“Write writing your memoirs before it’s too late,” is the advice of newly-published author Jenny Old who is currently on a book tour through northern NSW.
Mrs Old introduced keen readers at the Tenterfield Library on Tuesday, June 25 to snippets of her 18 years spent on McAllister, a remote cattle property near the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Her telling of her introduction to husband Rick and the years that followed is an engrossing read, and for a much wider audience than she expected.
“I thought it would only be of interest to family,” she said.
She’d met Rick in Sydney just 10 days before departing on a 12-month overseas adventure. They stayed in touch but Mrs Old said her future husband received a shock when on her return she stepped off the ship in a purple mini-dress (the latest London fashion) and her hair piled up in a beehive, and after putting on a lot of weight during her absence.
Fashion was the least of her concerns after she then ended up in the Gulf Country at McAllister, small by northern Australian standards at ‘just’ 234 square miles or 60,000 hectares. The property had yet to be developed and she found herself sharing a tiny tin shed with two bachelors (Rick and his business partner). The ‘kitchen’ was the top third of a 44 gallon drum and the ‘bathroom’ was a shower rose hanging in a tree.
“It didn’t worry me,” she said.
She’d grown up in the Riverina and had nursed in Melbourne, but was undaunted by her new surroundings. She helped build some basic infrastructure and cows and bulls were brought in, with little regard for breed.
“Licorice all-sorts, we called them,” Mrs Old said.
About five weeks into the adventure Rick proposed, presenting her with an engagement ring made of tie wire that had been wrapped around a tree branch to shape it. That was 49 years ago and she still wears the ring, but figures she due for an upgrade for their golden anniversary.
Their original married quarters was a log cabin on McAllister before they constructed a more permanent home from the 3000 bricks they made. Anecdotes from those days include her efforts to establish a garden (the couch runners went wild and, not having a lawnmower, she had to trim the lawn with shears), and a memorable Christmas when Jacko the mailman braved flooded roads to deliver two mail sacks of letters and gifts on Christmas day, knowing they’d be greatly appreciated.
“That’s the spirit of the north,” Mrs Old said.
The Olds went on to have two sons, and to survive the big beef crash of the mid-1970s when it cost more to freight cattle to market than their selling price, coupled with the interest rate on their heavily-mortgaged property rising from six per cent to 21 per cent, and nearly being wiped out by Cyclone Ted in December 1976.
The couple developed the Burke and Wills Roadhouse, at that stage operated out of a small caravan. Mr Old hung out a sign, ‘24 hour fuel, bang on caravan door’ and people did, inevitably waking up the new baby and the five Labrador pups that lived under the caravan every time.
The Olds bore all their tribulations with good grace and the result is a funny, endearing and heartwarming story that enlightens not only their grandchildren on the family history, but with a special appeal even for cityfolk, Mrs Old has discovered.
She feels it’s important to highlight the work of women in the bush, where it’s common to be involved in fencing and mustering and other farm chores and then coming home to educate the children and keep a household running.
A favourite quote is from Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she is in hot water!’
“Rick always looks at the bright side, and he taught me to do the same,” she said.
While the region is no longer as isolated as it was now that the grey nomads have discovered it, Mr Old said in some ways the inhabitants are more isolated than ever before. He said every evening there used to be a ‘galah session’ on the two-way radio where everyone got updated, but now people have phones and it’s not as communal.
Most of the small properties have been consumed by much larger enterprises, with crews flown in to undertake specific tasks and only one stockperson if any remaining on the property.
“We were there at the perfect time,” Mr Old said.
A television series based on Mrs Old’s book is being developed and there’s talk of a movie (Nicole Kidman to play Mrs Old, of course), but this slice of Australian history has been picked up by publisher Allen & Unwin and makes a good read now.