You don’t hear the four shots fired out – echoing along the ridge. Or the heavy thuds of three horses collapsing, one taking that second bullet to fold down: ‘An act of kindness,’ she’ll tell you later, try to explain to anyone who’ll listen. ‘I couldn’t let them burn.’ – Alice Bishop in The Constant Hum.
From 2000 till 2011, during the last years of my mother’s life, I would visit her each Friday. For most of that time she lived by herself in Taringa in Brisbane. On one such visit, my mother told me an interesting story about a trip she took with her mother, Eunice. Readers may treat this story as a diversion from the news media currently swamped with stories of bushfires engulfing NSW and Victoria.
In the 1930s our granny (Eunice) took her four kids: Mum (Tina), Mack, Margaret (Auntie Tom) and Ian (Tiger) from Murrumbogie in western New South Wales to Metung near Lakes Entrance in Victoria by car. The purpose of the trip was to visit Mum’s aunts: Margery, Elaine, Kitty and Fairlie who holidayed each year at a cottage called Koorak in Metung. These days, if the roads aren’t blocked by fire, you could do the 780km trip in about 12 hours.
One Friday I asked Mum which way Granny went and how long it took. So we set about trying to work out the route of a journey that occurred over 70 years previous. All we had was an old Caltex Road Book that Mum had used to drive from Brisbane to Murrumbogie near Trundle in NSW each year with her sister, Margaret (Aunty Tom). Mum’s latter travels with Tom was an annual event that stretched through the 1970s right through till the 1990s. They would smuggle Mum’s dog into motels along the way.
Anyway the earlier trip with Granny took about three days, Mum said.
Why didn’t Grandad come?
Mum explained that grandad (Ted) would have been busy during the shearing season or would be dipping sheep on the farm which his father had called Murrumbogie after a local aboriginal word meaning Big Water Hole.
So Granny set out in an old car, probably a Buick or similar American car. An Australian car was yet to exist and her husband, Ted, preferred big American cars over British cars. Granny and the kids probably went south via Trundle, Forbes, and Cowra.
Mum was insistent that they went near Mt Kosciuszko. In those days there was no Alpine Road through Cooma, with snow on the roadside in the winter months. This route does seem unlikely given that the Alpine Way did not open till the 1950s. However looking at the old main roads maps from the 1930s, it does seem possible. And to think there were big fires along this route to Victoria in the mid 1920s!
Remember that Australia’s new parliament had been opened in Canberra only a few years before. Canberra itself was a very young town. And the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme was still more than 12 years away.
Mum said that they traveled down through Snowy River Country.
So, trying to capture the romance of such a journey, I got out Banjo Patterson’s poem ‘Clancy of the Overflow’ and read out this section to mum:
“He sent the flint stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,
He cleared the fallen timber in his stride,
And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat –
It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.
Through the stringybarks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,
Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;
And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound,
At the bottom of that terrible descent.”
Finally they came to Lakes Entrance to visit the great aunts’ place at Metung on a peninsula that separates King Lake from Bancroft Bay.
When I visited in the 1960s, an old man would sail his gaffed rigged skiff with his daughter in her 30s across the bay to pick up supplies at Metung. Another man, Jim Smith (who has a laneway named after him near Korak), would do any odd jobs around the house that the aunts needed doing.
Metung was an escape for the aunts. Here is Margery’s account of how they came to spend holidays there:
“Father, mother and family went to Metung in December 1912 for three months. We rented the house “Korak”, which father bought a couple of years later. He gave it to mother, and she left it to us four girls. Some of
us have been down there every summer since then, and I am writing this in 1954. We have had many happy holidays down there, and father and mother loved it.“
Anyway, according to Mum, Granny and her kids stayed for holidays at Metung sometime before the second world war (1939-1945). The aunts kept the house till the 1970s. The land was subject to terrible fires and drought in those years. For example, Margery says after her youngest sister Fairlie Curr passed her exams as a Teacher in December 1924, “We had terrible fires at Murrumbogie the following year – 1925.”
