Sunday, November 13, 2011

Welcome to Noosa

ALTHOUGH I moved from Maryborough to Brisbane to join The Courier-Mail in 1956, I never visited Noosa until 1960. Sure my wife Jan and I had a couple of holidays on the  Sunshine Coast in a Caloundra flat before that, but we never travelled farther north.
By the way, it wasn't the Sunshine Coast in those days. It was the North Coast and  the Gold Coast was the South Coast.
In 1960 the editor, T.C.Bray, a tough but great bloke, moved me from Police Rounds reporting into the Sports Department to cover rugby league and tennis and a few other  sports and I wasn't too happy about it because I loved chasing crime, fires and accidents in Police Rounds.
Soon after the transfer I was asked to cover a surf lifesaving carnival at Noosa because the regular surf lifesaving writer, the late Frank O'Callaghan, was away. 
So off I went to Noosa for the first time. It was a bit different back then compared to today. Hastings Street had a caravan park at the southern end where the cop shop is today. At the other end was a very rough camping ground and the mouth of the Noosa River was only about 100 metres from the end of  Hastings Street.
On the beach side of Hastings Street were a couple of small shops and a row of old weatherboard  houses and huts and a couple of weatherboard guest houses. I stayed in an old boarding house on the beach that time and I think it cost five shillings for bed and breakfast. That's 50 cents today.
The only pub in town at the time was up Noosa Drive from Hastings Street on top of the hill. It had fantastic ocean views up towards Double Island Point.
But it had to be a certain time to be able to view it - like when you had a few beers and needed a wee-wee. You would leave the public bar, which had four walls and no windows, walk across the room to the toilet, step up to the urinal, and let fly while looking out the window.
And what did you see while having a pee? Fantastic views overlooking  the old houses and shops in Hastings Street, across the beautiful beach and  across the beautiful sea up north to Double Island Point. When you finished,  you left the beautiful views and walked back into the closed-in public bar.
It's all different today, of course, and if I had any luck I would be able to stay there for free today because my old surfing mate, former Courier-Mail reporter Ian Oliver, would have been the owner.
You see Ian's parents went close to buying the pub back in the late 1960s but preferred a pub out Warwick way.
There was some excellent  Main Beach surf that day in 1960 and a few board riders out around First Point at Johnson's Bay.
Remember back then there were very few boardriders around because surfboards with fins had only been introduced to Australia by some Yank athletes who were in Australia for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956.
Seeing them got me interested in surfboards, and a couple of months later when Jan and I were holidaying at Caloundra, I decided to visit an old Maryborough swimming mate, a former Queensland Railway lad porter named Hayden Kenny.
Some time earlier Hayden had opened his board-making business at Mooloolaba. I borrowed a board, about 10-foot long, which was the normal thing back then, and drove back to Caloundra. That afternoon I launched it  into  six-foot surf at the southern end of Kings Beach and paddled out.
I paddled like fury onto the first swell that came along and took off like a rocket but before I could get up the board speared into the sand, shooting me off like a rocket and almost breaking my neck.
I took the board back to Hayden next day and told him I was retiring from surfing. But all that changed two years later when I met old surfer Ben "Pa" Bendall and his wife, Marg "Ma" (pictured above). But I'll tell you about that  another time.
Anyway after the Noosa lifesaving carnival ended, I phoned the story back to The Courier-Mail and decided to walk around to National Park.
When the old bush track to National climbed up over First Point I was astounded by the views from that fantastic rocky point. I sat down on the point for quite a while, watching the  sun go down ... and the great surf with about three or four boardriders out.
You must remember back then there were so few boardriders around that when you passed a car with a surfboard on top you waved at them frantically and they  did the same to you.
That spot at First Point became my favourite spot. I even camped there in my swag a few times.
Then one day driving  up to National all hell broke loose in my head - there were builders on First Point constructing  four bloody units. You can't, I told them. This is part of National Park.
Unfortunately all us surfers had believed that but it was not correct. So up went the four units, and I hated it. But if I had a couple of million bucks today I would buy one and move in. They have the best ocean views in the world.
Even though I hadn't started boardriding at that stage  I started spending holidays at Noosa, sometimes with Jan and sometimes with mates in old beach-side houses.
The best of those was in an old weatherboard house  named Rainbow's End, right on Johnson's Bay on a triangle of land where you turn off Park Road into  Little Cover Road, just across the road from where those bloody First Point units are today.
