I still remember my first glimpse of the Mooloo property we’d purchased. We’d laboured up the winding dirt track, which narrowed as we moved to the crest of the mountain in our Morris Oxford Panel Van. Through the back window panels my attention had been riveted to the left side of a road that seemed to my young eyes to disappear into an empty void through the dust haze in the air behind us. Would we slide over the side into that void as the road narrowed?
Then all of a sudden we were there at the top of the mountain and my terror subsided. On the left were a series of tin sheds where our neighbours sat astride the crest of the hill. On our right was a substantial farm house with glassed in sides giving a panoramic view of the country in all directions. This was to be our new home. I loved it instantly.
Our house nestled on a tiny plateau which allowed you to catch your breath before climbing steeply further up our mountain in the direction of Gympie. Evenings after we’d settled in, we’d trek uphill to see lights of the city twinkling in the distance as birds chatted noisily in trees above, reporting to each other on their day’s activities.
On that first day I’d quickly taken in scenery surrounding my new home with my siblings. There were three mountains on that 270 acre property. We lived on top of the first one, and spaced out evenly heading down the property road were principal buildings of that farm. The first was a shed where fodder and farm implements were stored, and further down the hill were milking sheds and holding pens. The store shed drew me to its darkened interior often, as curled around the rafters was the biggest python I’d seen. Its coils kept it firmly anchored, and head hung downward, gently swaying back and forth with unblinking eyes looking for an occasional rodent unwise enough to venture into that shed. That lethargic creature was capable of very rapid movement when lunch appeared. I regarded this creature with fear and fascination, though farm hands totally ignored the presence of this monster. They regarded it as a necessary protector of precious grain stored there.
The second mountain required a steep climb down the first, and an equally steep climb up the other side until my father built a winding road around the mountains with a Ferguson tractor. We’d ride on the back mudguards of the tractor, which would rear up on its rear wheels to the delight of us children as it negotiated sharp inclines. That second hill was covered with macadamia nut trees and a delightful variety of mango trees. During the bearing seasons we spent a great deal of time on that hill sampling windfalls until our small stomachs plead for mercy. We also discovered in our mountain wanderings that if you turned over rocks dotting the mountainside you were likely to find interesting things like scorpions and snakes.
It was the third mountain that gripped our imagination and conjured up in childish minds sinister images. This mountain had been a huge banana growing enterprise decades before, and if you were brave enough to fight your way through lantana bush and scrub, you’d find banana trees liberally interspersed. Disease had destroyed this commercial enterprise and the hill had been abandoned to its own devices. However cable wire transport from that mountain to the next, and then on to the storage shed near our home was still intact. It was known as the flying fox. After several tries with experimental loads my Father eventually hitched a ride home from this far mountain without injury, and to our great delight. Though he never attempted it again.
To us the mountain was sinister because a bull had escaped the confines of its pen and retreated into bushland on that third mountain. While we rarely saw it at close quarters we could hear it crashing through bushland as we descended from the second mountain on our property. The mountain was also a source of the blood curdling howls of dingos as evening settled in. Dingos would make the long commute to farm headquarters during drought time to worry the cattle, sometimes to kill one of them before my Father would appear with his gun.
It was the first dry weather that convinced Father we needed a more permanent water supply to service needs of cattle, and irrigate crops that were the mainstay of the farm. The trusty Ferguson was put to good use scooping a basin between mountains one and two, and constructing a high earth wall to hold a substantial lake. The force of water rushing down the mountain in the first downpour destroyed that initial dam, and it had to be rebuilt substantially with more care taken in construction of overflow channels. We stood in the rain watching with awe as much of the track down the mountain covered with water and a large lake took its place. Our commute to the second mountain took a bit longer after that as we had to walk around the lake to get to our fruit tree destination.
During dry seasons the level of the lake diminished, leaving mud flats well trodden by cattle as they drank and socialized in the early mornings and evenings. It was virtually impossible for a child to walk to the waters edge as little legs entered the mud all the way up to their knees; however there was no mud on the steep sides that cattle avoided and that was the place to dangle feet in the water or hunt for yabbies. *
Having a lake without a boat seemed rather a waste. We were given permission to take one of the forty four gallon drums lying unused in the shed and cut it lengthways with chisel and hammer. One section became a feeding trough for cattle, the other became our boat. We pulled it with difficulty ceremoniously down-hill to the deep end of the dam. This makeshift boat was heavy, so we did not know if it would sink. To our surprise it floated, and to our further surprise we found that children could get into this makeshift craft and paddle around the dam. Being flat ended the boat made slow progress but riding in it was fun.
Now at this point of the story I need to introduce you to our dog Sandy. Sandy was part dingo and part whatever, but he was an excellent cattle dog and a good snake killer. One day Sandy disappeared and it was several days before we found him under the wood pile, apparently unable to move and glassy eyed. One of his mortal enemy snakes had got him while they were having differences of opinion, but Sandy survived and was an even more dedicated snake killer after that experience. Sandy would round up cows for milking and distribute them to their paddocks afterward. There was no violence or threat in the activity. It was almost as if he would go out and shout “time for milking!” and he and the cows would make a leisurely trip to the milking yards exchanging pleasantries along the way. It was after this exercise as a reward for a job well done we would shout, “Jump in Sandy!” and the dog would rocket down hill and literally fly in the air before landing in the middle of the dam. He knew just where to make his exit so that mud flats were avoided.
With that preamble we can return to the child in the drum boat in the middle of the dam. There is a universal understanding among children that when a friend is in a vulnerable position it is time for action. The child in the boat heard the words, “Jump in Sandy!” and saw out of the corner of his eye a brown flash launching into space high above the dam. Arms pumped and paddles broke water with great speed, but the blunt nosed boat stubbornly kept to a leisurely progress through the water. There was an explosion of water nearby, the boat shuddered and began to sink while this child swam ashore and crawled through mud banks to the delighted shrieks of laughter from the conspirators watching from shore. The sunken boat was never seen again, even when water sank to its lowest levels in drought times.
Farming was not where you made your fortune in the early fifties and after a few years experimenting with farm life our family moved back to the city where life was not so complicated. But I’ll never forget those years on the farm where we could wander with relative safety enjoying the great outdoors in the comradely atmosphere of a rural environment. Nor have I forgotten the one who called, “Jump in Sandy!” on that fateful day. He’s still on my hit list!
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2011, all rights reserved”
Yabbies *like a fresh water prawns.