Next up we’re heading to the tiny town of Gascoyne Junction, so-named because it’s where the Lyons River meets the Gascoyne River.
Our next Outback Wife is a right treasure. I made three trips up to the Gascoyne area this year and on each trip I heard Betty, with much affection, referred to as the ‘Queen of the Gascoyne’. She’s a lady many know and love.
Her home sits right on the river, and we could see the dry river bed from where we sat on her verandah as she told me her story. She’s a lady of dignity, poise, quick wit and a gifted storyteller. She’s also rather fond of the occasional game on her iPad (Panda Pop and Fishdom are her current faves).
Betty mentions her upcoming birthday party towards the end of her story. Well, her family threw her a great party, and she did go dressed as a parrot, complete with cardboard wings and a brightly coloured wig (she said she had to take the wings off though as she was clearing the tables as she walked past).
She’s known locally as Betty, but when I asked her if she was happy with ‘Betty’ being printed on the selvedge of her fabric, she was quick to point out that this is legacy, and like the bridge opening (she speaks of in her story), it’s ceremonial, so she would give the fabric her proper name, ‘Elizabeth’.
I’m so very honoured to introduce you to Outback Wife Elizabeth.
“I was born in Shark Bay. My mum was born there. My grandma was born there. My grandfather was Inggarda and my grandmother was Mulgana; Shark Bay people.
There were nine of us kids. ‘Till I was five, then we come to Carnarvon the first time. My dad, he chased jobs everywhere, poor old fella. I went to school in Shark Bay first, then we went to school at the Convent in Carnarvon, then we went back to the Bay, then back to Carnarvon. Poor old dad, chasing the work, making sure we had bread on the table. Us kids used to love swimming down Shark Bay. I had a good childhood. We were poor. We were tough. But we thrived. Alot of swimming. Lots of times at the beach.
The State ships used to come in every three months to Shark Bay and bring supplies. Mum and dad got married in 1934 on one of those ships. I tell my kids you know, we used to wash the weevils out of the rice. We lived on fish and rice. Still eat a lot of rice today. But that was our staple diet back in Shark Bay.
A lot of my rellies are still in Shark Bay, that’s what I miss. My mum and dad were fishermen, and my grandparents. We used to go to different places. My mum and grandma couldn’t swim a stroke. All our women in Shark Bay couldn’t swim. They’d go fishing in boats. They wasn’t scared of the water.
My dad, when he worked on the plantations (in Carnarvon), we had little pieces of wagga on our bed. The walls we slept in were wagga too; old wool packs sprayed with cement. They were called wagga walls. The old wool packs, mum undid the binding of it. Us kids used to pick the cement off the walls…you know…just a little, then a little more. We got a hiding for it.
I went to school till year six, then I was a housemaid. I used to work for people on the plantations. 15 shillings a week. Oh yeah, I thought it big money back then. My mum controlled all the money so we didn’t spend it in one day. We never handled the money. Mum bought us everything. Until we grew up a bit more and grew a bit more brains. I used to do mother craft. I looked after one little boy there. Then they bought a station and they said ‘come’ and I said ‘nup’. I was sorry I didn’t go, but I would’ve been home sick.
Then I went down south to Bruce Rock. I went with my brother to a farm. My brother was working there and he said ‘come down’. He got me a job on the farm driving tractors. I got back and I was machine mad. Wanted to drive all the time.
I went backwards and forwards a bit to my brother.
When I was 21, in 1958, I come out here. I’d been back to Shark Bay, up and down and roundabout. I met my husband in 1958. He was a station hand when I met him.
He was shy when I met him. They said I’d be battling to get him to talk. Me being a talking tommy; he had to talk, he had no choice, and then it just kept going. My mum used to say ‘fancy going out the bush to meet ya husband!’ I used to go to all the dances. Anything that was happening, I’d be there. My kids call me ‘salt and pepper’ because if there’s anything happening, I’ve gotta be in it.
We went to Perth later and got married. His sister was down that way so we went down. Then we came back up. I’ve got four kids. 2 boys. 2 girls.
My husband was a professional roo shooter for 28 years. We and the kids used to cramp in the Land Rover. We’d leave at dark and go all night. We’d put a shelf in the back of the Rover. The kids would sleep on the shelf. We’d shoot all night and they’d never wake.