But I'll tell you more about Noosa and Rainbow's End and the whole North Coast in my surfing days in my next story, which I hope will be posted before Christmas. (Many thanks to Ian Oliver for the photos of Rainbow's End from the 1960s)

Friday, August 12, 2011

In league with Brothers, Wide Bay and the word from Churchill

YOU remember the first blog I wrote back in September, 2009, about my highly unusual start in newspapers?
It was highly unusual because I didn't know what a journalist was and I was a terrible speler and very slow reader (still am) and  only just got a C in English when I finished school in Junior.
 At that stage all I was interested in was rugby league and becoming an electrician but couldn't get an apprenticeship. Anyway have a look at that first blog to get my background in newspapers.
Even after I finished my four-year newspaper cadetship on the Maryborough Chronicle and got a job on The Courier-Mail in 1956, I still didn't like reporting but had to stick with it because I was about to get married and needed a good job to get a bit of money.
What I wanted most in life was to play rugby league for Queensland and Australia and thought I could get there because I had played for Wide Bay against France and New Zealand in my late teens.
As soon as I got the job on The Courier-Mail I  joined Brisbane Brothers Rugby League club and had a couple of games in A grade before the newspaper's chief of staff told me if I wanted to play football seriously I had better find another job. And that was the end of my footy career at the age of 21.
It was a pretty cruel blow for me because I loved rugby league and had been playing it from the age of about  10 or 11, starting in the 5stone 7pound team at my old school, St Brendan's College outside Yeppoon. I left St Brendan's after just scraping through Junior when I was 16 and went back to live with my parents in Maryborough. There I joined Brothers Rugby League club and about a year later, at 17, I won a spot in the A grade team on the wing because I was pretty fast and not a bad defender.
Anyway, I  fluked a reporter's job on the Maryborough Chronicle. I wasn't remotely interested in it but the chief of staff there, Ray Foster, was a mad rugby league fan and also covered the game for the paper and encouraged me in football.
In 1954 I was on the wing for Brothers when we won the Maryborough premiership, but I ended up in hospital that night with a badly broken nose and concussion from a pretty good stiff-arm tackle.
Next year I made the Wide Bay rep side, first playing the Queensland country trials in Rockhampton and then against France at Gympie. I scored a pretty good try in that match.
In 1956, I was again in the Wide Bay side when we played the country trials and then against New Zealand.
Later that year I moved to The Courier-Mail, because my fiancee, Jan Cridland, who had  recently won The Sunday Mail Sun Girl competition - and a Holden Special - had moved to Brisbane and become a top model.
Off I went to The Courier-Mail, not so much to be a reporter but to be a rugby league star. But, as I said, I was told to either give up league or give up my reporting job.
I was pretty dirty about quitting league but had to do it because  there was no money in league back then.
I still wasn't very interested in reporting but then a strange thing happened. The Courier-Mail editor-in-chief, the late, great Sir Theodore Bray, flew to Sydney and Melbourne to sign on a heap of young reporters for the paper. They were all a bit older than me but turned out to be a great mob and taught me a lot of things about newspapers which got me very interested in the job for the first time and taught me one other interesting thing - how to enjoy a beer.
I was getting along so well at reporting after learning from these blokes that I was promoted into the police rounds department which was very, very interesting - covering crime, accidents, fires etc. It was mainly night work and involved a lot of time driving around Brisbane in a two-way radio equipped Holden visiting accidents and checking on police stations.
Then when the first edition of The Courier-Mail came out about 11pm, I would pick up about 20 copies, hop in the police rounds Holden and drive around the city  handing  them out at the CIB headquarters, Roma Street police HQ,  Water Police HQ, the Fire Brigade HQ, and the General Hospital Casualty Department.
When you were in those places you would spend a fair bit of time talking to the staff about what was happening, looking for stories. Mostly the staff were co-operative, particularly at the CIB and Water Police, because that's where I used to pull out a coffee bottle of rum and share it with the staff.
Then  after four years of general reporting and police rounds covering all sorts of crime, accidents and fires, they moved me into the sports department because the great league player and reporter, Jack Reardon, needed an offsider to help cover sport, and league in particular.
I wasn't real happy because  by now I was interested in newspaper writing mainly because I was working with a great mob of older blokes who taught me plenty about reporting.
You would think I would be happy covering rugby league, the game I loved, eh? Well, I wasn't, because after I had to give up playing the game aged 21, I couldn't bear watching it and hadn't been to a match in those four years I was on general reporting and police rounds.
But Reardon was a great bloke to work with and got me interested again.
And it also got me working with some of my sporting  heroes, like rugby league greats Clive Churchill, and later John Sattler, Wally Lewis and tennis champs like Rod Laver.
