The afternoon passed rapidly as the distance disappeared under the rolling wheels. The children breathed in the sights and sounds of the plains. Several times large trucks loaded with grain thundered past - the drivers waving cheerily to them.
Near dusk they turned off onto a narrow track that led into the lake. They slept in the shelter of some low bushes. At picaninny dawn they were awake and rode off as the sky lightened.
“Milkshakes at Manangatang” called Pete reading the map as he pedaled.
“I think we should buy some “Quick” and plain milk. It would be cheaper and just as nice.” suggested Robyn.
“Chocolate “Quick” then” ordered Billy firmly,
“Okay then, race you to that sign post”. Pete challenged. Wheels whirred and gear levers clacked as they sped on down the road.
Outside the Manangatang General Store Billy was downing his third cup of chocolate Quick and Pete was on his fourth Vegemite sandwich.
“I’ll spread the whole loaf now then we can just have a sandwich whenever we feel like it” said Robyn.
At 8am on a summer’s day the little town seemed sleepy. A couple of dogs sprawled in the shade.
“Mightn’t be a bad idea” Pete pointed to them “Looks like today will be a real scorcher”
A young man riding a horse and leading two others stopped by the store. He smiled at Robyn. “G’day, going to be a hot one. You plannin’ on pedallin’ for t’day?”
Before Robyn could answer Billy interrupted, “We’re going ever so far to see the pelicans. Are you a cowboy? Why’ve you got three horses?”
The man laughed at the small boy “There’s lots of people go through here on their way to see the pelicans. My mum owns this store and tourists usually stop here.”
“I like your horses” Robyn was stroking the nose of a dappled grey “What are their names?”
“Speedway, Thunderbolt, Starlight and my name’s Brian.”
Robyn introduced the family formally to Brian who shook hands with Pete and suggested, “The swimming pool will be open in half an hour if you want to cool off before you go on.”
“That sounds great.” Pete was already feeling sticky from the heat.
“Can I sit on one?” Billy tugged at Brian’s leg.
“Up you come.” Brian easily lifted Billy onto the saddle in front of him. The little boy’s eyes went wide with excitement, and for once he was lost for words! “Here why don’t we all go for a ride?
I don’t have to start work for Mum just yet. They’re pretty quiet horses”
“Gee thanks I’d love that” Robyn was thrilled Pete helped her up and with a few whinnies the horses trotted off.
Brian gave them a grand tour of the district the wheat silos racecourse and sports oval the school the church and the town pride and joy - the recently opened swimming pool!
“Gee, thanks for the ride” chorused the three as they got on their bikes and headed towards the pool.
Already there were quite a few children and some noisy happy games were in progress. A notice on the wall said. “PERSONS
MUST SHOWER BFORE ENTERING THE POOL”
“Right” Robyn fished out a cake of soap “Now you two get under the shower with your clothes on and wash them as well. Hang them over the fence and they’ll be dry in no time.”
A shower? With my clothes on? Billy protested and shrugged, -
“Robyn was becoming just like a grownup” he thought, “She was having funny ideas!”
Soon Robyn and Pete were swimming in the deep end of the pool enjoying the cool silk feel of the water on their skin. Billy played at swimming in the shallow end. Holding on to the side and kicking wildly. He stopped for a breather and sat down on the steps. A teenage boy sat down beside him
“Hey mate” the boy whispered “who’s that pretty little sheila over there? The one you came in with.”
“That’s not a pretty little sheila” Billy was puzzled, “That’s my sister!” he jumped back into the water. The boy leapt up and did a running dive into the deep end - looking sideways at Robyn as he did so.
It was late morning when they left the pool and munching sandwiches cycled along the main street.
“Have a good trip,” Brian waved from the door of the store,
“Thanks” Robyn replied “and thanks again for the horse ride.”
The boys waved and called out their greetings too.
The road ahead beckoned and the blacktop rolled beneath the wheels as the three children swung into an easy pedaling rhythm.
By late afternoon they had left Manangatang about forty five kilometres behind them. Pete was consulting the map as he pedalled. “We’re close to the Murray River here – see, it bends in near the road. So if we take the next track we see going towards the trees over there we should strike the river.”
“Will the pelicans live there?” Billy’s hopeful voice sounded a bit cross because he was hot and hungry.
