© Janet Lane, 2023. Image: Litho by George Barnard based on a drawing by Captain George Grey, in the published journals of Grey’s expedition to north west and Western Australia of 1837, 1838 and 1839; published 1841.
At the time of saving Walers in the 1980’s and 1990’s, most if not all came from Central Australia. We needed to seek new genes to prevent a genetic bottleneck. I thought it would be good to try for some in Western Australia as they had such a great history with horses.
As well, like any who were interested in the Timor Pony, one recalled that George Grey, later knighted and later Governor of South Australia, then New Zealand, went there exploring and finding things a bit tough at one stage, abandoned his Timor Ponies in the Prince Regent River area. As well, many ships brought Timors to W.A. The northern area became known for breeding good tough horses, many shipped out in early days of the horse trade to Mauritius, Java, Singapore and India. Were there any descendants of Timors there? Were there any good Australian horses without modern breeds/lines – Walers? They had so many good horses once.
Image: By William Wolfe Alais : Sir George Grey [engraving from a photograph, ca 1861]. Cropped version. Wiki.
The internet was new and so basic it wasn’t suited for research at that stage. So one basically researched in libraries. Not just the past but the present from about 1950 had to be researched. Asked in Waler newsletters for any info. After a while I’d narrowed down some areas and stations that were possible sources, and asked about, getting advice from those who knew some of the country. The Fossil Downs greys were famous of course and wouldn’t some of those be great, but a request there to get some was refused. As it turned out, several stations didn’t want us going there, perhaps afraid of a public backlash as they were shooting horses. All we wanted was to get a few horses, and first of course, to be sure they were the right sorts. We weren’t judging what a station did or didn’t do about their horses, or what they’d had or hadn’t had on there, however it appears someone who didn’t want us getting any had rung about and created some ill will as some were really upset when I rang. Eek.
By discussing the possibility of getting some W.A. horses from the Kimberley, I was hoping someone over there would run with this project but no hands went up. Gulp. No way could I afford to go! Then a chap who used to be a ringer on Gogo got in touch said he knew the place and the horses, and if it paid would help me muster there – paid meaning he could sell the horses on. Hence I met Gopher, I called him that for fun, as he proved very good at going for things.
So when I rang Gogo, being put onto it by Gopher (you’ll meet him soon) I didn’t mention the word Waler and simply asked would they allow us to muster a few brumbies for a little stock horse collection a few of us had? We’d pay a fair price for them. Whether Harry Harris (real name Malcolm Harris) the owner there knew we were saving Walers or not (and he is canny!), or whether he too had had an unpleasant phone call from whoever it was putting the stick in the spokes, he politely said yes, if you get them yourself. Yay! Good man!
I was a single Mum (separated) with three little ones, renting, no money. But if we didn’t get to Gogo the horses would probably be shot, as like most places they needed feed for their cattle. And we’d lose the chance of these W.A. genes, and some Timor blood was possible.
What sealed the deal was Ian Hutchins, bless him, who offered to buy 20 or so of the horses at a very good price if we mustered them and delivered them to Port Hedland, where he lived at the time. This was all to save the Waler. Wow! Super generous and super brave – as they’d all be wild. And best of all, they’d stay in the state they belonged to, W.A.
The year was 1993 and now all we needed was someone to get the horses with Gopher and deliver them. Preferably two or three people or more. Gopher had costed it all. He’d pay the station for the horses and the rest would fund him going to Texas in the USA where he’d taken a job, starting soon. But who would help on Gogo? No-one offered. Would we give up? Gopher was busting to go. Ok ok. I decided to go. It would have to be a fast trip while their grandmother minded my children. I got a return ticket from Hobart to Perth with every cent I had – it meant if I missed the plane back, no refund and I had no more money. Slight panic. Travel always means controlled panic for me for that reason. Broke. Not fun.
I’d get a pay while up there to help with expenses but most going on rent etc – meanwhile on arrival in Perth I literally only had 20 cents to my name for the next couple of days. Gopher met me at the airport and took me to his parent’s place for the night. Really lovely hospitable people. Next day Gopher lent me the money for the bus fare and we caught a bus from Perth to Fitzroy Crossing, staying a night with Ian and Ros Hutchins on the way. Yes, that’s up the whole of Australia pretty much. Cheaper than flying.
It took over 24 hours. The bus was oddly very cold. When you got out at the occasional pit stop, the heat almost knocked you over. As we got north past the Pilbara all that could be seen as far as the eye could see, was flood water. Trees sticking out here and there. The odd dead cow or three starkly stuck up trees in the distance. It was looking grimmer and grimmer. The driver said we may not make it to Broome. Gopher handed me a Fantale toffee, yes it was moments like these. Heckity heck heck heck. Let’s have another Fantale.
