Monday, February 01, 2016

Australia Day 2016

Australia Day 2016

Coorong District Council

Every year Australia Day Ambassadors are shared out across the land at the behest of urban and regional councils.

This year my invitation came from the Coorong Council which covers a vast area 100k directly to the south of Adelaide. It is one of the biggest gigs on the Ambassador program because it celebrates Australia Day with ceremonies and citizenship awards in three separate towns - three very different towns, as it happens.

The Council's Executive Officer, Ben Jarvis, booked an overnight at stay Tailem Bend so that I was on the spot for an early start. That was a good idea since, if I was to drive up from Adelaide in time to start the Australia Day events program, I would have had to rise at 4am - and it gave my husband and I the sheer pleasure of experiencing Lyrabend Farmstay, which is set in the countryside just a few miles out of Tailem Bend.

On January 25, we drove up to Tailem Bend, popping in on Murray Bridge for the best chocolates in the world - handmade at the Chocolate Box.

These handmade chocolates can't be found elsewhere. They are a well-kept secret and worth a pilgrimage. Some have exotic, almost Oriental centres - and look how beautiful they are, like jewels.

But I digress.

Tailem Bend is a broad silo town situated on a bend in the Murray River. Its river location is extremely beautiful but, oddly, the main part of the town itself is set away from the river with the interstate highway in between.

The Council building is in the sparse main CBD street opposite a pleasant park with towering gums. The building is new and handsome with a lifesized pelican statue standing welcome at the door.

Ben is a tall and lean young man with a disarmingly willing and good-natured disposition. He provided all the background information I sought to play my part on Australia Day as well as directions to Lyrabend.

I could not leave without perusing an art exhibition arrayed on the walls of the council building. A splendid cross-platform art show which evoked smiles and admiration and gave me a sense of the sort of progressive council which was hosting me.

And thus to Lyrabend which was out of town and a few klicks down a dirt road, way out in the plains of stubble under the big, big sky.

The farmstay has new owners, Michelle and Michael, originally from Mildura, who are settling in with their four children.

Our log cabin was set down a curve of dirt drive and a rough desert garden of stunted trees separated it from the homestead. Everything was dry.

Several goats foraged in a paddock nearby. Sheep happily flicking undocked tails were guarded by a couple of very nervous alpacas in another large field, and there was a shetland pony grazing on a massive haybale near some farm sheds.

The cabin was lovely. Spic and span, well-equipped, very welcoming. We adored it on sight. The kitchen window looked out past a gum tree to a vast flat expanse of pure rural Australiana. A breathtaking aspect.

I poured a glass of cold Savvy and repaired to the bench on the front verandah whence I studied all the local background and news material Ben had provided.

It was a calm, warm late afternoon and the sense of space did my soul good. The shadows were lengthening and I could see the children playing out the back of their house under a massive eucalypt from which hung the longest country swing I've seen.

There was a broken trampoline in the yard and other play equipment all upon an expanse of powdery, dry brown earth.

Watching the little girl called Tenisha in her thin cotton summer frock playing barefooted in the dust in this isolated piece of rural domestica, I fell into an intense Patrick White reverie. This world truly evoked that which he created in Season in Sarsaparilla and that story Down at the Dump. His imagery was still fresh in my mind from the vivid Brink production, The Aspirations of Daisy Morrow.

I loved White at that moment and I loved the Australia Day Council for giving me such moments of national and cultural identity.

Scents of steak wafted from inside the cabin. Bruce was thriving at the challenge of cooking in a new place. We had a delicious dinner and then took off down the rocky farm track for a walk in the country - down a long, flat straight, potholed dirt road with paddocks of stubble stretched out under the big blue canopy of sky. Odd things one sees in the country, Two huge square rocks one on top of the other in a field.

A sandy embankment tightly grown with bamboos, signs of dirt bikes and rabbits in the red dirt mounds around it, but no hint as to why it had been planted. Two cars went down the road as we walked. One waved in the characteristic country way. The other, a black ute with odd equipment and a huge black barrel on the back, slowed down and looked us over. It was a bit weird. We thought of Wolf Creek and quickened our steps.

A lovely sunset followed by an almost full moon. It dazzled between the trees when I ventured onto the verandah before bed. The Southern Cross was pale in its light night sky. 'Twas a good bed in that little cabin. We slept well and were up at 5.30 to be ready for our hosts Ben along with the Coorong District Mayor, Neville Jaensch, who arrived promptly at 6.50. I liked the Mayor immediately and, as the day wore on, just liked him more.

We drove in convoy to Tintinara, about 90k south. It is an historic agricultural town on the edge of the fabulous South East region and it is gateway to the wonderful parks such as Noonameena of the Coorong. Limestone Coast country.

The Tintinara Community Hall is a large, airy and extremely well-appointed. It was packed. All the tables were adorned with coke cans topped with Aussie flags. The Lions Club was serving Australia Day breakfasts - mountains of barbequed sausages, eggs and white toast. Everyone was tucking in. The mayor made a push-in place to get us fed ready for speaking. The people obliged in good humour.

I don't know why those barbie fried eggs are so especially good. Somehow those country volunteers have a knack with then - old hands on a barbie. As for those country snags. They just do the trick on OzDay. It is not high cuisine but it is trad tucker and we love it.

Well fed, the large crowd settled down for formalities. Even the standing room was full. People lined the walls. It was a fabulous turnout of really nice people I beheld.

