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My Droving Days
Life on the Long Paddock
By Peter Moore, Shirley Moore
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2012 Peter Moore and Shirley Moore
All rights reserved.
Heading for the bush
It was 1952, and a glorious January morning, when I left the family home at Hope Street, Balgowlah, a northern beaches suburb of Sydney. I strapped my gear onto my bike, a Norton 500. My father was nowhere to be seen now that I was ready to leave. I'd had enough of rowing with my father over speeding fines and other silly things. I was off to the bush.
I kissed and hugged my mum and my two sisters, Robin who is three years younger than me and Mary who is four years older. I told them to cheer up and that I'd write as soon as I could. My baby sister Robin cried as she hugged me. I knew I'd miss all the good times we'd had when I took her for a burl on my bike. Wal, my brother, who was seven years older than me, wished me well, saying, 'Stay out of trouble.'
With a quick wave I rode away from the only home I'd known for the past twenty-one years. In one way I felt sad — but also as excited as a cat with two tails. I hoped my new life would be full of adventure, like the characters I had so often read about in stories by Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson.
I didn't really know what I was in for.
Taking things slowly, I kept to the speed limit, knowing I couldn't afford any more speeding fines that caused trouble with the police. Two of my mates, cousins Kevin Pearce and Brian Kelly, had recently moved up to Brewarrina, to Hastings Station, where Brian now worked. They didn't know I was coming. The three of us had all grown up on the same street in Balgowlah, so I decided to look them up before doing anything else. Brian Kelly would be able to advise me where to go and what to do. My immediate plan was to head for Brewarrina, Bourke and Cunnamulla, then up into Central Queensland — or else to ride until I ran out of money for petrol.
After leaving the northern beaches and the suburbs behind I headed over the Blue Mountains, riding though small towns until I finally reached Bathurst, where I pulled up on the side of the road and rolled a smoke. I remembered the many times I'd come here to go to the Bathurst races with my brother Wal and mate Laurie Evans. It was always exciting watching different bikes tear around the track. I only watched and had never raced in a race — I only raced where I wasn't supposed to. The last time I'd been to Bathurst was also the last time I'd got booked for speeding. It's still as fresh as if it happened yesterday.
I had pulled my balaclava over my sandy hair and had slid my hands into a pair of leather gloves. Over the din of the idling bikes I had yelled out, 'I'll take the lead.' Wal followed on his Triumph Speed Twin and so did Laurie on a Norton Dominator.
Leaving Bathurst I had slowed to the restricted speed, doing everything to the book. Once past the unrestricted sign I immediately opened up, gaining speed, faster and faster still. The speedometer climbed to over 140 kilometres per hour along the straight. My adrenaline pumped; there was nothing in front of me except the wind roaring past, and only my goggles kept my eyes from watering. Suddenly I heard a Speed Twin's motor coming up behind me, purring, gaining ground. I felt a surge of excitement — my brother was going to race me. With the Triumph breathing down my neck and closing in fast I watched the needle shoot up to over 160 kilometres per hour, knowing full well I'd only be able to hold the lead for a few minutes. I floored the Norton.
The noise of the bikes almost drowned out the sound of the siren. I throttled back quickly, almost losing control of my bike as the Speed Twin drew level. The bludger waved his arm and mouthed the words 'Pull over.' Jesus Christ, I cursed to myself, I'm in shit-street again.
It took me nearly half a kilometre to come to a complete stop beside the highway. I stayed seated on my bike and watched the copper's approach on his Triumph. The sight of a pig always made me boil. The uniformed constable slowly removed his gloves before pompously strutting towards me. The only thing missing is the bloody swastika, I thought.
'May I see your licence, Sir?' he said when he arrived next to me.
'What's the trouble Constable? I've done nothing wrong, I'm in a unrestricted area.'
'You came through a built-up area at a speed of over thirty miles an hour.'
'Fuckin' bullshit! I didn't.'
'Are you disputing what I saw, Sir?' he said as he skimmed his eyes across my licence.
'Yes I am.'
'Well, prove otherwise.'
'No worries. You can verify things with my brother; he'll be along in a minute.'
'It won't make a scrape of difference because it's my word against yours in a court of law. I'll beat you anytime.' Then he handed me a ticket. I exploded. 'You're a typical fuckin' copper. You'd arrest your own mother.'
'I wouldn't go any further, Sir,' he cautioned, then added, 'On your way.'
When my brother and Laurie arrived they asked, 'Didn't you see him hiding off the road near the signpost?'
'No, Wal, I thought it was you wanting to race.'
'Too late to worry now, Pete.' Laurie had grinned. 'Your father is going to hit the bloody roof.' And he had been right. The row resulting from that day was one of the reasons I had decided to go bush. I finished my smoke and my moment of reminiscence and got back on the road.
On the road to Orange a couple of other bikers overtook me. Later on I caught up with them in the local and ended up drinking too much beer. That night I found a spot not far from the pub and went to sleep beside my bike.
