been a member of Lions International for almost fifty years.]
I’m retired, well as retired as you can be in a country town. My last real job was Director of Signal Point – the Murray River Interpretative Centre. Prior to that I made the mistake of becoming an elected councillor. It’s a voluntary position which carries a remuneration, regarded as expense only. I enjoy it actually, it’s sort of like, when you’re a home-town boy you’re expected to give back to the community. I was born here in Goolwa; fifth generation. One branch of the family is from the Parsons who were shipwrecked north of Perth and ended up coming over to South Australia in 1859. I suspect they made the move because my great-grandfather was a whaler and there was a whaling station at Port Victor. Anyhow, they decided to go on the land and the family’s still in the Waitpinga area. Then, in about 1870, my grandfather on the Tuckwell side married into that family. He was a drover – an Overlander – who brought cattle across to South Australia from the area around where Canberra is now.
As for myself, I grew up on a dairy farm and I went to Goolwa Primary School, as did my father and my son. But, due to my father’s failing health, I had to return to work on the dairy farm. So, for my secondary education, or what little I had of it, the welfare officer from the local RSL – Returned and Services League – made arrangements with the headmaster of the primary school that I have daily two-hour contact secondary lessons in the school’s library. Being the youngest male, the plan was that I’d take over from Dad but I was a restless guy and I soon got sick of being tied down to milking cows, seven days a week, morning and night with only a few hours off during the day. So I only stayed with it for a bit over twelve months, then an opportunity arose at the Goolwa Post Office. But I didn’t like being in the Public Service and so thankfully, at the age of nineteen, I was called up for National Service. That changed things. Result being, when I finished my boot training, I decided that somewhere out there in the land of free enterprise was an adventure and a place for me. So I just took off and went fruit picking. That would’ve been in about ’54 and I met an Italian family up in Renmark who invited me to join them as a picker and also to look after their books. They had good contracts. They were ‘first pickers’ which meant they picked all the good stuff before the second pickers came in. I stayed with them till we got to Batlow, in New South Wales. It’s apple country, and I remember we were pruning. It was a brutally cold this day and what I thought was bits of cotton wool started falling so I said, ‘Good God, what’s going on?’
‘Snow,’ they said. ‘It’s snowing.’
And that was about it. It’d had enough and at the end of the week, I broke the news to an emotional Mumma that I was leaving. I came back home then and started up in the property maintenance area. In those days there wasn’t much red tape in business. You just got paid cash, and at end of year you put in your tax return. Actually I could’ve made quite a good living that way but I’d always been fascinated by the railways so I joined a gang in the Adelaide Hills who were re-laying light gauge railway with continuous welded track. This was about 1957 and I stuck with that till my hands got so sore I couldn’t get a decent swing with the spiking hammer. Result being, I got transferred to the E&WS (Engineering and Water Supply Department) because the other thing I was fascinated by was the barrages and that’s when I got transferred to Pelican Point to work on the Tauwitchere Barrage.
There were about ten of us in the gang and we’d stay down there Monday to Friday in the bachelors’ quarters. The living conditions were terrible. They were timber-framed camps, clad with galvanised iron. No lining, so it got as hot as hell in the summer and cold as whatever in winter. But it was magical country. Pelican Point’s surrounded by water, with the Coorong running along one side and the lakes to the north. In those days the river was running pretty near all year round and the bird life was just absolutely fantastic. There were several hundred radial gates on Tauwitchere which had to be manually opened and shut and we had to be on the ready because, when the south-westerlies came in and there was a high tide, the sea water would go in through the gates. It’s rather strange: even while the river was flowing out, sometimes the saltwater tow would actually push up underneath the freshwater and you’d see this blue water bloom out in the lake. So then, when there was a sufficiently low tide, you’d open the gates again and try to pull out the saltwater. Our work also continued on to the Ewe Barrage, Boundary Creek and Mundoo. Mundoo was a bugger of a thing. It was a fairly primitive plant, with hardly any space to work, so it was extremely dangerous to get the gates open and shut and with the very strong current that runs through a narrow channel there. If you fell in you were a goner.
After that, I went on to do a number of things. Like I said I was pretty unsettled. For a while I worked as Assistant Manager at George Hall & Co., the soft drink people in Victor Harbor. In the course of that I met my wife, Pat, and, as these delightful girls do, she completely changed my life. Pat and I were going to different churches. I’m a member of The Church of Christ and Pat was Anglican but during the time of the Billy Graham Crusades there was this great ecumenical movement. No longer did we look for partners within our own faith. So it wasn’t long before we were going steady – then I proposed and we got engaged. Those days were still part of the old world. The girls usually lived with their parents up until they were married. Then they were given to you by your father-in-law. Everything was organised for a smooth transition, and I can’t see anything wrong with that. You knew how your life was going to run. So we married in ‘62 and I soon found that I had to settle down and set an example for the children, pay the mortgage and all that kind of stuff.
