Bush Walk Memory

Me & Mum on the Suspension Bridge - please click to bigify

Me & Mum on the Suspension Bridge – please click to bigify

I don’t know why, but for the last few weeks, I have been dreaming of our family outings at the Tarra Bulga National Park in Gippsland, Victoria, Australia! We used to pack up the FJ Holden to escape the heat of the dry flatlands beside the Ninety Mile beach and drive the 50 kms up into the rainforest of the hills through which the Tarra River streamed. My mum always packed the most delicious of picnic lunches. They comprised of fresh crispy crust chicken sandwiches, plus a family size apple pie, clotted cream and a thermos of tea.

But the true wonder of the day was Mum letting me take off the leg-braces which I’d struggled with since surviving poliomyelitis as a two year old. She used to laugh at my delight in being able to paddle in the freezing cold waters of the rocky beaches of the river. She swore by the healing powers of the cold waters. The more time I spent out of those restrictive braces and heavy boots, the stronger and straighter my legs seem to grow.

I can still smell the mossy damp aroma of the tree ferns that shaded under the giant mountain ash trees. The joy of espying a timid platypus in a dark rock pool, a wombat family or the colours of the lyrebirds hiding in the undercover was so very special to my childhood eyes. My father taught me that the names of the many bird sounds echoing around the bush but, even today, my favourite was the Bell Bird.

We spent the day walking through the tracks of the park, visiting the waterfalls and the suspension bridge. When tired, I road on my Dad’s shoulders and from his 185 cm height the view was even more spectacular.

Thank you for letting me share these wonderful memories with you.

ANZAC DAY – 25th April



First a little explanation – ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The soldiers in those forces quickly became to be known as ANZACs, and the pride they took in that name endures to this day.

Why is this day special to Australians and New Zealanders?

When WWI broke out in 1914, Australia had been a Federal Commonwealth for only 13 years. The new national Government was eager to establish its reputation among the nations of the world. In 1915 Australian and New Zealand soldiers formed part of the allied expedition that set out to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula in order to open the Dardanelles to the allied navies. The ultimate objective was to capture Constantinople (now Istanbul in Turkey), the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and an ally of Germany.

The Australian and New Zealand forces landed on Gallipoli on 25 April, meeting fierce resistance from the Ottoman Turkish defenders. What had been planned as a bold stroke to knock Turkey out of the war quickly became a stalemate, and the campaign dragged on for eight months. At the end of 1915 the allied forces were evacuated, after both sides had suffered heavy casualties and endured great hardships. Over 8,000 ANZACs had been killed. News of the landing on Gallipoli had made a profound impact back home, and 25 April soon became the day on which Australia and New Zealand remember the sacrifice of those who had died in the war.

Although the Gallipoli campaign failed in its military objectives, the Australian and New Zealand actions during the campaign left us all a powerful legacy. The creation of what became known as the “ANZAC legend” became an important part of the identity of both Nations, shaping the ways they viewed both their past and their future.

Trooper Keith Officer before leaving for Gallipoli in 1914

Lieutenant Keith Officer before leaving for Gallipoli in 1915


Sir (Frank) Keith Officer, OBE, MC (1889 – 1969)

This ANZAC was my Great Uncle and a man I am truly privileged to have known. As a child and into my early teens I sat at the feet of both Keith and his brother, Hugh, and was mesmerised with their anecdotes. Although one was a Knight and the other a Brigadier, they were just my Great Uncles. It wasn’t until I was in my 50’s did I realise what truly exceptional men they were and how much they had both sacrificed to ensure I live in the wonderful, peaceful country that is Australia.

I take the opportunity of this ANZAC Day to bring you the stories of my much honoured and ever so honourable relatives.

Keith and Hugh were born of privilege in Toorak, Melbourne in the Victorian era, when the British Empire was at its height of power and Kipling its poetic spokesman. The 1890s were difficult economic years, but they were both educated at Melbourne Grammar School with Keith going to Ormond College, University of Melbourne and, in 1912, graduating LL.B. with honours. He was briefly associated with Mr. Justice Higgins and admitted to the Bar 1914. He enlisted in 8th Light Horse Regiment (AIF) 1914 as a Trooper. No doubt, because of his legal degree, he was soon commissioned as a Lieutenant and transferred to 6th Infantry Brigade, serving on Gallipoli from June to October 1915, when promoted to Staff Captain. From there he transferred to France as DAQUMG 2nd Division, and in 1917 Deputy Assistant Adjutant General and promoted to Major. His decorations included a MC (1917), OBE (1919) and MID (Mentioned in Despatches) 3 times.

During 1917 he advised his younger brother Hugh, who had left school to join up and was a gunner in 107 Battery 1916-17, to apply for an Indian Army commission, which he was successful in obtaining. New Indian Army regiments were being raised and the War Office wanted Subalterns, suitable ones being in short supply. General Birdwood had commented that the Dominion Armies were “chock-a-block with officer material!” So Hugh, already a veteran of Messines, started a long military career in the Indian Army 1918-48. He served in the 3rd Afghan War 1919, NW Frontier operations 1919-22 and 1937. Hugh was Mentioned in Despatches and also had a posting to Tibet in 1930. He served in WW2 in China, Arakan, Manipur State and Burma where he had his 2nd Mention in Despatches. He was Staff Officer GHQ India and Defence Department, New Delhi then promoted to Brigadier before retirement 1948.

Keith joined the British Colonial Service and was posted to Nigeria for a couple of years before returning to Melbourne in 1923. This coincided with the elevation of Stanley Bruce, another Old Boy of Melbourne Grammar to Prime Minister. He worked in his father’s firm Officer & Smith before beginning his long career with the Department of External Affairs in 1927. Bruce was Prime Minister from 1923-29 during which period Keith Officer gained significant experience including attendance at the 9th Assembly of the League of Nations. He became a permanent member of the Commonwealth Public Service in 1933, when sent to London where he was kept busy establishing networks and attending League of Nations assemblies, securing Australia’s place on the League’s Council. Disarmament was in 1933 a major issue, though hardly effective when Germany was no longer a member. Bruce as the prestigious Australian resident Minister in London (1932) and High Commissioner 1933-45 was in a perfect position to dove-tail Australian foreign policy with that of Britain. Casey and Officer largely executed that policy. The three were all highly decorated veterans of the First AIF, and “British to their bootstraps”. Casey and Officer were contemporaries at Melbourne Grammar School.

Keith was sent to the British embassy in Washington in 1937, with the rank of Australian Counsellor. He began discussions with the USA to prepare the ground for a trade agreement. The new Australian legation was established in 1940 by R. G. Casey, under whom he worked for some months. However he was sent to Tokyo late that year as a Counsellor. Becoming chargé d’affaires late in 1941, it fell to him (in Sir John Latham’s absence) to receive the Japanese formal declaration of war. Not until eight months later were he and his staff at liberty again in Australia.

