My mind won’t rest and my guts churn as I resist putting down ‘The Styx’, Patricia Holland’s first novel, launched last week in Yeppoon. Written to honour her daughter Sophie who died at the age of seven from the debilitating Retts Syndrome, Patricia has kept me on edge, shocked, anguished and distraught as I try to determine fact from fiction, in this authentic tale of Australian Gothic fiction. Sophie, you are indeed a hero. As well, the book cover and its texture are divine.
I feel privileged to be involved with Bauhinia Remembers: The Central Queensland, Australia district’s 150 Year Celebrations. I have transcribed almost a dozen oral histories, recorded with original settlers and their descendants, and in the process heard the stories of their arrival in the district, the obstacles of remoteness faced with communication, supplies, education, medical help and the ever-present challenges of droughts and flooding rains. I am once again moved by landholders’ resilience, determination, camaraderie and integrity.
“I love it. It’s fabulous and I’m so happy with the results.” These words from the daughter who commissioned the Scott Family History Project to record on DVD the lifetime memories of her parents, Central Queenslanders, involved in the rural sector as stock and station agents over a lifetime. I will treasure, always, the chance to hear their yarns, paw over their historic photos, witness their laughter and smiles, as they recalled and retold their stories.
Arguably, amongst the most rewarding opportunities of my career has been as researcher with the Museum of Central Queensland’s Moving House project. The whereabouts of more than a hundred houses has been discovered, first built by the Mount Morgan Mine, one of the richest gold mines in the world. They were dispersed far and wide around Queensland in the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s, by horse and jinker, bullock team, rail and road, after a downturn at the mine. Now, with their whereabouts unearthed, each house has its own story to tell.
One of the most compelling stories uncovered, and by coincidence of a house moved the greatest distance at more than 600km, tells of a World War I veteran, William Alfred Puckering, a black smith’s striker at the Mount Morgan Mine who, in 1918, fell in love with his ‘English rose’, Lottie, while recovering from war injuries in England. Lottie’s mother swore to disown her daughter if she left England for the Aussie Digger and, true to her word, never spoke to her daughter again. The couple was married in Australia in 1920, later securing a loan to buy a house, having three children, and settling down in Mt Morgan.
Just a few years later, with a down-turn at the mine, William was forced to pursue whatever work he could find, living in bush camps around Central Queensland. With three children in tow, Lottie would follow her husband around the countryside, camping in rudimentary accommodation to ensure the family stayed together.
When, after three years, William finally procured a good job in Brisbane, he instructed Lottie to acquire quotes to move the house. But their home wasn’t welcomed by the locals, who organised a petition against this second-hand structure which, they maintained, didn’t fit in with the houses being built in the area.
A hundred years on the house’s origins have been confirmed, and the story unveiled by the grand-daughter of the Digger, who meticulously researched her father’s scrapbooks to glean details. And full circle now: a new young couple lives in the house, is planning their own family and is undertaking yet another modification to this 100 year old abode, to suit the modern-day hopes and dreams of this next generation.
Have just flown in from the Yukon, northern Canada, where I reconnected with school mates from forty years ago, having completed high-school at an alternative boarding school run by the Anglican Diocese of the Yukon back in the 1970s.
My journal entry records:
………..Punching across a windy arm in 20 knot winds, sailing a 26′ Macgregor, in the capable hands of my old school-mate, skipper Dick. Sheltered below deck, safe from the wind and waves, Dick at the helm with his steely face to the elements. Another three mates braved the swell in their full-body floatation suits to travel across the frigid lake by freighter-canoe to meet us at the trailhead. Hiked 6m km, following a creek, sometimes navigating knee-deep water, the trail inundated by the effects of substantial beaver dams, a constant battle for trail upkeep. Dan in the lead with a rifle over his shoulder, the dogs on the scent, barking, we spotted grizzly bear droppings, complete with half-digested moose calf hooves, a tasty meal for a bear somewhere just out of view. Geoff identified and picked mushrooms the size of a dinner-plate, a supplement for the lunch that was to come. Once at the lake, we paddled 2km by canoe to the site of a log cabin built by the bushmen forty years before. Here we watched as they unbolted the cabin’s bear-proof shutters from the windows and door, security against invasion of their shelter during a Canadian winter of forty below zero. We then collected pristine water from a nearby spring, returning to a plume of smoke rising from the chimney, with moose steaks and mushrooms frying in the pan on the wood stove……
Feet back on the ground and now focussing on another life story project, drawn once again from the land, this time a couple whose passions revolved around their dedication to the challenges and adventures of being stock and station agents in rural Australia.
