Category Archives: Rural Childhood

The (lost) road to Sheep Station Creek

THERE MUST BE a hundred or more Sheep Station Creeks in Australia. The one I know is in Kamilaroi Country, and I recently went back to find it because I’m working on a novel about a town that disappeared.

My exploration was a reminder of just how quickly such a thing can happen.

As a kid I regularly traversed the black soil lands west of Delungra, and I recall being told that Dufty’s Lane, on which our farm ‘Paxton’ stood, once ran between the Bingara Road and another place deeper in these blue hills, decades before we moved in.

That destination was Sheep Station Creek, a generous watercourse that often flooded, according to the oral history, cutting off residents of the village with the same name once too often.

Their solution was to head up into our valley along Dufty’s Lane, which runs straight to the Bingara Road crossing creeks close enough to their source to let most of the water get away. From there, it’s a short run into Delungra where there was a railway station, school and post office.

Armed with a map and memories of landmarks (there’s no phone signal out there) I headed west from Delungra to Kaloona. Here, I turned south onto Reserve Creek Road where Gragin Peak sits distinctly almost directly to the north.

After slowly and subtly dropping into a valley, a crusty signpost pointing to Sheep Station Creek greeted me not far south of where Reserve Creek flows into it. The water was flowing beautifully, creating wide, shaded pools as it winds through the district. With plenty of properties along the way, it seems the perfect place to put down roots; but there’s little sign this was once a place with a name.

‘This little spot’

It seems the closest Sheep Station Creek ever got to being recognised was in century-old reports. One, published in The Inverell Times three weeks after the Australian Imperial Forces’ landing at Gallipoli in 1915, called the region “this little spot” in “the corners of Inverell, Warialda and Bingara districts”.

The write up reads as though it was penned by a local, speaking of a rifle club and tennis meets; and thousands of sheep, cattle and horses agisted in the valley during a “recent dry spell”.

The annual minutes of the local “F&S Club” branch were reported, mentioning the arrival of the telephone service, a rise in rates, the plan for a local polling booth, and various road repairs.

“The Shire Council has effected an agreement with St Clair Bros, in regard to the road through their properly, which, though not final, puts residents, on a more satisfactory footing,” the report reads.

The St Clairs were Percival and Harold, second joint owners of Paxton. A 1916 report in the Tamworth Daily Observer mentions the success the brothers were having in the cultivation of various grains on Paxton, with a particular focus on Sudan Grass, a highly nutritious fodder sorghum they were selling as seed. Harold was also doing well out of breeding horses for the track.

The writer of that report didn’t mention Dufty’s Lane by name. They called it “the Road to Sheep Station Creek”.

It certainly sounded like a place that was burgeoning, so what happened?

A changed world

The day I passed though. the weather-beaten pointer to Sheep Station Creek was hidden in the shadow of a signpost to a place with a more notorious name.

I followed it and soon ended up at the old Myall Creek Hall, where, with my siblings and friends, we once played on the swings and performed on the raked wooden stage at Christmas. I’d arrived at this place by another route in 2015 for the annual memorial of the Myall Creek Massacre.

A local volunteer was mowing the lawns, so I got to have a slow look inside.

In the dusty light, I noticed an honour roll, which likely goes some way to explaining the disappearance of Sheep Station Creek. Two of the four St Clair brothers – Harold and Christoper – appear on it. After enlisting late in a war that no-one knew would end soon (a similar board at Delungra was embossed “1914-191_‘), Harold returned but his younger brother did not.

The weekly papers of the New England region are filled with the lists of the war dead and wounded across these years. Harold St Clair’s bushman’s skills were exploited in Palestine, not the racetrack. He returned to a changed world in 1919.

If the residents of Sheep Station Creek – just getting a foothold on their lands in 1916 – were impacted at the same rate of loss as the rest of the New England community, is it any wonder the hopes in those branch minutes were blown away like sorghum seeds no-one was around to harvest?

Out of place

I continued on the Myall Creek Massacre memorial site, taking the short walk to remind myself of the story of the Wirrayaraay women, children and old men whose lives ended so brutally at the hands of colonial settlers in 1838.

The Wirrayarray’s custodianship of Myall Creek was forever interrupted by this episode of Australia’s Frontier Wars. It’s not clear what the residents of Sheep Station Creek knew or understood of the massacre, although I was told about it as a child while playing at the Myall Creek Hall in the 1970s.