His next posting was to Moscow in early 1943, where after the Australian minister William Slater’s departure he became chargé d’affaires. He spent just over a year at Kuibyshev, Russia because of the German invasion, and later confessed to hating the place and the supervision to which he was subjected. He tried to look after Polish interests while in Moscow. He liked long walks in the woods, but always had to have to suspicious Soviet detectives to accompany him. Generally too he found the atmosphere oppressive.

Within a year he was sent to Chungking as chargé d’affaires. Few Britons had an understanding of the mighty forces building up in that country, or more than a superficial one of its history and culture. He used to mention the relaxation he obtained here from gardening. That may have been just small conversation! His brother Hugh, also in that city for part of the war, said that the Japanese tried not to bomb south of the river where the diplomatic residences were situated, but occasionally made mistakes! The end of WW2 in 1945 enable Keith to have conversations with Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai, which were perhaps of significance later on in 1949. Two years later, Clement Atlee nominated him to represent Britain, Australia, New Zealand and India on the Allied Council for Japan. Dr. H. V. Evatt however wanted him in South East Asia with a grudgingly overdue promotion to Minister. He was involved in the questions of the Indonesian settlement with the Dutch, a peace treaty with Thailand and discussions with Singapore. Not surprisingly, he was transferred in 1946 to The Hague as Minister, a favourite post for him as it was also good for yachting. Here he would also bring his mother from Australia and his niece (my Aunt). But Evatt soon decided to appoint the conservative diplomat again to Moscow without consultation! He was unable to get away with it, for a couple of medical certificates about “bronchitis” cemented Keith Officer in The Hague! He had very good relations with Queen Juliana, for Keith’s famous Golden Labrador, Crumpet, was a full sister to the Queen’s dog. Both had impeccable breeding from a famous kennel in America. Alas, poor Crumpet had a fall from grace in Paris, being seduced by a local mongrel.

As first Australian Ambassador to (Nationalist) China at Nanking in 1948, Keith saw history being made as the People’s Liberation Army took the city in 1949 during the civil war. He moved to Shanghai to do his best for Australian diplomatic staff and citizens there. He was also making his own shrewd assessments of the new communist regime and the Chinese people themselves. After October 1st 1949, with Mao’s new government all over China it was necessary that he leave the country from Hong Kong. A Chinese friend, an official of the Party, pointed out the Chinese difficulty of being cordial to the Imperialists at this period of time!

Time must pass. His status was now simply Australian External Affairs Officer in Hong Kong. He was soon home again and through the Department of External Affairs strongly recommended that Australia recognise Red China. With the 1949 election looming however, Chifley decreed that the question must wait until that was decided. Public opinion was now violently anti-communist. It was to be a long wait of twenty three years before another Australian Ambassador was appointed.

He was pleased to be made Ambassador to Paris from 1950 when he was Knighted, till his retirement in 1954. In Paris he was joined by his mother Ethel, and she acted as his hostess. Ethel was then over 80, but outlived her eldest son, dying when she was 101. They lived in Blackfield, near Southampton till his death (intestate) in 1969.

Keith never married, but he had a photograph of a most beautiful dark haired lady on his chest of drawers in a bedroom so small that it was comparable to the cabin of his yacht. My wife and I asked his mother Ethel about the mysterious lady, but he had maintained perfect secrecy. The sitting room was however full of the usual autographed photographs which important people give to one another. “To Keith, with best wishes from Ike” and that sort of thing.

As the above account shows, Sir Keith led an exceptionally active and significant life, serving his country as an ANZAC on Gallipoli and throughout WWI. As a diplomat he was involved in critical circumstances in the hot spots, Tokyo, Moscow, Chungking, Indonesia, Nanking, during great historical moments. Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gordon Freeth said of him that he was “a man of great resolution and judgement in situations that were delicate and dangerous.” Ella Knibbs in her BA (Hons) thesis called him “genuinely liberal” and “a truly conservative and peculiarly Australian colonial gentleman.” (Australian/Chinese Relations 1944-49; an Analysis of the Keith Officer Years, 1980, by Ella Knibbs). See also – “Who’s Who in Australia 1962”; ADB 1940-80; Liber Melbourniensis; “Maygar’s Boys” (8th Light Horse 1914-19) by Cameron Simpson. A major obituary was in “Quadrant” and Allan Fewster (Department of Foreign Affairs) has completed his writing a biography on Keith.

Sir Keith in his full Ambassadorial uniform

Sir Keith in his full Ambassadorial uniform


My own relationship with these two distinguished brothers was mostly with Hugh Officer, who always came to visit my mother on his furloughs from India. She was then a widow, and we children always looked forward to these meetings. As a second cousin, I thought of him as more like an uncle and he had the glamour of a regular Army officer. (My father was dead and my two surviving uncles were overseas.) After his retirement he bought his cousin Harry Officer’s residence at Olinda and became famous as an ornithologist writing two books “Australian Honeyeaters” and “Australian Flycatchers”, the proceeds going to the Bird Observers Club of Australia, as well as two books of birding reminiscences. The two brothers saw each other regularly, often twice a year for extended periods. At Keith’s suggestion, they had in 1949 joined forces and walked the Cradle Mount – Lake St. Clare National Park though “hardly in good walking trim” with heavy packs. In “Recollections of a Birdwatcher”, Hugh’s account suggests that their diet and cooking were rather simplistic, perhaps because both were more used to the ministrations of professionals.

My first remembered meeting with Keith (already a family legend) was at Geelong Grammar School, where he gave an address to the more senior boys. This was in 1946, and he spent extra time with those who were considering or might consider a diplomatic career. Quite a number did indeed do so, before and after that visit.

In his retirement, Sir Keith had annual visits to Australia looking into the affairs of two companies of which he was a director, the ES&A Bank and Australian Estates. He undertook each company visit on alternating years. On such visits he travelled light, and the once elegantly tailored diplomat was usually seen in a light badly crushed travelling suit of a pale colour. He and his brother always visited my wife and me in Seymour on these occasions. We saw him on his home ground in Britain in 1956-57 and again briefly in 1965.

Both brothers were certainly “characters” though of different types. Keith liked the life in southern England, and spent much time in his yacht. He was a member of the Royal Cruising Club (or Squadron), membership requiring minimum long distance cruising. Keith liked the high life and his career as a diplomat had most certainly opened these doors for him. I remember him describing an occasion celebrating the centenary of “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, graced by descendants of Lord Lucan and Lord Cardigan in the original uniforms! As my sister Jean broadly put it, Keith collects Duchesses”, whilst “Hugh collects Bishops in northern Australia. He borrows their boats.” Certainly, to see the wildlife on remote off-shore island, one needs access to a boat.

