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Tall Ships and Tall Tales
A Life of Dancing with History
By Jonathan King
Scribe Publications Pty LtdCopyright © 2013 Jonathan King
All rights reserved.
Kon-Tiki Dreaming (1942–1966)
'If you have a dream, you must find at least one other loyal partner to share your dream — then together you can work hard enough to mobilise the necessary support to make it happen.' THOR HEYERDAHL
If I was born with a maverick anti-establishment streak, it was because I was conceived when my father deserted his fellow troops on an army train during a Melbourne stopover and spent a few hours with my mother, Zelma, in their South Yarra home. It was March 1942, in the middle of World War II, and Captain (Reginald) John Essington King had persuaded his second-in-command to cover for him, knowing that the penalties imposed for being caught absent without leave were severe. But he got away with it, setting a cavalier example. On 28 December 1942, he was back in the jungles of New Guinea, and I was born — named after the Old Testament warrior Jonathan, who spent his life fighting against the Philistines.
Yet I began my own battle against the odds after my father returned from the war. I developed chronic asthma, and was always in and out of hospital, struggling to survive. Sustained by a series of respiratory sprays and a strenuous swimming program, which I followed in the sea baths at Melbourne's Brighton Beach, I made it to my 11th birthday. To inspire me to hope for better things, my parents gave me a book about a Norwegian sailor, breathing in the fresh sea air as he sailed across the Pacific on a raft in 1947. Having written a controversial academic thesis claiming that the early South Americans had settled Polynesia, the sailor had decided, despite the enormous risks, to prove it; he set out to travel 6,900 kilometres from Peru to the Pacific island of Raroia. This sailor had the unlikely name of Thor Heyerdahl.
Heyerdahl had begun by sending one of his crew, Torstein Raaby, a telegram.
am going to cross pacific on a wooden raft to support a theory that the south sea islands were peopled from peru. will you come? i guarantee nothing but a free trip to peru and the south sea islands and back, but you will find good use for your technical abilities on the voyage. reply at once.
Torstein Raaby replied with one word: COMING.
I remember looking up from the book after I read this, and gazing dreamily out the window. If I had been older, I would also have said yes. I thought his daring voyage — sailing his balsa-wood raft, Kon-Tiki, through shark-infested oceans with a brave crew of six Scandinavians, drifting before the wind, with the currents, for 101 days — was breathtaking. I dreamed of doing something similar. Heyerdahl fired my imagination for life. In that pre-television age, he demonstrated that the spirit of adventure was still alive, and beckoned young boys like me to join him — to dare to dream.
Eleven-year-olds have no place on an ocean raft, but this story was just what I needed. Heyerdahl became my boyhood hero. As I swam in the sea each day, I imagined him crossing the ocean that was connected to this body of water. He gave me something to aim for. He was like a shining light entering the dark world of my struggles with asthma (which not only kept me awake at night but also woke my worried parents and my long-suffering siblings, Julie, David, and Belinda).
In 1958, a few years after I was introduced to Heyerdahl's book, my parents sent me to Timbertop, the school in the Victorian mountains, hoping the fresh air and exercise would help me to throw off my asthma once and for all. The campus, part of Corio-based Geelong Grammar School, was not far from Mansfield, and was designed to give 14-year-olds a year in the bush: hiking along the rivers and up the surrounding mountains, cross-country running, and learning to survive outdoors. With its limited places, it was difficult to get into this exclusive school, especially at short notice, and it cost a lot of money. But my maternal grandmother, Marion Sprague, offered to pay the fees.
Timbertop was another turning point in my life. With my lungs expanding thanks to daily exercise in the fresh air, I learned to run along rivers and up mountains, and to hike for days with a heavy pack. I also discovered that I loved the bush and being outdoors. I developed a real taste for adventure and a fiercely competitive spirit, which drove me forward in these extremely challenging circumstances.
We often played British bulldog, in which we had to run from a back line on a tennis court to the other end by fighting our way past a wall of opposing — usually bigger — boys. As a skinny and slippery kid, I was often able to get through before being bullied to the ground, and so this became my favourite game. Although some of the bullies also mocked my frequent coughing — by mimicking this to my face — and ridiculed my late-developing physique, this personal abuse thickened my skin, which helped in the years to come. I also realised that I could survive tough punishment from the draconian Timbertop headmaster, E.H. 'Basher' Montgomery, who often caned me with 'six of the best' on either the bottom or the hands for misbehaviour. He was a tall, humourless, and frightening man, and, as a former state politician, was used to calling all the shots. Yet these confrontations with authority toughened me up for later life, when I had to 'take it on the chin'.
