City Girl in the Outback
I grew up in Brisbane Australia but ended up living at college in Rockhampton in the late 70s, mixing with students from rural areas. After finishing the teaching course, I requested my first placement in Mt Isa because it qualified as country service and because it was a city. I thought I was being organised to get country service out of the way before finding a job back home. Most of the other students were heading home too, to sugar cane farms in Ingham, cattle properties west of Emerald and down the mines in Mt Isa.
I didn’t get it out of the way; it got into me. While there, I drove to the Queensland-Northern Territory border for a day out, and to the Gregory River in what was blissful ignorance of the limitations of a small Datsun, the roads, the heat, lack of water and supplies, and crocodiles (apparently).
The Mt Isa Rodeo was astonishing to someone used to the tidiness of the Brisbane Ekka (the annual agricultural show of Queensland, Australia). I didn’t know people wore hats as part of their daily dress since my mother stopped having her hats made in the 60s, like the Queen, from the leftover dress material. Country people look right in hats.
Red ochre earth against cerulean blue sky is a lasting visual Mt Isa memory. It took me three days to drive home for the holidays through Longreach or Townsville and another three days to get back. Kangaroos, flooded roads, flat tyres, no air-conditioning, road trains; it was brilliant. Big, cool and shady pubs where I bought a couple of cold orange soft drinks and a burger were my oases.
My happiest years as a teacher were at Durong South, an hour north-west of Kingaroy. It wasn’t the back of beyond but the kids from my school went to Toowoomba as 12 year-old boarders, wore broad brimmed hats low over their eyes, played endless cricket and talked me into a cattle committee as part of the Project Club. This posting was also my first introduction to ICPA (Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association) as a couple of the mothers headed off to conferences and held fund-raisers, in some small competition with the local CWA (Country Women’s Association) ladies.
The heat and dust did nothing for my hay fever but people congregated anywhere, anytime with a casserole, a cold drink, conversation and friendship. I have never had such a full social calendar, nor been so outclassed by the ladies who dressed beautifully for the dances and meetings. Everyone in the district came to school events – a statistic that city schools could only dream about. Everyone knew your business too which could be confronting for a city girl with a penchant for bright hair colour, bright tights (it was the 80s) and a yellow Volvo.
As the only teacher in the district, I had complete freedom to do whatever I thought was best for the students – we kept bees, had a go at developing a nursery with seeds from the Men of The Trees (which was to become Greening Australia), wrote and acted our own school plays, developed a system for peer tutoring amongst the 18 year 1-7s, went on road trips and “camped” at a youth hostel in Brisbane while we visited our local MP, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, in his city chambers. Project Club stands out as the stellar method of allowing students to become originators and organisers of their rural pursuits.
The annual camp draft was an eye-opening event: the position of points recorder was traditionally reserved for the Durong South teacher, who was given a ringside tennis umpire seat and a microphone. I found out that camp-drafting involved the referee who sat on a horse with a stock whip nearby, the horse and rider as team contestants and a group of not-too friendly cattle. The referee cracks his whip for the start and the horse and rider enter the camp (an enclosed pen) with the cattle lounging around inside. The rider chooses a beast, cuts (selects) it from the group then shows off his skills in front of the judge until he calls for the gate to be opened. He herds the beast out and pushes it around a figure of 8 course before his time is up. Through a cigarette held firmly in his lips, the judge mumbles a score to me and I’d send it to the recorder while choking on the dust. Women offen enter too. It’s a job where horse and rider need to be in synch. Some of the horse perform spectacularly but sometimes a rider is unseated. I once saw a rider called Danny dragged along the ground by his boot which was caught in his stirrup. He crossed his arms behind his head like he was resting on them and twisted his body to remove his foot. The crowd roared. I was sunburnt, filthy with sweat and dust, and parched but I LOVED every minute of it.
The Burrandowan horse races were also an annual event, rain or shine. I was unprepared for huge steaks cooked over pits; real meat unlike anything the butcher at home could provide. The school kids had dibs on the thousands of empty discarded aluminum cans the next day, which netted a tidy amount of pocket money at the recycling station.
On one clear cold night, we invited ourselves into the cab of a neighbour’s huge tractor while he worked in the dark. The sky was so black it was violet, with more stars than I had ever seen. Farmers often listened to Radio National while ploughing or driving distances, so they were very well informed about current events.
Rural means beauty, dust, endless blue without rain, friendship, stars, trust, dogs, events, water as a treat and good cooking. City people don’t realise what different lives they live. I don’t know that I could trade the sea of green that surrounds my hinterland Gold Coast home, but I could certainly trade nearly everything else.