I wrote columns in The Courier-Mail for Churchill and Sattler. It was great to be able to sit beside a bloke like Churchill at an Ekka Test match when he was coach of Australia, listening to his comments before ghost-writing his column.
Churchill was not only a great player, one of the best, he was also a great bloke.
We spent a fair bit of time together having a beer while we decided what we wanted to write his columns about.
There was only one time I did not enjoy being out with Churchill, but it wasn't his fault. It was after that Exhibition Ground test match sitting next to Churchill I mentioned earlier.
After the match I ghosted Churchill's column of the Test and about 7pm that night I picked up an office sedan and drove Churchill out to a party the late bookmaker, Billy McLeod, was throwing for the Australian team at his Aspley home. 
All the greats were there including Reg Gasnier, Harry Wells, Barry Muir and Johnny Raper.
We all had a few beers but as I had a big day the next day, I took off reasonably early by myself, leaving Churchill with his mates.
But  driving down a street to Gympie Road I made a sharp turn and rolled the sedan - just onto its side. I wasn't hurt, but I radioed the garage at work and they sent out a truck.
We rolled the sedan back onto its wheels and towed it back to the office garage. It was the only accident I have had in more than 50 years of driving.
I reported the accident to Valley Police Station the next day and when I told Churchill about it a few days later he said he might not be taking a lift with me in future. But he did.
Working in the Sports Department was good to me. It led to travelling the world covering Olympic and Commonwealth Games, a Kangaroo tour and many other international destinations.
It even got better when I was asked to leave Sport and start writing general columns, which led to more world travel writing features and some great trips around the Queensland Outback with my great mate and great artist, the late Hugh Sawrey.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Running and shooting in the Nashos

ANY of you bloke readers ever spend time in National Service back in the 1950s ... you remember, the Nashos?
I did, in the first intake at Wacol in 1954. At 6ft high I was taller than most blokes from my home town, Maryborough, so they stuck me in an A Company platoon with tall blokes, mostly from north Queensland.
My brother, Marty, who was two years older than me, was also in A Company because he had been an apprentice carpenter and they used to delay their National Service call-up until after they had finished their apprenticeship.
That didn't apply to cadet journalists, though, and I was only in my second year cadetship when I was called up. I was 18.
A lot of the blokes were pretty apprehensive about going into Nashos but not me, because I had been in the cadets at St Brendan's College, Yeppoon, and even been to an army cadet camp outside Townsville ... a place in the scrub called Selime, I think, although I can't find it on the map today.
I didn't mind the cadets because we got to handle rifles - the great old SMLE .303. You see I was brought up with rifles. My old man, Martin, was an excellent rifleman, brought up on Vandyke, a cattle station outside Springsure. He was badly injured in the First World War when a bomb exploded near his trench in northern France.
So Marty and I spent all our school holidays at Vandyke shooting wild pigs and roos, as well as putting in long hours doing cattle station work. As soon as we were old enough we joined the Maryborough Rifle Club, in which  Dad was one of the top marksmen.
That is what I wanted to be in Nasho - a Marksman, because the top shooters in Nasho were presented with two  brass badges  of crossed rifles, each rifle about 5cm long, which they wore  on the sleeves of their  khaki army shirts . That's what I wanted,  to show the world what a great shot I was.
But it didn't turn out all that well because when we were given our .303s they were brand new weapons straight from the Lithgow (NSW) arms factory and were so soaked in oil and grease you could hardly hold them. Naturally we had to clean them but most blokes simply wiped the grease off with rags and let it go at that.
Not me, because I knew when the  woodwork heated up from the projectiles blasting through the metal barrel you would not be able to hold the rifle steady, even halfway through the shoot, and that would  bring your score tumbling down.
So I pulled my .303 to pieces and poured  boiling water - lots of boiling water - over all the woodwork, melting most of the grease out. I must have poured boiling water over the woodwork a dozen times over a couple of days until the wood was  nice and dry and easy to hold without slipping.
Naturally  I wouldn't get all the grease out but I reckoned it wouldn't get slippery until the shoot was just about over. From memory that was about 36 to 40 shots.
A few blokes asked me what I was doing, including a north Queensland Nasho who had been promoted to corporal a few days earlier.
Come the  shooting day we were transported to Redbank Rifle Range for the shoot. It was over three ranges, 600 yards, 500 yards and 300 yards, I think.
You would start firing  lying down at 600,  then after about 10 or 14 shots, run down to 500 where you would shoot from a one knee position and then run to 300 where you would shoot standing up.
