I sat on the edge of a wooden pier in Fremantle, my bare feet playing in the water. My thoughts were on: how to see and experience Western Australia. Also, I was enjoying the water and the breeze after two weeks’ toil on an “All-Purpose Farm” whose bookish owner had named his farm with a Latin phrase meaning I STRIVE HARD. These two weeks had been a good introduction. All-purpose farms are certainly a part of Western Australia. By working on one you get that part of the picture, and without cash, too.
But there was the matter of sheep. Western Australia was above all a sheep country. The sheep were in the Northwest, on huge establishments, each holding up to a million sheep.
Steps were sounding behind me, stabbing, stunted steps as of a sailor. Should I consider them a promise? A promise that here might come the man to take me North along the coast to the sheep stations?
“I want to talk to you.”
The voice was rough, friendly. I stood up and faced him. He was the short stubby sailor type, as I had thought. He looked pleased that I had risen and faced him. It was a recognition of his authority. He stuck his hand into mine and left a note,
“Here is something for working clothes. I need you on my schooner. You see it over there at the starboard pier. Be there in an hour.”
He left without waiting for my answer. The trends of his thoughts were crystal-clear to me. For an old-timer of the sea, who never learned to swim because he was afraid of prolonging the ordeal should he fall in far out to sea, for such a one there is only one thought when he sees a man on a pier with his feet in, playing with the water. That man is thinking or even planning to fall in. He hasn’t got a job. Drowning may seem better to him than starving. The old sailor had collected his crew this way before. And many a crew member had been sitting at the pier end just waiting for such a one to show up, knowing their ways and their thinking.
I arrived with my bundle of working clothes. The schooner was going North with salt and other supply for the sheep stations, would haul bales of wool back South.
I was told I would be the replacement for Bert Peterson, that dumb Swede who had been on a drinking spree and hadn’t found his way back in time. But as we were towed off the pier a man came running full speed, shouting, “Sju tusan shuttenhundra shutty shu swartkledda jevlor” and with that he jumped, and clambered on to the railing with cramped fingers
while his stockinged feet were trailing in the water.
His substitute, me, couldn’t be set ashore again. We both had to stay aboard and the belated Swede naturally took it out on his replacement he didn’t need. He showed me the compass in which there was a huge air bubble, which sometimes happens in old compasses. “Now this,” he instructed me, “is the bubble upon which you greenhorns steer.”
In Shark’s Bay we anchored for the night and I, not knowing the name of that bay yet, dived in. They all waved to me and I waved back, friendly-like and as, in my own good time, I mounted the ladder, a black fin oozed through the space. Where I had just been.
“Didn’t you see us trying to wave you back, you confounded idiot?”
“No big deal. I am just a substitute anyway, and not needed.”
Our destination was Onslow, a pier and a warehouse at the mouth of the Fortesque River where a combine of sheep stations receive their supply and send off their wool. This river has deposited shallow sand banks miles and miles from shore. We had to anchor so far out we couldn’t even see the shore. The skipper chose me to row him to shore. Jack Patterson, ‘the Gentleman of the North West,’ owner of a station with 400,000 sheep, was there, along with a coast pilot who came back with us. At high tide he brought the schooner through a zigzag course to the pier.
The skipper tore into Patterson with an impassioned plea for taking me on as a sheep station hand. So I wasn’t worthy of joining the schooner crew. And this after I had rowed two times ten miles! But the Gentleman of the Northwest shook his head,
“Sorry – overstaffed.”
“Now? In the busy shearing season?”
The unloading of salt bags began. Big burly Patterson placed himself at one end and looked challengingly around. The dumb Swede for whom I was a substitute took his place at the other end. Patterson tore into the sacks, threw them up on the wharf and before they landed he had his fingers dug into the next one. The Swede puffed and huffed at this pace and after forty minutes he gave up, sat down and wiped his brow. He was relieved by other crew members who, one after the other gave up while big Patterson carried on at his end, until lunch.
After the meal Patterson took up his position again and looked around, challengingly. There was only myself left. Why should I have this infernally bad luck of having my turn after lunch, when Patterson was well rested?
