The Colour of the Outback
Stories from my father
I was standing alone on the train platform, my one suitcase at my feet. Dusk was falling and as I looked across the tracks at the plains which seemed to stretch on forever I had this feeling there was a great nothingness about to descend upon me and anyone else who might be within coo-ee of this outback outpost.
I chuckled to myself at that word; coo-ee. Don't ask my why it popped into my head. That was a word that was commonly used in the Aussie bush . . . but there didn't seem to be much of that around here. Just grassy plains the colour of straw, low scrub and patches of bare, red dirt. That's about all I had seen from the carriage window on the trip out west for my new job. My first job. I had landed in a sepia coloured world, much like the old photograph's of family members that my mother kept on the mantle in our living room back home.
It was 1957. I was sixteen years old and this would be my first night away from my family. So far I was all alone, apart from the station master who I had seen shuffle inside to his office a few minutes ago. The other passengers had all disappeared, having been collected by their family or friends, but no one had come for me so far. Someone from the property I would be working on would be here to collect me from the train, I had been told, so all I could do was wait.
As the darkness fell a chill came with it, so I reached down and opened my battered suitcase and found a pullover my mother had packed for me. A few moments later the station master came out of his office. He looked surprised to see me still waiting. He looked at me and then partially stepped back inside the doorway, before three light bulbs along the platform suddenly came on, which seemed to hold back the approaching night.
'No one come for you yet?' the station master enquired. 'Would you like a cup of tea? I've just boiled the billy.'
'That would be nice. Thank you,' I replied, with my mother's words about remembering my manners ringing in my head.
With a nod the old man disappeared once more, before returning a few minutes later with a white enamel mug, steam rising into the night air.
'Who are you waiting for?' he asked me, as I took the mug from him and he sat down beside me.
'Someone from Greenhill Station was going to pick me up. I'm supposed to be starting work there.'
'Greenhill, eh? Well, I can tell you this much, there's not much out that way that is green. Lots of dusty plains and a bit of scrub. You're probably waiting for Gordon White, the overseer, he usually picks up the newbies when they arrive. If I'm not mistaken he's probably still at the local pub in town. Probably forgot all about you.'
'How far away is that?'
'Oh, about half a mile or so.'
Just as he replied we both turned our heads at the sound of an approaching vehicle and could see a pair of car headlights coming our way at speed.
'That's probably him now,' my companion offered. 'You better drink up. You've got another hour or so driving ahead of you yet.'
'How far is that?'
'Oh, about sixty miles I reckon.'
The thought of being sixty miles from the middle of nowhere was a sobering one.
The headlights proved to be a part of an old lorry, which arrived a minute or so later. It had definitely seen better days and the layer of dust made it difficult to tell what colour it was, or had once been. The driver got out and looked our way, then started toward us.
'Are you Richard?' he asked.
'Yes. But everyone just calls me Rick.' I put out my hand to shake his, but he just looked at it.
'Okay then, Rick, I'm Gordon White. I'm the Overseer at Greenhill Station. The new kids call me Mr White. Time to get your stuff so we can hit the road.'
'Yes, sir,' I replied. I quickly gulped down the tea and handed the mug back to the station master and thanked him, then picked up my suitcase.
'Is that it?' Mr. White asked. 'Not planning on staying long?'
I didn't know what to say to that, so I said nothing.
'Take it easy on him, Gordon. I remember you were just like him once.'
'Yeah, but I grew up, didn't I? This land does that to a man,' my new boss replied, then turning to me he said, 'C'mon kid, time's a wasting.'
I followed him to the truck and while he went to the driver’s side I went around to the passenger side door. When I opened it a blue head with white teeth was right in front of me. It seemed to be emitting a low growl.
'Bull!' his owner snapped.
The blue heeler turned his head back toward his master's voice, then back toward me.
'Don't mind the dog. His bark is worse than his bite.'
'Not often,' came the reply. I thought I saw the beginnings of a smile, or at least a smirk, but I could have been mistaken.
Mr White started the truck and I climbed in, nursing my suitcase. The dog sat between us on the wide seat. He was watching me intently, but once we had driven through the small town and had gone a few miles out the other side he seemed to relax and sat down on the seat, his head right next to my leg.