Image: Map of W.A. (from nineofcups.com)
In my family for generations of seafarers was story of the silver lining. Whenever things were really bad the clouds would part and the sun or moon would show the way, and let you know all would be well. My grandfather, sailing in his fishing boat into Sydney Heads from Tassie, was caught at night in a very bad storm, and knew he was probably going to hit rocks, he could hear but not see the dashing waves. At a critical moment the clouds parted, the moon shone down and showed him the Heads, so he steered clear of the rocks and made it safely into harbour, “He showed me His light” – it was the only time I ever heard Grandpa mention religion nor was he a churchgoer. My great grandfather had a similar story at Cape Horn where he too was shown His light. Anyway I looked out at the heavy, low dark clouds, the endless sheets of silver water, the odd drowned animal, desperately wondering if we’d make it, and what the heck would I do, stuck thousands of miles from home – when the clouds parted in a stunning way – the parting was a perfect bright golden-white cross slightly on its side – just like the Southern Cross which I’d not long designed for the Waler brand. I hadn’t meant the brand to be religious just to be like our faithful star constellation of the Southern Cross which always tells us where south is, accurately. People on the bus explained and pointed at the glowing cross. Yes, a stunning silver lining, whether one is religious, spiritual or not. I felt huge relief. No Fantale needed. And yes we made it to Broome.
At Broome we stayed at a house rented by one of Gopher’s friends, a lovely chap who had a pearl business, the rambling old place was owned by Lord Alistair McAlpine. Super wide, wide, shaded veranda and lots of shady trees. Noice. While there we learned there were massive floods that meant we couldn’t go on to Fitzroy, let alone to Gogo. Heck. Heckity heck. All this way and heck. The men discussed this little calamity and found a solution. The pearl man knew a plane pilot who was always looking for work, she’d fly us out there. It was only a little plane so we’d need to travel light. Me, tick. Gave her a ring and it was all arranged. The cost was absurdly low.
Next morning at Broome airport we met the cheerful female pilot, young slim and good looking and Gopher was instantly on his best and most charming behaviour. Her small plane was a little disturbing. Tatty looking, the wings sort of drooped as if about to fall off and it looked rusty. The paint was all faded and coming off. I think it was blue once. Gopher sat in the front and I crammed in the back with her dog, our bags and his big stock saddle, no seat, just jammed in a small space with our junk. Yes it smelled doggy. The tiny plane creaked and swayed. Most of it was bare metal with bits of tatty lining wafting off the inside. Doesn’t it have lining? I asked. Oh my dog pretty well ate the plane out she told me cheerfully, but it’s ok, it still goes. Yes it was draughty but in that climate one understands it’s wise to put your bored dog in the plane for the night to make air conditioning.
When one leaves an airport, one tells the Control tower where one is going, and they tell you where to take off. She said Fitzroy Crossing – the Control tower said no you can’t land there as the airport is under water. Heckity heck heck heck. Not fazed for one second however, our trusty cheerful pilot said we were going somewhere else. That too was flooded. She smiled. Obviously a positive person that nothing fazed. As Control tried to contact us the plane radio went on the blink, snap crackle and pop, despite her pressing the button repeatedly, and telling them repeatedly she was taking off – roaring and chuffing like a sick old steam train the little plane wobbled off, wings flapping furiously, bits of its sides banging that needed riveting on properly, Control telling us not to go anywhere we weren’t cleared, but how could we hear over that noisy plane and the click clacking of the faulty radio and soon, by a miracle, we trundled down a little runway and were in the air. Control gave up talking to us which was a relief. She stopped clicking the button. A sort of peace came over the plane. Just the noisy drone of a motor that spluttered now and then to keep you awake.
I was in suspended belief the tatty plane was suspended in the air and tried to make myself as light as possible, you know, as you do in those situations. For some reason we flew very low – it was still rather a long way to fall – as I was sure the plane would give up at some stage. It occasionally stalled, or perhaps it fell asleep as old people tend to do, but could be jump started as it fell which was a good thing. The view was probably quite nice, of floods with bits of high ground poking out but I couldn’t see past Gopher who was built like a brick outhouse. We flew around a famous station that was flooded in but the houses just above the flood line, and they discussed the view. I couldn’t see a thing. Worse, to impress the pilot as we laboured on, Gopher asked for a turn at flying the plane, and asked how was it done. She politely told him and let him have a turn. I don’t know if he accidently planted his large boot on the dive button or what but next thing we swooped earthwards and sidewards all at once. The plane stalled. Calmly the pilot regained control and re-started it and levelled us out before we hit the flood below. I must say nothing fazed Gopher. She managed to talk him out of more attempts despite him insisting he’d get it right. How much further? I felt like asking. Are we there yet? And where on earth are we going if the airport at Fitzroy Crossing is really flooded? She thought Control had been exaggerating and was sure we’d be fine landing there.