Koorak was situated at one end of Metung Road on a peninsular that separates Bancroft Bay from Lake King. One time aunts Kitty, Elaine and Fairlie asked me to sail them across the lake to a secret path that they knew. We set off with a picnic basket and found a bush track on the other side walking some distance to an estuary. On arrival, aunt Fairlie told me to swim across the river and to climb the dune on the other side. She said a great surprise awaited me there. I did as she instructed and saw the longest straight beach I had ever seen – a ninety-mile beach. Fairlie had told me not to swim in the sea as there were sharks. It was beach at Portsea where Prime Minister Harold Holt drowned a few years later in 1967. His body was never recovered. I am reminded of this because Dame Zara Holt kept a house not far from where I swam that day.
On my return, the aunts had laid out a picnic rug, Kitty produced a thermos of tea and the finest home made marmalade sandwiches I have ever tasted. Our adventure ended and we sailed back to Metung.
As a 14 year old boy I was fascinated by running, especially longer distance events. I later discovered that Percy Cerutty trained great middle distance runners like Herb Elliott and John Landy. Cerutty was known to avoid the track, talk about role models outside athletics (such as Leonardo da Vinci and Jesus), and bring his athletes to the unspoiled seaside beauty of Portsea, where Elliott would sprint up sand dunes until he dropped. “Faster“, Cerutty would say, “it’s only pain.”
At that time, aunt Fairlie who was my model. Fairlie taught me how to catch eel with bread dough off the jetty. She taught me how to sail the Kookaburra which was stored in a shed nearby with the mast down.
I was a keen chess player but my aunts only played draughts. So, to amuse ourselves after dinner, the aunts and their friend Sophie Borland taught me how to play the card game ‘500’. When asked by her friend, Sophie, what card game they should teach me, Fairlie said she considered showing me how to play Bridge but that it was too complicated in the three weeks I was staying at Metung. So I would sail the Lakes during the day and, after dinner, play 500 with the aunts and Sophie in the cottage called Koorak. After cards I would listen to world news on my Germanium radio and fall asleep in my tent down by the lake.
It was Mum’s idea to send me down to visit the aunts in 1964, perhaps remembering the great holidays she’d had as a girl with the aunts, after being driven along the back roads of Jindabyne by an audacious mother. However there is some uncertainty in Tina’s story. According to Ernie Dingo’s travel show on NITV the township of Jindabyne was relocated in the 1960s after the development of the mega hydroelectricity system, the Snowy Mountains Scheme. The township now overlooks the alpine waters of Lake Jindabyne near the Snowy Mountains.
My mother’s account may sound fanciful but my aunts Fairlie and Kitty had their own road adventure. Aunt Marjorie described it so:
“In September 1936, my sisters Kitty and Fairlie bought a Buick car and trailer with the help of Joy Downer and Eileen Malynn, then all set off for a trip to Queensland by way of Gippsland and round the coast to Sydney and Brisbane. They went up as far as Rockhampton. They left the car in Gladstone
and went out to Heron Island. They returned to Melbourne by way of Central N.S.W., visiting our old home at Trundle on the way. In all they motored 6000 miles.“
When the second world war began my mother, her sister and aunt Elaine all joined the armed forces. Mum worked as a driver. Aunt Elaine enlisted in the first school for the Women’s Army. She was a sergeant and served in Melbourne from the beginning, 17/1/42, all through the war till 9/11/45. Auntie Tom worked as a telex operator in the air force in Townsville when it was bombed.
Epilogue: All the road adventures in this account are well documented, save for the one told me by my mother, the details of which remain in doubt because of her advanced age and dementia. Nonetheless there is reference in my great aunt Marjorie’s journal of a visit from many of the family from Murrumbogie in the 1930s.
4 Jan 2020