Rhymes with Reason

Flourish 04 May 2017

A passion to create beautiful things from her experiences has given multi-talented Liz Hicklin a rich life.

Liz Hicklin working at her desk

A mother and grandmother, Liz Hicklin has much in common with other residents at Morven Manor Retirement Community in Mornington, Victoria, but chat awhile and you’ll discover she has had the fortune – and misfortune – to experience more highs and lows than most of us read about.

Raised in Manchester in England, Liz studied nursing before moving to Cambridge, where she met young literature student Ted Hughes and they fell in love.

“We went out for two years and we were going to get married and come to Australia because he had a brother here,” Liz says.

Instead Liz visited her brothers – in the United States and Canada – and her life changed course. Possibly she dodged a bullet: Ted’s infidelities are described by his wife Sylvia Plath in her autobiography The Bell Jar and arguably provoked the murder-suicide of his lover Assia Wevill and their daughter.

However, Liz still describes him as “a lovely bloke”, adding: “He was so charismatic; the sort of guy who you’d leave a marriage for.

“In Calgary I met a girl going to Australia who asked me to join her. Ted had stopped writing but he’d always talked about coming to Australia, so I thought I’d come and might see him here. It was 1956 and the Olympics were in Melbourne, so I came down and got a job.”

Liz later lined up a job accompanying a child back to Europe, but again fate intervened and while visiting the Outback she fell in love with a Canadian. “I gave up the job, but he turned out to be terrible, so I got a taxi to Darwin with four other girls.”

Leaving the Canadian was a good decision: “The police called looking for him; it turns out he was an opal thief.”

Soon afterwards Liz met her husband Bill. “He had an MG car, desert boots and a duffel jacket, and I thought he was pretty hot.” They had three children.

For years Liz and Bill worked hard and focused on family. “Bill worked for a printing company but he wanted to work for himself so we bought a pet shop with a tax agency attached and for years I just worked in the shop and brought up three children. Our life was unexceptional.”

Liz Hicklin with the porcelain dolls which she hand painted and sculpted

An interest in porcelain doll making later became a career. Liz sculpted the moulds used to pour the porcelain and handpainted the dolls’ features, running classes from her studio in Brighton, Victoria.

“It was damn hard work; I was doing 12-hour days for years and I’d run across to switch the kiln off in my nightie.”

Ted Hughes’ legacy did linger though; not only did he leave Liz with a bundle of love letters she recently sold to the British Library, he also introduced her to literature, revealing her gift for poetry.

Somehow, Liz found time to publish two volumes of poetry, Dedicated to Dolls, which led to invitations to read at recitals around Australia.

But all was not well with their family life. Anxious phone calls from her daughter Leeza’s high school signalled that Leeza had developed behavioural problems, which quickly escalated. It was the start of a long battle with mental illness.

Then, in her late teens, Liz’s second daughter Jane developed signs of bipolar. Liz describes both girls as “clever and beautiful”. Jane, a gifted artist, took her own life about 15 years ago. Leeza followed a few years later, leaving a son and a daughter.

Yet even from this dark place Liz created some light. When Jane’s art was displayed at her funeral, Liz noticed each work featured a tiny figure floating under a parachute in the blue sky. Inspired, Liz and her son Boyd created a children’s book, Peter the Parachute.

The proceeds were donated to mental health research.

Liz moved to Australian Unity’s Morven Manor Retirement Community after Bill died three years ago. She sold her doll collection, retaining a few favourites and a sculpture she created of her three children. Three of her windows offer views of Port Phillip Bay and Jane’s bright artworks adorn the walls.

Liz’s latest book Can’t Drive a Car?, released last year, was inspired by a meeting with a tattoo-covered man driving a disability scooter. It celebrates the funny side of ageing.

Illustrated by award-winning artist Fred Gatte, it also reflects Liz’s need to stay busy.

“My greatest fear is having nothing to do,” she says.

words Jane Canaway
photos Dean Golja


Students find joy with strings attached

By Jane Canaway

Published in The Age, April 30, 2012

Eh Moo See with her violin. Picture: The Age

FIVE years after arriving in Australia as a refugee, 11-year-old Eh Moo See is still shy about her English vocabulary. Asked if she feels any different when she’s playing her violin, she smiles brightly but whispers for guidance in teacher Susan Porter’s ear.

“She says she feels more confident,” Ms Porter.

As we’re talking, Heath wriggles and flops in his chair like any nine-year-old. But as he picks up his viola, his back straightens, his eyes focus and he is engaged.

“He’s one of the most attentive when they’re playing,” says Ms Porter, who helps run a groundbreaking music program being trialled at Laverton P-12 College, in Melbourne’s west.

Asked how he feels when he’s playing, Heath says simply: “Like a professional.”

They might not get paid, but the ensemble now has a growing repertoire and has performed several concerts in the past 10 months, including one alongside the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra — no mean feat for children who had barely touched a musical instrument a year ago.

The intensive program, based on a successful Venezuelan model, introduces orchestral training and performance to children who are otherwise unlikely to experience it. While the Venezuelan experience has now reached 4 million children over the past 37 years, Heath and Eh Moo See are among the first 30 children in the Australian pilot.