Wow, we made it to Fitzroy Crossing. A few buildings scattered about on bits of ground that poked out of a massive flood. Some greenery. The pilot knew where the airport was but oops, guess what. Yes, it was flooded. It seemed to be a fringe of scrub with a small but smart shed, a lake and a little bit of road which was part of the airstrip, at the end of the lake. On the bright side there was no Control tower.
Fitzroy Crossing Airport during flood, Image: Kimberley Road Safety, April 4, 2023
She swooped over the lake. There’s a bit sticking out at the far end, she said, I think we’ll have almost enough room to land. By now I’d hoisted into a position to see past Gopher’s large form. Good lord. A short bit of airstrip ran out of the water and into the scrub, who would have guessed airstrips aren’t completely flat, learn something every day. It looked about 10 yards long but I may have been feeling faint. Obviously, the pilot continued, we’ll run into the scrub at the end, but that’s ok, as long as it doesn’t make a mess of the plane it’ll stop us. Plus if the wheels touch the water we might cartwheel, but the scrub will save us. Hang on. Hang on being the antiquated version of tighten your seatbelts. Like being airborne silenced Broome Control, so coming in to land on a lake and hoping to miss it silenced Gopher. The dog looked interested.
In we came. Three burly men stood about with shocked expression on their faces, at least maybe they could pull us out of the wreckage I thought. Hope they knew CPR. The wheels touched the last bit of water. This may have been intentional or not for nek minnit we tilted nose down, hit the runway, banged back level then skittered into the scrub which stopped us, neatly standing the plane on its nose.
Being trapped in the back and my knowledge of plane accidents being confined to them all exploding on impact, I said I need to get out. The dog was panting happily, sitting triumphantly on the grimy windscreen. Back in the front! But Gopher was faster than a Fantale got unwrapped on a long bus trip. He was out of the plane and bashing out of the scrub like a champ. As I also tumbled out, he used his impressive muscles to pull the plane back down level, helped by the three burly men.
I’ve got to get back to Broome, said the pilot, I’m almost out of fuel and there’s none here. The three burly men emulated Control, trying to communicate with the Pilot. No, you can’t take off, the airstrip is flooded. Turned out they were truck drivers marooned by the flood, who’d waded out to the airport in hopes of a ride out. But no-one could land, they were stranded, and the waters were rising. I’ll take you back to Broome! beamed our pilot. Silence, head shakes and they sadly trudged back to the tin shed. Truly we’d met the Three Wise Men.
How would she take off? Well there is no explanation. There was a lot of revving, shaking, banging, revving. A happy yellow dog on the front seat. It seemed there was a bit more ground if one went on an angle across the end of the airstrip, and if one could clear the scrub with the wings and not hit the water with the wheels. Somehow she managed and got in the air literally missing scrub and flood by centimetres. Slowly the little plane gained a bit of height and puttered off.
Images above of Fitzroy Crossing Airport taken from regionalairportswablogspot.com
The Three Wise men swore like troopers. We went over to the tin shed. I was relieved indeed to see it consisted of a seat roomy enough for Three Wise Men, with a public phone at one end and a toilet at the other. With a door. It’s funny how a public toilet is such a joy at times. And it was clean.
We’ll have to walk into Fitzroy, said Gopher. After a few steps it was apparent we would be wading. He hoisted his saddle onto his head, and I managed to hold our bags out of the swirling, very muddy, warm water. We were up to our chests and all I could see was more water. So, there are no crocodiles in Fitzroy? I asked, having spent time in a very croc infested area of Arnhem Land one time. Only freshies, answered Gopher. I stopped. On the map, it shows the Fitzroy River runs into the sea, I said, and this water is spread out Fitzroy River. Crocodiles swim up rivers from the sea. I turned around and waded back to the airport. Gopher followed.
At the airport he got on the public phone and rang the Fitzroy cab. Ok. I’d been a cabbie myself at one stage in Hobart and knew no cab could get through those waters. Cab can’t get out here, said The Three Wise Men, we’re flooded in. Gopher said it would. So I refrained from comment. Nek minnit, a white roof with a cheery lighted cab sign on it and a snorkel appeared in the flood, making a bow wave, aiming toward us. Out of the waters rose a high white 4 wheel drive onto the dry ground. Hop in, invited the driver, beaming. It was dry inside and very clean, I felt guilty as we were muddy and wet. But hey, we were a fare. He promised to return for the truck drivers who were overjoyed, well, quietly relieved. So yes, we got to Fitzroy Crossing where, as luck had it, Gopher knew the policeman who kindly gave us a room each for the night.
(see GoGo Adventures part 2 for more!)