For some time all I could hear was the sound of the motor and the crunch of gravel beneath the tyres. Mr White wasn't much of a conversationalist apparently, but that was okay by me. From what I already knew about him I didn't think I would enjoy talking to him much anyhow.
After a while I heard him clear his throat and glanced across at him.
'The owners haven't told me much about you,' he said. 'You know much about working on farms, or with animals?'
'My grand-parents have a farm,' I replied. 'Mum and dad didn't want us kids to go onto the land, but it's all I want to do.'
'So how did you land this job then?'
'Pop, that's my grand-father, was talking to their stock and station agent and found out about it.'
'And here you are, then.'
We drove on in silence for a while longer before he finally spoke again.
'So, can you drive a vehicle, or ride a horse?'
'Yes, sir. Haven't had all that much experience, but I can do both those things.'
'Okay. Well, I guess you'll get some more experience as you go along. I'll introduce you to the property owners in the morning and there'll be some jobs around the homestead we can get you started on. Then see how you go from there.'
'Just follow the rules and do what you're told and we should get along okay.'
After that we drove on in silence. I looked out the window into the darkness, not quite knowing where I was going to, or what it would like. Had I done the right thing by leaving home and coming out here into this vast nothingness? Just the fact that I was already questioning my choices already had me worried.
In the minutes that followed I rested my head against the window and somehow I managed fall asleep for a short while, waking only by the vibration of the truck driving over a cattle grid, rattling and shaking as if it were about to fall to pieces.
Looking ahead I could see we had turned off the main road and were now bouncing along a much narrower track. Kangaroos, sheep and cattle all made way for us. while up ahead in the distance I could see some lights.
'Ahhh, you've finally decided to join us,' the driver said. 'We're almost there.'
I nodded and yawned as we drove over another cattle grid.
The lights were getting closer. Above them I could also see a sliver of moon rising above the shadow of a mountain, then as we got closer still and eventually passed in front of the homestead I could see more lights coming from other buildings and that was where we headed, eventually pulling up in front of an old weatherboard house.
'Welcome to your new home,' Mr White said. 'This is where I live. You'll have a room in the men's quarters over there,' he added, while pointing to another building not far away.
I nodded. I wasn't sure what the arrangements would be, but it sounded like I was going to have a room of my own, which was going to be a first for me.
'I'll introduce you to the other men, then we'll get your room sorted. After that I'll get the missus to give you something to eat. I guess you haven't eaten in a while?'
'Not since this morning.'
'Okay. Grab your stuff and we'll get you sorted then.'
Apart from Mr White and myself, there were three other men working on the place. An old stockman named Clancy, a younger stockman named Pete, who was just a few years older than me, and an old Aboriginal gardener named Charlie. They all welcomed me and seemed nice, then Mr White left us and told Pete to bring me over to the house when ready. I was shown to a small room in the quarters which opened onto the front veranda of the building. It had a bed and some cupboards and a table and two chairs. The walls were corrugated iron, both inside and outside. Nothing fancy, but apparently this was going to be my home for the foreseeable future.
'It ain't much,' Pete said. 'And you'll be able to hear Clancy snoring through the thin walls all night.'
'Couldn't be any worse than my brother, who I had to share a room with,' I replied as I tested the bed with my hand.
A few minutes later we crossed a dusty yard and Pete knocked on the back door of the house. A woman opened the door and ushered us inside, introducing herself as Mrs White. She looked tired, but welcomed me, telling us both to take a seat at the kitchen table. There was no sign of Mr White.
'You want a cup of tea, Pete?' she asked.
'That would be nice, thank you.'
I was soon presented with a plate with some vegetables and slices of roast lamb. It wasn't hot, but I didn't care.
After we had finished we returned to the quarters. It was getting late and the other men had already retired. I could see that the lights in their rooms were out. Pete said goodnight and that there would be an early start in the morning. I thanked him and then closed the door. I was alone for the first time I could remember.
My first weeks at Greenhill Station went by quite quickly. I soon found out that my job was to be the boy-Friday, a position that entailed anything and everything that needed to be done. Some days I would be helping Charlie in the homestead gardens, which was about the only bright spot on the property, while other days I would help with stockwork or clean out sheds, or paint fence posts, or change oil in the motors of the farm vehicles. I learnt a lot, the days were long and hard and the pay wasn't great, but it was a job at least.