Not only have the children — selected randomly from more than 70 who applied to take part — embraced the disciplined training, but a survey sent out after six months showed 90 per cent of parents noticed an increase in their children’s confidence, with 95 per cent saying their children were happier and 95 per cent now more positive about their child’s future.

The two-hour classes, led by some of Melbourne’s brightest young music teachers, are held after school three nights a week. There is no cost to parents and children enjoy “a nutritious snack” beforehand. After basic music instruction using recorders and singing, each child received a junior-sized string instrument: violins, violas, cellos or double bass.

But as Laverton P-12 College assistant principal Paul Lishman points out, “it’s not just about learning a violin, viola or cello; it’s a whole musical program, with percussion and vocal work and learning to perform as a group”.

Only a handful of children have dropped out — all but one due to their families moving, which is common in Laverton’s transient population.

“Not only have the children lapped it up, never complaining about the extra work, but the parents are highly supportive, too. They can see the benefits,” Mr Lishman says. “It’s had huge benefits for their whole learning, too; we’re seeing positive effects on their other work.”

As the Laverton program — called Crashendo! — approaches its first birthday, the organising body, Sistema Australia, plans to expand to Adelaide, and has had strong interest from other Melbourne schools.

The stumbling block is money.

“Depending on staffing numbers, it costs between $2000 and $3000 per student each year,” says the head of Sistema Australia, Chris Nicholls. “The current funding and pilot finishes at the end of the current term. We are seeking funding for the full program, which will take 60 children, five days per week for the school year. We need approximately $60,000 for the rest of 2012.”

The Laverton Crashendo! program pilot was funded from private donations and in-kind support from the college, Hobsons Bay Council and Victoria Police.

By contrast, the Adelaide program has secured major funding from philanthropic, corporate and government sponsors as well as donations of instruments and smaller grants. A third of the Adelaide students will pay $15 a day, subsidising free music education for those unable to pay.

Social justice is a key element in the original El Sistema program from Venezuela. It was established by economist and pianist Jose Antonio Abreu, who wanted to share his love of classical music with children, especially those from the slums.

From one children’s orchestra in 1975, the Venezuelan program now has more than 300 choirs and orchestras, and teaches 300,000 children. Its success has led to the government now funding 60 per cent of its $80 million budget.

Similar programs are now run in Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Spain, Austria and the US.

With no formal background in either music or running a trust, Mr Nicholls landed his role as head of Sistema Australia almost by accident, after seeing his own son transformed through music.

“My son had learning difficulties that led to him being miles behind.” A diagnosis was found, but by then his confidence was at rock bottom.

Then at high school, all students had to learn a musical instrument.

“When we explained his learning problems, he was given one-on-one help; he really grasped it with a passion and started accelerating and was leading the cellos in his orchestra within a few months.”

At 17 he was accepted into the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. “I was flabbergasted that a child could make such progress.”

Mr Nicholls discovered the El Sistema program — and wanted to give Australian children a similar chance to shine.

Inspired, he took up the viola himself and plays in the Maruki Community Orchestra, which he co-founded with violinist John Gould.

However, his steepest learning curve has been getting the Australian version of El Sistema up and running. “I ran the idea past a lot of people; some thought ‘what a nut’, but others thought it was a good idea and were supportive, especially [choirmaster] Jonathon Welch.”

Senior Constable Sharon Radau learns with the children. Picture: The Age

Independently, Senior Constable Sharon Radau, community liaison officer with Hobsons Bay police, was looking for a creative way of tackling youth disadvantage in Laverton — her area’s most disadvantaged place — and discovered the El Sistema program. She was given Chris Nicholls’ number.

“Victoria Police wanted to help run the program at Laverton P-12,” says Mr Nicholls. “I tried to get funding but it was really hard. So I just sank everything I had into it; I don’t have a house or any money any more, but I have this program up and running and it’s working — if we could run it every day of the week the kids would probably turn up.”

To make it more attractive for philanthropists, Mr Nicholls is converting Sistema Australia from an incorporated body to a limited company. And to gauge the program’s value, Melbourne University was asked to research its benefits.

A postdoctoral research fellow in music psychology, Dr Margaret Osborne will assess it as part of a three-year study examining the value of music education.

Senior Constable Radau can already see the powerful effect of music; she is learning violin alongside the children.

“Nobody is forcing the kids; it’s all voluntary. To get kids occupied and off the streets is just gold.”


Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/students-find-joy-with-strings-attached-20120427-1xq1m.html#ixzz256jkk2TR


Kate’s place

By Jane Canaway

First published Your Garden magazine, Summer 2012

Seasonal change and contrasting texture is provided by Sedum 'Autumn Joy' in the foreground with purple Salvia leucantha and white-flowering spikes of Yucca filamentosa behind.

If sharing adds to a garden’s beauty, then Kate Herd’s chunk of escarpment overlooking the Yarra River is doubly lovely.

Kate’s generosity with her garden is almost as remarkable as the garden itself.  Not only is it open regularly through Australia’s Open Garden Scheme, but locals use the tennis courts for a nominal fee (which hasn’t changed for 15 years) and Kate has built an amphitheatre to host local events and productions.

“We host the Alphington Christmas carols every year and an annual event called Music from the Wetlands festival in autumn,” Kate says.  “We got 1000 people last time – you get a real sense of being down in the wetlands by the river there.”