Though he lived in England, still the centre of the old empire (or Commonwealth) he loved and served, Keith remained an Australian. He made a minor headline in “The Sunday Times” (or was it the “Sunday Observer”) when at a function an Englishman had referred to “their Queen.” “She’s our Queen too!” said Sir Keith.
(Colin Officer’s account of the Officer family)

Croix de Guerre

This following note was written by his brother, Brigadier Hugh R Officer on 26 September, 1982:

As the date for K.O.’s departure from France, en pension, approached he was informed that the French Government wished to appoint him the Legion of Honour. The policy of the British Diplomatic Service was that representatives were not permitted to accept foreign honours.

The Queen mum is reported to say that they did not like their dogs to wear other people’s dog collars.

This rule was generally waived when an ambassador was holding his final appointment before retirement. K.O. informed the Australian Government of the offer and got the reply that they would not permit him to accept the honour!

The above was explained to me at the Club (Melbourne) by Monsieur Rocher, French Ambassador to Australia, for he said he would not like me to think that the French Government had not appreciated the fine work K.O. had done. He added incidentally that Dr. Evatt has actually suggested to the French Government that they might like to give him the Legion of Honour! Hypocritically he said that of course he was not asking for the Honour as a member of the Labour Party but as President of the United Nations Security Council.

When K.O. had his farewell audience with the French President he informed him they were disappointed that they couldn’t give him the Legion of Honour, but they had looked up the rules and discovered that they could give him the Croix de Guerre without getting the prior approval of the government concerned. He said he considered that the giving of the Croix de Guerre was fully in order by reason of K.O.’s service to France in the AIF in World War One and his great service to France as Ambassador.

Keith informed the Australian Government of what had occurred and their reply was that though it was correct that they could not object to his being given the Croix as it was according to protocol but they could and did forbid him to add the medal to his array of medals!!!

It is hard to guess why they were so bloody minded but perhaps it was because he was such a close friend of Bob Menzies and Dick Casey and they feared political comment.

K.O.’s comment to me when he told me of the incident was rather typical – that at least they have saved him the considerable expense of having to have his bar of medals rearranged.

So now you know why the medal still rests in its case. Incidentally you may wonder why in view of all the above K.O. accepted the resplendent Moroccan Star. As French Ambassador he was also Ambassador to Morocco. He visited Morocco only once I believe. He could not hurt their feelings by refusing the decoration but wore it in when in Morocco.

To obtain a copy of the 2009 biography of Sir Keith “Trusty and Well Beloved” by Alan Fewster please click HERE.


Sir Keith Officer, my grandmother & their sister Jean and Brigadier Hugh Officer

Sir Keith Officer, my grandmother & their sister, Jean and Brigadier Hugh Officer

Five Horses

Jane, aged approx. 6 with Puddin the Poddy Lamb

On an Australian farm, because our paddocks are so big, horses are vital to the farm’s smooth running. Yes, I did have five horses but not all at once. I was a pesky little toddler and I constantly was asking my Dad if I could ride his stockhorse, Marianne. She was so big that I could walk under her tummy without having to bend over. I loved it when Dad and I rode her together; me wrapped snug in his strong arms.

Finally, just to shut me up, they bought me Bimbo, a tiny black Shetland pony with a vicious temper. He hated me especially when I made him go too fast. He would turn his head around and nip at my legs – boy it hurt. Whenever I walked behind him he would kick his back little legs at me. That Bimbo was a horrible nasty little pony didn’t put me off at all. I would dream that I was a famous rider winning prizes at the Melbourne Royal Agricultural Show.

Mum and Dad finally realised that I was serious about riding and they drove up to Melbourne, which is about 220 kilometres from where we lived, and found Tango. I was so excited when the truck finally arrived and he was led down the ramp. It was love at first sight. He was pure white with a long flowing tail and mane. His eyes were so big and so very brown. From then on it was just like that nursery rhyme about Mary and her little lamb but it was “everywhere that Jane went Tango would to follow”. We sold Bimbo soon after that.

I rode Tango to school each day and he would wait patiently for me to ride him home again. School was a little country cottage, which looked more like a shed. It was about 5 kilometres from our farm. There was only one teacher and 12 students ranging in age from 5 to 12 years. Mr. Binks, our teacher, was a tall skinny man with a lovely warm smile. He made sure that Tango had enough grass to eat and water to drink and that I put him in a shady spot in the summer when it was very hot.

Tango and I had to work hard too. We helped Dad round-up the sheep and bring them to the shed at shearing time at the beginning of summer. In the spring we would spend hours in the paddocks making sure that all the lambs were OK. If they were sick or their mums, the ewes, did not want to let them suckle for milk I would hop off Tango, pick up the lamb and put it over the front of my saddle and take it home for Mum to look after. Every lamb was precious to us because when they grew into sheep their wool was sold at market and that was how Mum and Dad had money to buy Jane more horses! I found out at a very early age that if I was good, worked hard and did all my chores I would be rewarded, not only, with lots of hugs and kisses from my Mum and Dad, but every so often they would buy me a special present.

Tango taught me to ride. He was a born Show pony even though he did not have a very good pedigree. The first Show (only a little local Show) we went to I was riding in jeans, we could not afford jodhpurs, but Tango could not have cared less what I wore. We rode into the Show ring and he curved his head down, picked up his little dainty hooves and fluffed out his tail. Yes we won the blue ribbon for best pony! Can you imagine how proud I was?

Mum and Dad got caught up in the excitement of riding. They knew nothing about horses or the finer points of equestrianism, but they went to the library and read heaps of books. They made friends with the “horsy” crowd and very quickly learned. It was now very serious. Every night when Tango and I got home from school we had to train. In the winter Dad would turn the lights of the tractor on so that I could see what I was doing. They made me ride without stirrups for what seemed like hours going around and around in a circle so that I would learn how to sit in the saddle properly. Then they would take the reins away from me so that I learnt how to use my knees to guide Tango in the right direction and make him walk or trot or canter with just the slightest pressure. Lochie, my Silky Terrier, was Tango’s best friend and he would keep us company. Either sitting patiently in the middle of the circle or, when Dad wasn’t watching, up on the saddle with me.

After just one year, Tango and I were winning all the prizes. I had ribbons on all the walls of my bedroom and Mum proudly displayed the Silver Cups we won in our front lounge room where the visitors always sat.

When I was eleven, we bought Goblin Gold. I called him Gobby and he was about 30 centimetres taller than Tango, who was now too small for me, but I still kept riding him for another year. Gobby was a beautiful chestnut colour and he just glowed in the sun. Now it was Tango, Gobby, Lochie and I and, when Buck, my pet kangaroo, was big enough, he too joined our merry crew. Can you imagine the spectacle as we all trooped off to visit the creek or the dam? Me riding one of the horses bareback with no reins, Lochie in my arms, the other horse following behind and Buck always hopping ahead – he loved to be in front and always won our pretend races. I was so happy that I would sing but very off-key.

