The school year was over and we kids were on our way home for the Christmas holidays. It was always a time of great excitement because the shorter holidays during the year precluded us from travelling the long distance and we were obliged to stay in Alice Springs at the boarding school.
The week before Christmas, my brother and sister and I joined a group of other children and boarded The Ghan, in those days a steam train servicing the outback from Alice Springs to Adelaide. Looking back now I realise that the train crew probably steeled themselves each year against the prospect of being responsible for a bunch of over-excited kids and no doubt breathed a sigh of relief at each stop when they delivered their charges safely into the arms of their parents.
The Ghan’s crew kept us in check by giving us chores. We’d be enlisted to help Bluey, the cook, in his kitchen and to set the tables in the dining car, help wait on the tables and clear up afterwards. In this way we learned the hospitality trade and how to serve meals and drinks and keep our feet steady despite the rocking, rolling motion as the Ghan steamed its way down or up the line.
This year was different in that there had been substantial rain falls in Central Australia and when the Ghan reached the Finke River it was running a wide stream and the railway line was underwater. This caused a delay of a couple of hours while the track under the water was inspected by a railway gang using a section car to check the depth of the water and the rails. All being well, the Ghan proceeded with an extra engine at the back pushing while the main engine was doing the pulling.
The Ghan arrived at the Finke Siding late, but welcomed by a few dozen Aborigines who never failed to come and watch the arrivals and departures of the train. While the Ghan’s engine replenished its water tank from the big, square overhead water tank, supplies and mail were off loaded and passengers disembarked or alighted. Many of the passengers would go and pass the time of day with Jack and Kitty Colson at the Finke Store or take the time for a cold one at the Finke Pub.
A few minutes before the Ghan was ready to depart, the train whistle blew a couple of warnings. Those passengers who were taking their first ride on the Ghan rushed to get back on board, but the ‘locals’ carried on drinking and talking and were not worried that the train would leave without them. It was quite amusing then, that when the Ghan slowly began puffing and blowing its whistle as it pulled out of the siding, you’d see a number of people leave the store or pub and head for the slowly moving train. There was no need to run as a fast walk was sufficient to allow them to catch the guard’s van as it passed the water tank.
By the time the Ghan pulled out of Finke, all the kids except we Paige kids had been returned to the bosom of their families. The sun was disappearing from the horizon in a blaze of colour and the light was fast fading into night. It was about 9pm when the Ghan pulled into the Abminga Siding.
Abminga was no more than a dot on the map. There was a line of railway gangers’ huts on the western side and a hundred yards away on the eastern side there was the Abminga Hotel and a structure we knew as the Telegraph Station. The hotel dunny was the thing that stuck in my young mind. It was a larger structure than most bush dunnies and a six seater. It was constructed from the usual galvanised iron and sat over a very large pit. The seats were made of timber that had been sanded to a smooth finish, four along the back wall and one each on the side walls. To this day, I look back with amusement at the prospect of seeing a full complement of people seated to do what comes naturally. What sort of conversation might have arisen?
That is all neither here nor there though. We didn’t stay at the hotel unless the weather was particularly inclement, choosing instead to sleep under the diamond lit, starry sky.
Again, our arrival at Abminga was different this year because Mother had come to meet the train so that she could supervise the unloading and loading onto the Blitz truck of the Christmas goodies she had ordered from the Alice. At first light, Father began the task of loading the Blitz with the station supplies and Mother ensured her christmas order was carefully placed on it. Right on top of the load was a crate that held two fat roosters that would be the base of our christmas dinner.
It was a hundred miles from Abminga to the Andado Station homestead and it was slow going in the Blitz truck. We reached Boundary Bore mid morning to discover the Finke River flood waters had beaten us and cut us off from the homestead, still some sixty miles away. We were obliged to wait until the river had disgorged its water into the Simpson Desert.
There had been no rain in this neck of the woods and it was very hot. Boundary bore had a small galvanised iron shed used to house some supplies necessary at mustering times. There was a stone fireplace a dozen paces away and two or three huge old gum trees that offered shade from the burning sun. The windmill pumped sweet water into two thirty-thousand gallon stock tanks and kept the long line of cattle drinking troughs filled with fresh water.
When the river levels rose rather than fell after two days, Father decided we were in for a longer stay than at first thought. All the christmas goodies were unloaded from the Blitz and the two roosters set free. The heat in the shed was unbearable and the two older kids spent most of the day cooling off in the stock tanks. I hadn’t learnt to swim so had to use the troughs once the cattle had quenched their thirst and settled down to wait out the heat of the day under the shade of trees.
The hot winds blew relentlessly. Every now and then a whirly-wind hit the shed and covered us all with dust and debris. Above the treeline the sky was filled with spiralling red columns of dust rising upwards to eternity where the blue of the sky met the red hazy dust. At dusk the wind dropped but the heat inside the shed remained. We dragged our cyclone beds out under the stars where the air felt less stifling. We had no mattresses and the mesh underneath the swags was uncomfortable. However, we could be confident that we would not be visited by snakes and other creepy crawlies. Instead, it was the bats that caused the problems.
They arrived in force at dusk and seemed intent on using terror tactics to evict the invaders from their territory. At the time the moon was in its third quarter shedding an eerie light all over. The heat was stifling and the bats swooped relentlessly; so close that one could feel the flutter of air as they passed.
Mother opened one of her packages from the back of the Blitz and produced some sheets which were part of her new linen order. That night we covered ourselves with the white shrouds and managed to fall asleep despite the heat, only to be awakened later by the swift dark forms passing dangerously close to our faces. It was with some joy then that we’d find one or two of these creatures drowned in the stock tanks.
Christmas Day dawned with a brilliant sunrise and the Finke River showed the first signs that its water levels were going down. From their perch high in the gum tree, our intended christmas dinner crowed in good voice to greet the new day.
Most of our christmas goodies had been consumed and we sat in the sweltering heat of the shed to a very ordinary meal of damper and rabbit, roasted in the camp oven. Always one to look ahead, Mother had managed to save some sweets and a beautiful homemade cake sent to her by a friend as a christmas gift. It was a poor replica of the dinner we’d looked forward to for Christmas Day.
When the Finke River dwindled to a shallow stream a few days later we were able to continue on to the homestead. The two roosters resisted all our attempts to capture them and became permanent residents of Boundary Bore. For years these two birds were a source of amazement to us all for they managed to survive all predators. They’d turn up for scraps when the stockmen camped there when mustering and accepted handouts of wheat. They became very lean and could fly like magpies so that one false move would send them cockadoodling into the gum tree. Christmas dinner? Us? No way.