Enjoying the view over two-and-a-half hectares [six-and-a-bit acres] from her balcony, Kate can see which neighbours are out walking their dogs along the riverside path that fringes her garden.

“I have a belief that people should be able to access to the river in these urban areas – there is an element of trust involved but I’ve never had problems.”

However she does draw the line at young hoons who find she’s left a side gate open and decide to test out their off-road skills on the river flats.

“I just go down and yell at them and remember to shut the gates.

“It’s never scary.”

It’s brave talk for any young woman, but Kate could be forgiven for feeling more vulnerable than most – she’s been confined to a wheelchair since a diving accident when she was 16. But feeling vulnerable isn’t in Kate’s repertoire; she’s far too busy finding new outlets for her creativity and love of gardening.

From clubhouse to home

When Kate’s mother first bought the property in 1994, the 1890-built house had spent 14 years as a ‘clubhouse’ for a group of university mates who repaired the dilapidated buildings, built the tennis courts and dug the dam but kept the rest of the garden as lawns or car park.

“The house was all open plan with a huge mahogany bar and toilets out the side, so we spent a year renovating it,” Kate recalls.

“I think the topsoil from the river flats was actually removed – it’s solid clay in parts – so we did extensive earthworks.

“Then [landscaper] Simon Rigg built the stone walls for the terraced garden and I planted it out with two gardening friends, Annie James and Sue Smart.”

Now her mother lives mostly in NSW and Kate is caretaker at View Street, which she shares with two friends, a dog and two cats.

Tamarillos add colour - and are yummy.

A fan of productive gardens, Kate has planted out a kitchen garden close to the house with a Navel orange, Meyer lemon, Tahitian lime, Kaffir lime and tamarillo, plus herbs, salad plants, rhubarb and a muscatel grapevine.

From here a bluestone stairway cuts through the terraced levels, while a wide path of granitic sand – carefully cambered to reduce erosion – snakes along each level to the river valley below.

Designed for access

Kate’s garden is designed to be wheelchair accessible, but where her chair won’t go, she gets out and crawls.

“I’ve ‘bummed’ my way around many gardens in Australia and Europe,” she says.

She uses the same method for planting and weeding.

“Steps are not an issue. Although I don’t like ‘bumming’ around the garden in the summer because I feel I can’t move quickly enough if I come across a snake.”

A garden designer herself, Kate likes to test-drive plants at home before recommending them to others, but the garden is also influenced by her partner, fellow garden designer Phil Stray, and plantswoman Jane Dennithorne, who works with Kate two days a week and brings a love of historic plants, honed from more than a decade as head gardener at Jeanne Pratt’s mansion, Raheen.

The resultant range of plants is eclectic, exciting and skillfully arranged to offer interest in every season.

The borders tumble down the escarpment like a waterfall, spilling over stone retaining walls and splashing onto the paths, creating a flood of colour, foliage and texture, and slowing down only where the flow is broken by a sculpture here, a folly there, or to swirl around a calm, circular ‘pond’ of open space that serves as an alfresco coffee or lunch spot, mid-way down.

Old, new and originals

Plantings include Old-World favourites, Australian beauties and newly discovered exotics, such as the intriguing Mountain Cabbage Tree (Cussonia paniculata).

While she is a huge fan of native plants and has done a lot of revegetation work on the river flats, she’s not a ‘purist’.

Borders tumble down the escarpment to the billabong and wetlands in the valley below.

“I’ve been through this love affair of exotics and perennials and, as an artist, I think I love colour first and of course form matters, but I think that my current passion for Australian plants is about the texture that you get from many of these mostly evergreen plants and the rewards of growing things that are so suitable for your garden.

“It’s not just Australian plants I’m passionate about – it’s plants that come from a similar climate to Melbourne’s, that aren’t weedy, that aren’t going to be a threat to our bushland, that provide form and colour and look good with the natives too, because I like to mix natives with exotics.

“I also love evergreen plants; you get the texture and colour and form that is there all year round – you don’t get that bare, nude look.”

Salvias and ornamental grasses feature strongly, as do succulents, hardy native shrubs, perennials and old-fashioned favourites, such as Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, Melianthus major, roses and dahlias.

“I’m loving the Beschornerias – the Mexican lily – at the moment,” she says, rattling off the Latin names with ease. “Especially [B.] tonelli and [B.] yuccoides, the grey-leafed one.

“Australian correas are also wonderful, and I’m pulling out weedy Euphorbia wulfenii and replacing with sterile ones, such as Euphorbia x martini.”

Planning ahead

For the future, she wants to make the garden as sustainable as possible and hopes to incorporate some of the knowledge gained from studying a unit on sustainable farming and horticulture at TAFE last year: “I did a project on how to stop using roundup to maintain my reveg. areas  - more mulch and more plants is what I came up with; you pay more for labour and mulch and plants are $1 a tube, but I’m happier to do that.”

Her next garden project is to create an eight-bed vegie patch on the river flats that she will share with neighbours.

“I’ve got three neighbours going in with me so it will feed four households and I don’t have to do all the labour myself,” she explains, although after interviewing water-conscious TV gardener Josh Byrne, she is considering installing a new water tank.