I was so keen to take part in everything at Timbertop that I often broke the rules. Once, the matron locked me in the sanatorium before the annual 26-mile (42-kilometre) marathon, forbidding me to compete due to my asthma. Climbing out a toilet window, I just managed to join the runners as they started. Some time later, approaching the finish line, I was about to overtake the school bully when he warned, 'If you pass me, King, I'll beat the living daylights out of you.' Although I hesitated for a second, I could see that the finish was within reach, and so took the risk and sprinted ahead — to come first in my Timbertop dormitory and 20th out of 120 boys. I had to finish strongly in order to show the matron I could breathe well enough to finish a marathon. It was well worth the risk, especially as that beating never happened.
A hopeless pupil, I then failed matriculation at the Corio campus, only passing one subject: British History. This was thanks to never-say-die teaching by Michael Persse. Yet at the time I was disappointed to find out I'd passed this one subject because I had bet my mate Hugh Chomley a dozen bottles of Foster's that I would fail every subject. So British History cost me a case of longnecks.
I might have lost the bet, but it turned out that a love of history, especially British, would stand me in good stead in the years to come. My unexpected interest may have had something to do with my proud father explaining that my British ancestor Lieutenant Philip Gidley King had sailed on the First Fleet, so perhaps I did not want to let him down. Whatever the reason, as life went on I would cling to history like a drowning man to a straw.
When I left Geelong Grammar I headed for the bush once again, this time to jackaroo in outback New South Wales. My parents thought the fresh air would be good for my asthma. Mind you, there weren't a lot of options, considering that I had done so badly. Many of my fellow pupils at Geelong Grammar were wealthy graziers' sons, and they had also been encouraging me to go bush for years. As I came from suburban Melbourne, they had taunted me with accusations that I would become a weedy little bank clerk working in a city skyscraper in a white shirt, suit, and tie. So I decided to follow Banjo Paterson's hero, Clancy of the Overflow, in seeking The vision splendid of the sunlit plain extended / And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars' instead of 'sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy / Ray of sunshine struggles feebly down between the houses tall.
I got a job as a junior jackaroo on seven pounds a week — a pound a day — with the New Zealand and Australian Land Company. They owned about 25 large stations around Australia and trained jackaroos to become managers. I was sent to Bundure, a large sheep station near Jerilderie managed by Fred Hutchins, and then to Wingadee, a cattle and sheep station between Coonamble and Walgett.
This jackarooing, where I saddled up my horse every day and worked as a stockman, drover, boundary rider, shearer, and general station hand, taught me some great skills. It was exciting to gallop after runaway cattle with experienced Aboriginal stockmen, who showed me how to ride, crack a whip, find rogue steers hiding in the scrub, and round up wild horses that had got away. I also had to muster big mobs of sheep, perhaps 5,000 at a time, with my loyal kelpie, Boy, and my border collie, Blackie. I even had a go at dagging, crutching, and the bloody and cruel mulesing of sheep's bottoms; not to mention marking, where I would cut the tip off the sheep's scrotum, seize the tiny testicles in my teeth, and pull them out of their unsuspecting housing. This life also toughened me up physically because I was thrown from bucking horses, chased by wild bulls in stockyards, and forced to defend myself from drunken bushmen in the sorts of pub brawls that were common to outback towns at the time.
Fights aside, it was fun, full of adventure, and romantic — especially if your head was full of Banjo's ballads. It was not as thrilling as crossing the Pacific on a raft like my boyhood hero had, but it seemed the next best thing. I became a jack-of-all- trades and was, by the end of three years, ready for anything. Although I didn't realise it at the time, my second inspiration was Paterson, whose iconic characters, Clancy of the Overflow and the Man from Snowy River, helped me to fall in love with the bush and its characters, and inspired me to embark on a life of adventure. Decades later, in the mid 1990s, I would bring these wonderful Australian icons to life with re-enactments of their journeys.
My heady days of jackarooing nearly ended when I got drunk and crashed my car. Returning to the station from the pub one night, after a beer or two too many, I lost control and rolled my Volkswagen Beetle.
'What a pity,' I heard a voice say early the next morning, as I lay semiconscious and bleeding, trapped in the upturned wreckage, stuck in a ditch beside the road.
'Yeah, he only looked about 20,' a gruff male voice said. 'Bloody roads!'
'More likely too much alcohol,' I heard the woman reply. 'Poor kid.'
'What a waste of a life,' the man concluded as the ambulance arrived.
But I wasn't dead. The car was a total write-off, but once the ambulance got me to the Coonamble hospital, I regained full consciousness, and, after a few days of intensive care, I recovered.
