passed the house, the headlights fell on Aurora’s cat; dead on the road – run over since I had passed by some twenty minutes earlier.

I pulled over, picked up the cat, and knocked on the door.

“I have some bad news for you.” I said.

“My cat has been run over.” she said.

We dug a hole in her yard, and as we patted the soil down, a bird whistled.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a willie wagtail, the Aboriginal harbinger of death,” she said.

“That’s not the wagtail,” I said, but even as I uttered the words the answering familiar ‘chitter’ came. We went inside, and organised a public meeting.

Over the next few days, we booked the supper room of the Littlehampton Institute, and invited the various parties to to the meeting, planned for a week or so later. I would travel up to the summit daily, and was disturbed to see that the work was continuing apace. At about this time I began writing letters to the Courier, expressing my concern for the integrity of the summit. I learnt  that the Mount Barker Council had initially knocked back the Police Department’s application to erect the tower, but they had been bullied, and informed that they might as well agree, or they would be over-ruled on the decision. The Council complied, with the proviso that the tower should be erected in the upper car park rather than on the very top.

Now on my daily visits to the mount, it became obvious that a huge concrete slab would be poured any time soon. A large square of earth had been evacuated, and steel shuttering was in place in readiness for the pour. We had had no response to our invitations from the officials, and it seemed that the slab would be in place before our meeting took place, rendering it pointless, and allowing us and the community in general to be treated with contempt.

I rang a lawyer (who is now a judge) and asked if there was any way the work could be delayed, and he said that if there was a question of it being an important Aboriginal site, one could contact the Aboriginal Legal Rights Services. He gave me the phone number, and I passed it on to Aurora.

A day or two later I called in on Aurora. She had been busy. Despite a rabid response to her television appearance, Aurora had addressed the South Australian Trades Union Council, and pleaded with them to use whatever means they could to ensure a fair go for the Aboriginal cause in regard to the Summit. The union agreed, but insisted that a picket line needed to be formed, comprising Aboriginal people. To my amazement Aurora informed me that a group which included Aboriginal artist Bluey Roberts, the famous Police tracker Jimmy James, Ngarrindjeri elder and historian Paul Kropinnyerri, and various relatives would be arriving at Mount Barker at midnight: and could I guide them up to the summit in the darkness to set up their camp when they arrived? This I did.

What mere words can express the outrage and hysteria which broke out over the next days, weeks and months? Workers who turned up the next morning found the narrow track to the upper car park blocked by two vehicles and a rough stone wall, a makeshift  ‘wurley’ next to a tree on the track, Aboriginal men, women and children, and the Aboriginal flag draped overhead.

The newspapers, television stations and local media swarmed like flies, and the issue had immediately been transformed from an environmental dispute, into literally, a black and white issue. At home my phone rang hot, and many locals told me that they were against the tower being erected, but would not get involved because of the involvement of the Aboriginals. Furthermore, a line was now being run that those Aboriginal people who were now camped on the summit for what turned out to be for months, were being manipulated by white activists. This was the prevailing climate when a crowd of around sixty people gathered  in the Littlehampton Institute a few days later. I was the mug standing up front hoping to keep order.

There were no spokespeople  of the various authorities we had invited to inform us of the dimensions and ramifications of the tower, although a couple of Mount Barker Councillors were there in an unofficial role. A day or two before the meeting, Aurora told me that a local who was active in organising slide-shows wanted to open the meeting with a presentation. I had seen a show by this man previously, which in that case was predominately focused on the threat of nuclear annihilation, and I was concerned that a slideshow might be unsuitable for the occasion, but Aurora prevailed, and I relented with the proviso it should be kept short.

The lights were dimmed, and a slide and music presentation, focused on the environment,  whatever its ascetic merits, rolled interminably on, until many members of the audience began yelling angrily that this was not what they were there for. Sensing a disastrous start to the night, I killed the show by switching on the lights, and turned to face a hall full of angry people yelling at each other.

I immediately announced that if people were going to conduct themselves in that manner there was no point in holding a meeting, and I would be walking out. The crowd quietened down, and despite the dearth of any new information due to the lack of officials, the general concept and known facts were discussed somewhat civilly for awhile, but I knew I had to introduce Aurora, the ‘spokesperson’ for the Aboriginal people, and when I did the mood changed dramatically.

Predictably, Aurora was accused of manipulating  the Aboriginal people, of being a self appointed spokesperson, and of ‘beating up a phony sacred site’. When asked why there were no Aboriginal people at the meeting, she replied that  they did not want to be subjected to white racism. The meeting eventually struggled to a finish, with little civility, more heat than light, a standard of debate and discussion set in stone, and a paucity of information which was to set the tone for the whole sorry story. More pics here.

Now it was war. The police never addressed a single public meeting throughout the dispute, and were obviously pissed off that anyone, let alone trades unions, Blackfellows, and ‘greenies’ should dare to question their authority. They quickly determined that the key to their quest for the erection of the tower was to convince the Aboriginal people to relent, whereupon the union ban would be lifted, the tower erected, and the rest could ‘go jump’.

