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U3A Writing: Curtin Springs Station N.T

In this splendidly detailed article Monica Duckering tells of life on a remote Australian cattle station.

It was never my intention to live on a cattle station in the middle of nowhere. I had a perfectly snug home in a caravan on the south coast of Victoria.

When Heather asked me to accompany her on a tour of Australia, I thought, "That sounds quite exciting." So I agreed.

She drove an old car. There was no air conditioner, no radio, no CD player. Pulling a trailer which converted to a tent with a double bed (we put pillows between us!), it took about two weeks to reach Curtin Springs.

We stopped well before sunset each day and left the various campgrounds along the way only when the sun had risen, so there was no chance of bumping into stray cows, kangaroos or emus in the dark. Heather was insistent upon that, no matter how high the temperature climbed. Still it was very sensible of her.

The free campsite at Curtin appealed to her sense of economy, though there was no illumination. A few elderly gum trees fluttered overhead, red dust underfoot. After a meagre candlelight supper in the van (not up to Mrs Bouquet's standard) I walked towards a light and discovered the building which housed the Bar and a large bough shed. Under it sat the owner, his family and the other people who worked for them.

"May I sit here?" I asked, pointing to one of the long wooden tables which was vacant. "Of course, my dear," the elderly gent replied.

I sat, picked up my pen, bent my head and became totally absorbed in making a fair copy of the poem I'd scribbled down in the interminable journey.

As soon as I had finished the task I picked up the paper, carrying it to the table occupied by the chatting, laughing crowd, plonked myself down in the only vacant seat and announced abruptly, "I've written a poem. Would you like to hear it?"

Peter answered for everyone. "Yes, let's hear it."

The conversation ceased. They listened politely, and even clapped when I'd done.

I stayed there for another hour or so, enjoying the cheerful company of the motley crowd. One man in particular, tall and unshaven, fascinated me. Heather and I packed up and left at daybreak, but by the time we'd reached Darwin I had made up my mind to return to Curtin Springs.

I couldn't find any springs. Most of the time the cattle station was dry and dusty - red dusty. Once in a while it rained torrents. Huge pools of water formed. An enormous lake filled the front of the isolated property surrounding the three petrol pumps. Nevertheless, even when it hadn't rained for months, I found patches of wild flowers, which I gathered sparingly to make pressed flower cards. Elderly women tourists (often German) would buy them.

Across the Lassiter Highway was the cattle yard where a beast was enclosed before being killed, involving most of the staff and family. It was called a Kill, a dangerous procedure because, naturally, the animal, usually an ornery bullock, was exceedingly reluctant in the first place. Maybe its tiny brain indicated that this was not a good idea. I watched once. I waited while the dust settled. The bull had been brought to the ground, snorting and bellowing, till its throat was cut and a young woman stood triumphantly on its belly, jumping up and down to expel the blood.

That was enough for me.

There were less unpleasant pastimes, though even these were not without danger. I helped change the linen in the motel rooms, trolley it to the laundry, stuff the sheets, towels and pillow slips into the extra large washing machines, hang them up on the hoists which I had to lower. The farm hands and mechanics, who also helped, were much taller than me. The temperature in the day was overpowering so retrieving the washing from the lines was left till the sun had set.

Almost everyone else, about twelve altogether, were enjoying well-earned thirst-quenching drinks in the bar when I decided to collect the washing, fold it up and put it on the shelves. That done, I ambled across to join the others.

Sally came barging through the screen door only a moment or two after me, yelling, "There's a snake by the laundry!"

We all dashed out. The deadly Mulga Brown must have been curled up under the table where I'd been standing. With all the commotion it slithered rapidly into the laundry. Ashley, the owner's son, went in with it and shut the door behind him. He managed to nudge the snake out from under the cupboard and club it to death. Ash kept snakes as pets. He would bring them out sometimes to show the foreign tourists, even encouraging them to hold them. The dear little guinea pigs the children loved to watch were bred to feed the snakes, but Ash didn't tell them that.

As well as the reptiles there was a fine aviary and in a separate cage a friendly, talkative cockatoo, William was allowed to take it out occasionally and let it stride up and down the bar counter. The blokes and sheilas greeted the big bird which answered back raucously.