“When you don’t get rain, you may need anywhere from 5-8 litres per square metre. For a 30 square-metre vegie garden that’s at least 150L a day, which is like having another person in the household.”


Kate and Inka

A gardening life

Kate’s first foray into gardening was as a teenager when her parents were “doing the hippy thing in late ’70s” in a controlled-living zone where cats and dogs were banned and the kids helped out at weeding working bees every month.

She has strong memories of her grandparents’ home in Ascot Vale where a “fake clam shell pond and white pebbles” were offset by magnificent, espaliered pear and apple trees, set against an asbestos garage.

“My first garden at about 16 was sort of permaculture-styled; I loved plants and I liked growing things but it wasn’t something I thought I’d do professionally.”

Her accident put an end to her finishing school but didn’t stop her learning.

“I spent six months in hospital and when I came out I didn’t know what I was going to do.” She settled on a plant identification course at Burnley – by correspondence – then took an Arts degree, finding work as a graphic artist.

“I’ve been working for myself since I was 16 and a half, which means I’m basically unemployable by anyone’s standards!,” she jokes.

“It’s nice I can now combine my graphic skills and love of gardening in designing gardens for other people.

“Plants are wonderful, and making people happy when you transform a bare mud pile into a garden is such a delight – meeting all those requirements people might have for function but making things beautiful as well.”

Her other talent is her interest in people, and this has found an outlet in her latest project – a coffee-table book on productive gardens, for which she interviewed 19 different gardeners across Australia, seeing what they grew and why.

“I really enjoyed those gardens that were so different to my own with different conditions and climates,” she reflects.

* Kate’s book, Kitchen Gardens of Australia, is published [2011] by Penguin.

Shona Nunan's bronze statue 'The Journey' is a central feature on the lawn below the house.

Garden Facts

Size: 6 acres/ 2.4 hectares

Aspect: South-facing on escarpment of Yarra River in inner-city Melbourne

Age: House dates to 1890; property run as a ‘clubhouse’ from 1980-94, when current owner bought and renovated.

Watering: Spray irrigation from dam for ornamental garden;

Dripline from 23,000L polytank for veggies;

Rain only for revegetation areas.

Compost: Garden produces about 25 m3 of green waste a year, which makes 6m3 of compost after being processed via a tractor-driven flail mulcher.

Mulch: Pea straw and compost on ornamental garden; 12mm recycled hardwood chips (fence palings) on reveg and dry garden.

Lawn:  Kikuyu.


Permaculture meets capitalism in this man of the earth

Your Garden magazine, Spring 2011

From his Blundstone boots to his wild and woolly beard, Peter Allen is unmistakably a man of the earth.

His connection to his land is evident as he walks around his hilltop home in the Dandenongs, pointing out hydrangeas that remain from when the land was a cut-flower farm, describing the huge areas he and wife Silvia have reclaimed from the grip of blackberries, explaining how the geese, chickens, sheep and llamas complement each other with their techniques of ‘mowing’ lawns or scratching out bugs, and how the milk cows were the ones to conquer one particularly dense area of scrubby weeds.

It is this complementary inter-connection of life on the land that fuels Pete’s passion and led to him giving up a stellar career in retail in order to spend his days farming and learning – then passing on that knowledge.

More than 800 fruit varieties grow on the 3 hectares he cultivates (another 3ha has been returned to bush) and he can name them all, then give you a potted history of each one’s heritage to boot. Silvia’s expertise lies more with the animals, but their skills overlap a fair amount , as visitors to their farm shop or market stalls soon discover.

“It was my mum who taught me to fix the brakes on the car… so there’s none of this girl’s job, boys’ job stuff, it’s just a matter of who’s better at it – and who’s there,” he says.

Pete’s parents moved to a hobby farm in the hills when he was nine, but they had always been keen gardeners, growing much of their own food and keeping poultry, just as their own parents had.

“I didn’t have a childhood, I had an apprenticeship,” he says, only half joking.

“I like to conserve the old stuff – I’ve got apples that probably comes from Roman times but also modern varieties like ‘Pink Lady’. I like heritage things but also useful things,” he explains, going to extol the virtues of the East Friesian and Finnish sheep he and wife Silvia keep.

It is hard to believe that, for 15 years of his life, ‘Pete the Permie’ was the epitome of corporate man, working his way up the Coles business ladder and managing dozens of stores across Victoria – many of which were originally opened by his father during his own career with Coles.

“By the time I left [Coles] in 2002 I had a company Statesman and was on a six-figure salary but I gave it away to do this,” he says, gesturing to the teaching complex alongside his century-old weatherboard home.

“This” started out as a lifestyle choice, living off the land as much as possible and running permaculture and other courses to pay for the extras. However, Pete and Silvia’s constant thirst for knowledge and their enthusiasm to pursue new skills has led to an ever-evolving set of enterprises and plans.

“I probably run about four micro-businesses now, which isn’t bad considering I retired with no plans to do anything,” he laughs.

As Pete explains his different income streams it becomes clear that, alongside Pete the Permie, who loves nothing more than spreading the love about organically grown produce and age-old agricultural wisdom, sits Pete the Capitalist, master of the spreadsheet and natural entrepreneur, who can’t resist an decent business opportunity when he sees one.

