Sept/Oct 1999 Book Reviews

Icing on the Damper

Marie Mahood
Central Queensland University Press, 1996 210pp
ISBN: 1 875998 03 9

reviewed by Ann Skea

"Thirty-eight years from two quid, a swag and a dream to a cattle station in our own names!"

Thirty-eight years of sheer hard work, with so little money that Marie took a job teaching at the local school during the week and saw her husband, Joe, only at weekends and holidays - floods and fires permitting. So little money, that home for more than thirty years was a hut with no running water, no flyscreens and where, if it rained, they had to put on raincoats to go to the toilet. Marie dreamed of

"an indoor toilet, hot water on tap and no snakes inside the house. [not to mention] the wild pigs. Like the one that charged in the open end of the shed and put [Marie] on the table...."

Farm work was a family affair, with the occasional visitor pressed into service. Bush-fire, flood, drought and harsh Government policies were a constant test of endurance.

Neither Marie nor Joe grew up on the land. Joe was born in Sydney in 1928, at fifteen he topped his year at Granville Technical School but headed for Queensland and cattle-country rather than go to college.

Marie, born in Perth, won a scholarship to a Perth boarding school, went on to university, and had an Honours degree in English by the time she met Joe. Freelance journalism and a taste for adventure took her to the Kimberleys and she and Joe met on the huge Victoria River Downs cattle-station. She was working in the station store and Joe was a stockman: a "ringer." In the feudal atmosphere of this 13,000 square-mile station:

"The white ringers and station hands were "kitchen" class; we girls were officially instructed not to mix with them socially".

Marie, displaying a stubbornness and independence which clearly stood her in good stead throughout her married life, broke all the rules. She and Joe married in 1952.

Both Joe and Marie were clearly very able workers, intelligent and adaptable. They chose to follow their dream of owning their own cattle station, and with a little luck and a great deal of determination and hard work they achieved it shortly before Joe's death in a helicopter accident.

It takes a certain kind of toughness to put up with the sort of disappointments, disasters and hardship their lives entailed. Yet their story is not altogether unique. This is the third book I have read recently about life in the Australian outback. Each has made me more aware of the vastly different lives which people still live in remote parts of Australia. Two small incidents recounted by Marie serve as examples.

Until the end of 1956, the only transport provided for the local policeman at Finke, a small settlement on the Adelaide-Alice Springs railway line, was a string of camels: "one of which invariable kicked him when he had to change their nosepegs annually".

And much more recently, in 1989, Marie writes that "our biggest problem...was the state of the road from the homestead to the mailbox and the outside world....in July...I had to call on the helicopter pilot to ferry me to the mailbox so that I could drive to town..."

My mailbox is half-a-dozen steps from my front door. I haven't seen a camel since I last went to the zoo. And people here complain if it rains for more than two days and they get their feet wet. How lucky - or perhaps in Marie's view, how unlucky - we are.


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