War stories tend to get handed down the generations. The loss of large parts of some generations due to conflict is something all cultures have in common. Hopefully we can remember all the fallen on the one honour board before long, by including the Frontier Wars in our ceremonies.

Despite my hunt along every rut, track and open gate, the road down to Sheep Station Creek from Dufty’s Lane appears to be long gone.

Perhaps Sheep Station Creek survives in other memories and family stories? These remote hills and valleys are filled with place names that exist only on maps, or remnant signposts standing by old roads to nowhere, travelled by dreamers like me who are drawn by legends and century-old meeting news clippings.

In that sense, the fictitious town that disappears in the manuscript I’m currently reworking is hardly out of place. It’s just another bend in another creek somewhere.

Reading a lot into homophobia

IT’S NOT THE most pleasant of subjects, but when you’ve written a crime thriller about homophobia, it’s likely that you’ve done your research about this insidious form of discrimination.

Heck, you’ve probably even been on the receiving end!

When I was approached to nominate five Australian books related to the theme of my novel Tank Water, it was hard to go past the critical plot driver in my debut piece long-form fiction.

This novel was a deep dive into prejudice, which often took me into some pretty grisly territory, and even put me on the trail of a real-life suspected gay-hate crime in my home town.

One guiding light for me with this book was to never try to analyse what lies behind the ill will towards same sex-attracted people, but to explore how families and individuals so often dig very deep to overcome it.

So when self-described “bootstrapped underdog” international book site Shepherd offered to platform my choice of five books, it was the conquering of homophobia in Australia that informed my list.

“A century of prejudice is laid bare in these books, but within their pages are countless subtle and overt ways that gay Australian men have given homophobes the big middle finger,” I wrote in my introduction.

“We may not always have thrived, but through resistance, migration, verbal agility, notoriety, and sheer resilience, collectively we have conquered.”

Click through to Shepherd to read my selection, including Indigenous, migrant and pioneering gay voices, and check out their growing list of gay-themed books while you’re at it.

Blowing away Bob Katter’s bulldust

IN 2018 I WAS asked to give a paper at a Newcastle University conference – Surveilling Minds and Bodies. This was a unique chance for a non-academic, and I embraced the opportunity to present some of the research that went into my debut novel Tank Water (MidnightSun Publishing, 2021), which joined an embryonic wave of literature about gay men in rural Australia.

I was subsequently invited to submit an article based on that research for a special edition of the international Journal of Australian Studies.

Fun and frustrating, it was deep dive into the history of Queensland politician Bob Katter’s infamous claim about a minuscule “poof population” in the bush; a ridiculous assertion than needed further examination in the light of what impact it had on rural LGBTIQA.

Here’s the introduction to the article, with a link to read more…

Backwards to Bourke: Bulldust About Gays in the Bush

In his 2006 thesis, “‘Staying Bush’ – A Study of Gay Men Living in Rural Areas”, author Edward Green studied the lives of 21 gay men living in country New South Wales. Green described his subject as the “largely hidden and untold story of gay men living in rural areas”. This year, 2006, became pivotal for the visibility of gay men living in the Australian bush, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Network Ten distributed episodes about rural gay men on Australian Story and Big Brother. In the space of one 12-month period, this cohort went from “hidden and untold” to prime time. But this shifting narrative was contested. From as early as 1989, rural Queensland politician Bob Katter issued a series of widely broadcast public claims that he would “walk to Bourke backwards if the poof population of North Queensland is any more than 0.001 per cent”.

By analysing media, popular culture, judicial and police records, this article explores the visibility and portrayal of rural gay men in Australia prior to and after this 2006 milestone. It scrutinises Katter’s insistence on a minuscule “poof population” during his generation, from the 1940s to the present, locating the debate at the inland margins of Australia’s population. I argue that as rural gay men became slowly more visible in local popular culture as a result of social and political change, debate about their existence was clouded by a lack of research, reporting and inclusion.

“Scholars ignore the margins at their peril,” wrote the editors of Queering the Countryside in 2016, defining America’s rural queer studies as “an emerging field of inquiry”. A backward-facing walk to the Australian bush in search of the “poof population” feels like an intellectually marginal endeavour as most of the academic literature to date has focused on the lived experience of gay men in this nation’s cities. Yet in spite of Katter’s minuscule population estimates, made over three decades, I will argue that the rural gay cohort has always defied such assumptions.

For the rest of the article, head to the journal page.