Pete and Silvia’s central businesses are still running courses – the subject list grows each year – and a plant nursery, where gardeners can find hundreds of varieties of apples, pears, plums and citrus, as well as “old-fashioned” fruits, such as medlars, crabapples, quinces, figs, mulberrries and persimmons, and semi-tropical exotics, including babaco and taro.

Business Number Three is a cidery business, producing Snake Gully cider and perry, which grew out of what he calls “sly grog workshops” and a need to use the many tonnes of windfall apples that were going to waste.

Finally is his consulting business, designing passive solar home solutions and garden layouts, as well as pre-purchase land assessments for those planning their own tree change.

Added to that is his involvement with Petty’s Orchard, where he has co-ordinated the open day and run grafting sessions for several years, and other groups, such as the Heritage Fruit Society.

Then there is his writing: “English was my worst subject at school,“ he grins, loving the irony. “Now I’m paid to write for magazines and I’ve just released my first book, plus I’ve got about four more planned.”

Despite not enjoying school (“it was a bit regimental for me“), Pete’s overriding passion is for knowledge, and he reckons he has earned about 32 certificates on various subjects.

“I always had one night a week out studying – I didn’t know why I was studying all these weird things, they just appealed and Silvia was happy because she had one night a week on her own not listening to me,” he says. “Then when I did the permaculture class I realised it was all relevant to that, whether it was horticultural landscaping, meditation, accountancy or whatever.”

On his last trip to England, he bought about $3000 worth of books – mostly on apples and cider – and he has whole bookshelves dedicated to pet topics.

“Our trips are never really holidays, they have a theme – we spent nine weeks chasing around rare-breed farm parks in Europe and on another we did 50 cideries in four countries, including going to a festival that had been going for almost 2000 years in Spain.”

As well as making fruit wine, owning a still (he’s growing junipers to make gin soon), and producing 22 different dairy products, Pete was recently given a second-hand smokehouse, so his next project is teaming up with a local butcher to run courses such as A Pig In a Day and a preserving the harvest course.

It’s a busy lifestyle, but Pete reckons he’s never been healthier.

“When I left work I had six different health issues, and I used to work 90 hours a week don’t stop for lunch or eat properly – now I probably do more hours but the physical side of it keeps me fitter – I’ve lost about 10kg. Of course with making cheese and wine I’m never going to be skinny but the exercise balances out the love of food!

“We might do seven days a week and six nights a week … but it’s what we want to do … there’s a lot of embodied energy in me having acquired this knowledge and I believe I’m bound to pass it on, so if I don’t have kids I have to pass in on in some other way.”


Driving ambition to win

January 2011

CHILDHOOD memories of standing in a forest, watching rally cars race past didn’t do much to inspire Molly Taylor. It was just what her parents did at weekends, but she preferred horses.

Then, at 15 and aspiring to L-plates, her father took Molly and her sister to his rally driving school for some off-road practice.

“I was pretty much hooked from then on,” the 22-year now admits. “It’s definitely an adrenalin rush and a challenge – being able to push a car to its limits is very addictive, but the atmosphere and people are fun, too.”

Two years later she raced in her first rally; another two years and she was competing in the Australian championships and late last year she was chosen as one of the six most promising young rally car drivers in the world and given a scholarship from Pirelli to join the FIA’s young driver program which, in 2011, will be integrated into the newly-created World Rally Championship Academy.

As well as the kudos, the place is worth about $185,000 in entry fees, fuel and tyres for her to race in six rounds of the World Championship, starting in Portugal this March.

Molly will be joined at the Academy by fellow Australian Brendan Reeves, 22, whose co-driver is his sister Rhianon Smyth. The other four drivers came from Ireland, the Czech Republic, Italy and Sweden.

In another family pairing, Taylor won her place in the Pirelli program with her mother as co-driver. Coral Taylor, who is a four-time Australian Rally Champion as co-driver to Neal Bates, teamed up with her daughter for the Citroen Racing Trophy, in which they claimed third, despite Molly being out of her comfort zone driving on tarmac.

For 2011, Molly will have a new co-driver: Rebecca Smart, 24, from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, who was second outright last year in the Australian Rally Champions as co-driver to her brother Ryan. They also won the Kumho Tyres’ Future Champions Award.

“I am really excited to have Bec on board,” says Taylor.

“It will be great to have an all-girl team, but more importantly she is just as determined as I am with the same ambitions. We are both committed to focus 100% on this year in the WRC Academy.”

Smart agrees: “The WRC Academy is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m definitely up for the challenge.”

While rallying is traditionally a male-dominated sport, Taylor says she has nothing but support.

“Rallying is very friendly – there is no face-to-face confrontation and people help each other out.

“It’s just that guys are more exposed to it and females don’t think they can get involved, but I haven’t met any resistance. If you take it seriously and get out there, then you’re taken seriously.”

To that end Taylor has become a competent mechanic and puts a lot of work into her physical fitness.

“Getting driving experience is difficult because the car is always being prepared, but I train myself to keep fit – running, cycling, cross training and doing weights. Drivers need be fit to cope with the heat – there’s no air conditioning – long days, and concentration.”