Around that time the Elder of our church came to me and said, ‘Frank we’re trying to organise a Lions Club in this area.’ I thought, Yeah, what can I do about that? He said, ‘I’d like you to go to one of their meetings and find out who they are and what they do.’ So I did and I liked their ideas and so I joined up and that’s when I really started to get involved in the community. Now, to me, Goolwa was pretty much where the transport history of Australia started; from when the inland was being developed and the paddle steamers plied the waterways – the rivers. As a kid, I used to love going over to the wharf in the summer and to the Goolwa Railway Station in the winter to listen to the old riverboat skippers reminisce: guys like Captain Dave Ritchie, one of the sons of Captain Cadell’s original fleet. He’d tell stories about the adventures they had when they went upstream, right up to places near the Queensland border. And I believe it was those stories that sort of imbued in me the necessity to keep some of this stuff alive. Problem was, we had no way of preserving it and so began the battle to get a Goolwa History Centre up and going.
After taking off to Queensland for five years I came back to a town that had completely changed. Goolwa was now a place where business was alive and well. South Lakes Development had begun and for the first time Goolwa’s economy wasn’t dependent on having to travel outside to get a job. Then in 1988 the Alexandrina Council won a Bicentenary Grant of $2.5 million. The Federal Government gave half, the State Government put in a half and Council put up the property of Signal Point to be turned onto a National Interpretative Centre for the Murray River. My involvement was as Project Officer and what we needed was a project that would put the focus right on our Interpretative Centre, here at Goolwa. The original idea was to get a couple of kids from the top reaches of each of the rivers to come to the opening of the Centre. But that wouldn’t have had much meaning to all the communities in between. And that’s when the Great Bicentenary Relay flopped on to my desk. The big problem was the insurance. Fortunately, Lions International, at that stage, had the best insurance system in the world so I spoke to the National Manager and came to an agreement where they’d write a coverage for the event and we’d only pay if there was an accident claim.
Having got that settled, time was the worry. I only had fifteen months to get it up and running. I thought, Right, if we structure it on three levels – local government, schools and communities – we could have children relaying a message down the river system. At each stop the local Mayor would take part in a Bicentenary ceremony where they’d place their community’s message in a cylinder, hand it over to the next group of kids and so forth all the way down to Goolwa. With the local Lions Clubs looking after the transportation of children and the cylinder, we worked out we could involve fifty of the major river centres. But there also needed to be an exercise that would involve the smaller communities in between. I had the idea, Why don’t we have a classroom project? Our Community 1988 and get the kids to write about their town as it is in the present and we’d hold the originals in a time capsule here in Goolwa. All of the records of that project, including messages from then Prime Minister as well as the Leader of the Opposition and the President of Lions International have been placed underground and they’re to be opened in 2030, which will coincide with the bicentennial of Captain Charles Sturt’s expedition down the river to Goolwa.
Anyhow we had 30,000 children involved, across the whole three rivers – the Murray, the Darling and the Murrumbidgee. We launched it at the same time and on the same day in Toowoomba, Canberra and Corowa – which is known as being the birthplace of Federation and also where the original River Murray Commission was instigated in 1902. But I was amazed at some of these communities. Usually the kids were transported by bus but one particular town was determined to have their senior high school students take the message by pushbike on a two-day trip down to Echuca. So the local police provided a car and an officer and while the kids were on the road the police car went ahead, warning the traffic, and the Lions Club members were riding pushbikes at the back of the group with the same signs.
Everyone became so involved in the project, that for a long time afterwards I was still getting letters. See, that’s because we did the right thing. We followed it through with the production of a magazine that kept the people informed of what was going on at each stage of the journey, right through until its destination at Goolwa. Everyone had the feeling they we were involved in something that connected us all together. That’s why it was such a great success. Then, when the cylinder got to Goolwa on December 11th 1988, we had a function in front of Signal Point with representatives from a lot of the upstream-councils plus District Governors from the various Lions Clubs.
So that was the Great Bicentenary Relay. Then Goolwa also has another connection with people travelling down the river system; one that goes back even further. It must’ve been back when I was looking after Dad’s cows; I was fishing on the wharf and this guy paddled up in a Canadian canoe and said, ‘Hi, I’m Bill Confoy I’ve come down the river from Texas, Queensland. Where do I go to register my trip.’
