Published in Outback Magazine, Dec/Jan 2010
WHETHER you need a grave dug, tyre fixed, laundry done, or a spare part for your vehicle, the chances are, Rhyna Nicholls can help you.
With only seven permanent residents of Innamincka, they all have to be fairly self-sufficient, but Rhyna takes multiskilling to a new level, even by outback standards. The owner of Innaminka Earthmoving Pty Ltd, she runs the business with just one employee, mechanic Kim Townsend, a Tibooburra-born and bred man who can also turn his hand to fixing or operating pretty much anything.
So when the project to deliver geothermal energy to Innamincka kicked off in 2006, it was one of Rhyna’s diggers that turned the first sod.
By default, she is also the town undertaker.
Visitors to the town are most likely to meet her through her tyre-fixing service or Kim’s gift of bringing any thing mechanical back to life. A side business is the town Laundromat; self service cappuccinos available.
‘Multiskilling is a catchword nowadays, but in the bush we’ve been doing it since we selected the place, because we had to,’ Rhyna says.
Making me a coffee in her warehouse-sized open-plan home, she warms to the topic – how Australia is losing its ‘can do’ attitude and bush skills as the rural population declines.
‘My late husband probably had two years of schooling if that – he could barely read and write – but he was an outstanding operator of machinery and ran an outstanding company here in the basin. He carried all his jobs in his head.
‘And my father probably received 18 months of schooling, but ran a very successful fourth-generation property.
‘As a nation I think we’re in danger of losing our young warriors because they don’t learn those life skills.’
There’s no doubt Rhyna has those skills and is busy instilling them in her 15-year-old son, Sam. But while there’s an element of Amazon about Rhyna, it’s her strongly intuitive femininity that shines through. Before she sits to join me for a rare break from work, she performs a fascinating ritual with her youngest dog, a
blue heeler called Gem. Getting him to sit up on his haunches on a dining room chair, she pours him a cup of milk which he politely proceeds to lap from the tin mug, paws gently resting on the table.
‘If you treat them right, they’ll do anything for you,’ she comments. ‘Same as people, really.’
While strong and determined, the trim, nuggety woman has the gentle air of a horse whisperer about her; just as her sun-kissed hands are firm from manual work, but her neatly cut nails carry a hint of pale pink polish.
The property her father, Gordon Titmarsh ran – where Rhyna grew up – is Tandora Station, on the Mary River near Maryborough. She describes it as ‘harsh country’ in the salt water section of river, about five miles from its mouth, where the river is about a mile wide.
‘All coastal country is poor,’ she says. ‘We can do more with it now but it was difficult country then; heavily treed and heavily mosquitoed too.’
Rhyna was a few years younger than her older brother and sister and had independence thrust on her from an early age.
‘I think I got in the way of my mother needing to be out helping my father. I was left alone at home when mum went out for half a day to work – with a cattle dog to look after me – and, when I was older, I’d go out and work with them, then get sent home early to start the fire and start tea – I’d peel veggies, milk the cows, lock up the calves, feed the chooks and so on, so when dad got home after dark, the meal was already started.’
She remembers mustering long-legged Brahman cattle in heavily treed country where they could disappear into the scrub. In more recent photos it has been transformed to English-style parkland, with widely spaced, larger trees offering shade over vast tracts of lush, green grass.
‘My father was one of the first in the area to introduce Brahman stock. Before being bred with shorthorns, they were very leggy and when range fed they’d take off when they got a sniff of you; they’d run like brumbies.’
Her mother, now 92, still lives on the property, now run by Rhyna’s brother, Lyndsay Titmarsh.
‘Mum a very clever woman and think there was a certain amount of frustration in living in bush in poverty and working behind bullocks.
‘I think she would have preferred to teach – she was certainly pretty tough on us!,’ Rhyna reflects with a laugh. Rhyna did correspondence school to grade 3 then went away to school Maryborough. Although it was not that far away, the roads were poor roads and the family owned no vehicles, so she only came home in the holidays.
Sam now does the same; the 18-hour drive from his Brisbane school means he only comes home for the longer breaks. He starts work alongside her as soon as he’s back.
Rhyna is immensely proud of him – with good reason. He’s a keen worker, able and willing to help with whatever’s asked of him, and with enough common sense to act on his own initiative as well.
‘I tell Sam, never think of anything as boring,’ she says. ‘Even the most mundane things you can learn from. My banking skills have given me accuracy and focus and written word.’
Seeing her in her outback element, coping so easily with whatever Australia’s harsh climate and isolation can throw at her, it’s hard to imagine her behind the desk of a bank, but that’s where she started work, after leaving home at 14 and going to live with her sister in Mt Isa. That job was followed by a long stint with the Queensland Police, rising to the rank of senior sergeant.
Rhyna was at Ada Vale, Queensland, and her second husband, Ivor Nicholls, was working on the pipeline in Mt Margaret when they met.