Competitions usually run over two or three days, driving from dawn to dusk in up to 10 stages, each anywhere from 8-30km long. Most are on gravel, but some are on tarmac.

Two years ago, Taylor moved to the UK to expose herself to wider competition.

She is now based in Cumbria, where she works for M-Sport – the company that prepares the Ford Fiesta R2s the academy teams will drive.

M-Sport also prepares Super 2000-specification Ford Fiestas, so she grabs some extra time behind the wheel test-driving cars before they are delivered.

“We have customers all over the world that we support with parts and technical information. I needed some way of paying rent, but to be able to do that in a motor sport environment is great; making contacts and learning stuff all the time is a win-win.”

While Taylor says she’s too busy to get homesick, she is pleased her sister Jane will be joining her in the UK this year. Jane has also won a scholarship but the similarities end there – she will be studying her Masters in Law at Oxford.

“We always say she’s the only white sheep in the family,” Taylor jokes.

She’s come a long way in the five years since getting her first car – an old Holden Gemini that she drove off the road in her first rally – and from school days when she would have to get someone from the local car club to sign her out of boarding school to compete in events.

“It’s ironic really; I chose that school because it had a really good equestrian program and I was competing in eventing: dressage, cross country and show jumping. But then I discovered driving and was always getting leave passes to do rallying events.

“I guess I’ve always been fairly competitive.”


Geared up

Appeared in first edition of Treadlie, December 2010


Despite mounting evidence that reduced car travel could provide a panacea for many ailments of modern life, it seems the message is too-rarely translating to action.

Last month (October) cyclists were given an armoury of ammunition to fire at recalcitrant governments by visiting Roger Geller, bicycle co-ordinator for the City of Portland, Oregon.

Once a typical, car-focused American city, the state capital has transformed itself by building the most comprehensive bikeway network in the USA.

As a result, the number of residents who consider cycling to be either their main or second means of transport is up to 18%. – higher in some areas.

Build it and they will come

Geller believes the key to Portland’s success has been extending the 10 kilometers of bike paths that existed in 1980 to a 500-kilometer network that criss-crosses the city today; paths range from lines painted on roads to separated ‘Copenhagen-style’ tracks with their own stop signals.

“We started with the easiest roads first – those wide enough to create bike lanes without it impacting other traffic – and we’ve slowly tackled harder and harder streets as we won more political momentum,” Geller explains.

Bike paths are signposted with direction, distance and approximate riding time, addressing the misconception that cycling is slow.

Portland’s building code says all new buildings must have long- and short-term bike parking and developers are given incentives to include showers and lockers.

Bikes can be carried on buses, light rail and trams.

Geller is quick to point out that while engineering is a key ingredient, other ‘Es’ of cycling are also vital: Encouragement, Education, Enforcement and Evaluation.

Good for the City

“We had a lot of complaints at the start,” Geller admits, and quotes: “ ‘Why are you wasting my taxes? – no-one is using the bike paths’ – but our data shows they are being used and the usage is growing.”

A major bonus for the city are statistics that show, in a city of many bridges, it is the bike traffic that is expanding, while car numbers stay the same.

“This means our bridges are still operating as well today for cars as they did 20 years ago – that’s huge for a growing city trying to manage transportation.”

Good for Health

Poor diet and lack of exercise is the second leading cause of avoidable disease in America.

“For the first time in history, our children are destined to have shorter life expectancies than their parents, and we have to do fix that,” Geller says.

A goal adopted by Portland city fathers is to get people out of cars and walking.

Quoting Danish statistics, Geller believes cyclists save between 25 cents and $1 on health costs for every kilometer they ride.

“This has huge ramifications for employers, who often pay health cover in US – plus fewer sick days,” Geller adds.

Safety-wise, Portland’s figures are encouraging, with the number of cycling incidents and injuries holding steady despite more cyclists.

“Cyclists today are four times safer than they were 10 years ago,” Geller cites.

Helmets are compulsory for riders under 16, but surveys have found more than 80% of all riders wear helmets – up from about 45% in the 1990s.

Good for Business

Winning support for bicycle road space became easier since businesses recognised riders as valuable customers.

Portland residents drive about 6.5 kilometres a day less than the national average – together saving US$1.2 billion a year on transport.

“We buy less gas and fewer car parts, and don’t replace cars as quickly,” Geller explains.

Of that US$1.2B, about $800 million is spent locally instead.

“People who ride bikes have more money in their pockets,” he says. “Businesses are noticing that and are asking for on-street parking to be removed and replaced with corrals for more bikes.

“There are currently 51 in city and 11 in the works, and 65 more have been requested,” Geller says.

“In a very barren economic time in US, inner Portland is doing quite well.”

New ventures have also sprung up to meet the new demand, such as a bike-friendly guest house, a community cycling centre and at least two boutique bike manufacturers.

Good Fun

An amazing 4000 cycling events are held in Portland annually, from pub crawls, mystery rides and heritage tree tours through to major events such as Peddlepalooza, Bridgepedal (20,000 participants) and the famous World Naked Bike Ride, which attracted 11,000 riders in 2010.

“There are a lot of ‘bike funnists’ in Portland,” explains Geller.