We camped in bow sheds and camps. How I used to live there, my kids they ask ‘mum, how the hell did you live here?’ We had showers syphoned out of water tanks and we’d bath them in the sheep troughs. We’d camp and shift, camp and shift. We’d get 3 pence for a pound of kangaroo. We used to sell the whole kangaroo. They’d pick it up in the truck and take it back south.
I’ve loved every minute of it, out in the stations. I love the bush. I just love it. We lived on a lot of dry and dehydrated stuff. Wherever we went we were allowed to get a sheep. We were treated well out the stations. Never wanted for meat.
There’s still a few sheep on the stations. Most changed about 15-20 years ago. We did plenty of sheep work back then. Mainly just shifting the sheep and making sure they had plenty of water in the troughs and the mills working. Making sure they weren’t fly blown. Then the dingos started coming in. God. He shot so many and trapped so many up on the mill runs.
When we were on the stations, when you know the dingos had been there, the sheep would be swaying. The dingos would take the kidneys and leave the sheep. The rams; they’d eat all around their backside. They were cruel. I’ll never forget. I can still see them today…three old ewes swaying. He had to shoot them. It was so cruel.
Dingos they’re not pets, they got it in them. And they just kill for the fun. When they teach the little ones. They just maul them and play havoc with them.
You gotta like the bush…you gotta have that in ya. So much time spent in the bush, there’s so much to see, it’s different all the way round. We’d go out there where no man’s ever been. BBQs out bush, up the top of rock outcrops. It’s just unreal country; just anywhere you go it’s never the same. The trees are all different.
We’re losing young people. I’ve lost quite a few. It’s a big question. It’s a hard one. A really hard one. It breaks my heart. It’s not the isolation. Alot to do with love. Whether they’re not getting enough love. And drugs; they’re so easy everywhere. I’ve seen children here with the phones. Addicted to the phones. I can’t handle that. When they come through that gate it’s my rules. No phones. My daughter, she’s a school teacher. She lays down the rules. I’m getting old and a bit softer.
My kids never got a hiding, but we spoke to our kids. When dad spoke it was like getting a hiding. He had two voices. One he’d warn with and the second one; look out!
I’ve worked my whole life in agriculture. After chasing roos all over the countryside we went to retire but we kept getting work.
When it flooded, well that’s the fastest river I’ve ever seen. It was flowing flat out going past at 6pm. Next morning at 6, my son, he’s saying ‘the river’s here’. I got up and looked out my window and it’s coming across the bitumen. I’m sitting on the bed talking on the phone telling my kids the river’s coming across the road. It come over the verandah that quick it sneaked into my bedroom. I’m still sitting there on the phone. I was in my nightie just telling them what was happening. Then it’s up to my ankles. And then the kids said ‘what you sitting there for? Get out. Get changed.’ I got dressed. My shoes were floating round the room. The fridge was starting to fall over. I looked to get my medication I didn’t know where it was. I’m diabetic. My bed was floating like a boat so I had to push it to get out. I grabbed a couple of clothes. I couldn’t think what to get. He turned the power off. It was a pantomime then. We went up the back to next door. If we hadn’t gone we’d been stuck on the roof. We were next door for 6 weeks. But it was fun and games. No one knew we existed on the north side of the river for a while. They sent the helicopter to give us supplies and medication. Woollies sent a huge amount of food. We shared it out. We were on the news. We were on the map. When I think about it, how silly I was in the water on the phone, meanwhile my son’s panicking.
I managed to get gloves for the bridge opening ceremony after the flood. A friend, she hunted allover the city for some. White ones I wanted, you gotta look dignified for a ceremony.
I love anything to do with fashion, watching it on TV. I like to dress up. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve won the Melbourne Cup Luncheon best dressed down the pub or wherever they hold it. Any special event, I do my makeup and get scrubbed up. I got bags and hats, matching all the time.
I lost my husband 19 years ago. He went to sleep on the verandah and didn’t wake up. He never believed in aircon. I have it now.
He’d wake me each morning with my tea and toast. I was so spoilt. Even when we were roo shooting, he’d bring me tea and toast. Every morning.
I’m still looking after things. I’ll keep going till I drop. My birthday party this year is a bush theme. My friend thought ‘What? What we meant to come as?’ And I told her, ‘come as a tree, you can sit in the corner and be quiet.’ I reckon I’ll come as a parrot cos I never stop talking. Either that or I’ll come as a black stump.”
ELIZABETH ‘BETTY’ FLETCHER, 80
Gascoyne Junction, Western Australia