When we left the town Gladstone, we had it all worked out.
Leastways we thought we did.
Gladstone was a small nowhere town in the what was known as the mid-north of South Australia – where there was an awful lot of ‘north’, like about 500 kilometres of it.
Anya and I had pitched our tent in a caravan park and were planning to ride our bikes to another nowhere place called Port Broughton, which was situated on the coast about a hundred kilometres south west of Gladstone.
The weather report forecast a light northerly wind in the morning which would blow up around midday and increase during the afternoon, ahead of a cool change in the evening.
Studying our map, we found a series of back roads which would take us south to a town called Redhill and from there, another unsealed back road heading west to a place called Port Broughton. In this way, we would ride south with the northerly behind us to Redhill and then in the afternoon, head west to Port Broughton when we would have the northerly as a side wind.
Distance wise, 70% of the trip was to Redhill. We calculated that the rest of the trip to Port Broughton would take at the most, around 2 hours.
But the weather report was wrong and we found ourselves heading into vortex of madness. The last leg of the journey which was supposed to be the shortest turned out to by far the longest…..
It happened shortly after he became an officer in the Australian air force and for the first time in his life could afford it.
Cameras in those days were luxury items unaffordable for the great majority of ordinary working people.
Mind you though, there was a bit more involved in his purchasing that camera than his income.
He had been posted to Malta and he was about to leave Australia for an indeterminate period and whilst today Malta doesn’t sound terribly exotic, in 1952 when very few people could travel, it most definitely was. And my father knew that whilst on Malta, he would be able to travel during his leave periods.
Located south of Sicily and bang smack in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta was strategically a valuable asset for surveillance of the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the coast of Southern Europe. A British colony at the time, it had served as a base for the British navy and air force since the Second World War. That ‘hot war’ was superseded by a ‘Cold War’ – a time of simmering tensions between the Soviet Union (i.e. Russia and its slave regimes in Eastern Europe) and the U.S. and its western allies – both of the protagonists armed with nuclear weapons. My father was sent to Malta as a part of an Australian contingent supporting the British.
He had always been a bit of a collector; postage stamps when he was a kid, black and white photos cut out of newspapers and glued onto the blank pages of exercise books when he was a teenager. The collecting moved into a different realm when he was in the navy during the Second World War: he collected the banknotes and coins of every strange port where his ship docked – Indonesia, The Philippines, Malaysia, China, India and Burma (now Myanmar).
Over the following years during his time on Malta, he continued his currency collecting – whilst also taking photos.
Late one afternoon in a high altitude gorge in the Indian Himalaya, whilst looking around for rocks to hold down the tent, I found a fossil.
It was a small one, no larger than a debit card.
I couldn’t believe my luck. Over the years I’d seen many fossils in the quarry like terrains above the tree line but this was the first time I’d seen one which was small enough to take with me.
I picked it up and studied it: there was a spiral of fine indentations, which at a guess had been some kind of shellfish or a worm.
With the light fading and a cold wind blowing Anya yelled out at me rather testily:
What are you doing?!
We’re supposed to be getting the tent up!
I shoved the fossil in my pocket.
For years afterwards, it sat on my desk next to my laptop.
I made no effort to find out what kind of fossil it was, of which creature. It was a souvenir.
Then one evening, decades later, I saw a film called ‘Ammonite’ and as a result, that small souvenir garnered at random in an abyss became a stepping stone on a journey into the life story of a remarkable woman……
Marrabel: it was a dot on a map, until it was hauled out of obscurity thanks to a horse which no one could ride. Experienced rodeo riders came from all over Australia and were defeated by that crazy mare and eight years passed before someone managed to stay on her for 10 seconds. In the meantime, a town no one had ever heard of became well known along with its annual rodeo, held in the spring and drawing riders and spectators from all over Australia.
But then one day, a storm appeared over the horizon and the town’s fame turned into notoriety and the unrideable horse became a symbol of a shameful past.