I was to shoot in the second division but something strange happened. As we got out of the truck at the range, that northern corporal I mentioned stopped me and told me to give him my rifle. Why, I asked? He just said he wanted to look at it. I gave it to him and he turned to walk to the firing mounds.
I yelled at him to give my rifle back. He yelled back that he needed it because he had forgotten to bring his rifle. The rotten bastard then proceeded to the 600 yard mound with the first group of shooters and started firing. I was in the second group and  when he handed my rifle back it was starting to get slippery.
I was pretty bloody angry because there was no way I would get a good score with that rifle, particularly after I had fired a few shots and brought more oil and grease seeping out.
There was only one way out. We had been told if  anyone turned in a very bad score that day he would have to come back tomorrow and do it all over again. That was my only hope. So I fired at  other people's targets, over the top of targets and everywhere. Immediately the scores came through I was told I had to come back tomorrow and try again because my score was as bad as they had ever seen.
Next day, after spending hours pouring more boiling water over the woodwork, I ended up with my Marksman's Crossed Rifles with one of the highest scores of the intake.
Not only were those badges good to look at but they saved me from a rather tough time.
A few weeks later I was hitch-hiking to Brisbane on the Ipswich road. We weren't supposed to hitch-hike close to camp but who would see me in the late afternoon. Suddenly a flash sports car  pulled up near me and I hopped in.
"Don't you know the rules, soldier?" the driver demanded.
I looked at him and almost wet my pants when I saw his formal army uniform and large row of medals, then to his face and found I was sitting beside the Wacol commanding officer.
"I'm taking you to the Provos, private. You could be in a cell tonight."
Then he look at me angrily before turning the vehicle back on the road. But before we moved a couple of yards he pulled up and looked back at me, shifting his eyes down to my Marksman's crossed rifles.
"You're a Marksman, soldier?" he said and we started talking about shooting. He was also a rifle-range shooter and it turned out that he knew my old man, Martin, from range shooting - and things suddenly changed.
"Where are you off to in Brisbane?" he asked.
I told him. He said he'd drop me off there, but for God's sake don't go hitch-hiking in the camp area again.
I didn't.
Another funny thing happened at Wacol. Big brother Marty was a professional sprinter, and a good one at that. The year before Wacol he won the Hanlon Gift over 130 yards at the Exhibition Ground, worth 130 quid, which was a lot of money in those days.
So naturally he was selected to represent A company in the 100 yard sprint at the Battalion sports day.
He started training on the Battalion oval - in running spikes - which was very unusual in those days. You couldn't buy them but had to get them made in Melbourne.
Some GPS blokes in other companies saw him in the spikes and  made a few inquiries, found out he was a professional champion and had him banned from the sports day. You see, army sports were strictly amateur.
And who did they get to replace him in the sprint. Me of course because I was a pretty good rugby league winger and played for Wide Bay against France and New Zealand.
And who do you think won the sprint final? You guest it, little old humble me. I've still got the winning pennant with my name on it.
"Pte Kavanagh. L.F."
Another very funny thing happened at Wacol in the hut next to mine in A Company.  It contained a very big bully boy who thought nothing of pushing people around,  as well as  drinking  their softdrinks, eating their fruit or their sandwiches - anything they left on their beds or bed-side benches.
One day he picked up a soft drink bottle on a bloke's bed-side table and gulped it down, but not for long because he spurted it out all over the hut.
Then he punched the bloke on the chin, knocking him out.
Why? Because the bottle was full of piss.
Well, the whole hut was waiting for this and they all rushed at him and belted the daylights out of him.
And guess what? The big idiot didn't step out of line again. In fact he hardly spoke for the remaining three months.
Ah! Were they the good old days, or what?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hugo, Heather and the crocs of Olive River

I've met some strange and interesting people travelling the world as a journalist over the years but right up there near the top of the list come this pair on a boat trip to Torres Strait in 1997, so read on:

THE ageless watchers on the bank would have heard us puttering up river long before they spied Heather, Hugo and me stepping from the dinghy into the pitch-tar blackness of a Cape York Peninsula midnight.
We clattered about in muddy, knee-deep water dragging the ancient tinnie and its battered outboard up the bank from which, mere seconds before, the watchers had slid stealthily beneath the Olive River to do whatever it is crocodiles do when unaccustomed things go bump in their night.
For about 10 months of the year Hugo Julcher, 65, and Heather Schlaegl, 58, share that little section of Temple Bay, near the tip of Cape York, with about a dozen resident crocodiles and God only knows how many local snakes and transient sharks.
So my guess is that Heather and Hugo not only would have seen the two watchers on the bank in front of their shack as we approached out of the night but most likely would have known them by first name.