Ashley's dog, Hannibal the Animal, also known as Woos, was a very large canine, an American Pitbull, but harmless to humans. William's dog, Rusty, a Red Heeler, and Hannibal were rivals for top dog. Both were once great cattle dogs till Rusty was gored in his shoulder by a bull that he was helping to round up. Ash was ready to shoot the poor creature but William took him to the Vet in Uluru about 90 kms away. The Vet patched the dog's wound and prescribed antibiotics and painkillers.

Rusty was William's best mate from then on, even sleeping in his swag on cold nights, that is, until I arrived! Rusty's best dog mate was Bitch-...by name and nature. She was also a Red Heeler, but with the softest curly coat. She disliked the tourists, especially children, yet she sat for hours beside Rusty, licking his sore shoulder. Good old Russ tolerated me for Williams' sake, but he certainly appreciated the lovely warm mattress I fashioned out of the camel blanket Mark gave us.

Mark was crossing Australia with his six camels, accompanied by a young lady with hers. At one stage we received an SOS through the Royal Flying Doctor Radio Service. One of the camels had damaged a leg. It needed certain medication as soon as possible, so William and I obtained the stuff and set off early in the trusty Toyota truck.

Their caravan was about 350 kms from Curtin Springs, mainly along bush tracks. To find them we suggested they light a fire of dry Spinifex, and fire a gun at a given time. They did so. We saw the smoke at precisely 3.00 pm. Mark and Gina were having a job controlling the flames as we arrived. They were very relieved to see us. We'd also brought water and food. We made them a delicious meal in the camp oven and slept under the stars in our swags. Rusty came too, of course.

Other dogs were not as lucky as he was. Several inquisitive young pups were bitten by venomous snakes and died, foaming at the mouth. I was warned repeatedly never to set foot outside the door of our donga, a three-room caravan without wheels, without first looking down. So I never did.

At the height of summer about 200 Scouts arrived, boys and girls, aged from 8 to 10, together with about 10 Leaders. They set up their tents in the campground and prepared to explore the surrounding terrain, Ayres Rock (Uluru) in particular.

Ashley, a Nuffield Scholar, supplied the transport, the food and water for the outings. The Leaders rounded up the kids but had very little idea about how to organise them, especially concerning the quantity of water they would require.

All hands turned out each evening to make the piles of sandwiches which the Station supplied for their packed lunches. For the evening meals there were substantial barbecues, which were very popular. The children queued for their cardboard plates full of sausages, meat and salad and sat on the grass to consume them.

Quite a lot of work was entailed. Then the sewage overflowed! O, boy, what chaos that caused before that problem was overcome!
The children stayed a week. It was very quiet when they left. Ash was promised compensation for expenses but it was never forthcoming. The organiser reckoned it was Ashley's good deed.

"I need something from the Supermarket," William told me one day. "Come on," he said, striding off. 'Supermarket?' I thought, 'What's he talking about?"

Intrigued, I followed him past the back of the homestead, the storeroom and kitchen buildings, past the sheds where repairs to 3wds and farm vehicles were done, past the camp ground and through a gate, along a dusty track and there was what they called the Supermarket. It was an enormous area of broken-down, bashed-up cars, piled up on top of one another. Spare parts were available once you knew where to look and how to extract them. William found the 'something' he needed.

On two occasions, I rode the 400 kms to Alice Springs on the back of a 1980 BMW motorbike. The first time I rested my feet on the exhaust pipe instead of the foot pedal. We left at about 5 a.m. to get a good start before the heat of the day and had gone 100 kms before we stopped for a break. It wasn't till then that I realised something was wrong. The sole of my best boots had melted onto the exhaust pipe. Luckily there was a metal plate between the rubber and upper so my feet were O.K., but it took William hours, when we'd returned, to remove the glued-on black residue. Yes, it did feel pretty warm. I didn't make that mistake again.

We went to Alice only once every six weeks, staying in a motel (sheer luxury!) or in his friend's ancient caravan beside jocular neighbours. The journey there and back in the Toyota truck was somewhat tedious. When William suddenly became ill, refusing to stay in hospital, I had to take the wheel. I counted the minutes between milestones till we arrived home safely six hours later. I hadn't driven any type of vehicle for years though I still had my Rhodesian Driving Licence.

There was never a dull moment at Curtin Springs.

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