We were following an unsealed road into a powerful headwind.
With every step we took, eddies of dust were stirred up.
On our left were trees and bush and on our right, low, undulating hills covered in wheat as far as the eye could see.
Plod, plod; one foot in front of the other.
The road ascended a long, gentle hill.
At the top of the hill we stopped and studied the scenery.
Not far down the slope, the bush on the left of us gave way to ploughed fields, barren, empty. A little further down was a big galvanised-iron building with what appeared to be a tall, dense, hedge in front of it. On three sides of the building and its hedge were empty fields; opposite it was an ocean of wheat, yellow- orange.
There was no other kind of habitation anywhere nearby. We presumed that it was a farmer’s shed.
Retreating into the bush a way to get out of the wind, we took off our rucksacks, ate some biscuits and muesli bars, drank water from our canisters, and checked our map.
To our surprise, we found that building which was stranded on its own in the middle of nowhere.
It wasn’t a farmer’s shed; it was marked as the ‘Willalo Community Hall’ and next to it, were symbols which indicated that it was place where walkers and bike riders could stay the night.
Welcome news indeed!
It was mid-afternoon and we were tired. The westerly wind which had blown all day, was turning gale force.
The ‘hedge’ in front the hall was a wall of carob trees, old and overgrown.
The hall was a good 5 metres high and 20 metres long. I wondered what kind of hall was made from galvanised iron. Generally speaking, community halls in rural areas were made of bricks and concrete.
With our rucksacks off, we wandered around the hall. Along the sides there were narrow windows which had been boarded up. There were two doors, at the front and back, but they had been barricaded from inside. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble to make sure that nobody could get inside the hall.
It was impossible to stay inside the hall.
Down at the back of the hall, there were piles of debris: sheets of corrugated iron, pieces of wood, panes of glass and piles of bricks. Nearby were the ruins of what used to be an outside kitchen and a block of toilets.
On the western side of the hall, facing the howling wind was an old rainwater tank. It was on a cement stand and was fed by a long length of pipe running down from the sloping roof of the hall. The tank was leaking, but it had a tap and the tap worked and the water was good to drink: the decision to stay the night was automatic. The tank meant that we could drink as much as we liked and fill our bottles and have a wash too.
We put our small hiking tent up on the eastern side of the hall; being the height and size it was, the hall made an excellent wind-break. Then we took turns to go and have a wash. This involved an excursion around the end of the hall, over the piles of debris and then standing naked in the fierce wind and sponging oneself off with a wet face washer.
It was good to be clean but the price paid for that privilege was to have one’s body temperature suddenly plunge.
Afterwards, shivering from the cold, even with our thermal underwear and all our clothes on, we huddled next to each other and stood close to the side of the hall and stared into a late afternoon light like two zombies.
Along the base of the corrugated iron side of the hall we noticed were deep burrows made by rabbits.
In the fading afternoon light, freezing cold, with the sound of the wind whistling around the end of the hall, we stood there staring out over barren ploughed fields. A feeling of great emptiness, something to rival the emptiness of the landscape before us, washed over me like a cold blue wave. This was a bleak place that we’d chosen to stop for the night – the boarded up hall, the piles of debris, the barren fields and the pitiless glacial wind.
Then we came up with the idea of starting a fire.
It gave us something to do.
We set to work gathering up pieces of wood from the piles of debris at the back of the hall. Because of the wind, we built the fire close to the side of the hall. After a while, we had a good fire going and a stack of wood next to it. As the warmth returned to our bodies and darkness descended, we stood there gazing into the flames.
Night fell. The first stars appeared.
The fire cast an orange-yellow light on the galvanized iron side of the hall behind us. Strange distorted shadows danced across the corrugations.
Inside the hall, we could hear rabbits scurrying around.
A farmer passing by in a Jap utility saw the light of our fire reflected on the side of the hall and pulled in.
He got out and came over and stood next to the fire and introduced himself.
He was tall, with slightly stooped shoulders. In the light of the fire he cast a big shadow over the corrugated iron.
‘It’s bad luck you can’t stay in the hall’ he said.
Until recently it had been possible, he told us. The regional council however had decided that the hall was in such a bad state of repair that it formed a potential danger to anyone wanting to overnight there. So the decision was made to board up the hall prior to having it demolished.
In another couple of weeks he told us the hall would be gone.