I woke early the next day and continued my journey. The closer I got to Hastings Station, the flatter the landscape became. After travelling more than 600 kilometres, I finally arrived at Hastings. There wasn't a cloud in sight overhead, nothing but blue skies. It felt to me like it was well over 38°C as I rode my Norton up to the homestead. My mate Brian, who was a station hand, introduced me to Ted Pearce, Kevin's father, who was the manager of the property. He had lived there since divorcing Kevin's mum who lived with her sister, Brian's mum. Later, over a few beers, I filled them in on the goings on in Sydney since Brian had left twelve months before. I was also keen to learn more about what Brian was doing on Hastings Station.
'How many sheep do you run, Ted?'
'About 164 000 head — or two sheep to the acre.'
'That's a lot of sheep. Must be a large station.'
'You could say that, Pete. The property's 33 000 hectares.'
Finally we all turned in for the night. I bunked down on the verandah, where the mosquitoes had a field day, peppering me all night.
Next morning, I ate the biggest breakfast I'd eaten for a long time, and Brian explained that I should get in touch with the stock and station agent in Brewarrina about securing a job as they didn't have anything for me at Hastings. I thanked Ted for his hospitality, shook his calloused hand and kicked over my bike.
'One piece of advice, Peter — just make sure you keep to the middle of the track and don't go off where the water is shallow, or you won't get out. The floodwaters from the Bogan River are still receding, and even though in some places beside the roadway it's only twelve inches deep ... it's deadly!'
I waved to Brian and left, roaring off down the drive.
Things all happened about fifteen minutes after leaving him. The track snaked around the watercourse leftover from the floodwaters and at one point I could see the road reappear, only about 15 metres away. 'The water looks pretty shallow,' I muttered to myself. 'She'll be okay. I'll get through that, no trouble, and I'll save time.' I carefully eased the bike off the rough track into the shallows, but without warning the front wheel sank, bogged up to the telescopic forks. 'Bloody hell.' I cursed, particularly when I didn't fare any better as I slipped off, sinking immediately up to my knees in pure black mud. 'Damn!'
Heaving and pulling I tried to drag the Norton free. Several times I stopped, panting and gasping for breath. The mud clung to the frame, not wanting to part with its prize. The bike wouldn't budge. Defeated and exhausted, I just stood there covered in mud like a battered fish, shivering with the cold. How could I have been so thickheaded? Why hadn't I listened? Now, even before I reached town I was in strife. Christ, what a bloody fool I was. What was I going to do? Then, as I stood wrestling with the problem, I heard a vehicle approaching from the direction of the homestead. And when I realised it was Brian and Ted it added further to my embarrassment. They both had grins like split watermelons.
'Didn't I warn you not to leave the track? I just knew you'd do this — I just knew it. You know-all city pricks are all the bloody same,' chuckled Ted. To both of them it was hilarious. Foolish as I felt, I tried to laugh it off. 'She'll be right!'
With Brian's help we attached a heavy rope to the bike's frame, tying the other end to the bumper of the 3-ton Bedford truck. Reversing gradually, Ted slowly hauled the Norton from the mud's clutches. After managing to scrape the majority of the mud from the bike, I was able to kick the motor into life. Grateful, I thanked them again. This time I slowly inched my way down the black-soil track. Several times the motor coughed and sputtered, but it kept going. Well, I thought, I've learned my first lesson: always do what a bushman tells you!
* * *
Brewarrina was about 50 kilometres away from Hastings Station. It reminded me of a sleepy little town from an old movie as I cruised up the main drag like a tourist. There was no hustle and bustle of a large city. Here people walked at a normal pace without rushing, which was so different even from the Sydney of 1950s. There was a hospital, a police station, a post office and three pubs. That was all; not what I was used to! My first priority was to find somewhere to stop the night. I rode past the Barwon, then the Middle Pub, stopping outside the one at the end, the Royal, which looked okay and Brian had recommended. I ambled into the public bar.
'What'll it be?' the redheaded publican asked. I noticed a large poster on the wall that advertised Tooheys Country Special New. I pointed. 'I'll have one of those,' I said, dropping a ten-shilling note onto the bar.
'Just passing through or stopping, mate?'
'Not sure yet.'
The publican introduced himself as Blue and offered his hand. I reciprocated. The first creamy middy of beer hardly touched the sides of my dry throat. I ordered another. The pub was cool and the beer terrific. What more could a bloke want?I thought. I helped myself to some peanuts that were on the bar for the patrons. The pub's atmosphere was enhanced by the many curiosities adorning the walls. There were old marble bottles, whips, kerosene lamps and old tattered posters advertising beers that Blue had collected over the years. The plaited bullwhip caught my eye. I ordered another drink. 'Is the whip for sale?'
'Nope. A drover from up Queensland way left it in lieu of his bill, said he'd be back for it.' One day, I thought, I'm going to have one just like it.
With the afternoon came the sweltering heat, which soon saw a few of the locals arriving to down a few ales. After observing that most of them drank from smaller glasses I asked Blue the reason. 'Well, mate, if you want your beer to stay cold longer it's best to have a smaller glass.'
