Life on the South Australian reserves 50 years ago

on 06 Jan 2015 

Recently I had the good fortune of being contacted by Max Thompson who had been a 17 year old rouseabout on Bon Bon and Boolcoomatta reserves over 50 years ago. Max grew up in Longford, Tasmania and left school at 14 when his father became unwell. In those days there was no such thing as selection criteria, psychometric testing or job interviews. Max’s Dad had simply struck up a conversation with a bloke at the pub and a week later Max was on his way to South Australia to shear sheep.

In his Volkswagen, Max headed to the mainland for the first time to meet his new boss at Kingoonya  and together they hit the 150 mile (250km) red dirt track to Bon Bon station. I asked what safety precautions he had in place given that we now have satellite phones, two-way radios, safety logins, first aid and survival kits. “Being 17 and invincible, I had no water, no food, no safety gear just a spare tyre and .22 gauge shot gun”!

He arrived at Bon Bon as part of a 10 man crew and he recalls that the Mayor of Port Augusta was the owner of Bon Bon and used to fly in from time-to-time in his light aircraft. This wasn’t the only thing flying around the skies as the bilateral agreement between the Australian and British governments saw multiple tests of the Jindivick target drones occur in the area. “We would hear the warning sirens and run for cover in the sandbag air-raid shelter and watch the show”.

Buffle grass wasn’t an issue in those days as there was a back breaking drought and the only ground cover was the red sand. Any low lying tree branches were quickly turned into sheep fodder in an attempt to keep the flock alive.

After a month at Bon Bon, Max and the crew headed down to Boolcoomatta and the first thing he remembers is the smack of killer heat (115°F / 46°C) that was ever present for the entire time on the station. The sandstone outbuildings were noteworthy as there had been an obvious gun battle at some point in the past with the buildings riddled with shell remnants and bullet holes.

Dust storms were a constant at Boolcoomatta and at the end of each week the cars would have to be dug out of the deep sand before they could hit the track into Broken Hill for the obligatory weekly beer run.

The only way to keep the beer cool in those days was to store it by a bale hook in a wool pal secured to a rope at the bottom of the lake. Till this day Max is sure there is a sack full of beer down there when the rope snapped, the beer sunk and nobody could be persuaded to go diving!

This was an incredible first trip away from home and the memories from these reserves have stayed with Max for a lifetime. Upon his return to Tasmania he was offered a job with QANTAS at Launceston airport where he became an aircraft document controller until he retired a few years ago.

Bush Heritage would like to thank Max for his time and memories and allowing us to relive and understand some of the history of our South Australian reserves.