As visitors, people passing through, Anya and I knew nothing about this. With our tent pitched on the deserted rodeo ground, an icy wind blowing across the empty grounds, we convened to the pub as darkness fell with no more in mind than enjoying a warm meal and a glass of wine. It was a Tuesday and our expectation was that we were going to be back inside our tent early that evening.
But ended up staying much longer than we thought, making our way back to the rodeo ground late that night with a blaze of stars above us – and haunting, unanswerable questions trailing behind us…..
Late one afternoon in winter, Anya and I arrived in a small town called Marrabel.
We were hitch hiking north.
Marrabel was the ‘mid north’ and we were on our way to the Flinders Ranges which lay in the ‘far north’.
The mid-north was lush country in comparison with the far north. There were rolling hills which in winter garnered enough rain to make planting wheat and grazing sheep possible. Many of the gum trees were large, quite a contrast to the stunted versions in the far north which was semi-desert.
Most of the people who ‘lived’ in Marrabel didn’t actually live there, but rather, somewhere out of Marrabel, 10, 20, kilometres away.
Only 50 people lived in Marrabel itself.
We arrived late on a blustery, sunny, winter’s afternoon.
Along the ‘main street’ – the only street – were some old colonial era houses on one side and a small park on the other. There was not a single person to be seen anywhere. The only noise to be heard was the wind whistling through the trees.
At the end of the ‘main street’, on the corner of a T junction was a pub.
On one corner of the junction, directly opposite the pub, was an electricity sub-station, a mass of wires and terminals behind a high metal bar fence glinting in the sun.
There was also a statue of a horse next to it but we didn’t see that.
We came to the pub, eased off our heavy rucksacks and left them outside and walked inside. There was no one there except for a woman standing behind the bar wiping glasses. We made our way past tables and chairs and approached the bar. Behind the woman was a sign above a row of spirits bottles which read: ‘When I die bury me under the pub, that way my husband will visit me every day’.
Her name was Wendy. She was tall, middle-aged, with short blond hair. Unlike so many Australians, she was not overweight.
We asked about accommodation.
We had our tent with us – in preparation for a long walk in the Flinders Ranges – but we’d camped out the last few nights in some rough places and now we wanted to have an easy night: dump our stuff in a corner, not have to put up the tent, have a shower, sleep on a bed.
But the Marrabel pub didn’t have any rooms.
Wendy was apologetic and made a suggestion:
‘You can put your tent up down on the rodeo ground and I can make you a meal tonight.’
She wasn’t sure, but she thought there was a shower somewhere on the rodeo ground.
I knew nothing about rodeos. I couldn’t imagine ever going to one. My idea of a rodeo was from my childhood when I was raised on diet of American westerns: check- shirted cowboys with ten gallon hats riding wildly cavorting bucking horses and yelling ‘yippee!
A rodeo was an American invention and I assumed it was something recently introduced into Australia, like grid-iron and basketball.
When I expressed this opinion, Wendy’s reaction was immediate and impassioned and I realised I had made a mistake:
‘Marrabel’s had a rodeo for 70 years!It’s famous all over Australia!’
I was intrigued: a town with no shops, no petrol station, whose official population was 50 – and it was famous all over Australia?For 70 years?
Seemed like local chauvinism gone mad to me.
But I was wrong about that. Every year, in October, Marrabel, a nothing little town in South Australia’s mid-north, became a major stop on Australia’s national rodeo circuit. On that one day of the year it underwent a Cinderella-like transformation.
‘We can get anywhere up to 7, 8,000 people’ Wendy said ‘from all around Australia. From that one day in the year, we make enough money to finance our football and netball teams.’
Just how did this one-horse town get onto the national rodeo circuit?
As it turned out: because of one horse.
Wendy pointed in the direction of the door:
‘There’s a statue just outside at the corner of the intersection next to the electricity sub station….’