I accepted his pace and increased it. I was determined not to yield to this insufferable show-off. Soon there was blood in my throat. I swallowed and carried on. The world danced before my eyes. Salt bags flew in the air, apparently without any assist from me. Where was I? I no longer knew. I had become an automaton, a robot. Nobody could stop me, least of all myself.
I had no idea how long we had worked when Patterson, breathing heavily, sat down and wiped his brow,
“You are hired:”
Jack Patterson had the new hired man in the front seat as he drove home that evening, a jackaroo, lowest hand on the station, at three pound and ten a week and mutton chops for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The two headlights played over the desert, no roads though a few tracks here and there, and kangaroos jumping their zigzag dance, apparently fascinated by the bouncing headlights.
The station with its sheds and stables and warehouses looked like a frontier town except for the residential quarters, a majestic palace in genuine stone masonry with two and three-feet thick walls, to keep the inside cool and comfortable in the blistering Australian heat, at noon, and comfortably warm during the cold nights.
In the MORGUE, the following morning, Jack Patterson looked me over, tenderly,
“Thought I should teach you how to kill’m today, Bryn, but I see you are not the type for that. You like’m too well. You may go right on learning how to dig a post hole.”
With a few quick cuts Patterson did it himself, so fast the little animal hardly felt anything. He was the gentleman of the Northwest.
Digging of postholes is a unique Western Australian art, naturally, since the sheep stations require extensive fences, always changing, forever maintained. The equipment is simple: Emptied soup cans, one or two depending on the agility of the operator. With a soup can in your right or left, or both you dig a narrow hole straight down, much straighter than any man with a clumsy auger, and to arm’s depth. With a little experience you dig in half the time of the best auger. You place the post in the hole, fill up with sand to one-third height and shake the sand with a steel bar until the post stands firm as in a concrete foundation. You fill up sand to two thirds of the height of the hole, shake down with a bar again, and finally a third time, after the hole is filled. The post stands as if rooted in eternity.
Nobody should leave Australia without knowing from personal experience this all-important art.
And it is all for leading the sheep where we want them to go. This becomes particularly clear during the shearing time. Upon spirited horses we ride around driving the entire woolly population in toward the enclosures. One after another, as they are needed, jumps the last fateful step, pressured from the onrush from behind them, to be caught and sheared and then let loose again, as politicians do with us before and after we are pressured to elect them. When you look carefully at the faces of the sheep just before they have to jump, then you read their doubt, their fear, their despair, you read your own mind as it reacts to its environment.
Beyond man and sheep there are other constituents on a sheep station: Donkeys or jack-asses, and camels. Both are used when teams are travelling south across the desert to sell the products in Perth.
The jack-asses held Keith Halvorsen, the station manager, in particular esteem. Keith had his quarters just beside mine, and every night at twelve sharp the jack-asses, twenty in number, appeared outside Keith’s door to sing their serenade: HEE-HAW-HEE-HAW. Keith was a poor sleeper and did not appreciate this midnight concert. Invariably he would appear at the door, a stick in his hand and his old-fashioned night skirt reaching to just below his knee, flapping in the wind. This seemed to be the climax the jack-asses had been waiting for. With a raucous parting HEE-HAW they turned and ran off and when you watched the faces you could actually see that they were laughing.
The rest of the station crew were watching from other doors and guffawing mercilessly except myself, who joined the manager in chasing the respectless musician and with a serious face which gained me the manager’s everlasting gratitude so he was beginning to speak of me as a future manager when he was to retire.
What? This looked serious. I was on a holiday fling to see Western Australia, not looking for a new career. I had my engineering diploma hidden in my inner pocket. So, to be safe, I asked to join the next team crossing the desert to Perth, the capital. My request was granted. And Keith himself joined us! He and I rode in front, where the desert air was clean and fresh and the entire mother Earth stretched out before our vision, while the rest of crew was enveloped in a cloud of sand, kicked up by a thousand sheep, and by camels and jack-asses.