I was still finding it hard to get used to the landscape and the dusty tones of literally everything around us. They trees were grey and drab. The paddocks were mostly dirt, it was a wonder that the sheep and cattle had anything to survive on. The only colour anywhere seemed to be the homestead garden and a patch of green trees that ran from behind the house toward a jagged cliff and mountain that rose up from the plains. I would have loved to have explored that place, but it was somewhere we had been forbidden from going to.
In the evenings I could often think I could hear noises coming from that direction, noises that sounded like they were being made by birds, or possibly animals of some sort, but when I asked Charlie about it one time his reply was short.
'I ain't never seen them, but the boss reckons they are flying foxes, you know, fruit bats, or whatever they call them. He says we shouldn't go there and disturb them.'
I though nothing much more of it.
A few days after I had arrived there I remember I was helping Charlie in the gardens when I heard a car approaching. I looked up from what I was doing and saw a dusty and battered old utility coming to a stop by the side of the house. A man got out and was soon greeted by the boss, the station owner, Mr Campbell.
I watched as they shook hands and then went inside the house. I didn't think much of it, but the vehicle was still there early the next morning. When I was back around that side of the house that lunch time I noticed it was gone.
About one month later I recalled seeing the same vehicle parked by the house once again, after coming back from working at the stock yards a few miles from the house. I happened to mention it to Pete that night and he said that it comes regularly. Old Charlie heard us talking and told us not to worry about it, that it was a friend of the owner and we should mind our own business.
The following month the vehicle arrived again. Once more the boss greeted the driver and they went inside the house. I was beginning to grow curious about this stranger, even if I knew it wasn't my place to pry. Still, given the dull existence that living out here in the middle of nowhere seemed to be I couldn't help but want to know something.
The following morning I knew I would be helping Charlie again, so I made sure that I was working in the garden on the side of the house close to where the strangers car was parked, in the hope that I might see or hear something.
The morning was dragging on and there hadn't been any sign of any activity but eventually I heard the familiar screech of the hinges on the screen door at the side of the house. I looked up and saw the two men walking down the steps off the veranda and heading in the direction of the stranger's utility. The stranger was carrying what looked like a wooden box with a handle on the top, which he placed in the back of the vehicle.
I had been raking the lawn after it had been mown and I watched as they shook hands, before the stranger got into the vehicle and started it up. After a wave to each other the vehicle drove off, kicking up dust in its wake.
I stopped what I was doing and watched for a just moment too long, as the boss looked my way and saw me leaning on the rake. When he started toward me I knew I had been busted.
'I suppose you're wondering who that is who comes and visits every month?' the boss asked.
'Not really any of my business, boss,' I answered, not wanting to appear too nosy.
He studied me for a moment and then asked, 'Can you keep a secret?'
'Follow me, then,' he said, before calling out to Charlie to let him know I was needed elsewhere.
The boss set off around the side of the house with long strides and started toward the gate in the back corner of the house yard, with me tagging along behind, unsure of just what was happening or what we were going to be doing.
I glanced back at Charlie and saw him standing there watching us.
Mr Campbell held the gate open for me and I went through, then we set off along a path, heading deep into the scrub which existed between the homestead and the cliffs which rose behind it. This was somewhere I hadn't been before, the area I had been expressly forbidden from entering, so my nerves were on edge, despite my being accompanied by the boss. The local birdlife seemed to be very active this morning, with the trees filled with noisy, squabbling birds of all varieties. It was something that seemed strange, but given we were entering what seemed to be a forest ahead of us it wasn't that surprising.
After a few minutes walking, through what was now very dense bushland which seemed to be crowding in on us - not unlike a rainforest - we soon came to a clearing where I was greeted with a totally unexpected sight: an immense steel frame, more than fifty feet high I reckoned, which was covered with chicken wire.
It was an aviary, and a massively sized one at that. I could see that it was divided into separate sections and inside these were the most magnificent birds I had ever seen. Parrots of all types and sizes and colours were housed within the frame. I recognised some of them as they were native to our country, like the eastern Rosella's and Crimson Rosella's, which I had seen many of around home, but there many were others that I had never seen before. There was colour to be found in this drab, sepia toned land after all.