Our entire family were now a very professional team at all the Shows. We had a proper horse float that we towed behind our old Holden. I had all the right clothes and my saddles (a small one for Tango and bigger one for Gobby) and bridles would glisten with oil. The other competitors dreaded our arrival, as they knew we would leave with all the blue ribbons.

At last, when I turned twelve, Mum and Dad, thought that I was ready for the big time and they entered me in the various competitions for both rider and horse at the Royal Melbourne. That was May and I had to wait until September! I would only be riding Gobby as Tango was now way too small for me. We trained every morning and every night. Gobby was put on a special diet of barley, oats and wheat so that his coat would be at its shiniest best.

Two weeks before the Show Mum, Dad and I went to Melbourne to visit my brother Hugh who was at boarding school and to pick up my new riding outfit. I was so chuffed with my new jodhpurs, long sleek riding jacket and knee-high black shiny boots, that I didn’t mind having to watch Hugh play cricket. We did not get home from Melbourne until just before midnight. I was asleep on the back seat of the car so they didn’t wake me; Dad just lifted me up and carried me to bed and Lochie and Butterball soon joined me.

The next morning instead of Dad waking me up at the usual time of 5:00am it was Mum. She sat me on her knee and told me that she had some very sad news for me. When we were in Melbourne, Gobby had escaped from his paddock and could not get back in. He was very hungry because he could not get to his special mixture. Not knowing that the tree near his paddock was poisonous he ate its leaves. By the time Dad found him at midnight there was nothing they could do for my darling horse. Dad phoned the Vet who drove out and gave Gobby an injection that put him to sleep and took the pain away. Yes, Gobby died and little part of me died with him. I cried and cried for days and days. That is life when you live on a farm, the animals you love so very much are, eventually, either sold or go to heaven.

We buried Gobby on top of the only hill on our farm so that he would always be able to look down at us. Dad helped me make a cross for his grave and Mum, Dad, Tango, Lochie, Buck, Butterball and I prayed for him.

I can hear you saying that is only three horses Jane, you told me that you had five! Well within a few months Golden Glory arrived. She too was a chestnut – tall beautiful and proud but she could not replace Gobby in my heart. I no longer wanted to ride the Show circuit but eventually I did and gradually Goldie and I became friends.

At one of the Shows at the back of the area where all the cars and horse floats were parked, I met an old racing horse. He was a horse, not a pony; I couldn’t even reach his saddle! His name was Sputnik and I called him Spooty. His owners could no longer afford to feed him so I pleaded with Mum and Dad to take him home with us. So now there was Bimbo, Tango, Gobby, Goldie and Spooty.

Just a few short months after that Dad and Mum sold the farm. Goldie and Spooty were taken to Melbourne and sold. Dad promised me that they had both gone to families with lots of children who would love them both to bits. I never did get to ride at the Royal Melbourne.

Tango died when I was twenty-one. He too was twenty-one, which is so very old for a horse but he was still the prettiest white pony in the district. Until then, every time I visited my old home I went to see him. After a few years he no longer recognised me but by that time I was old enough to understand and not to be sad.


Awe! She is just like Butterball

I first met Butterball at about 11:00pm on a winter’s night – I had just turned nine – but before I tell you about that wonderful night I have to set the scene.

Butterball’s mum was a tabby cat we called “Ugly” she was the offspring of one of the many feral cat families on the farm. We never saw these cats in daylight, but knew they were around because we could hear their noisy, furious fights at night. Ugly was also born in the winter. Her mother was not silly because she nested under the house just near the base of the kitchen stove, which, because it was alight 24 hours of the day, was lovely and warm.

I found the kittens when I was hiding from Mum under the house. You guessed it – once again I was in her bad books. I think it was the time that I decided that the wood I had chopped for the stove was dirty so I had hosed it down. Wrong move! Now it was too wet to be used! I heard the miaowing of the kittens and went to investigate. There were five little bundles of fluff; so tiny that their eyes were not even open. I spent a good part of the next week under the house with the kittens, plotting on how I could convince Mum and Dad that I had to have a kitten. I was so good all that week. Did all my chores without being asked and was ever so polite. They knew I was up to something because this “angel” in the house was not their daughter. Eventually one night, when Mum was reading to me, I got up enough nerve to tell her about the kittens and ask if I could have one. She did not give me an answer right away, just said “maybe”. That was enough for me because I knew her maybe meant yes!

Dad was a pushover; I had him wrapped around my little finger and he could never say no to me. However, he did insist that, if I was to have a kitten, it must be a boy because he did not want to have to deal with a litter of new kittens every 6 months. I said OK and we both crawled under the house to get the kittens so that we could choose a Tom. There was not all that much space under our house so can you imagine my Dad, who was 182cm crawling behind me. There was a whole lot of cursing as he kept on hitting his head on the floorboards above. I learnt some new words that day! When we got the kittens outside Dad chose Ugly for me and gave him to me to take inside.

You may be asking why I chose the name “Ugly”. It’s pretty simple he was Ugly! He had a very dark grey coat covered in orange splodges and his face was bright orange. He was so Ugly he was beautiful.

Ugly never really belonged to me though. He was too wild but he did come at meal times when I called him and occasionally he would sleep on my bed and allow me to pet him, but cuddle him – never! I had so many scratches on me at one stage I looked like I had been picking blackberries for a week.

As you will have already surmised about six months after he was born we realised that Dad was not very good at picking the sex of cats. Yes he was a she and a very pregnant she! I was wrapped! More kittens!

Ugly became gentler as motherhood got closer. I could now pick her up and my bed became her bed. She was still only a kitten herself and here she was about to give birth to more kittens.

At last the big night arrived. I thought it was strange that all afternoon and evening Ugly had been following me around. If I went to the wood heap to chop more wood then she was there, sitting on a log and occasionally miaowing at me. I went to bed at my normal time in winter (about 8.00 pm) and Ugly soon joined me. She went around and around in circles but just didn’t seem to be able to get comfortable. She had a really fat tummy by this time and I thought that was the reason. Eventually when I let her get under the blankets with me she settled and we both went to sleep.

Much, much later I was awoken by the sound of tiny little mews. The first kitten had arrived. We didn’t have electricity in those days but I had a torch, which I quickly turned on, and there lying beside me was a baby kitten. Ugly was licking it clean and purring like a steam engine.

I screamed out in delight, “Mummy I’ve got a kitten.” There was a lot of muttering from the room next door where Mum and Dad slept and then the reply, “That’s nice darling, now go back to sleep.” “But Mummy it’s got white paws.” Silence. “Mummy, Ugly is having another kitten!” At last I got a reaction. I could hear Mum go to the linen press and to the storage cupboard. She opened my door and bought in an old suitcase and some tatty towels that we were going to make into rags. I helped Mum line the suitcase and we lifted Ugly and her kitten into it. I begged Mum to leave the suitcase in my room and she agreed as long as I promised to go straight back to sleep!