You see, their's is but a small, exclusive colony of crocodiles with almost daily eyeball-to-eyeball contact on the banks and in the water that rushes past their front door ... make that their front half door, because half a front door is all there is to this home away from home, probably the least luxurious shack I have encountered since visiting black townships in South Africa in apartheid days.
Most of the building material has come from combing the wide, white beaches within easy walking distance of that lonely shack about 180km south of the tip of Cape York. Material like the sail which makes up the eastern wall and the railway tarp that provides about half the roof, fishing net, the flotsam and jetsam, the odds and ends that have been turned into just about every stick of furniture in the place.
Sure, it doesn't sound much, but it's a dream home to this amazing couple, a 10-month-a-year haven from the rat race of Cairns where Heather owns a small block of units.
Maybe it was the excitement of coming home to this tiny, often damp outpost in the wilderness that caused them to overlook formal introductions between myself and the reptiles but they failed to mention them altogether as we disembarked.
Thus fortified by their lack of concern about deadly creatures of the night, I stumbled through the water, the mud, the bush and the blackness helping unload their meagre provisions.
This finished, we each had a can of beer to ward off the tropical swelter, I flashed off a few photos of them filling a chaff bag with black-lip oysters from the spot so recently vacated by their evil-eyed neighbours, and returned a mile out to sea to board my transport to Torres Strait, Jardine Shipping's mother ship, Torres Express.
It was only next day that a Torres Express crewman, who had been following our dinghy up the Olive the previous night with more stores, mentioned the crocodiles just a few metres from us which he had clearly seen in his spotlight. There was a torch in Hugo's tinnie but after about 20 years fishing and living around the Olive, he doesn't need spotlights, or any other new-fangled contraption for that matter, just his instincts.
Well, that's not entirely true. He and Heather have a generator that works a frig and a dim light. They also have a transistor radio which receives the ABC at night and first thing in the morning but not during the day.
As well, Hugo made a giant technological leap into the future this year when he purchased an EPIRB, an emergency radio beacon, which can beep out an SOS in case of an emergency.
Before this historic event, all emergencies at that Olive River outpost were tackled first-hand. That's the way they do it up that way. If you get crook you look after yourself until you get better ... if you get better.
Seven years ago I was swigging rum (medicinal purposes only, mind) with one of the Cape's pioneer cattlemen, the late Rod Heinemann, at his station, Bramwell, about 50 inaccessible kilometres west of Hugo's shack. Old Rod, well into his eighties then, mentioned one of his worst times on The Cape, being bitten by a redback spider out on the track with a mob of cattle and miles from anywhere.
"I was pretty crook and had to lie down for a fair while," said Rod as if he was yarning about the bloody weather. "But I came good in the end." Do they make 'em like that anymore, I wonder?
Hugo Julcher is of the same vanishing breed - tough, independent, adventurous. If you were around in post-war years you will remember the type. Thousands of them came out here after the second war from all over Europe seeking work but looking more for adventure.
They couldn't speak the lingo too well but they worked hard and played hard and won a lot of respect for that, as well as with their devil-may-care attitude and their mitts.
Hugo hit Australia from Austria in the early '50s on a promise of work in his trade as a cabinet maker but it wasn't available when he arrived and that sort of sent him off on a tangent. Since then he's worked in every state at just about every job you care to name, including buffalo shooting in the Territory.
He even has a kindly cop to thank for dragging him out of a Melbourne gutter one time and sending him to a friend's farm up country to dry out. He still doesn't mind a drop in the morning, the afternoon and the night, but it gets awful dry on the Olive River when his meagre supply runs out after the first couple of weeks.
Supplies simply don't come in because there is no way to order them, so they take what will last longest when they catch the mother ship, Torres Express, on its first run of the prawning season from Cairns to York Island in Torres Strait.
When it has travelled close to 700km north from Cairns, Hugo and Heather climb into their loaded tinnie, day or night, rough or smooth, putter a mile or so from the mother ship across a dangerous bar, and hey presto! Their paradise opens up.
The crew in a following dinghy unloads the rest of their supplies and that's often the last they see of another soul for two or three months. About 10 months later they catch the Torres Express on its last run of the season and rejoin the rat race for Christmas.
Occasionally they have unannounced visits from passing fishermen, yachties and some of the strangest wanderers imaginable.
Several people in kayaks have dropped in on their circumnavigation of Australia. Others have come in on 14ft catamarans like the one I sail in Bribie Passage. I'm mildly adventurous, not raving bonkers, see.