“Maybe, this is pretty close to their lake,” Robyn soothed him
“But we can go there tomorrow - I reckon we all deserve a swim now, and a big tea. You can try out your boat again, how bout it?
Think you can wait for the pelicans?”
“Sure,” Billy was easily placated “Is that the way to the river?” as he spotted a narrow track, a path made by animals on their way to water.
“That’ll do!” Pete ducked his head to miss a low branch as he led the way along the sandy path that went to the river.
Robyn soon had food cooking in a camp oven on the coals and the billy sat steaming beside the fire while he boys played in the water.
“Here I come!” Robyn made a running dive into the river SPLASH!
She tossed her head to clear the water from her eyes.
Pete was speaking. “I’ve checked under water beneath that overhanging branch. We can jump in from there it’s quite safe”
“I’ll be first” Robyn raced Pete up the tree and jumped off then it was Pete’s turn.
“Do it again!” Billy jumped up and down in the shallows laughing with joy.
Chapter 7 – Excitement in the Sand Hills It was just after dawn on the third day of their stay in Hattah Lakes National Park. Billy squatted beside the lake, his toes squelching in the soft mud. All around him were his little toys, and he was earnestly working at excavating a pond for his plastic duck.
Pelicans swooped, skidded, and squabbled on the surface of the lake. Billy stopped to watch. He was enchanted by them.
Enormous sand hills rose behind the spot where they had set up camp. Huge ghost-gums ringed the lake, giving homes to many different birds and possums.
The children were enjoying a few days lazing about the lake before, as Pete put it, they got into serious business. By this he meant looking for work and a more permanent camp-site. Pete had planned to go to Mildura on the following day to check out about fruit picking work and to see if there was any reply to his letter to the Correspondence School. It was a long way – 130
kilometres for the round trip, but Pete knew, that on his own, he could do it with ease.
They had spent the past few days playing and exploring the park.
A game they never tired of was jumping off sand hills, to land half way down and slide and tumble to the base. This day dawned as peaceful as others had.
At around noon a family with two small children set up a large tent on the other side of a clump of trees from the children’s camp. Billy watched them from a narrow hollow nearby – it was about 1 ½ metres deep and 8 metres long, and just right for playing at ‘spies’. When he was tired of that game, he went back to the lake.
Late in the afternoon Pete noticed that the pelicans had left the lake, and, looking up, he saw that the sky had changed colour – it was shades of grey and pink. Robyn noticed at the same time that the air was still and there was no noise – no birds calling, no insects trilling.
“It feels creepy,” she shivered.
“I think there’s a bad storm coming,” Pete looked up again anxiously. The sky was darker “Get Billy – we better take cover.
Billy’s hidey-hole will do. In a high wind these gums will drop branches like crazy – we don’t want to be history just yet!” He began gathering their things and dumping them into the hollow.
Robyn explained with calm that she didn’t feel, while she quickly gathered Billy and his toys, “We might be going to see a great big wind, so we need to be down a bit, like in a hole, so that we don’t get blown away - or your toys, either. So we’ll get down in your hidey-hole and watch from there. Some of those big trees might fall over too – it’s going to be really exciting.”
As she settled Billy in the hollow, Robyn thought suddenly about the new campers.
“Pete...,” she cried, and pointed. The wind was rising. The camper’s tent was flapping wildly, and it tore loose, flying away, to wrap itself high in the branches of a tree.
“Come on!” Pete called as he and Robyn raced to their aid.
Billy, peeping over the edge, watched wide-eyed as Robyn scooped a toddler under one arm and grasping the hand of the pre-schooler, ran the short distance and pushed the crying children into the safe place.
Meanwhile, the wind howled, and branches cracked and whipped through the air like waste paper. One landed on the car roof, crumpling the vehicle like a cardboard box.
The lady was in a panic, screaming at Robyn to bring her children back. Finally, Pete, using all his strength, grasped her by the arm and pulled her to the hollow. She tumbled into it, and gathering her children to her, stopped screaming and sat shaking with fear.
The man, who had been trying to pull the remains of the tent down from the tree, came running after Pete.
