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King of the Outback
By Bill King
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Bill King
All rights reserved.
BECOMING A REAL LIFE BUSSIE
My Being Involved in an enterprise that was so far out of the ordinary has prompted many people to ask, 'How did you ever get into such a business?'
Well, I grew up at a time when families ate their meals sitting at a kitchen table; my father carved the roast, told the little people at the table to mind their manners, and talked about the old days. He told us stories about our family pioneering the North West Cape of Western Australia, about my grandfather prospecting the Bangemall and Coolgardie goldfields, and my great-grandfather, Juan Bancells, a Spanish immigrant who became a brumby trapper and horse breaker, shipping remounts to the British army in India. I was always an avid listener, enthralled by his many stories of the outback, and thought, 'One day I'm going to go there.' And I did.
My father, Billy, as he was known, was a great raconteur who harboured a passion for everything Western Australian and forever talked about our family's involvement in the founding of the Swan River Colony. After leaving school in Perth he took his first job as a jackaroo on the family property, Exmouth Gulf Station. Later he became manager of Yardie Creek Station on the Indian Ocean side of the Gulf and later again licensee of the Bangemall Inn.
My grandfather, Joe King, was a true pioneer and jack of all trades: carpenter, fencer, shearer, miner, bore sinker, soldier, windmill builder and publisher of the Miners Right newspaper in Kalgoorlie in 1897. But most of all he was a prospector and sold his strikes to miners with the capital to develop a project, or collected a government reward and moved on.
In 1899 he began fossicking in some old workings in Greenbushes, south of Perth, where he successfully set up a tin-mining enterprise. He did well with the tin mine and sold the lease in 1908 to enter into a partnership with his half brother, William, taking up the lease on 200 000 acres of virgin country on the North West Cape of Western Australia to establish Exmouth Gulf Station.
Then in 1925 Joe got a grass seed in his sock; growing wool and meat had never been his go. Gold was bringing a good price and he'd heard of some good strikes in the Gascoyne, an area he had worked 30 years earlier. Joe went back to the Bangemall goldfields and began mining the Eldorado. Unlike its namesake — a fictitious lost city of gold in the jungle of South America — Joe's mine was a treasure trove waiting to happen and in 1928 he 'struck it rich'.
The Bangemall Inn was up for sale, so Joe bought it with a view to running his enterprises as a family affair. That was how my newly wedded parents came to be living and working in the Bangemall goldfields, one of Australia's more remote settlements.
By mid-1929 the inevitable had occurred and my mother was pregnant with yours truly. At five months she said she'd had enough and made the decision to return to Melbourne to have her baby. There was no way she was going to have a January child in that environment, especially when daytime temperatures in the 40s were normal and a 50 now and again was not uncommon, and there were no medical services on the goldfields. I wouldn't have enjoyed it much either, I should imagine. She left Bangemall in September 1929 and, even though the goldfields were thriving, my father left in December to join her in Melbourne for my birth. So here I am, conceived in Bangemall, born in Melbourne and raised on my father's stories of the outback.
Now you could legitimately wonder, 'Where the devil is Bangemall?'
Well, it's not on maps these days. It's now called Cobra Station and it's a bugger of a place to get to, more than 400 kilometres inland from Carnarvon.
I'll never forget going from Meekatharra to get to Bangemall and then across to Carnarvon, over 800 kilometres on the roughest track I have ever driven on. There had been rain about and the potholes and tyre marks had dried out and set like concrete. What's more, the track hadn't seen a grader since cocky was an egg and the corrugations were dreadful. We called it the track that never ends. That was in 1999. Goodness knows what it was like in the 1920s.
* * *
In Melbourne my folks rented a house in Grange Road, Ormond, and my old man got a job driving a truck for Strang Brothers in Richmond. In later life he always said that he never had any fear of being sacked, or, for that matter, anyone ever coveting his job, which was carting hides from the abattoirs in Newmarket to a tannery in Richmond. The hides were dripping in blood and fat and stank to high heaven, and had to be loaded and unloaded by hand. His one regret was being shunned by fellow human beings when he travelled home from work on the train each day. But my father got his own back on hot days. Driving through the city on the way to Richmond his truck would be pursued by hordes of drooling blowies and smell so bad that people would put handkerchiefs over their noses when he stopped at intersections. He drove the truck for the first few years of the Great Depression and during this time he developed a burning ambition to drive a bus, the only means of motor transport he had ever seen where the load took itself on and off the vehicle.
There was a bus that ran past our door in Ormond. Continually pestering the owner of the bus service for a job eventually paid off and my father became a bus driver, piloting a Reo Speed Wagon along the length of Grange Road. That was about the time I began to have memories: my old man parking the bus out the front in his meal break and me climbing in to sit on his knee and hold the steering wheel and play with switches, and later sitting in the corner next to him on his Gladstone bag for a ride to the terminus and back. It seemed I was destined to be a bus driver.