As he spoke, sounds came from inside the hall.
‘Bloody rabbits! Scourge of the country, like the politicians!’
When he was a kid he said, it was his job to poison the rabbits. They were always a problem at the hall, in his father’s day as well.
‘Now they’ve taken over’, he observed
Considering he was in his early ‘60’s and the hall was there in his father’s day, this meant that this glorified galvanized iron shed had been around a while.
‘About a 100 years’ he said in response to my inquiry.
A 100 years?
‘I didn’t even know that they made galvanized iron a hundred years ago.’
‘My oath they did and it was a lot thicker than the stuff they turn out these days and it was better galvanized. Look at the hall’ he said, ‘there’s not a spot of rust anywhere. Not a spot. It’s the rabbits that are the problem, burrowing under the floors and foundation posts. It’s because of the rabbits that the hall’s no longer safe.’
Yes, it was bloody old that hall, that lonely tin shed surrounded by great dollops of not very much.
His parents had met there and so had he and his wife. He’d gone to school there when he was a kid and been vaccinated against polio there. The hall had functioned as a school, a library, and community health center. There’d been meetings there and barbecues and dances and plays. He could remember the barbecues, playing games all night with the other kids, the adults drinking and laughing. People put newspapers, books and magazines in there for everyone else to read. Then came a radiogram and some records.
Anya asked him: ‘where do the community go to now?’
‘Community? There is no community’.
He went to his utility and got a powerful torch and led us to the front of the hall where a wall of carob trees pressed against the building.
His torch lit up a small cement entrance area covered in carob bean pods. There was a boarded up ticket counter. The memories began to flow. As a kid he had served at that counter selling tickets for a dance or play. He could remember helping to polish the floors and cut back the carob trees, he and group of other local kids.
Above the entrance area was a lamp. His torch caught the lamp and the sight of a bunch of wires hanging down from it loosely.
‘They’ve cut the power’ he murmured to himself…’cut the bloody power’ …
More reminiscences: his parents had told him many times about the night they met one another. It was at a big dance and barbecue to celebrate the electrification of the hall. That was a milestone, a reason for hope when hope was in short supply.
‘The hall was connected up after the First World War. There was a fair bit of sadness in the community then. Many of the local blokes hadn’t come back from France and some of those who did come back, they were pretty crook…’
‘Pretty crook’ – classic dry Australian understatement. ‘Crook’ i.e. disabled for life physically or mentally or both.
The electrification of the hall: a cause for celebration.
There had been a big party and a band.
Now the wires were severed.
On the wind came the sounds of big machines working the land, like the low rumble of a passing aeroplane. Their lamps illuminated long stretches of barren fields. I asked what they were doing: ‘seedin’ barley’ he said.
‘The machines and the operators are hired in and work in shifts.’
‘They’re not locals….not farmers?’
‘Around here most of the land is owned by a Chinese-Malaysian corporation.’
‘Where are the farmers?’
‘They got old. Their kids are not interested in living on the land. Then the farms get bought up by foreign corporations.’
He had four kids and all of them were living over east: Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. There was no one left to take over his property and soon enough, he too would sell out to a corporation.
‘30% of the farms in South Australia are owned by foreign corporations’.
He said ‘see ya’’ and drove off, leaving us alone with our silhouettes swimming on the corrugated iron wall in the light of the fire.
The hall took on a very different prospect than during the afternoon.
The clear immense night sky was a blaze of stars. In the cold wind could be heard the sound of the machines and the inexorable march of a relentless future.
‘Community? There is no community!’
Once upon a time the Willalo community hall was the center of the universe for the people living in the area. They’d polished the floors, kept the rabbits out, put magazines and books and records there; met there, played music there, danced and fell in love there.
The people were gone and now the hall was about to demolished.
It was a revelation, in a way. When I thought about globalisation and its shadow sides, I thought of factories closing, big corporations locating to places like China or Bangla Desh, and thousands of workers left without a job. In this case, big corporations were moving in and the traditional farming communities were disintegrating.
In a week or two’s time, an earthmover would appear and tear up the Willaloo Community Hall in minutes.
It seemed like a stark and appropriate metaphor for the times we were living in: a 100 years’ history bundled into the back of a truck and taken to the dump.
You might like to also read:
The One-Horse Town, Parts 1 and 2