With the wind at my back, I sailed towards home along the quieter roads. The harvest was in full swing and my main concern was to keep clear of unsuspecting wheat trucks on the narrow back roads. Finally, just before Goomalling, I could put the map away: I knew the roads like the back of my hand. I turned off along the Goomalling–Meckering Road and on a high point, just before the turn-off to my brother’s farm, I could see on the horizon the bush paddock which was my home farm, about twenty kilometres away as the crow flies. I stopped to take it all in and video the moment. It was a strange feeling to have pedalled over 17 500 km through some of the most inhospitable parts of the country and to connect it with familiar territory – my childhood home. I had managed to steal an extra day by pushing extra hard from Geraldton, and so was able to spend more time at my brother’s farm, twenty-five kilometres from Ullaring Rock, my parents’ farm, and where I grew up.
The following day, I accompanied my brother, Rick, for a few rounds of a paddock in the harvester. My fifteen-year-old nephew, James, decided he would like to cycle with me across to Ullaring Rock. Having never pedalled any sort of distance before, James did very well, especially pushing up some of the sharp little hills, which he attacked with gusto, steaming ahead of me as he got a run-up.
Amazingly, between Halls Creek and home, a distance of 3 500 km, I had only had to camp ‘wild’ four times and had used two commercial campsites. The rest of the time I had stayed on stations, farms and with various contacts.
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As James and I entered the bush paddock through the back gate to the home farm, we passed the ‘Old Camp’, now virtually indistinguishable among the wild oats and York gums. Almost a century ago, my grandfather set up the remote outpost – a stable and a shed. There he lived for twelve years, clearing and developing the scrubland with a disc plough pulled by a team of horses. In common with all the pioneers of the region, his existence was harsh and extremely isolated. Our farm was, and still is, at the end of a line. The nearest neighbours are about five kilometres away and the nearest main town, Northam, is thirty-two kilometres distant. The front half of the farm lies in the Northam Shire, the back half in the Cunderdin-Meckering-Tammin Shire and the boundary is shared with the Goomalling Shire.
Nowadays, town is only a 25-minute drive away, but when my father was growing up it was a very different story. A journey into Northam may have been undertaken about once a month. The family travelled to the big smoke – Perth – once a year, if they were lucky. As a result of this isolation, local communities such as Southern Brook, Grass Valley or Jennapullen were the social hub, and one-teacher, one-room schools, such as Southern Brook State School, provided a primary education for the sparse rural population. It is difficult to comprehend that, only a generation back, my father and his older brother had to ride a horse to school, ten kilometres each way, opening and closing seven ‘cocky’ (wire) gates across our neighbour’s property as they went. At lunch-time, the boys had to feed their horses before they were allowed to eat their own meals. Times were so tough during the years of the Great Depression that Dad had to ride a blind horse to school. That can’t have earned him much kudos among his peers.
Primary school for the five children in my generation of the family involved an hour-long bus trip each way, give or take depending on how many families needed to be collected on the bus run. As our sandy front drive is about four kilometres long, we would usually be driven to and from the front gate until we were old enough and responsible enough to drive ourselves – at about ten years of age, or when we could reach the foot controls and see over the dashboard at the same time. One of my early memories is of my first day at school as a five-year-old and my grandfather forgetting to pick me up from the gate. There was no shelter and it was a searing-hot February day. After waiting what seemed an eternity, I started to walk home. I knew how to get water from the sheep troughs by sliding off the cement lid and pushing the float down to turn on the tap so I filled my lunch box, being careful not to disturb the redback spiders. Within a couple of hundred metres of home, I heard a car reverse out of the garage and roar off towards me as Papa planted his foot. I wasn’t too concerned about being forgotten. My sisters and brothers all experienced the same situation a few times.
The two things I always try to make time for when I am home are a run down the front drive to the mail-box and back and a walk on The Rock directly behind our house. Both actions evoke a spiritual sense of place in my heart. The Rock, ‘Ullaring Rock’, is like our family’s Uluru. (‘Ullaring’ is one of the many Indigenous terms meaning ‘a place of water’). The granite outcrop covers a total of about five hectares in three major lumps. It is exactly 1000 feet (330 metres) above sea level and is used as an easily identifiable trig point for aircraft.
The Rock saved our house from a bushfire in the 1960s, and we like to think it helped protect the bricks and mortar during the 1968 Meckering earthquake, the fault line of which is only about 15 km away as the crow flies. My father engineered a water channel to catch the run-off which supplies us with drinking water, and we have collected the flat stones, which are gradually exfoliating away from the weathering surface, to use as paving stones in the garden. As kids we spent endless hours there, usually barefoot, catching tadpoles and building dams in the pools (in winter), making cubby houses or race tracks for the push-carts we constructed.
Above all, I value The Rock for its peace and solitude. It is a place to think and a source of energy. Things become clear and simple from there. Time permitting, I would wander up on The Rock if I was stressed, upset, in trouble, if I needed to psych myself up for a big event such as an athletics carnival or a squash match, before exams or if I just needed to make plans. Sometimes I would lie down on The Rock like a lizard, absorbing warmth, and close my eyes. Granite can be surprisingly comfortable. No vehicles can be heard at all and there is no one, apart from family, for miles. The silence is deafening, which usually freaks out friends visiting from the city or overseas. When we take them out to watch the sunset or look at the night sky, they are overwhelmed with the space and peace. Without light pollution from any urban glow, the usually clear night sky is so bursting with stars it feels heavy.