A bloke wearing a sarong and calling himself "Victor the Nomad" sailed up the Olive some time ago in a most incredible craft on his way to New Guinea where, he told Heather, he "just wanted to love people".
Someone farther down the coast had given him a near-wrecked 12ft tinnie. He patched it up, found a piece of blue plastic tarp for a sail and headed north with no rudder or centreboard. The last Heather and Hugo saw he was sailing wonkily in the general direction of New Guinea. They believe we was taken into protective custody a little farther up the coast, somewhere about Thursday Island.
Another time a Yank calling himself "Friendly" wandered in off the beach. He was walking up the coast to Bamaga from who knows where.
"Everything he owned was in a small sugar bag," said Heather with the wide-eyed surprise you would expect from someone trying to explain away an elderly couple who live with crocodiles way up Cape York for the hell of it.
"He didn't have any food. He was living completely off the land. He said hello and had a bit of a talk then headed north along the beach."
As "Friendly" disappeared into the shimmering northern haze, life returned to workaday normality for Hugo and Heather on the Olive River. That includes a lot of time beach combing, looking for bush tucker, fishing and crabbing, although crabbing is a mite unconventional.
Crab pots and dillies are out because the crocs gobble 'em up getting at the bait or the crab. So Hugo sinks fish frames in shallow water near the bank and when the muddies appear for a feed he spears them.
And you won't believe what this incredible duo do with those delicious giant black-lip oysters. They use them for fish bait because they're tired of eating them.
"It's not hard to get tired of oysters if you eat too many," Hugo said. "But they're very good bait."They're tired of barramundi too. Just too many of the bloody things in the creek.
"I've gone right off barra," Hugo said. "Give me mangrove jack any day."
They have an amazing selection of bush tucker (pictured) in the district including fruit and nuts from a variety of natives like currajong, lillypilly, wild grapes, passionfruit and especially coconuts. They get the sweetest of fine honey by whipping grevillea blossoms on to plates. They also grow what vegetables they can.
Hugo has a great recipe for fish cakes mixed in with roughly grated fresh coconut. He also has some great recipes for the occasional feral pig he bowls over.
In fact, Heather and Hugo could probably teach the Bush Tucker Man a thing or two about scrub cuisine and thought they were about to be so invited when the man himself, Les Hiddins, turned up at Heather's Cairns units a couple of years ago.
But he was more interested in details of a RAAF fighter pilot who crashed his F18 just a couple of miles from their Olive River shack. Much, much earlier Heather and Hugo had given RAAF search parties information about a strange noise they heard at the time the plane went missing, but as is often the case, the advice appears to have been overlooked.
When the crash site was accidentally discovered a couple of years later it was just about where Heather and Hugo figured it would be.
They don't miss much, the people who live by their wits in the wilderness, and that particularly goes for what most of us regard as the comforts of home.
Maybe you'd like living in a colony of crocodiles where you get to know the neighbours on a first name basis. But think twice because it's like Hugo told me when inviting me to stay for a week or two - you don't have to be mad but it's an advantage.
The unusual pair aren't living with crocodiles these days because Heather died back in Cairns a few years after I met her, but Hugo kept going back to his lonely hut for several years. Then, in the early 2000s, he just disappeared from his lonely hut on the Olive River. There is no prize for guessing how he met his maker.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Rod Laver and the champions of tennis

A DISGRUNTLED newspaper reader sent in a letter to the editor the other day complaining about the way many top tennis players behave on court these days, and it put a big smile on me dial because I couldn't agree more.
Ya see I covered tennis for The Courier-Mail and international news agencies around the world for about 25 years in the '60s, '70s and early '80s before I moved on to column writing.
There were a couple of frowning, swearing, racquet-throwing dills around in those days but they were in the minority and never made it to the top.
Top players, mainly Aussies in those days, were really good blokes and sheilas.
Because there were no sports-star managers around to protect the players from the press like they do today, most journalists got to be good friends with sportsmen and women, including the blokes and sheilas at the top - world champs in whatever sport you covered.
I still count the great Rod Laver and the late, great Lew Hoad as two of my best friends in sport and I also got on very well with Ken Rosewall and Frank Sedgman. Back in those days Rod and Lew didn't know each other because those were the days of world-wide amateur tennis and the small group of professionals run by Jack Kramer.
Whenever Rod or Lew came to Brisbane for their separate tennis tours we would end up in the back bar of The Royal. They would give me a call when The Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail were housed in Queen Street, opposite the GPO, and we would slip into the back bar of the long-gone Royal Hotel for a grog or four.