While more families and children are taking to bikes – and Portland-built cargo bikes are seeing more businesses use bikes – a challenge identified by the Community Cycling Center is encouraging cycling in Hispanic and other ethnic communities, many of whom live in outer suburbs where the bike network is weakest.

The Future

Now that the pro-bike lobby has some momentum, future plans include tripling the amount of bike lanes to 1500km, and making life harder for motorists by reducing their share of roads.

“Originally our policy aimed to make bicycling an integral part of transport.

“Now it is to make cycling more attractive than driving for trips of 3 miles [5km] or less.”

After surveying Portland residents on their attitude to cycling, city planners have identified four groups:

  • The Strong and Fearless, who will ride whatever the weather and even without bike lanes – about 1% of the population.
  • The Enthused and accomplished, who will only ride on bike lanes. This 18% are the ones the new Portland network has won over.
  • About 30% are ‘No Way, No How’ and will never cycle, whatever you do or say.
  • About 50% are Interested but concerned and want to ride but are terrified of bike lanes and traffic.

“This last group is who we’re now focused on,” Geller says.

To reach them, he believes the city needs a network to the standard set by Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

“They’ve created conditions where it doesn’t feel any less safe or comfortable to be on bikes as it does getting in a car. When people are able to look at just the advantages – the cost, the enjoyment, the speed – then they will use bikes.”

PORTLAND – Key Facts:

  • Portland has a population of 580,000 people and covers 380 square km.
  • The average distance per bike ride is 5km and the average speed is 16 kph
  • About 4000 bicycle events are held in Portland each year
  • If Portland rebuilt its bike network from scratch today, it would cost $60 million – roughly equivalent to buying 1.6km of urban freeway.
  • Portland spends 0.7% of its capital money on bike infrastructure but Geller warns that you get what you pay for – currently spending is at about $2 per capita, but he would like to see it increased to $18 or $10 million more a year.
  • Metrofiets, which makes cargo bikes to order, has crafted a bike for a local brewery that stores two beer kegs under an inlaid wooden bar, and boasts pizza rack and sound system.
  • Two thirds off all trips are now made by car in Portland. About 50% are trips of 5km or less.

How Does Australia Rate?

Geller said he was particularly impressed with the level of investment and the quality of the facilities being built in Sydney.

“They have clearly recognized the importance of separation from automotive traffic and that is reflected in their designs. Their challenge will be to make sure the facilities are well-connected and that people in the outlying areas are able to access the central city.”

Melbourne reminded Geller of Portland.

“I took several long rides and walks throughout city and surrounding areas and found I was able to be in either some type of bicycle lane, traffic-calmed street or off-street pathway almost constantly. The network seemed comprehensive and well-connected – at least in the areas where I rode. I also thought Melbourne was making good progress in improving the quality of their facilities by developing buffered bicycle lanes and were looking comprehensively at improving routes in the CBD.”

While in Australia Geller met MPs and councillors in NSW and Victoria, as well as VicRoads.

“I thought there was a high level of interest among all with whom I met and they were clearly open to learning what they could from me.

“As the Lord Mayor of Melbourne said at the Bike Futures 2010 conference, he hasn’t run into any mayors who are saying that they want more automobile traffic in their central cities.”

After the fires: The healing power of a cuppa



New, green tendrils contrast with the charred timber of a lost home

Strathewen resident Robert Bell thought he’d been coping well all year.

A sensitive man by nature, he fiddles with a home-rolled cigarette and cup of coffee while remembering his escape from the Black Saturday fires with his 94-year-old neighbour, but his voice remains calm and doesn’t recall feeling afraid.

Nearly a year later, he is still looking for a shed to live in, but he has developed a daily routine that helps: mornings spent weeding the bush – for the love of it – a lunchtime visit to the Hurstbridge support centre for a cuppa and a chat, then off to his shift work in a haulage firm.

Then, around Christmas, he suddenly felt a huge loss.

“I feel like I’ve lost my whole identity,” he said then, surprised by the force of it. “I think it’s only just hit me.”

Individuals are finding each their own path to recovery, which has to be taken at their own pace, but as they prepared for the February 7 anniversary, many spoke of an overwhelming exhaustion.

Driving along the St Andrews-Kinglake Road, there is a mixture of rebuilt homes, new slabs showing promise for the future – and land for sale by those who got so far then decided they could go no further.

“Everyone was going to return to start with,” recalls Sonja Parkinson, whose house was one of about 30 lost in Ninks Road, St Andrews. Miraculously, no one was injured – at least not physically.

“I think for some people it suddenly all got too hard.”

Weighed down with a chest infection, a fractious three-year-old and a mountain of work to be done rebuilding both their business and a shed for temporary accommodation on their creek-side site, she had almost hit the wall herself.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m whinging because all the government help and donations have been really good, but everything just takes so much effort – everyone’s exhausted.

“It’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of people who are very vulnerable will find it really difficult to get through – I wouldn’t be surprised if not all the money had been accessed at the end.”

Applications for grants close in February and many credit the Hurstbridge Support Centre – run by a band of volunteers since March – with helping them sort through the paperwork and keep going.

For at least six days a week over the past 10 months, a band of volunteers has been there to support those affected by the Black Saturday fires.