In addition to the aviary there was also a round structure with a roof and several bench seats under cover, all facing the bird cage.
'This is a hobby of mine,' the boss said. 'I adore parrots of all shapes and sizes. I like to come here and sometimes just sit and watch them. Apart from the local species, like the Rosella's and cockatoo's, all the other birds have been delivered by my friend who you saw leave this morning. He sources them from all over the world for me . . . and just between you and me, I'm not even sure if it's legal to keep some of these.'
'So is that why the aviary is hidden out here?' I asked.
The boss just smiled at me then placed a finger to his lips, before saying, 'It's a secret, remember?'
I looked back into the aviary and watched some of the birds flying around before moments later a massive specimen, with turquoise and gold feathers and the most inquisitive eyes, flew down and landed on a large branch that was hanging not far from us. The bird tilted its head from side to side, as if studying us.
'What is that one?' I asked quietly.
'A Blue and Gold Macaw. They come from South America. Stunning, isn't he?'
'He has a girlfriend there somewhere . . . oh, there she is, on the far side. She must have spotted the new arrival.'
'The one from today, you mean?'
'Yes, he's in a separate pen on the far side for a little while, away from all of these, just to make sure he's not carrying any pests or diseases. Come on, I'll show him to you.'
Dutifully I followed the boss around the edge of the pen, deeper into to the forest, before we soon came to another, smaller aviary. It too was divided into several sections and in the centre pen I could see a bird that looked to be all the colours of the rainbow.
Starting at the head he was a vivid red, before changing to bright yellow, then eventually to a deep blue. When I noticed the random green feathers between the blue and the yellow bands of colour I was reminded of my school art class, where we mixed these colours to create green.
'He's magnificent,' I said. 'What is he?'
'That, my boy, is a Scarlet Macaw, all the way from a country called Costa Rica. Ever heard of it?'
'No. I don't think so.'
'Fascinating place,' the boss remarked.
As I looked around once more at all the birds, I couldn't believe this oasis of vivid, living colour could exist in a world so drab and lifeless. I had been beginning to feel as if my entire time in this place would be dull and miserable, but seeing these birds and all this colour gave me a new hope that my future here wasn't going to be as depressing as I had been thinking it could be.
We sat down on another seat that was nearby and just watched the Scarlet Macaw. The boss seemed entranced by the bird, and it wasn't too difficult to see why as he flew from branch to branch inside his temporary prison. He pulled a packet of tobacco from his pocket and rolled a cigarette, then lit it. I watched him as he did this then he offered me the packet and asked, 'Would you like one?'
I shook my head and said, 'No thank you. I've never actually tried it.'
'Smart lad. It's a bad habit to get into.'
We sat there for a few minutes more, while the boss finished his smoke then he got to his feet, so I did as well.
'Best let you get back to your work with old Charlie I suppose. He'll be wondering what I've done with you.'
'I guess,' I replied, as we set off down the path toward the homestead. 'Thank you for showing me the birds. They're beautiful. I was beginning to think there wasn't much around here that was pretty.'
'You're welcome. Just remember to keep it under your hat though, eh?'
We walked on in silence, with the raucous sounds of the birds starting to fade away behind us, eventually returning to the gate at the back of the house yard and passing through it. I still had visions in my mind of that splendid Scarlet Macaw flying from branch to branch.
As I was about to head back to my work the boss placed a hand on my shoulder and stopped me. 'You know, there really is a lot of beauty in this country,' he said, 'even if it doesn't always jump right out at you. Just take a look around you every once and a while, lad. You might be surprised at just what you might see.'
'Yes, sir. I'll do that. Thank you.'
With a nod and a smile he turned and started toward the house. I watched him for a few moments, a tall man, hardened by a hard land, yet he had another side, a side to him that appreciated nature and beauty, just like I did. Fleetingly I wondered if I would end up like him if I stayed here.
I looked around for Charlie and spotted him on the far side of the yard, so I started toward him.
'Fruit bats, you reckon!' I said to him as I joined him.
'Well, I did say that I ain't never seen them!' he replied. The conspiratorial grin on his dark and weathered face was infectious. 'Seen plenty of other things though.'