Winter in Central Queensland, Australia. Clear skies. 24oC daytime, 12oC overnight. I have just alighted from a passenger ferry alongside a couple of dozen fellow Central Queensland writers, returning from the North Keppel Island Writers’ Retreat. The weekend offers an annual pilgrimage for creative thinking, contemplation and stimulation on a pristine, tropical island, otherwise known as Kanomi. It’s unencumbered by roads and vehicles, high-rises and the hectic pace of everyday life. Here, a dozen cabins, solar and wind-powered, nestle around the bay and are witness to sunset over the mainland each eve. An ivory moon rises. Ospreys soar overhead and marine turtles glide along in the aqua-blue sea, unperturbed by our gaze. Paperbark trees line the swampland, lemon-scented gums secure the ridges. The island was once home, before European settlement, to the Kanomi People, their middens telling the story, in layers, of the rich food source found in bush and sea.
But for now, as I re-orbit into the familiarity of my mainland surroundings, it’s the rich friendships cultivated over return visits to Kanomi, the songs on the theme of ‘writing resilience’ created by the group as a whole, the memory of the woman who instigated the retreats more than a decade ago which linger, foremost in my mind. Life is rich, all the more so by a stint in nature and with simplicity. A chance to pause, to recharge, to thank my lucky stars for being alive. Long may Kanomi last.
KISSED BY A CROC book review by Julie Davies
I’ve lived just down the road from Koorana Crocodile Farm for 16 years and have encountered John Lever many times but I’ve never gotten to know him. So I was pleased to learn that another neighbour, Jenny Lanyon, was co-writing his memoir. John is obviously a complex and driven character, who has lived an extraordinary life. He started with nothing and wrested a business inch by mozzie-ridden inch from unpromising tidal flats. What comes through loud and clear is that he’s a man of passion, in every sense, who will give anything a go to survive and prosper. He is ably assisted by his wife Lillian, whom he admires as a good sort who smacks her lips when she drinks a beer and can cut up a pig in a silk dress and pearls (Lillian, not the pig). His early experiences working with villagers in Papua-New Guinea are rivetting and bizarre in equal measure. I particularly appreciated his respect for the indigenous people and his active concern for their welfare. He has some absolutely wonderful anecdotes, such as the time he transported half a tonne of unanaesthetised croc in a plane, stuffed bound beneath their feet. I googled to see how big the Britten-Norman Islander plane was. It was a 10-seater – mind well and truly blown. Another time he and a colleague made an emergency landing on a remote airstrip in torrential rain and spent the night in a convent wearing nuns’ habits, while their clothes dried. I would have liked to see that. John ran for parliament twice unsuccessfully. I wonder if he knows just what a lucky escape that was. How could a man of such action and independent thought have coped in that hothouse of schemers and sycophants? As a farmer’s daughter and environmental scientist, I appreciate his intelligent and forward-thinking conservation philosophy of making an unpopular animal valuable alive. This is particularly important in poverty-stricken Third World regions but also applicable here. After all, we nearly wiped them out not so long ago. “Kissed by a Croc” is a fascinating read. Credit should be given to John’s biographer. Jenny is a strong-minded and forceful character herself, yet the only voice I heard was John’s. That takes no small measure of writing skill. I highly recommend this book. So why don’t you spend an afternoon with the Lever family and kiss a croc from the safe distance of your favourite reading chair.
From Australian author Elaine Ouston: The best way to describe this story is to use an old adage, ‘Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction’. That this story is true I have no doubt, but it reads like the best fictional adventure I have ever read. Do yourself a favour and buy the book. You won’t be sorry.
Emerald Library Friday 12th September 5:30pm
Capella Pioneer Village Saturday 13th September – am – TBA
Emu Park Probus Thursday 9th October 11am Bowls Club
Yeppoon Probus Thursday 6th November 10:30am Bowls Club
Presentation of slides depicting Jenny’s adventures in the Yukon and Papua New Guinea, her journey as a writer of life stories, the Mt Morgan Moving House project and the process of writing John Lever’s autobiography Kissed by a Croc. Books signed by John and Jenny available with a complementary croc skin bookmark with each copy.
It’s probably fair to say I have adventurous genes in me. My mother attended school in the Himalayas, the daughter of a Scottish mother and a Welsh father who’d joined the Welsh Regiment in India. My father had defected from Czechoslovakia in the 1950s to escape the communist regime, my parents meeting on the ski slopes of Vancouver. It’s hardly surprising traveling has always been on my agenda – and volunteering in Papua New Guinea based on a square-rigged sailing ship was as far from the world I’d grown up in as I could imagine.