McKinlay day 2

7 May 2002

On our second day at Strathfield station, I went out with Heather to check a bore, whilst Susan dealt with some bureaucratic tasks on the internet.  We then checked out the old farmhouse and worker’s quarters.

Heather then took us for a drive around the perimeter of the property.  This took some time, and some tricky 4-wheel-driving on her part.  She took us to some of her favourite spots.  I imagined how the now dry creek beds would look when they were full of water, with shady Coolibah Trees overhead.  As it was, all the creeks were dry, due to the drought that had stricken eastern Australia.

Ruby and Clare in a tree on Strathfield Station, Qld
Ruby and Clare at Strathfield Station, Qld

That night I cooked a mild curry, which seemed to be popular.  Heather told us an amazing story about how she was injured on the station and had to be air-lifted to hospital with a suspected broken back. It was a reminder of the dangers of work and isolation in the Queensland outback. I was moved to put Heather’s story to music, so I wrote a song. Here are the words:

Heather’s story

It was a bad year for rain at McKinlay
the rivers and creeks all ran dry
the horses were crowding the fenceline
with a hunger of days in their eyes

So she went to fetch them some stockfeed
a quarter-ton bail did she load
high on the arms of a forklift
like an offering of silver and gold

But the bail went too high and fell backwards
striking her down where she sat
it bounced on the ground there beside her
it knocked out her breath and it busted her back

She is a painter of outback Australia
a wife to her man and a silversmith too
she makes the pikelets for the men when it’s raining
she mends the fences where the cattle get through
She checks the bores and she tends to the horses
she lends a hand in the mustering time
she is the mother of four strapping children
and she teaches the youngest on the long-distance line

She dragged herself down off the forklift
and crawled like an animal back towards home
her pain burned a trail in the red dust beneath her
as she called to the dogs in a voice of their own

A hundred yards out from the house the kids heard her
they radioed the doctor to land at Bull Creek
she lay in the car for the forty-K journey
her face and her knuckles turning white as a sheet

But the plane was attending a call up at Normanton
so an ambulance drove her to town
she stood for the x-ray with no-one to hold her
a busted-up cowgirl in a hospital gown

She is a painter of outback Australia
a wife to her man and a silversmith too
she makes the pikelets for the men when it’s raining
she mends the fences where the cattle get through
She checks the bores and she tends to the horses
she lends a hand in the mustering time
she is the mother of four strapping children
and she teaches the youngest on the long-distance line

They flew her to Townsville all bound to a stretcher
where she waited her turn in the surgical round
later she said that she knew how the cattle
must feel when they’re branded and herded around

The doctor looked over the notes on her chart
said “The fracture’s unstable, there’s no guarantee.
You’ll be here for six weeks staring up at the ceiling”
then he turned for the door and he left her to weep

So she called for a canvas and brushes and palette
and started to paint lying there on her back
she thought of Michaelangelo there in the chapel
with a permanent window on the Queensland outback

You are a painter of outback Australia
a wife to your man and a silversmith too
thank you for showing us over your land
may the heavens rain fish when the dry season’s through
You check the bores and you tend to the horses
you lend a hand in the mustering time
you are the mother of four strapping children
we’ll all stay connected by the long-distance line

The Chandlers at Glentulloch and the Moores at Strathfield had never met us before. They extended us invitations to visit and stay with them simply because we were friends of a trusted friend. They opened their houses and their hearts to us, and this is an enduring memory we have of outback Queensland. We are fortunate travelers indeed, to have encountered such generosity towards strangers.

The next morning we packed up, said our farewells, and drove west to Mount Isa.

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