In 1960, after four years on The Courier-Mail, mainly on police rounds, the sports department needed a bloke to assist the great Jack Reardon covering rugby league and they grabbed me out of police rounds because I had played rugby league for Wide Bay against France and New Zealand in the mid-fifties when I was a cadet journo on the Maryborough Chronicle.
I was also asked to cover tennis and that first year I met Laver, who at 20 had not won any major titles at that stage - but that was all about change. Rod was and is a great bloke, a real Queensland country boy even though he has lived in the US for many years.
I knew I would have to get to know him well if I was to get anywhere covering tennis, so I looked up his background and found that we had a lot in common. Like me, he was born in Rockhampton just five years after me. He had grown up on his dad's cattle station in the central west, not far from my uncle's cattle station, Vandyke, outside Sringsure, where I had spent all my holidays from a young age, mustering, fencing, boundary riding, branding, drafting and shooting - virtually the same as Rod. So we got on well from our first meeting talking about the central west, cattle, horses, rifles and shooting.
Whenever Rod returned to Brisbane from the amateur tennis tours we would end up at The Royal for you know what.
It was a watering hole for journalists, sportsmen and politicians.
In those days, tennis was angrily split in two - the amateurs, whose officials controlled all tournaments around the world, and the professionals, controlled by Kramer, who took his pros on world tours playing on rented amateur courts.
The top amateurs existed on reasonable contracts and travel expenses supplied by major sports goods companies and occasionally picked up mysterious brown paper bags after major tournament wins. Never did find out what was in those brown paper bags, but it didn't look like sandwiches.
But the main goal of most amateurs was to win a contract with Kramer and come into really big money.
Well, at the end of the year I first met Rod and started covering tennis, 1960, great things happened. Rod won his first major title, the Australian amateur singles at Milton, and that got Kramer very interested in this young red-headed Aussie. But Laver wasn't interested about turning pro because he was doing well as an amateur and didn't think he could match his school-day heroes like Hoad and Rosewall on the pro circuit.
So off he went on the amateur circuit in 1961 and won his first Wimbledon singles final. The big win made no difference to his quiet country attitude but boosted his confidence for big tournaments. So off he went again on his world tour in 1962 and what a year. He won the Australian, French, Wimbledon, US, Italian, German, Swiss, Dutch, Irish, Norwegian, British hardcourt and London grass court titles and the Grand Slam for the first time - only the second person in the game's long history at that stage.
That 1962 performance prompted Kramer to make a record pro circuit offer of $US110,000 - remember that was 50 years ago.
When Rod returned to Brisbane at the end of 1962 after his second Wimbledon win, we met at the Royal for you know what that night. But I still had a story to write so at closing time we purchased a couple of tall bottles of grog and went up next door to the sports department on the third floor where I finished the story and sat with Rod having a beer.
Around about midnight news came through on the teletype that US president, John F. Kennedy was threatening to bomb Cuba after its dictator, Fidel Castro, encouraged Russia to build army bases there so close to the US, which would certainly lead to a Third World War.
I thought about it for a couple of seconds then told Rod that if I was him I would contact Kramer immediately and accept his latest pro offer because international sport, including tennis, would be suspended if world war broke out.
Rod thought about it for a few minutes while he sipped a beer then said "Righto!"
So I rang Kramer's Australian rep, a Sydney lawyer, got him out of bed and told him Laver wanted to speak to him. And that was it. The contract was signed within days.
At that stage Rod didn't know Hoad and Rosewall and was very nervous about making his pro debut at Sydney's White City because he didn't think he could match his heroes. So he asked me could I go to Sydney with him for support. The Courier-Mail didn't fancy Kramer or pro tennis but when I told the great editor T.C. Bray what had happened, he told me The Courier-Mail would send me down to cover Laver's pro debut. That was January, 1963.
And that's what I did. But I have never seen a top sportsman as nervous as Rod was in those opening matches against Hoad, Rosewall and Sedgman. Hoad downed Laver in their first eight matches, and Rosewall won 11 of their first 13. But all that changed when Laver expelled his nerves over the next couple of months to become the greatest tennis player of all time.
I often see stories saying modern tennis stars have greater records of Grand Slam tournament wins than Laver. No way. Just remember that when Laver turned pro he was banned from all amateur tournaments around the world.
Have a look at his record: He won Wimbledon in 1961 and 1962. Was banned as a pro for the next seven years and when open tennis was introduced in 1968 returned to Wimbledon to win the singles that year and the next.
I have little doubt that if Wimbledon had been open when Rod turned pro he would have won the singles from 1961 to 1969 - nine years straight.
I've got a confession to make. I don't watch tennis any more and I doubt if any people of my age watch it either.