The national anthem was played. There was no soloist so the crowd softly sang along. It was rather pretty. And then the speeches and the presentations. Brenton Jones was the man of the moment, a vigorous community volunteer described rather nicely, I thought, as "a well-rounded citizen". It was clear he was very popular.

My speech was well received. I kept it short because no one has ever complained about a short speech. I spoke of "Tinty" as a community and of the special characteristics of country people. I spoke of Australia Day and its history. The audience response was warm.

People were coming to introduce themselves and chat to me afterwards but the Ben and the Mayor had to hustle us out because we made more driving to do and another town ceremony to attend. We were on the clock.

Mengingie is a town I have always liked a lot. It is on the shores of Lake Albert, the lesser-known great shallow lake of the area. Lake Alexandrina is its sister. It is a world of pelicans and famous Coorong mullet. It is an historic traveller's watering hole and it has pleasant little shops, a dear old country pub and my favourite motel which, while not flash, is one of the most stunning places I have ever stayed. The lake water is so close to the window that one could almost reach out and stick a finger in.

There is a lot of trouble and controversy in the area just now with seals invading the Coorong waters and devouring the precious Coorong mullet - and even killing pelicans. The call is for a seal cull. There are strident objections from city nature-lovers. I'm afraid I'm with the fishermen and locals. The seals are recent invaders.

But there also is good news arising as this close and clever community rises to the celebrations of the town's sesquicentary - not the least of things being the uplifting of the most extraordinary piece of folk history in the country, the tale of the Birdman Bushranger. I had happened upon it when researching for my speech and I was astounded, incredulous, amazed, thrilled and generally awed by this tale so outrageous, so colourful and so bizarre... How come I had never heard of John Peggoty, the quaint little gold-festooned lakeside bushranger who terrorised travellers from the back of an ostrich? This tale is being lifted to the national awareness it deserves, being recognised as a long-overdue tourist attraction and, to this end, a statue of an ostrich has been erected on the shores of Lake Albert where that funny, tiny man, bedecked in gold chains, used to do his devilry.

Meningie's crowd was spread out around under marquee shelters along the rails of the town oval. The speaking and catering areas were under verandahs outside the club buildings. There were a lot of people. They were the town's second Australia Day wave. About 200 had taken part in a long funrun earlier in the morning. Everyone seemed well settled in and comfortable in rows of chairs and the atmosphere was very welcoming.

The Council's Ben Jarvis sat in the front row with my husband, Bruce. I could see him on Ben iPad recording the proceedings for the Council's official record.

A member of the community, one Miss Cartledge, sang the national anthem in a voice clear and pure, beautiful and confident. It was downright perfect.

The Mayor called me up straight afterwards and what I lovely audience I had. They were with e for every nuance. They laughed at my punchlines and everyone seemed well pleased that I was up to speed with their Birdman Bushranger. The Meningie citizen awards were wonderful. Two outstanding and special people who were nominated and spoken for by two other outstanding and special people.

Denice Mason was one, a teacher and craftsperson who, it turns out, has been spearheading the promotion of the Birdman Bushranger.

Bob Lewis also was recognised. He's a Viet Vet struck by PTSD whose community generosity has made him simply beloved. Oh, yes. Love was in the air at Meningie - and positivity.

There were lots of people to meet after the speeches. I was quite swamped and I wanted to talk properly to all of them. But, yet again, we were on the clock. We had to head off and cover some more territory to get to the final town.

Tailem Bend.

The town in which we started early in the morning. It was now lunchtime.

It is not only Coorong Council's HQ and a watering hole for travellers but also, most recently, the chosen location for a planned race car track. This promises to be a massive development which doubtless will change much about life and style at this dreamy river bend location.

A rather good band was playing 70s Aussie pop song covers when we arrived . They were under trees at once side of a park and on the other side, with a wide stretch of lawn in between, people lolled on camp chairs in rows. The weather was heavenly.

Balloons bumped each other from hanging spots. Marquees shaded refreshment options. In one corner of the green, a giant chequers board was laid out for children to play upon.

The Mayor found a couple of chairs and I got busy Tweeting as we waited beneath the trees while the band played another two rousing old 70s hit song or two - and then I was called up to speak, with a music stand provided as improvised lectern.

The crowd seemed a long way away and was not as easy to read as the others.

Talk about improvising, I looked down at the wrong speech notes, so I, also had to improvise. Lucky I had my car racing history to draw upon. Having been a marshal in Grand Prix races and having participated in Classic Car rallies and Variety Bush Bashes, I claimed a certain expertise about the petrol-head world - and the authority to assure the Tailem Bend people that they tended to be beaut people.

I realised later that they had been there for quite a long time and they were having to wait for all of us to do our speaking before they could have their Australia Day BBQ lunch. They were hungry.

But they had some fabulous Australia Day citizens to recognise.

Peter Verrall is another man who has been a success story while battling PTSD. He's a power in the Tailem Bend RSL and conducts the town's Anzac services. The Mayor also presented an award to Trevor Gordon, a former local government official who eschewed retirement to work tirelessly for the community.

Two brilliant pre-teen girls stood up and sang the national anthem, all of it, in the most exquisite harmony. They were simply Breathtaking.

The proceedings finished with the cutting of a glorious Australia Day cake

I was presented with a huge hamper of beautiful fruits and treats - and it was all over, except the long drive home.

But I took away memories of marvellous new people and the community spirit of three great and very different Australian country towns.