Sleep, there is no way I could go back to sleep! As soon as Mum was out of the room, Ugly grabbed the kitten in her mouth and jumped back on the bed and straight under the blankets. Who was I to argue with a cat that had made up her mind that her kittens were going to be born in my bed!

The kittens arrived at regular intervals of about half an hour apart. I kept Mum and Dad fully abreast of what was happening much to their annoyance. “This one’s a tabby!” “We have another black and white kitten!” “Oh a pretty little ginger one with a white face!”

The fifth and last kitten to arrive was Butterball. I fell in love. She was the colour of butter and her fur was so much longer than that of her brothers and sisters. We were all so tired by this time that Ugly, her five kittens and I fell into exhausted sleep.

Naturally, I awoke with the birds the next morning and threw back my blankets. It was just so beautiful. There were Ugly and her five little babies. They were only the size of matchboxes, did not have real ears and their eyes were closed tight. I was so frightened that they might have suffocated having been under the blankets with me all night but they were all wiggling and madly suckling on Ugly’s breasts.

That morning at breakfast Dad sat me down with a very serious look on his face and said, “Jane you know we can’t keep all the kittens don’t you? I want you to choose just one and I will take the others away before you and Ugly get too attached to them.” My heart was breaking but I knew he was right. I held his hand and we both went back to my room. Ugly looked up and miaowed loudly. It was as though she knew what was about to happen. I petted her and told her to be brave but I had tears trickling down my face. Naturally, I chose Butterball and Dad took the other kittens away. To this day I have never asked where he took them. Mum insisted that Ugly and Butterball move to the suitcase straight away so that she could take my sheets away to be washed. I hadn’t even noticed that they were dirty! Ugly accepted this arrangement but wasn’t too keen when I locked them both in the case and tried to take them to school with me. I finally agreed not to take them when Mum promised me that she would watch over them for me. Every afternoon when I got home I eagerly ran to my bedroom and the suitcase to make sure that all was OK.

Over the next weeks I watched with delight as Butterball progressed from a skinny little sausage into a cute kitten. Pointy ears and the biggest yellow/brown eyes. Mum was also in love and she gave me treats for Ugly (like the cream and titbits of fresh meat) so that she would be able to give all the right nutrients to Butterball in her milk.

As soon as Butterball was weaned Mum and I drove, in the old Holden, to town and visited the Vet. Neither of us trusted Dad’s judgement with regard to if Butterball was a boy or a girl. Mum gave a huge sigh when the Vet told us that she was a girl because she knew that she would have to explain to me that Butterball had to stay overnight with the Vet and have a small operation so that she would not have kittens. Funnily enough this was OK by me just as long as Butterball wasn’t going to be too sore. The Vet, a kindly roly-poly man called Dr. Jones, assured me that she would be asleep when he operated and that within a few days would be back to her playful self.

The next day we picked up this very sleepy and sore little ball of yellow fluff. Dr. Jones was correct in his prediction as within two days she was again chasing her tail and playing hide and seek with me and then jumping out and pouncing on my foot as I walked past her hiding spot. She was very much a house cat and only went outside to go to the toilet and then rushed back to miaow at the door until we let her in.

Soon after this Ugly left and I never saw her again. She returned to the feral cat families but, occasionally, I was sure I heard her caterwauling at night. Because Butterball and I had each other for company we didn’t miss her all that much.

Besides that we were soon to be joined by another bundle of joy – Lochie, but that is another story for another day.


Awe! He is just like Lochie

You will remember that at the conclusion of my story about Butterball I teased you by saying, “we were soon to be joined by another bundle of joy – Lochie” – well this is Lochie’s story!

From the time I could walk the first thing I did every morning was ask my Mum if I could “go say morning to the dogs”. She would help me out of my high chair and off I would toddle across the farm paddock to the shearing shed where our sheep dogs had their home. We had three Kelpie / Border Collie crosses they were called Brandy, Soda and Whisky. You might gather that my Mum and Dad liked a drink! Sheep dogs are a farmer’s left arm – without them it would be impossible to move the sheep from paddock to paddock; paddock to yards; or yards to shed and our three dogs were champions, that is, until Jane came along!

The dogs did not work for love; they loved to work, but during such times as hay baling they were left tied up and all alone. This was when I could do the most damage and damage I did do! You’re not supposed to pet sheep dogs or give them hugs or extra tucker but I managed to do all three on a very regular basis. It got to the stage that whenever Dad let the dogs off their chains to do some work for him they would run to the house paddock in search of me. Through giving them heaps of love and attention I had taken over Dad’s role as their master. It was pretty hard to send me to bed for this dilemma because it had taken place very gradually over nearly 12 months.

One day Dad and Whisky were herding a mob of sheep down the South Gippsland Highway from one of our farms to another. It had taken him nearly half a day so Mum and I decided to take him lunch in the old Holden. Ahead of us we saw this lovely controlled circle of sheep with Whisky moving from side to side behind them making sure that they were moving forward, not stopping to eat grass and never letting one stray. Dad was off to the left chugging along on the tractor. At the sound of the car, Whisky’s ears pricked. When he saw me hop out the sheep were forgotten and he came pelting back up the road to jump all over me and give me lots of kisses with his wet tongue. Now some people say that sheep are silly and yes I tend to agree but when freedom can be found they know how to escape. We had sheep going in every direction. Mum pushed me back into the car and made me hide from Whisky on the floor. She and Dad and, eventually, Whisky took over an hour to round-up all the sheep again.

That night I thought I was definitely going to be sent to bed without my dinner but instead Mum and Dad carried on like nothing had happened. I don’t know which is worse, waiting for the punishment or the punishment itself! From my room, where I was reading, I could hear them whispering but I could not quite catch what they were saying and Butterball was no help because she could not speak “people talk”.

About a week later Dad went on his own to Melbourne saying he would be home before I went to bed. This was very mysterious to me because Dad never went to Melbourne alone. Mum and I had a great day. It was raining so I stayed indoors beside the kitchen fire and filled a whole colouring book. We also baked a cake and made some scones. These were all very girlie type activities but what else could I do when I didn’t have Dad to pester and Mum wouldn’t let me play outside in the rain.

After tea (my favourite – macaroni on toast) we played “Snakes and Ladders” with Mum, naturally, letting me win and feigning surprise when I did! It got to be past my bedtime and still no sign of Dad. Then we heard the Holden – you could hear it from about 2 kilometres away on a still night. I ran to the door but Mum was too quick for me and grabbed me by the collar of my pyjama top so I had to wait anxiously for Dad on the veranda.

It seemed to take him forever to walk up the pathway and in his arms he was carrying a basket. Don’t tell me how but I knew it was a dog! I wriggled hard and broke free of Mum’s tight grip – she was left with my pyjama top in her hand – and went hurtling down the path screaming, “A doggy, Daddy’s bought me a doggy.” I was jumping up and down in excitement, soaking wet and half-naked, grabbing at Dad’s leg and trying to climb up to see inside the basket.