“Hey you! Let her go! I’ll flatten you!” Branches whipped at his clothing as he ran. Just as he saw the group crouching in the hollow, a tree fell thudding at his heels, and he dived to safety!
After a moment he looked about sheepishly.
“Sorry, old man,” he shouted to Pete above the wind. “Sort of lost my head. Sorry and all that. Good job you were here.
Thanks.” He put his arm around his wife.
“This is just like on the telly!” Billy was really enjoying the drama.
The other two small children, encouraged by Billy’s enthusiasm, squirmed away from their mother, and joined Billy in shouting happily as trees crashed around them.
Then suddenly it was over and the sky cleared into twilight. As Robyn and Pete were setting up their camp again, the Park Ranger’s Toyota appeared, moving cautiously along the track.
Robyn stared with dismay – “If the ranger asks us awkward questions, the storm will be the least of our worries,” she thought. Glancing around, she saw Billy and the other two little children earnestly digging a muddy hole at the lake’s edge, while Pete struggled to help the man gather the remains of the tent from the tree.
“Maybe the ranger will think we all belong together,” she hoped as she helped the lady collect the family’s scattered belongings.
It all turned out as Robyn had hoped. The ranger showed no curiosity about the children. He gave the man a lift out to the
telephone at the Ranger Station so that he could contact his brother to come out from Mildura and pick up the family later that evening.
Pete, Robyn, and Billy waved good-bye to the family and Pete said with a sigh of relief as the taillights disappeared down the track, “Thank goodness those adults were too worried about their own losses to even think of asking about our parents. I reckon that tomorrow we should shift camp to a spot between the river and the lake – away from any walking tracks where it’s a bit more private. The day after that I’ll go into Mildura.”
At 5am the day was already warm and Pete had no need of a sweater as he pedalled along the sandy track that led to the main tarred road to Mildura. In the half light kangaroos hopped frequently across his path. By 7am the sun was strong and the kangaroos had gone to shelter from the day’s heat.
His hazards now were the occasional dreaming motorist.
Soon after eight am he rode past the last of the orchards and vineyards on the city’s edge and into the well trafficked streets.
At a cool, green, shady park Pete refilled his water bottles, had a wash, and changed into clean clothes. Next he went to a milkbar for a second breakfast.
A while later Pete collected the mail at the post office, and with a feeling of mounting excitement he found his way to the Employment Service office.
“Sixteen years old, son? Bit on the small side aren’t yer? Shrunk in the wash did ja?” the clerk behind the counter had a feeble
joke at Pete’s expense. He was so pleased with his own wit that he failed to notice the supervisor appear at his elbow, until she remarked icily. “As you seem to have forgotten your manners, Mr Sturgess, you won’t be serving the public today. The storeroom needs cleaning, all the bins need a good scrub, and as the tea lady is off sick, you will take over her duties.”
The fellow blushed to the shade of a ripe apple and slunk away.
Pete felt sorry for him.
The supervisor handled Pete’s request, and in a few minutes he was pedalling towards a vineyard 6km west of the town. Here the owner, a short tubby man dressed in a singlet and shorts was welcoming - he liked the look of the boy. “We start picking in four days. Start at dawn, work til’ dark. Weekends off. Three weeks work. I reckon. You bring your own bedding and you can camp on our veranda and eat with us too. Usually the workers camp in the huts down there and cook for themselves, but you look like a lad who could do with a square feed.” He punched Pete on the shoulder and grinned. “See ya Monday then – and thanks a lot,”
said Pete as he swung aboard his bike.
It was late afternoon when Pete arrived back at the camp. While Robyn opened the mail from the Correspondence School, Pete told them, eyes shining with excitement, about his day. “Think you can manage while I’m away for five days at a time?”
“Of course we can manage,” replied Robyn. “It’s not as if you do much of the house-work, anyway! Billy and I are going to be kept very busy doing these school lessons. You didn’t think to buy us some pens and pencils and so on, did you?”
Pete reached into his pannier bag and handed over a parcel.
“Naturally,” he said with a superior air “I think of everything!”
Chapter 8 – Making Plans
The three weeks passed quickly. Pete returned to the camp each weekend bringing the groceries and stories of his week. He enjoyed his job. Although the work was hard and the days long, Pete felt exhilarated as his tan deepened and his muscles hardened. The food was good, and he did extra little jobs around the house for the boss’s wife out of gratitude. It was a busy time for everyone in the vineyard and no-one asked Pete any personal questions – much to his relief.