It came to pass that a bloke named Wally Laidlaw and my father started talking about forming a partnership and in 1938 they took up the licences of the Coburg Heidelberg Omnibus Company, with four Federal buses and a garage and workshop in Bell Street, Preston. My parents rented a house on the corner of Banksia and Cape streets in Heidelberg. Soon after that, the bus company obtained a school contract driving kids from the Heidelberg area to Ivanhoe Grammar School, so my parents decided to send me there and my father could take me to and from school.
Changing schools is never easy, but Ivanhoe was different. The headmaster was the Reverend Sydney Buckley, 'Cobber' to the boys, and he knew everybody by name from the first time he met you. He really was a lovely man. Only today I opened my mail and there was an invitation to the annual lunch reunion of 'Buckley's Boys', and I left school 65 years ago.
* * *
My first job was at S.R. Evans Motorcycles in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, in 1947. I had been fascinated by the two-wheelers ever since my father bought the bus company in Preston. Tom and Stanley Woods, the two mechanics who maintained the buses, both had Rudge Ulster bikes that they raced regularly on the dirt track.
My first bike was an ex-military model Royal Enfield 350 side valve. The former army dispatch rider's machine was poor in power, used a lot of oil and handled very badly — in fact some experienced riders said it was bloody dangerous — but it was all I could get for 40 pounds, a year's savings. I soon succumbed to temptation and upgraded to a really flash road bike, a 1937 Levis 500 D Special. It had a 21-inch speedster wheel and alloy cycle guard on the front, an 18-inch 'fatty' on the rear, and heaps of chrome — a real head turner.
I left S.R. Evans in 1948 and started working for my old man at the bus depot in Bell Street, Preston. The four-vehicle business he bought in 1938 had expanded fourfold. I began in the workshop as a motor mechanic, working with people from all over the world: Greeks, Italians, Calabrians, Sicilians, Yugoslavs, Maltese, Dutch, British, Germans, and Joe the Latvian. I really enjoyed getting to know those blokes. Conversations in the lunch room would be about faraway places with customs or foods that were so different to Australia's. Most of the blokes had been displaced in the Second World War, so there was never a shortage of stories, some amusing, some horrifying.
* * *
Leisure time in those days revolved around motorbikes and I bought a 1938 249cc Empire Star BSA (Birmingham Small Arms Company), and with some help from the Woods brothers stripped and prepared it for scramble racing, an event similar to today's motocross, only undertaken around bush tracks.
When there were no races on I just took off for a ride with a few mates to wherever. Favourite destinations were the Great Ocean Road, Phillip Island, or the Black Spur in the Great Dividing Range. It was exhilarating stuff.
Wednesday and Saturday nights became very special. Billy Glennon promoted the dance at the Heidelberg Town Hall, and I wouldn't miss it for quids, always hopeful that I would meet a girl. There was a particular girl who was always noticeable because she was a good looker, could dance well and wore really smart clothes. One night the barn dance, one of those where you change partners throughout the dance, finished with me opposite this girl and we introduced ourselves. Valerie West, her name was. We had a bit of a chat and when I asked her for the next foxtrot, which happened to be the last dance for the night, she said yes. Then, when I asked if I could give her a lift home on the bike, she also agreed, but said that I would have to drop her off down the block from where she lived as her father forbade her to ride on a motorbike.
Johnny Grayden, a local bloke with a real groovy band, had a gig at the Preston Town Hall on a Wednesday night, so I asked Valerie if she wanted to go. She said yes, but again I would have to pick her up down the block. On the night, I got toffed up in my best gear, looking sharp, but the Levis wouldn't go. I messed about with it for a while, but there was no way I could get a kick out of it. No option — I grabbed a torch and some insulation tape and affixed it to the forks of the BSA racing bike as a headlamp and rode off to pick up my date.
It was a freezing night and as conversation was not possible I remember thinking to myself as we were riding across Bell Street, No wonder I can't get a girlfriend. Even a good bike was second-class transport on a date; a BSA racing machine was ridiculous.
Then, as we pulled up at the traffic lights at Plenty Road, a police car slid up alongside us. Valerie immediately burst into tears, pleading with the cops not to tell her father she was on a motorbike. They weren't paying her the slightest bit of attention, but were taking a real interest in my bike, which was unregistered, had no tail light, no proper headlight and an open megaphone exhaust system.
I was fortunate that our bus depot was only 600 metres down the road. We pushed the bike there and left it, walking the remainder of the journey to the town hall. We left the gig early to catch the bus home, Valerie got off at the Military Hospital to walk back to her house and I continued to Heidelberg station. And that was how the romance started.
I bought my first car soon after that for 60 pounds, a 1928 Singer Porlock Sports. It was a boat-tail two-seater with 27-inch wire wheels and a timber-framed fabric-covered body, built like the early aeroplanes. It was a bit sick when I bought it but looked really smart when the renovation was completed. I didn't have the Singer for long, though, because a bloke came up to me in the street when I was parking it one day and offered me 125 pounds for it. 'It's yours,' I said, as I snatched the money out of his hand, and so began a long history of buying cars to renovate.