Further complicating matters, Paul Kropinyeri asked me to pass on a letter he had written to the already hostile Mount Barker Courier, in which he referred to white people using the summit like a ‘cesspit.’ Because of the hostility I was getting on the phone and wherever I went in the community, I held the letter back. When I told him this, he went very cold on me, and we were never close after that. I submitted the letter the following week, but it was never printed.

Meanwhile, the shuttering for the base was removed, and eventually, the hole filled in.

For the next few months a motley mixture of visitors trooped up to the summit. Many were supporters, many were hostile. Mini-buses of Aboriginal kids visited, as did Northern Territory Aboriginals, politicians, louts, and everything in between. A very dominant presence was that of the police. Jimmy James of course, was a police tracker, extremely famous for the cases he had helped the police with. He had tracked lost kids, escaped convicts, criminals, and was feted in South Australian newspapers and media. He was a Pitjantjatjara man from South Australia’s far north, but had married a Ngarrindjeri woman, so became a relative by marriage to Bluey Roberts, who to some extent was taught some of Jimmy’s skills. I was disgusted therefore, to observe a police Aboriginal liaison officer telling Jimmy that the Police had ‘lost respect’ for him, because of his stand.

Now the dispute ground on, for month after month. The weather grew colder, and a small group of three local whites, (including Aurora) and the Aboriginal group negotiated with the Police. Opposition politicians flayed the Government for not getting the tower erected, the Courier editorialised mercilessly against the protesters, and when Paul and Aurora formed a relationship, even my communication with her became more remote. I continued to write letters to the Courier, all of which were printed, and even managed to get a one-on-one  meeting with the Minister for Planning and Environment. He milked me for information while he devoured some Kentucky Fried chicken, and dismissed me curtly when he had finished. The dispute was going no-where, but neither was the tower.

Eventually, having camped on the summit for months, the protesters moved back to their homes. They left in place the wurleys they had built, and the odd bits of furniture they had gathered. This stuff was soon scattered and thrown about, and  the Courier was soon on the spot, photographing the ‘mess’ and lambasting the protestors for rubbishing the summit. One day I opened the Adelaide Advertiser, and read that the Government had decided not to build a tower on the mount, and would find a suitable alternative.

I rang Aurora, to express my delight, though her response was muted. I should have paid more attention to the final paragraph in the article referring to ‘further discussions continuing’. The next day I read that a tower would be erected on the summit, but a higher one, on the lower car park. I was furious, and I let Aurora know it.

Eventually the terms of the agreement, and to some extent the pressures applied emerged. A major component of the debate revolved around the safety of the public, especially in light of the devastating Ash Wednesday bush-fires preceding the dispute. An anthropological survey was promised, and a plaque in recognition of the Aboriginal prior occupation and significance was to be erected. Areas would be landscaped, and the upper car park would be closed to vehicles. The tower was to be erected in the centre of the lower car park.

At this stage myself and some other defenders of the summit called another public meeting, this time on the mount, and to which I again invited the various parties once more to advise the public as to the size of, the use of, and the impact on the mount. All of my invitees refused to attend. In frustration I built a dummy, and dressed it in a keystone cop uniform, and covered it with a sheet. When I was attacked for having the temerity to call the meeting I explained that I simply wanted the authorities, for the first time, to address the concerned public, and I whipped the sheet off the dummy and announced that “This is the only representative we could get”, to yells of outrage.

The mayor of the day announced that he hadn’t been invited to attend, and I responded by saying that I had spoken to the council engineer who had flatly rejected my invitation earlier that day. We then tried to pass a resolution condemning the Government, the Police, and the Courier, but the resolution failed to pass. At least I had tried to utilise some semblance of democracy throughout the fight, no-one else had. During the meeting, the man responsible for the quarry which still scars the northern ridge, informed me that “The Dreamtime is over, Bob.”

There is no doubt that the pressures applied to the group were enormous, but to have come so close to stopping it then relenting, was devastating. To cap it off, I rang the copper in charge of the tower’s erection, and asked him why the old concrete base which was used near the quarry site for a tower, years earlier, was not considered a suitable alternative site. To my amazement, he did not know of this location, and had ‘thought’ the quarry tower was on the summit proper.

Parts of the agreement were kept, but there was an attempt to locate the tower not in the centre of the car park, but on a corner to one side. I noticed and reported the excavations, and the union bans were on again. Finally the tower was erected in the centre of the park. More photos can be seen here.

It looms there to this day. When it was erected there was one building, now there are three. It is now twenty metres higher than first promised. Because of the extra height, stabilising  cables were attached. The bases of the cables had to be protected, so mesh wire cages were erected around them.  But I believe there it ends. My original goal of fighting to the finish was accomplished, and I don’t believe there will ever be another attempt to erect a tower on the summit. Indeed, I sometimes hear crazy ideas about a lease running out, and the tower being removed, but that is a wish too far for me.

Today, councils fly the Aboriginal flag, and the traditional owners are acknowledged. Monuments are erected, and the respect for Aboriginal culture is greater than it has ever been. That status has been accomplished due to many battles fought long ago (especially Mabo) by brave people like Aurora, like Bluey Roberts, Paul Kropinyeri, and their families. And, god bless him, Jimmy James. He deserved better.

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.