Each Friday night the pedals seemed to fly under his feet as the bike light showed the way back to the camp. In the still summer evenings the journey took him about two and a half hours. Pete liked the peace and quiet of this time of the week, and used it to plan the family’s next move.
The long summer holidays were over now for most people, so few folk were out and about in the Hattah Lakes Park. Robyn and Billy were undisturbed in the well hidden camp. As in Melbourne, they had found a more heavily wooded spot protected by a tangle of scrub. Robyn had organised neat and efficient living quarters for them.
Billy was eager to start work on his school lessons. He felt himself very important to be doing real reading and writing, so Robyn had no trouble motivating him to work. In between lessons she
took him to play at the lake. While Robyn did her own schoolwork, she insisted that Billy play near the camp. He didn’t mind this as he had just developed a real ‘craze’ for climbing, and here the trees were tall and easy to climb. From his favourite perch Billy could see the shimmering lake and observe the pelicans as they swooped over the water. He often played at being a pelican himself, swooping and skidding on the sand –
much to Robyn’s amusement.
A light flickered through the night shadows. “Here’s Pete!” cried Billy.
Soon his brother pushed his bike through the scrub. “Here, Nipper, give us a hand to unload these panniers,” called Pete. He filled Billy’s arms with groceries.
“When do you have to go again, Pete?” enquired Billy
“The job’s cut out now, Billy – that means it’s finished. Today was payday. Here’s a present for you.” Pete thrust another parcel into Billy’s arms.
“Thanks, Pete,” the little boy dumped the groceries near their makeshift larder for Robyn to sort out and squatted by the fire to tear the wrapping from his present. “Another boat!”
“Look inside” Pete suggested
Billy lifted the roof off. “Animals .... I know – it’s a Noah’s Ark! We had that story, Robyn, remember....” he started arranging the animals in the sand by the light of the fire.
Robyn handed Pete a mug of tea and they sat a bit away from Billy to talk.
“I decided we deserved a present, too,” announced Pete
“Here!” He put a box into Robyn ’s hand. It was a small radio!
“Pete, this is a beaut idea. We can hear the news and weather forecasts, and listen to the ABC schools’ broadcasts .... How much did you get paid? This radio must have cost a bit.”
“No” rejoined Pete “It was only twenty dollars. We can think about wandering on now Robyn. We’ve got plenty of money.
Enough to last us for .... Oh, about three months at least –
without touching any of the savings that we banked in the city. I got paid NINE HUNDRED DOLLARS!!!”
“Wow! Well, I bet you worked really long hours for it – and don’t forget that was for three weeks,” reminded Robyn “It just seems a lot when you get it all at once” “Gee Pete, we really are lucky that you got that job. Now we can have a good look around before worrying about finding more work.”
“I’ve been doing some planning,” asserted Pete, “and I’ve decided that up around that West Queensland border, is where I’m most likely to find work on a station. There’s not many people live in that part of the bush, so we should be able to make a pretty decent sort of camp without anyone knowing.”
Robyn went over to one of the parcels and pulled out the map.
She lit two candles, stuck them in the sand, and spread the map out.
“There’s a lot of country to cover between here and there, but we’ve plenty of time. Just have to remember to give the Correspondence School a Post Office address every so often, so we can pick up our lessons,” Robyn said thoughtfully.
The two children pored over the map. They decided on a route that followed the Lachlan, Bogan and Culgoa Rivers. They knew that the rivers would be just a chain of waterholes with a fair distance between them. But they also knew that in this pastoral country there would be bores and ground tanks.
By the time they finished planning; Billy was asleep on the sand by the fire, the Noah’s Ark beside him. Pete lifted him into his sleeping bag, then lay down himself and fell asleep almost right away...
Robyn lay awake for a while, looking up at the stars, and thinking of the coming months. The feeling swept over her just as she dropped off to sleep, that this time the track ahead would lead to a home.
Chapter 9 – Outback Overlanders
Dear Billy, [wrote Mr White]
The picture of your Noah’s Ark is so good that I have put it on my display board for the other teachers to enjoy. When they have all looked at it, I will send it back to you.