If my life had been spared by the Almighty, I vowed that I was going to make good use of it and do something worthwhile. I started studying for my matriculation by correspondence through Taylor's Coaching College. Determined to pass English, by far my worst subject at school, I carried copies of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Charles Dickens' David Copperfield around the station in my saddlebag, reading them while boiling the billy under coolibah trees beside the creek, in the paddocks, or in our shared jackaroo's quarters.
'Wattayer doin' all that book lernin' for?' one or other of my fellow jackaroos would call out as they flipped over another page of their comic books.
'I'm studying to get into university,' I would say, as innocently as possible.
'Fat lot of good that'll do yer runnin' a cattle station, eh?' they would reply with a laugh, grabbing another beer from the fridge. 'Waste of bloody time, mate!'
But after a year of balancing the demands of cattle droving and sheep shearing with study, I sat for my matriculation in an empty cell at the police station in Jerilderie (the same lockup where, 85 years earlier, bushranger Ned Kelly had imprisoned the local policemen after he rode into town with his gang to rob the bank). I wrote my answers under the watchful eye of the local officer, whose chain-smoking in the confined space nearly gave me an asthma attack. As the cell only had one high window with four iron bars, and he was sitting on an armchair right in front of me, I could hardly breathe.
Although the smoky exam papers I submitted from Jerilderie were awarded a pass, I could not enrol in an arts degree without a language, and so I had to settle for a diploma. Admitted to the University of Melbourne through a back door for low achievers, I started a diploma in journalism. I was lucky to get that place. I needed to be working for a newspaper to gain entry, so I persuaded a friend, Andrew Weigall, a cadet at Rupert Murdoch's new national daily, The Australian, to swap places. Tired of the dirty dusty city, like Paterson's Clancy, Weigall wanted to go bush, so I got him a job with New Zealand and Australian Land Company, and he introduced me to the Melbourne editor, who let me take Weigall's place — once I put my age down a few years, that is.
As my course included an English major, which involved literary criticism, I learned to read and analyse books with fresh eyes. Picking Kon-Tiki off the dusty shelf for holiday reading one summer, I retreated to the solitude of a fire lookout tower in the Victorian forests, where I had a job as a fire spotter. This vacation role was poorly paid, but I had plenty of uninterrupted time to read, looking up occasionally for any telltale smoke. I could stay up there all day. If I did spot smoke, I climbed down and reported it to the Country Fire Authority by phone from the hut below.
High up in my lonely tower, by now in my mid 20s, I re-read Kon-Tiki, and it sank in as never before. I realised that Heyerdahl was not only telling the story of his great expedition, but also explaining how he had pulled it off against the 'dire forebodings' from doomsayers who warned he would never get away with it. He was actually revealing strategies for organising adventures. To make his dream come true, Heyerdahl started telling people he was going to do it, and that momentum helped him to attract support. He never admitted to any doubt. Heyerdahl also explained how he had used pioneers such as Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who was first to the South Pole, as inspirations. But a turning point for him was winning the support of his first partner, a refrigerator salesman and an unemployed engineer called Herman Watzinger, who pledged unfailing loyalty to Heyerdahl and invested funds in his dream. Heyerdahl could not have done it, either, without finding a figurehead — the president of Peru, who opened doors for him. But it was his total faith in the dream and its energy that kept him going. He trusted his gut instinct — his intuition, rather than cold, calculating reason — and in the early days he never worried about practicalities. He always had to appear positive, he wrote, and hide his weaknesses (such as the fact that he couldn't even swim!).
Amazing, I thought, as a flock of kookaburras landed in a gum tree below me and began to laugh, and darkness slowly fell. His expedition against the odds sounded much more exciting and important than droving cattle down the Cooper in outback Queensland.
By the time I climbed down from the tower for the night, Heyerdahl had a firm place in my mind. As I went to sleep in the hut below, listening to the frogs and crickets, I thought a lot about the last thing he had explained: when he set out on his adventure, he realised that he would have to be the one telling the story — the one writing the articles, the radio reports, the book, and the film script, even though he was not a professional writer.
I didn't think much more about Heyerdahl right after that, because I had to start studying for exams again. Yet when I returned to university, I got the chance to meet my first professional writer, Alan Marshall — thanks to a fellow student, my kind-hearted girlfriend, who was trying to lift my game. And that meeting would, in time, reactivate the seminal vision with which I had so deeply identified because it set me on a course of encounters with adventures in history — starting in 1967, with a trip to the Soviet Union for the 50th anniversary celebrations for the Bolshevik Revolution, which had introduced communism to Russia.
Excerpted from Tall Ships and Tall Tales by Jonathan King. Copyright © 2013 Jonathan King. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
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