Eventually sanity was restored. Mum and Dad got me into the house, wrapped me in a towel and let me open the lid of the basket. There in the corner was this tiny little ball of silver, brown and ginger fluff. He was no bigger than a cricket ball but he had a big black wet nose and these gorgeous brown eyes peering through his fringe. I was so scared that I might hurt him that I was too frightened to pick him up but when I saw him stagger to his feet and try to climb out of the basket I had to help and we had our first cuddle. Lochie had arrived and my heart was full. He was an Australian Silky Terrier and I named him Lochiel, Lochie for short, after our farm that was called Lochiel.

When I went to bed that night, Butterball and I were allowed to take Lochie with us but Mum’s words, “He must stay in his basket Jane” fell on deaf ears. Under the blankets, using the torch for illumination, Butterball, Lochie and I became best friends. Butterball, although she was still a kitten, was bigger than Lochie but he defended himself with sharp little teeth whenever her playing got too rough. Next morning Dad came into my room to find me fast asleep on my back and lying with his little head resting on my left shoulder was Lochie and on my right shoulder was Butterball. And that’s the way we slept every night from there on.

Both Lochie and Butterball grew very quickly but she always was a little bigger. Oh the games they would play. They would run from one end of the house to the other slipping and sliding on the polished wood floors. Many a time I would hear a yelp or miaow of pain as one of them ran too fast and couldn’t stop before sliding and crashing into a wall. Butterball would deliberately sit under the bookshelves with just her tail peeking out. Lochie would strut past pretending not to notice this cream snake swishing back and forward. Just when you thought he had ignored it he would pounce, grab the tail in his mouth and drag Butterball out and up the passage. Their friendship and delight in each other’s company was truly beautiful. During the day when they were exhausted from their games they would curl up into one big cream and silver ball. It was hard to figure where the cat finished and the dog began.

Being a terrier, I was warned that I had to be very careful when taking Lochie outside the house paddock as it would be so easy for him to run down a rabbit hole. But outside the farm paddock I had no control over him. He would run ahead (no it was more like a hop because he was so tiny, only 20 centimetres tall, he couldn’t see over the top of the grass) and the number of times Mum and I had to ring the bell to tell Dad to come home to help us dig up a rabbit warren and get Lochie out were innumerable. Dumb dog – he still persisted in trying to catch rabbits. I think he would have died of shock if he had succeeded.

He was my constant companion. If Mum could see Lochie she knew that I would not be too far away. He loved going for rides on Tango and became very adept at sitting on his rump behind the saddle. Tango also loved Lochie. One day I came out of the tackle shed where we kept all the bridles, halters and saddles to find Tango standing waiting for me at the gate and, to my amazement, there was Lochie sitting up on his back. I told Mum and Dad but they thought I was telling “pork pies” until I made them watch how Lochie and Tango accomplished such a feat of cooperation.

It was easy really – Tango would back himself up against the wood pile and Lochie would jump from log to log getting higher and higher until he managed to clamber onto Tango’s back. He would then sit down as Tango took him for a ride.

Lochie also got on well with Brandy, Soda and Whisky – or thought he did. They found him to be a real pest especially when they were in the middle of bringing a flock of sheep up to the shed because Lochie would try to help them. Sheep would scatter for kilometres when they saw this little yapping rabbit like animal coming at them. I can still hear Dad screaming at me, “Jane, control that dog of yours or I will throw him in the dam!”

Both Lochie and Butterball moved to Melbourne with me but you could tell that they too missed the freedom of the farm. We all adapted and the people in the neighbourhood soon accepted seeing me walk down the street followed by this beautiful cream cat and gorgeous shiny silver tiny dog. Soon we became friends with the boys and girls who lived in the streets around us but none of them had ever experienced the close relationship we three shared and they were all so very jealous!


This guy is just like Buck

All children love animals, so this has been written for the child in each and every one of us. It is a true story that began when I was eleven years old and was lucky enough to have a pet kangaroo. I called him “Buck” because his top front teeth jutted out. We lived on a farm in an area of Victoria called Gippsland. Victoria is the smallest State in Australia but the whole of England would fit into it!

Gippsland is very pretty – rolling hills down to the flatlands close to the coast. We lived about five kilometres from a beach called the “Ninety Mile” (ninety miles straight of fabulous sand dunes that were great to roll down, but tough to climb up). But I was going to tell you about “Buck”.

He was a Joey (that is what we call baby kangaroos) when I got him. Some horrible hunter had shot his Mum. Dad found him in our back paddock. One of the ewes was keeping him warm. He was so tiny – only about the size of a cat. My Mum made an apron of hers into a pouch for him and I filled it with cotton wool. I wore that apron everywhere, even to school, and carried Buck around with me. My body heat and the cotton wool kept him warm. At night, Mum wouldn’t let me take him to bed with me because I already had my dog, Lochie, and cat, Butterball, sharing the bed with me. She used to hang the apron near the fire in our kitchen. Buck was happy – he just slept most of the time anyway. Mum didn’t know that every night I crept down the dark passage and into the kitchen to make sure that Buck was OK. She didn’t know, that is, until one night I was very tired. She found me the next morning fast asleep on the kitchen floor with Buck in my arms. She pretended to be angry with me, but I could tell she thought it was pretty darn cute.

We had a house cow, Daisy. What else would you call a house cow? It was my job to milk Daisy by hand every morning and night. When my big brother, Hugh, came home each term from boarding school – I would squirt the milk at him instead of into the bucket. He was useless because he didn’t know how to milk a cow. It had been my job ever since I had turned seven. Hugh used to go whining to Mum that I had squirted milk at him and made him all dirty. What a sissy! Boy we had some good fights. I went to school very proud of any black eye he might have given me. Hugh because he was a boy and bigger, always won, but I hurt him heaps too!

I keep on forgetting that this is Buck’s story. The milk from Daisy was used to feed Buck – Mum put water in it because it was too strong and also a little sugar to make it lovely and sweet. We put this mixture into an old baby’s bottle that I had when I was little. Buck just loved his milk. I had to feed him 8 times a day though! It sure did take up a lot of my time, but Dad let me drop some of my other chores like feeding the horses and chopping the wood.

By summer time Buck no longer could fit in his pouch. Also, he was too heavy and I wasn’t strong enough to carry him. He had learnt to hop and he was no longer allowed in the house. His big tail had accidentally swiped one of Mum’s precious bowls off a coffee table and it had smashed into a million little pieces. Boy was I in trouble. I was sent to bed without my tea. That wasn’t very fair was it?

In the summertime because it was so hot I slept out on the back veranda. Buck loved that. He now could sleep beside me along with Lochie and Butterball. There wasn’t much room left for me though!