“Morning, Ron. Hard at it already I see. That’s pretty colourful,”
Mr Stone picked up Billy’s drawing.
That’s from one of the children from that Tucker family – the family we were a bit concerned about to start with,” replied Mr White
“Oh, did we ever get the paperwork completed on that one –
sight the birth certificates, and so on?” queried Mr Stone
“No” answered Mr White “But their work comes in – very well done too. I think the girl is supervising herself and her little brother, does a fine job. The father is chasing work all over the countryside. They travel by bicycle – which is a new one for our itinerants! The next address we have for them is c/o Post Office, Nyngan. I guess the dad’s hoping to pick up a permanent position on one of those stations further north. I’m sending some more workbooks out to them today, as a matter of fact.”
“Well, so long as you’re satisfied with the children’s work, Ron, we won’t worry about the other. After all, the father will probably pick up a permanent job soon and send the children to school” Mr Stone smiled as he put Billy’s drawing back on the desk, “That’s certainly a happy looking picture.” He went off to his office.
Days rolled into weeks as the children pedalled over sandy tracks, following the Lachlan River north. The dry months had turned the rivers into a chain of water-holes often a day’s ride apart. Always they followed their Granddad’s rule for crossing dry country- -,
“camp the first water after lunch.”
Some of these holes were deep and Pete was able to catch plenty of fish. Mostly the water was brown – still quite good for drinking and as Pete remarked, “You don’t need so much tea in the pot!”
They caught yabbies too – which made a tasty meal. Sometimes they would camp for a couple of days on a water hole – catching up on schoolwork, making repairs to bikes or gear, and just playing around.
At small settlements the children bought food. Robyn had written to the Correspondence School that they would pick up mail at Hillston, Condobolin, Nyngan and Bourke.
Pete had decided that he would go to the Employment Office at Bourke, to see if he could find a job on a station.
It was late afternoon when they reached a small settlement – just a few houses, a store, church and recreation ground with a sign
“Free Camping”. While Pete spread out their swags and got a fire going in the fireplace provided, Billy and Robyn went into the store.
“Fancy that, a little fella like you!” gushed the lady storekeeper, who had watched from the door as the children had ridden into town. “You must find it hard going, pet.” She tousled Billy’s hair.
He stared at her. “I’m five. I’m the best rider of the bunch.”
The lady laughed, “Here, what’s your order, lassie?”
Robyn listed some items of food. As she paid for them, the storekeeper reached under the counter, where the sweets were kept.
“Here you are, young man – think you can handle a bag of mixed lollies?” The woman put a white paper into Billy’s hand, adding,
“On the house”
“Thanks, you are nice.” Billy was properly grateful
“Thank you very much,” said Robyn as she gathered up their purchases. Billy waved as they left the store.
A cloud of dust rose as a willy-willy whipped across the track. The children were pedalling slowly in the mid-afternoon sun, across some bare country that lay between the Lachlan and Bogan Rivers.
“We should be able to spot the windmill. According to the map, there is a bore somewhere around here. Everyone look hard – we mustn’t miss it – we don’t want to make a dry camp,” Pete said anxiously. He did not want to have to break into their reserve five litres of water.
Robyn spotted a flash to the west. “There Pete – is that it?” she pointed “There!”
“That’s it!” Pete swung away from the track and headed towards the bore. The other’s followed – wheels skidding and jumping on the rough ground. They made camp in a clump of stunted trees away from the troughs.
Using the spare billy, the boys showered each other by the edge of the narrow, deep bore pool. Meanwhile Robyn set the tea cooking in the camp oven. Then she went to have a wash herself and rinse out their dusty clothes, while Pete helped Billy with his maths lesson.
It was a few days later and they were camped near the junction of Pangee Creek and The Bogan.
“Nyngan tomorrow. Better get your shopping list ready, Robyn,”
Pete smiled. “Maybe we can have a few luxuries – the money is holding out really well.”
“Chocolate biscuits, then, and some extra large ice creams!”
“And a bag of mixed lollies for me and Ted!” added Billy firmly.
“Okay” answered Pete “Now run off and play. I want to listen to the 4 o’clock news and weather.”
Robyn hid her smile as she thought, “Pete really