I continued to see Valerie and we got engaged when she was seventeen and I was twenty. Was that not what life was all about? Get a girlfriend, get engaged, get married, build a house and have kids. That was how it was supposed to happen in the 1940s, and that is exactly what did happen.
Soon after this we saw a land auction advertised at Macleod and went with my father to have a look. It was the last block of about ten for sale and the auctioneer was struggling to get it to 190 quid. 'Buy it,' said my old man. We ended up buying the block for 196 pounds and were lucky to get it for that, because it left me with only 4 pounds in the bank.
It was a 50 by 150 foot house lot with electricity but no water, no gas, no sewerage, no stormwater drains, no phone, no road, just two wheel tracks leading to four survey pegs in a paddock. That was what you got in outer Melbourne in 1950.
Val and I got married on 5 February 1952 at St James Church of England in Ivanhoe. It was 105 degrees Fahrenheit (about 40 degrees Celsius) by 11 a.m. — a God-awful day with a howling north wind. Fortunately a weak cool change did arrive just before the ceremony, which made it bearable for people in suits, collars, ties and all the paraphernalia.
The bride was late and that got me stressed. My best man, Alan Cromb, said, 'Don't worry, they're supposed to be late,' but that didn't help. Val eventually arrived with her three bridesmaids, looking gorgeous in the long white wedding dress she had made for herself, even though her features were concealed behind a veil — the custom at the time.
We had a reception at the Preston Town Hall, with Johnny Grayden and his band playing, then went to the Prince of Wales Hotel in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda. It was a swanky address in those days, but the trams nearly drove us to distraction. We were unaccustomed to city noises. We took off the following morning to drive to Surfers Paradise for our honeymoon. It was no Gold Coast back then, just Cavill's Surfers Paradise Hotel and a few beach shacks owned by Brisbanites.
Val and I lived in Macleod for six years, had two boys, Russell and Martin, and developed a great relationship with our neighbours. We all built our own homes and had kids at about the same time. We played cards or square-danced on Saturday nights. The cricket test in England was eagerly awaited and listened to on the BBC until the early hours, and the Aussie tradition of getting together with an armful of beer and a plate of sandwiches was the routine.
It was around then that I got serious about renovating cars and bought another Singer sports, a 1938 model, to be followed by a 39 model, before an Austin 8, an Austin A40 and then I got into big horsepower when somebody told me about this 1939 Ford V8 Mercury sedan on a farm out at Rockbank. The 39 Mercury was a really smart car and I went to look at it with great expectations, but arrived at this run down property to find the car in a hay barn covered in chook shit from the hens that had been laying their eggs in it, and rat shit from the rodents who were after the eggs. What a mess! 'Belonged to me old man,' the bloke said. 'He carked it a couple o' years back and I ain't got no money to fix it, mate.' As if it would cost money to wind up the windows.
Anyway, I bought it, renovated it, kept it for a couple of years then replaced it with a 1948 Mercury and later a 1950 Custom, followed by a 1955 Ford Sunliner. I grew to love Ford V8s and still do. I now have a Mach 1 Mustang as my boy's toy.
* * *
My father and Wally Laidlaw decided to dissolve their partnership and sell the Coburg Heidelberg Omnibus Company in 1960. Wally wanted to retire and the old man wished to stay in business, so they sold the main part of the operation, the Bell Street route, and my father retained the licences for extensions in Glenroy that had yet to be fully developed. I was not privy to my father's financial status, but I assume that when he cleaned off all of his debts and purchased the licences and buses, there was bugger all left.
We certainly did not start off in Glenroy in a big way. We rented an old barn on a rural property in Westbreen as a depot. It had three tin sides and a tin roof, and was big enough to fit two buses to work on, but it had a dirt floor that could flood in winter and choke you to death with dust on a windy day in summer. The mud and dust problem was not just confined to our depot either. Half the roads we ran our services along were little more than dirt tracks. Ted Wimble, another driver, and I built a 12 by 12 foot lock-up building alongside the shed that served as an office and store. The dunny was out in the back paddock and serviced by the 'night soil' man.
My job? I was a bus driver, motor mechanic, body repairer, coachbuilder, panel beater, spray painter, and doer of anything else that needed to be done.
We had four 20-year-old Federals and two ten-year-old Bedford buses to call a fleet: four pieces of shit and a couple of fair vehicles. The Federals were built by coachbuilders Cheetham and Borthwick in Carlton, with lightweight sheet-steel panels screwed to a timber frame on an extended American Federal truck chassis. Much of the timber frame had rotted or come adrift in the joints after two decades and the bodies flexed all over the place as they went down the road. It was only the sheet-metal skins that held them together. The front mudguards flapped about as we drove them through the potholes—we called them 'friendly fenders' because they waved at the passersby.
Excerpted from King of the Outback by Bill King. Copyright © 2011 Bill King. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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