We were now using a big beer bottle to feed Buck his milk. Poor Daisy couldn’t provide enough milk for Buck as well as for the family. So each morning I had to ride my little white pony called Tango down the road to the farm next door (about 2 kilometres away) to collect milk from their dairy. Buck would always be waiting at the front gate of the house paddock for me to return with his milk. He really was so very greedy! And fat too!

Now the next thing I had to do was to teach Buck how to eat grass. This was really funny. Can you imagine this big kangaroo (he was about a metre high by this time) with a very strange look on his face as he watched me hopping around and then bending over and pretending to eat grass. Oddly enough after a couple of days he started to eat grass. Phew, I was getting mighty tired of all that hopping.

Buck made his home in our front paddock. He gradually became less and less dependent on me for company as, in the bush at the very back of the paddock, there was a family of wild kangaroos. Days used to go by without me seeing Buck. I was sad, but Dad explained to me that he should be with other kangaroos. He had to find a wife and have a family for himself.

The last time I saw Buck was just before we left the farm to move to Melbourne. I was thirteen. I loved the farm and didn’t want to leave but Mum and Dad were going so, naturally, I had to be with them.

Before leaving I spent a day just roaming around all the paddocks. I said goodbye to Daisy and scratched her ears for the last time. Lochie and Butterball were already in Melbourne waiting for me. Tango had been given to some little girls who lived nearby. I had been too big to ride him for nearly a year anyway. He was very happy to have two little girls looking after him. I visited my favourite dam and pulled out my yabby nets for the last time. Yabbies are fresh water prawns and they taste delicious cooked in butter and served hot. I spent some time just sitting in my tree hut that Dad had built for me. I was so sad.

Finally I got to the bush at the back of the front paddock. I desperately wanted to see Buck, but didn’t think much of my chances. I hadn’t seen him for months. He could have been kilometres away. Suddenly in a clearing filled with lush grass, I found him. He had three lady kangaroos with him (I always knew he was greedy) and there were two Joeys curled up asleep in the sun. It definitely was Buck because this two meter high kangaroo with a beautiful shiny cream coat was not frightened of me. More importantly he had a funny pouting top lip. I just sat watching him and his family for about an hour until I heard Mum ringing the bell that always was the signal for me to get my butt home!!

The Hay Shed

An Aussie hay shed very similar to what ours looked like

By now you will have realised that I was a bit of a tomboy as a child. When I was about nine this really worried Mum so, for Christmas, she gave me this beautiful doll. You know the type – frilly dress, porcelain face, and blonde curly hair – really yucky! Only trouble was that I had just finished reading a story about Joan of Arc. You guessed it – I pretended that the doll was Joan of Arc and I beheaded her with the axe I used to chop firewood for Mum’s kitchen stove. Once again I got sent to bed without any tea.

I really thought I was a boy and, as Hugh was away at school, I never twigged there was a physical difference between boys and girls. Besides that, boys did exciting things while girls played with tea sets and dolls and helped their Mums in the house. Not for me!

You’re probably also thinking that Hugh was a bit of a sissy. You’re right but he did build the best huts. I qualify that – he dug the best huts. One underground hut he dug for me had five steps down into a little square cave. I could stand up in it so it must have been at least a metre high. If my memory serves me correctly the roof of the hut was about 40cm thick. Inside he carved little nooks in the wall for my treasures, like my toad collection. It really was quite a feat! I helped by taking the soil away in a wheelbarrow and spreading it ever so carefully across the back paddock so Dad wouldn’t know we had this monstrous great hole near his tractor shed. After about a week of digging my new underground hut was finished. By this time Dad was mighty curious about what was occupying so much of our time and the next morning he followed us. Talk about yell – to say he was angry would be putting it mildly! Your right – we were both sent to bed without our dinner that night. Dad’s solution to stop us going back to the hut was to fill it up with Daisy’s poo that he had been collecting to use on his vegetable garden. The smell was so bad that neither Hugh nor I went back.

Looking back on this I realise why Dad was so angry. What would have happened if it had collapsed on us?

In the summer of my eleventh year Hugh bought a friend home with him from school. His name was David – boy did I have a crush on David but he was five years older than I was and, to him, I was just an annoying little pest they had to look after.

Every summer the farmers of the district would help one another cut the paddock grass which then was used to make the bales of hay. Hay is necessary, for in the winter grass does not grow quickly enough to provide the nourishment required by the sheep. I loved hay-baling time. Mum used to bake the best cakes for the workers to eat at morning and afternoon tea time. Lunch was always huge roast legs of lamb with lashings of vegetables all smothered in rich, brown gravy.

I wasn’t strong enough to lift the bales of hay so Lochie and I kept Dad company on the tractor as we moved the bales from the paddock to the hay shed. Hugh and David had the job of stacking the hay in the shed. Dad was so pleased about the amount of hay we stored that year; little did he know that as the boys were stacking the hay they were also building another hut. Any architect would have been proud of this hut. It had a long passage which you had to crawl through to get to two tiny rooms – one for me and one for them. On top of the passage and the little rooms were at least another ten layers of hay bales. This hut was solid though – they had used planks of wood to stop the roof falling in. We all spent hours in the hut. One night the boys sneaked out of the house and slept there – I was so jealous. Butterball and Lochie loved coming with me when I went to the hut. They would run ahead of me and climb up the haystack and creep into the secret entrance.

Boys being boys they used me all the time – I was an unpaid servant – I’d be sent, at regular intervals, to the house to get cool drinks for them and then carry them ever so carefully all the way back to the hay shed. My Mum smoked cigarettes and one time they made me pinch a few so they could try them. This was really naughty but by this time I was so smitten with David that I would have walked to the edge of the earth for him.

I think they must have smoked before because they did not go green and cough or anything like that and, being summertime, they were very careful with the butts.

You know what is coming next don’t you? Yes silly me, I had to find out what it was like to smoke.

One day Dad took Hugh and David to the cattle sales. I’d been to plenty of cattle sales and thought here was my opportunity to learn how to smoke. When Mum was working in the garden I crept into the kitchen and took one of her cigarettes and grabbed a box of matches out of the pantry. Now I had a real problem. Where could I go where I wouldn’t be found? Ah the hay shed!

So off I trotted with my cigarette and box of matches hidden in the front of my shirt. I crept along the tunnel of the hay hut and into my room. At last I have found some peace and quiet. I used about four matches to get the cigarette lit because I didn’t know that you had to suck on the other end. It was horrible! My lungs felt like they were burning and I coughed so much I had tears pouring down my face. I needed fresh air so I quickly butted the cigarette and crawled out as fast as I could. In the distance I could hear Mum ringing the bell calling me to come in for lunch. As I desperately need a drink to soothe my sore throat I ran back to the house. I had to do my chores after lunch so I didn’t get back to the shed that afternoon. Dad bought the boys home in time for tea and we all had a game of cricket on the back lawn.