'Right then, I'll do that, thanks Blue.'
Some blokes allowed their dogs to follow them inside the pub, where the animals casually stretched out on the concrete floor. The dogs knew the coolest spot to sleep. With interest, I watched as most of the patrons simply stepped over the sleeping canines. One old bloke, however, who was well primed, caught his foot on the blue heeler nearest the door and fell heavily onto the poor unsuspecting dog. It was a toss up who caused the most commotion, between the cranky drunk shouting abuse and the startled dog tearing out of the pub. The heeler's owner left hurriedly to retrieve his dog. One of the locals helped the old man to his feet. He continued to curse everyone before he staggered over to a chair, collapsing like a sack of potatoes. His head began to droop and his arms sagged forward, causing his body to slump onto the table, corpsed. He was out like a light. The show was over, so I finished my beer before the six o'clock closing time. 'Any chance I could get a room for the night?'
'Sure, mate, I'll get the wife to fix you up.' Blue gave her a yell.
She emerged from the kitchen and fluttered like a butterfly up to the bar. For a plump woman who measured two pick-handles across the backside, she was rather light on her feet. My father would have jokingly said that her friendly nature made up for her looks because she was as ugly as a hatful of arseholes, tied up with a string of farts. I paid cash for the room and she asked me if I had a job. I replied no and Blue's wife beckoned me to follow. Upon reaching Room 4 she opened the door and smiled. 'Hope you enjoy your stay, luv. The bathroom's down the hall. Breakfast's any time after six. Sleep tight.'
Left alone I turned back the drab green chenille bedspread and flopped onto the bed. I was buggered! But an hour later, I was still tossing and turning on the lumpy, worn-out mattress, which should have been thrown onto the rubbish heap years before. Half of bloody Brewarrina must have been conceived on it, I thought. Switching on the bedside lamp I propped myself against the pillows and rolled a cigarette. As I glanced around the small hotel room, I couldn't help noticing that the walls and ceilings had a yellowness which only came from years of smoking. Something resembling a curtain hung limply across the glass window. Air! That's what this room needed, but no amount of heaving would budge the window. Then I saw why — it had been nailed down. Gawd, I thought, I wish I was camped out under the stars, not stuck here in this fartarse of a room, sweating like a pig. Sprawled on top of the bed like a lizard, I chain-smoked and fantasised about what lay ahead, now that I was finally in western New South Wales. Hopefully, I had made the right decision by leaving Sydney and my full-time job.
It seemed I'd just fallen asleep when I heard people moving about in the hotel. Looking at my watch I was surprised to see it was 7 a.m. 'Gawd-Christ, I'd better hurry or I'll miss out on breakfast,' I muttered. Closing the door I made my way down to the dining room where breakfast was in full swing. As soon as I sat down an overloaded plate of sausages, bacon and eggs was shoved in front of me. Halfway through this enormous meal the publican's wife asked if I'd like another sausage.
'Careful, mate, or you'll end up cuddly, like my Madge,' Blue laughed, patting her fat backside.
'Thanks, Blue, I've had ample. Have to make a move and see about getting a job.'
'Get in touch with the stock and station agent — he's the bloke to fix you up. He'll look after you.'
'Thanks a lot. How much do I owe you?'
'Ten bob will do mate.' Shaking hands I couldn't help feeling how soft my hands were compared to the publican's. 'Good luck, Pete, hope you land a job.'
Blue and Madge were a nice couple, but I hoped I wouldn't have to spend another night cooped up in that hotel room for a while. From now on, I thought, I'll sleep under the stars, just as I've always dreamed.
I was heading down the main street when I was amazed to meet my other mate, Kevin Pearce. After we downed a few cold beers at the Middle Pub in celebration, he invited me to stay at his grandfather's place, an old weatherboard house at the end of town. Now Cuddy Pearce, Kevin's grandfather, was a wily old feller. He asked me where I thought I was going. 'Up Queensland way,' I said.
'Well, do you want a job to tide you over?'
'Rouseabout on Neranghi Station.'
'My bloody oath, Cuddy. I've never done that type of work before but I'm willing to learn. Where's the station?'
'It's about 23 kilometres out of town. I'll give you a knockdown to the boss cocky tomorrow at the rodeo.'
I'd never set eyes on a real rodeo before — it was fantastic! The population of Brewarrina was about 1200 people, half of whom were Aboriginal and lived on a mission near town. But when the rodeo came to town the numbers more than doubled. Kevin wanted to watch his sister Lola, who was riding in an event called the flag and bend. She won. For me there was plenty to see — camp drafting, buckjumping, bareback riding — but what I liked most were the blokes riding the bulls. Some did manage to stay on but most were thrown so that the rodeo clowns had to run out to distract the bulls from hurting the riders.
Excerpted from My Droving Days by Peter Moore, Shirley Moore. Copyright © 2012 Peter Moore and Shirley Moore. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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