At night, when the camels had settled down with loud grumblings, like old men who see the world as one mighty conspiracy against their well-being, and a setting sun was firing the sand crimson-gold, and fires of snakewood were making mulligan stew and baking delectable dampers, Keith talked to me about the lures and laughs of a manager’s life, while the crew sang the songs of the desert with sandy, hoary voices.
In Perth, Western Australia’s capital, Keith and I spent our time in the public library reading all about sheep station management while the rest the crew quenched their thirst and eased their sore throats in the proper places and sought whatever comfort and pain could be extracted from the siren’s of the neon-lighted streets.
After a return trip, with more instruction in sheep management, I knew the time had come, or was overdue, for a change. I joined Charlie, the well digger, a profession closely related to jackaroo and a most essential “supporting service.” Charlie and I were walking behind his two-wheel cart drawn by Baby and Boy, two sturdy horses, while Charlie, looking at his load, mumbled, happily, “Plenty of spuds and oatmeal, all the tucker we need…”
When we set up camp, at a place Charlie fancied might have water, I was his helper and handyman who turned the heavy wheel, lifted the bit until it was released and fell with a thud unto earth or rock or whatever was beneath it and thus we bore a hole two inches wide. When we reached water we lowered a narrow bucket, fitting the hole and hauled up the liquid and Charlie, who had been watching, prostrated on the sand, now applied his know-how, the taster and expert. His nose twisted, “Ugh: Bitter as old socks!”
He spat it out and we hitched on Baby and Boy for a trek to a new try. But when evening came we spread our mattresses on the dry sand and went to sleep under blinking stars. Once we came to a little lake and Charlie instructed me in washing oneself, all the way down to the belt, “It is good for you!” Thinking I was following his instructions, I stripped and waded in.
“Bryn!” he thundered, “Wading in and washing below the belt — positively indecent!”
Later that day I learned that he had a point. We had set up camp for the night and Charlie was asking me if I knew which was the most dangerous animal around the desert this time of the year. I was trying to guess: Not the nice though inquisitive Kangaroo? Certainly not the meek sheep? The Chinese fugitive cooks who had been driven out by racist white pigs and were roaming the desert with a gun?
No no, the most dangerous animal was the he-camel at mating time, which was now. In pure destructive lust he would slap down any male he met~ not merely other male camels but also men. No sooner had he spoken than we heard the rhythmic clap-clap of running camel’s hoofs.
“Pretend to sleep!” rasped Charlie and promptly buried his head under the blanket on his already made-up bed and I followed suit by putting my own head under my own blanket. But this show had to be watched, so I formed my blanket into a tunnel through the open end of which I could now see a huge camel galloping toward us. The camel stopped abruptly at Charlie’s bed, bent down, not where his head was but where his feet were. It snorted, like an offended dragon, stood up on two with an expression of utter horror painted upon its noble face, then turned and ran, with repeated horrified snorts.
Yes, I now realised Charlie’s wisdom in not washing below the belt. I was almost asleep when the rhythmic clap-clap of hooves were again thundering across the desert. The camel returning for a closer olfactory experience? No, the hoofbeats were different. Now it appeared, a snow white horse, a majestic creature, flying rather than running, its noble nostrils quivering, and upon his back? An apparition hewn in marble, a woman such as there has never been, pale like the moon, a face of a queen half covered by a world of coal-black hair. I sprang up from my bed, stood at attention. Who could lie down when such a fairy queen approached? I had seen her before, at a distance, knew she was the only daughter of Lord Fortesque, owner of a nearby station with a million sheep. She had been a fatamorgana, a dream far, far away. But tonight she thundered right into our camp and she looked at me, turned in the saddle and looked longer, lingeringly, at my stubble of a beard, my crumpled shirt and fringy pants. Then she thundered on and away and I ran after the image and threw myself on the ground where I found an imprint of her horse’s hoof, buried my lips into that imprint thinking her exciting body had transferred some of its fire through the horse’s leg and hoof into that ground.
“What are you doing!” roared Charlie.
“I am kissing her footprints.”
“Her footprints my eye! You are slobbering in the dirt from an ol’e horseshoe. ”
So I was.