It was about an hour later that we smelt the smoke. The hay shed was on fire! Dad and the boys took off to the shed grabbing old bags which they soaked in the water trough on the way. Mum and I followed with buckets. They managed to save about half the hay so it wasn’t a complete disaster but the roof of the shed was badly damaged. I knew what I had done but I was too frightened to own up. All the time we were fighting the fire I just ignored this horrible guilty feeling I had in my tummy.

When we finally got back home all sooty and sweaty I just started to cry. I was crying and sobbing so hard that no one could understand what I was trying to say. Eventually Mum calmed me down and I told them that it was my fault. You could have heard a pin drop – the silence was deafening! I didn’t wait to be told … I went to bed.

Mum and Dad must have had a long talk about how bad I had been because the next morning I was given a spanking by Dad. Yes it hurt and hurt bad. Then Dad made me ride Gobby for three hours – you can imagine how pink my bottom was after a spanking and then having to sit in a saddle for three hours! You know something? I did not cry once but I was biting my bottom lip so hard that it bled.

A couple of days later Hugh and David went back to boarding school. Summer was nearly over and gradually things returned to normal.

Dad let me help him when he re-roofed the shed and he even complimented me on being a good assistant. I knew then that I had been forgiven and that he still loved me.

An Australian Christmas

Looking down at the Ninety Mile Beach, Woodside, Victoria, Australia

Memories of Christmas in rural Victoria, Australia in mid-1960

For the weeks leading up to Christmas Nancy, my Mum, slaved in a very hot kitchen with the old Aga combustion stove making the entire house feel like an oven.  My Dad (Cameron) was also busy helping Mr. Parker, who lived on the next door farm, kill and hang one of his sows plus four ducks. Half the pig and two ducks were bought back to Mum who then had the onerous task of cooking them.  Not only that, she also baked at least two Christmas fruit cakes, mince pies, shortbread and always gingerbread men for Hugh and me.

All our fruit and vegetables came from the farm’s orchard and garden.  It was my job to ensure that Mum had enough apples, oranges, plums, spring onions, tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, potatoes, celery, cucumber and peas to make the salads.

Looking back on it now, I honestly don’t know how she managed! Plus have the time to keep two very excited children occupied. Maybe Dad gave us extra chores to keep us busy and away from their bedroom cupboards which were filled with strangely shaped parcels.

The last chore of Christmas Eve, before we all chugged off in the ancient Holden to a party, was to make sure all the prepared food was cold.  In those days our refrigerator was powered by gas and not all that big, so Dad went to the ice-works in Yarram, bought three blocks of ice and sped the 12 miles back to the farm before it melted.  Beer, cider, cordial and water bottles were all put on the ice (as well as the food that could not be squeezed into the fridge) and then tightly wrapped in hessian bags.

The Christmas Eve party really was just an excuse for all the local farmers and their families to let their hair down and get completely sozzled!  About thirty kids from toddlers to teenagers were let loose and we always ended up exploring the Bruthen Creek and building dams so we could swim in its shallow waters.  Our dams were discovered on Boxing Day when the farmers downstream found that their supply of water had been reduced to a trickle!  Finally exhausted by our adventures, we returned to the various family cars and slept until driven home in the early hours of the morning by inebriated parents.

Very few farming families had the time for Christmas decorations or trees, so we grew up with Santa Claus leaving our gifts in a pillow slip which was propped against the end of our bed.

Being the youngest, I always woke at the crack of dawn and dragged my pillow slip up the hall to the kitchen yelling at the top of my voice “Santa’s been!”  Our very hung-over parents were forced out of bed by all the noise and soon we were unwrapping our gifts.  Being a tomboy, I was saved the ignominy of dolls and found that Santa always left things like new riding boots, a sling-shot, a basketball plus lots of clothes.  While we were madly unwrapping, Mum was making us toast and eggs.  Dad carved the first slices of the chilled baked ham.  It was a light breakfast as we knew we needed to leave space for the day ahead.

Work never stops on a farm, even for Christmas!  We had a cow to milk, wood to chop, sheep and cattle to feed.  Also, troughs to be filled with water to get the stock through the heat of the day.  At 11:00 am we were finished and ready to help Mum pack the car.  Two enormous eskies were filled with all the food and my old tin baby bath contained the beer, soft drinks and ice.  Plus beach blankets, towels, a large sun umbrella, swimming togs and extra clothes as we would not be home until after dark.  There was hardly enough room for us in the car to drive the 3 miles to the Ninety Mile Beach, so I would ride my horse, Goblin Gold (aka Gobbie), as he so enjoyed being able to have a swim in the ocean.

The road into the beach at that time was not sealed so the drivers had to be very careful not to bog their cars in the soft sand at the back of the dunes.  I can remember there was always a race to park the cars in the shade of one of the three trees in the vicinity of the beach.  About ten families joined us and the men carted all the food over the dunes down to the pristine beach.  Ninety miles of sand and surf as far as the eye could see with only fifty people to enjoy its beauty.  It was like living on a deserted moonscape made of sand with bull rushes in the towering dunes behind.

The women quickly organised blankets, towels and beach umbrellas while the men cracked the tops off the frosty cold beer bottles.  We excitedly waited and fidgeted a lot when being assisted into our togs and slathered with sun protection cream.  Then the whoops and yells as we all ran for the water.  By the age of five I’d learned to swim in the pounding surf of Woodside Beach where waves smaller than three feet were a rare occurrence.

Lunch was usually served at around 1:00 pm and our plates were filled with every assortment of food possible; pork, turkey, duck, chicken, ham, potato salad, egg salad, tomato & onion salad and so much more!  All food was served chilled with icy glasses of cordial for the kids and beer for the adults.  Back in those days wine was only drunk at weddings and funerals!  Fruit salads were provided for those who still had room in their bulging bellies.

The adults took to their towels under a multitude of umbrellas to sleep off the gluttony of the day, while we kids headed for the dunes.  Some of us had assembled cardboard sleighs which we dragged up these 150 feet hills!  Then jumping on and racing each other, with howls of laughter, to the bottom.  Crashes, tears, giggles and joy filled our afternoon until we were called back to the main party and again covered in sun lotion before our final swim for the day.  At last our parents seem to be over their self-inflicted headaches and were ready to play with us.  Beach cricket to one side, volley ball at the other or sand castle building – with prizes being given to every child no matter who won!

As the sun went down behind the dunes the beach darkened and it was time to light our bonfire.  The wood for this fire had been collected, over a number of weeks, from nearby farms.  To give you an idea of its size, twenty people holding hands could encircle it.  Snacking on the last of the leftovers we all sat around singing carols, reciting Australian poetry and, best of all, listening to stories about World War II.  Children fell asleep in the arms of their parents and gradually as the fire dimmed we all said goodbye to our very rural Australian Christmas Day!