Ya see the '60s and '70s were the golden days of sport, particular tennis when the champions were true gentlemen, the likes of which will never be seen again. I'm so glad I was there to experience the good old days of sport.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Mutiny on the bounty (of wild pigs)

MAYBE I've told you a couple of times before how lucky I was to have relatives on sheep and cattle stations in central western Queensland where I could spend all my holidays riding horses, mustering, fencing and everything country people do, as well as shooting wild pigs to help pay for my trip.
We used to get two shillings and sixpence (25 cents) bounty when we took the pig's snout and tail into the local shire council because wild pigs were, and are, a big problem in the bush.
After you killed the pig you would cut the tip of its snout off, then the tail, and thread the tail through one of the snout's nostrils. Back at the station homestead, in this case Vandyke, outside Springsure, you would dip the snouts and tails in arsenic to preserve them, and deliver them to the shire council for the 2/6 bounty when next in town.
Righto! Back in 1956 when I was married, I took my wife, Jan, to Vandyke for a holiday. She was a very good rifle-range shooter but had never been pig shooting, so she was in for a bit of a shock when the blood started flowing out pig shooting. With us this first day was my little cousin, Shane, about 8 or 9 years old at the time.
By the way, its worth mentioning that at this time Jan (pictured) was a top model in Brisbane after winning The Sunday Mail Sun Girl title, and with it a Holden Special sedan in the mid '50s. I risk being belted up for writing that because she hates me mentioning it these days ... but they're the facts ma'm, so check 'em out if you like.
Anyway, back at Vandyke in her sparkling blue Holden Special, we had driven to a beautiful, wide-open black soil plain about six miles from the homestead, when we encountered a big mob of pigs - a huge boar, a couple of big sows and about a dozen little piglets. Naturally, I bowled the boar over and while I was cutting off its snout and tail, young Shane, who was too young to use a rifle, was running down one of the piglets and started stabbing into its chest with a rusty old pocket-knife.
Unfortunately Jan had followed Shane as he caught the piglet and was standing, shocked, just a couple of metres from the stabbing Shane and the screaming, squealing piglet.
I trotted over to the pair, carrying the boar snout and tail which were dripping blood, snot and mud - and a few blow-flies. When Jan saw me coming, she screamed: "For God's sake, kill the poor little thing. Put it out of its misery right now."
Here was my opportunity to be the hero I always am, so I said to Jan: "Here, hold this will ya?"
She reached out her right hand and I plonked the pig snout in it, walked over to Shane and the piglet, and cut the poor thing's throat.
Then I turned to see Jan's reaction.
She was horrified, looking pale and shocked at the still bleeding but now definitely dead piglet.
I glanced at her right hand. The snout and tail were still there, with blood, snot and mud dripping through her dainty fingers.
I couldn't help it - I just burst out laughing seeing a dirty, bloody scene like that in the hand of a leading Queensland model and beauty queen.
Suddenly she turned to see what I was laughing at, saw me staring at her right hand laughing insanely, looked down at the bloody snout and tail and screamed, much louder than before.
Then she hurled the bloody snout and tail at me, hitting me fair in the kisser, which made me laugh even louder. I don't think I've ever laughed so much or louder, even at Laurel and Hardy picture shows.
Wait until I tell my uncles and aunts, cousins and stockmen mates about it back at the homestead. I'll be a bigger hero than I am right now, I told myself.
After I picked up the boar's snout and tail and cut the piglet's snout and tail off, we climbed back into the Holden, me in the passenger seat, Shane in the back, the pair of us still wetting our pants laughing, and Jan behind the steering wheel with a cruel look such as I'd never seen before.
Well, that's the way it is when you pull a mean trick over someone. It's crook for them but really great for you.
A couple of hundred yards from that scene we came to the River Paddock gate. Jan pulled up the Holden, I got out and opened the gate, still wetting my pants laughing and waiting for her to drive through so I could close the gate.
And she drove through with what appeared to be a slight smirk on her dial, which I thought was strange because it was my big joke putting the snout and tail in her hand.
Then it all fell into place because she drove through the gate and kept right on driving, leaving me with a six mile walk back to Vandyke homestead in the middle of summer. For some strange reason my smile disappeared - and it got worse.
Because when I finally arrived at Vandyke late that afternoon, the whole population was waiting outside the homestead killing themselves laughing at poor, stupid Lawrie who thought he was smart but was left for dead by his beautiful wife. My little cousin Shane had spilled the beans and I was no longer the laughing hero but the dumb cluck.
It took them weeks to stop laughing and me to stop frowning. It's been like that for the past 54 years.