‘We said we’d give it [Innamincka] seven years and we’ll see what we can do to build up the machinery, build this place and build the company up,’ she explains. ‘And in the seventh year he died.
‘It certainly changed my life. My idea of how I live life anyway. Life changes you; it’s such a shame you can’t put an old head on young shoulders.’
Ivor died of cancer and Rhyna considers it one of her greatest achievements that she nursed him at home right up until the end.
‘After he was operated on, we closed the business while I nursed him in Adelaide for five months, trying to run business from there. He was diagnosed as palliative in October and died in January 2005.
‘I nursed him here until he died – I’m very proud of that. We were very lucky in some regards because we were able to adjust and we knew what was coming – we had time to put a plan together.’
Staying at home was important for Ivor, who Rhyna said had never been in the city in his life until he went to Adelaide for treatment.
‘He was a very brave man – he was a bush man – but he didn’t want to go to hospital; he died in my arms. It was very special. He’s buried up there,’ she motions her head towards the red-stone cemetery. ‘I’ve got to get a headstone.’
While the business had been a partnership, it was Ivor who was the machinery expert, and his passing meant Rhyna had to re-think her future.
‘It took about two months to sort everything out and I camped down by the creek for about a month trying to think things out – I had to decide whether to stay or go, and I decided no, I can do this. And I chose three guys who I thought would be able to help me – two have since moved on and the third is Ivor, who’s still here.’
Rhyna dropped the truck and prime mover side of the business, redefined how she worked and what she did and she and Kim decided what they should cut out and a few new areas they could move into.
Some new machinery was bought and, as the nation stares down the global financial crisis, she feels she is in a ‘pretty firm position as a company’.
‘We can shut down here for quite a while and survive – we don’t have a whole load over overheads or borrowings. When we started 10-11 years ago we had $70 to our name and a huge tax bill – when we started here [Innamincka] there was no roof, no walls, nothing but open paddocks – there were just coals here where I’d cook for the crew we had,’ she says, pointing to a spot in the middle of the room.
Between them they built the workshop, adjoining home, and the company’s business – employing 46 staff at its peak, with a lot of work coming from the nearby Santos oil and gas sites.
‘He was a stone man; he taught me to work stone, and I’m a wood lady so I did all the wood work,’ she says, pointing to stunning timber bench tops made from boards recycled from Santos cast-offs.
‘We’ve always had the Santos contract, right from the start. Ivor wrote their environmental policy for them – most of their present policy is still 70-80% his.’
Caring for the environment comes naturally to most bush folk, she believes, although she admits some of her father’s early conservation work at Tandora Station went against the popular trends of the time and was regarded by some as ‘quackery’.
‘Country people know the soil, they understand the earth, and the water, and climate and plants. They have a deep affinity with the land and understand it and respect it.’
One process Ivor put in practice was scraping aside the top soil and seed before any earthworks began. This would then be replaced when the gas work or mining was done.
‘I’ve seen that method used on sand mines on Stradbroke Island, too, and where they had rehabilitated, it was like virgin bush.’
With her long plait of dark hair and trim figure, Rhyna looks at least 10 years younger than her 54 years, but she now is approaching another crossroads; Sam will leave school at the end of this year (2009) and will need to decide if he is interested in taking over the business.
‘I’ll give him a couple of years to decide if it’s for him or not,’ she says. ‘Innamincka’s a hard place to make a living, and it’s a hard life. It costs $50,000 a year to get power, so you’ve got to be a successful business just to survive the high costs.’
There are a couple of changes afoot that should make living and doing business in Innamincka easier – one is the Habaneros geothermal energy project, which will finally bringing power to the community for the first time, and another is the possibility of opening up more of the town for freehold purchase.
‘Right now we can only lease the land outside of the original town centre, which makes it hard to attract businesses and new residents.’
At 15, Sam can already handle virtually all the machinery in the earthmoving business, but should he decide the life is not for him, Rhyna says she will probably head back to the coast, and some land her brother manages for her
‘I still bucket water from the tanks and use generators for power, but that’s what I grew up with. Australians in the last World War were highly sought after because they knew how to look after themselves and convert things to their own use – people can’t work things out for themselves nowadays. They see country life and think it’s all deprivation.
‘You’re a long way from chemotherapy and x-ray machines, true, but we’re not really disadvantaged. When I was young, if my parents went out mustering, so did I – your parents are working to earn a living and you’re part of that. Now a child is born and mum goes to work, dad goes to work and the child goes to child care or whatever and they never mix. We don’t have that ability to survive – young people don’t have survival skills passed on to them.’
In the same way as Innamincka is adapting to meet the emerging future, Rhyna is using her traditional skills to forge a very modern life for herself and those around her. This inspiring woman leaves me with the feeling that it’s a skill combination that would benefit many others.