I’d never heard of such a thing so I said, ‘Sorry Bill there’s nothing here.’ Anyhow I had a bit of paper lining the bottom of my fishing tackle box. ‘Wait a moment,’ I said and I pulled the sheet of paper out and I wrote Bill’s name down and the date, then I tore it in halves and wrote the same thing on the other half. I gave it to him and said, ‘Here you are Bill. You and I have just started the Murray River Register.’ And that original document’s still here in the archives. So from then, on anybody who comes down the river system can come in and register their trip, just as long as it can be regarded as a marathon exercise of some type or other. We’ve been registering people since 1955, and of course the Bicentenary Relay is part of it. I believe it’s registered as Number 88/2, which means it was the second trip recorded in 1988. Then, last year, we opened a web page and the response to that has been enormous.
But the ingenuity of people is staggering. One of the most unusual trips didn’t even touch the ground or the water. That was back in the 1970s when something like twelve ultra-lights started out from Albury and only one got here. Oh, they’ve tried all sorts of things. One guy tried to get down here in a bath tub. Another guy was a Vietnam veteran. I think he was trying to shake out the bugs so he put floats on a little Ferguson tractor, and he got here – unbelievable! Another guy came down the river in a World War II amphibious jeep, with a parrot on his shoulder. People have walked down. We had a couple from Sydney: they got hold of one of those hospital trolleys that takes linen and so forth around the wards and they came down with a beautiful collie dog. One day this lady came into Signal Point, she was about seventy and she said, ‘Look, do you think my brother’s trip could be registered?’
I said, ‘When did he do it?’
She said, ‘In 1932. He came down in a tin canoe.’
‘Well, I’d need some documentation.’
She said, ‘Wait a minute,’ and she went out to her car and she came back with a shoe box full of newspaper articles. As this guy had paddled along he’d written articles for the local paper. So there’s this marvellous story of his travels. But the thing that really caught my eye was an envelope. Seeing that he didn’t know where he was going to be at any particular time he just told everyone to address their letters to him C/- Murray River and he’d call in to the various post offices along the way. Now back in those days the Post Masters would only hold a letter for a certain time then they’d stamp the back of the envelope with the new date and forward it on. So on the back of this envelope was a chain of stamps from all the Post Offices along the river, right until it got to Goolwa.
My present canoe belonged to a guy who wanted me to record his return journey up the Murrumbidgee. I said, ‘Yes I can do that but you’ll have to stop in at Gundagai and visit the monument to the dog on the tucker box.’ I thought it’d be an ideal photo opportunity for their local paper. Another old couple came down on their pushbikes, keeping as close to the river as they could. They were in their eighties. Oh, it’s not unusual for an eighty-year-old canoeist to pull up here from a substantial river trip. It’s the kind of adventure you can have without too many dangers, unless you’re like one guy who was determined to break the record for coming down the Darling.
I said, ‘Okay but you’ll have to get a notary to sign your log book and the time you take off.’
This was just after the drought had broken in Queensland and they’d had record rains. Anyhow, within two hours of setting out he’d lost all his gear. Everything. Almost lost his life. When anyone wants to come down the Darling I say, ‘Look, you have to be prepared because the Darling’s like being in a trench. You can’t see over the banks. Mobile phones won’t work out in a lot of places so you’ll probably see a pump or something when there’s a station property. And watch out for the illegal weirs. There’s lots of them across the river.’
So there are dangers and that’s why we’ve now made Wellington, here in South Australia, the end of the official course. Because, if they’re in a canoe and they’re going for a record, they’ll try and go straight across the middle of Lake Alexandrina and that can be extremely dangerous. I’m not going to get involved in any drownings out on the lake. I’m not prepared to do that. In the mid 90s a guy called Graham Middleton swam down the Murray from Corryong. It was remarkable. Tammy van Wisse did it afterwards but Tammy had the advantage of youth and of also having a high flowing river. Graham was middle-aged and he had a slow flowing river so he had to virtually swim every stroke of the way. We stopped him where the regulation finish is now at Wellington and, after he signed off, his brother said, ‘God, I’m glad you did that. He was completely knackered. He wouldn’t have got any further.’
So there’s all sorts of stories in the Register. We also ask them to keep log books. Some describe how they live on the river, how they cook, how they pass their time. Others write about what they see. The more naturalist types record the various animals and birdlife. Really, that register’s now a valuable document for just about any particular field of research. We only note each trip as being one and it now contains something like 300 registers. If we included individuals instead of groups, we’d be in the thousands. So they just get the one certificate. But if they pay a $1 each we’ll willingly issue duplicate certificates for the rest of the people in the group. That’s just as a bit of a fundraiser for the museum.