Ask how they did it and organiser Helen Legg will say the team could not have managed without the support of the survivors themselves, some of whom cooked meals, others unloaded trucks of boxes and furniture and one even donated $1000 after burglars broke into the Hurstbridge-based centre and stole money from the sale of fund-raising calendars.

“Most of these people are very independent and they need to give something back,” she explains.

In-kind gifts and those who keep giving

There has been a lot of giving over the past year – first the generous donations of cash and in-kind goods and help in the immediate wake of the fires, then the ongoing kindness, labour, sympathy, and non-judgemental support that volunteers have contributed since then – some on a daily basis.

At the Hurstbridge centre – unofficially nicknamed Helen’s Place – a dedicated band of women have put in hours of effort to meet the ever-changing needs of displaced residents from nearby St Andrews, Strathewen, Arthurs Creek, Strath Creek, Kinglake and further afield.

Begging the use of an empty weatherboard opposite the primary school – generously given by an owner who turned down an 18-month lease in favour of its community use with no guaranteed rent – the centre has become a second home to many survivors who call by, often daily, for a coffee, chat, quiet cry or just a packet of toilet paper and some new clothes.

“In the early days we had a lot of people who were very traumatised and who still hadn’t even accessed any government support. There were people who were still shell shocked and a lot of elderly people who were trying to cope with the whole cleaning up their house and just became so overwhelmed because every time they thought all the black soot had gone the wind would blow it all back in,” Helen recalled.

The mix of personalities at the Hurstbridge centre helped them break through, buoyed by the constant banter and laughter that the close friends all share – although when the visitors have gone for the day and a bottle of Chardy is opened, the humour often turns dark: “That’s how we coped,” Fiona explained.

Quieter visitors tended to hang around in the back rooms with down-to-earth, natural comedian Fiona, who would put folk at ease until they were ready to talk about accessing more formal aid.

“We’d be constantly taking people down to Arthurs Creek and Diamond Creek to get them hooked up with those official government services, or to get them a blue form that gave them access to Salvos or St Vincent de Paul and other grants,” Helen continued.

In the winter – one of the coldest on record and a nightmare for those still ‘camping out’ – the centre set up a cosy lounge area and a makeshift laundry in the carport, and the girls would do people’s washing as they shopped or battled the endless paperwork.

When Mick Gatto reportedly had a run in with Christine Nixon about donating $800,000 that she allegedly rejected, Helen rang Jon Faine on ABC Radio “just for a laugh” and said “if Mick Gatto wants to do something I’ve got a long list of people who need white goods”.

While Helen never heard from Mr Gatto, she did get a call from the Bayside Church who’d been wanting to contribute; they agreed to set up a white goods program that is just starting to wind down, after contributing more than $200,000 worth of new cookers, fridges, washing machines – all specially chosen to meet families’ specific needs – as well as laptops for Year 12 students and businesses.

Back in her ‘normal’ job as a flight attendant, Helen met Bill Shorten on a flight and asked him to organise a visit from Beaconsfield mine survivor Brant Webb.

“He really spoke to them – he really understood what they were going through and put in so much time with people,” Helen said.

Then there was lobbying for containers for people to store this largesse, as well as specific projects, such as a replacement piano for a musician who’d lost everything and a new motorbike for a teenager who lost both his brand new bike and his best friend in the fires.

“He’s a great lad but his world had just crashed.

“We spent ages with him looking for the right replacement. Jake saved $1500, his mum and dad gave $1000 each, the two community health services in Nillimbuk gave $500 each, Diamond Valley Baptist Church gave $500 and Bayside Community Care gave $2500 and we gave a measly $100 for some gear, and we presented it to him two weekends ago,” Helen said. “I got a lovely text from him last weekend saying ‘I’ve been riding it all weekend and it’s sweet as – thanks so much’, and his mum texted to say ‘I can see a change in him already’. “

Being caught up in such a flood of physical and emotional needs have seen many volunteers – and survivors – develop a whole new set of skills. Others have re-thought their lives and, embracing the new, have moved on from lifestyles or relationships that suddenly seemed flawed.

Volunteers co-ordinated a number of working bees in the St Andrews area until public liability insurance became a problem. In Nillumbik, the council has taken over this task and is still keen to sign up new volunteers.

“We’ve been getting the Conservation Volunteers Australia to help out recently because all the regular volunteers are exhausted after helping all year,” Council co-ordinator Sue Aldred said.

First, swallow your pride…

Rebuilding: Colin, Sonja and Bobby are determined to stay.

Rebuilding: Colin, Sonja and Sam are determined to stay.

Ironically for folk who have spent the past 20 years supporting the East Timorese people through the Dili All-Stars, trombonist Sonja Parkinson and her husband Colin Buckler – former drummer with the Painters and Dockers – have found it hard being on the receiving end of help.

“We’ve found it really uncomfortable accepting all these things but we’ve had to learn to. It’s easier to accept the official grants than cash from individuals.”

After a distant cousin read about Sonja and Colin’s story online – how they sheltered in the burning house with three other families until the last minute, then escaped to a creek refuge, along with two lyre birds, just seconds before the house collapsed – Sonja even received help from an unknown Parkinson in Canada, who worked out they were related and sent cash.

The many thoughtful gifts have had a huge impact.

“Our case worker got us a Christmas tree, and Sam was given this lovely little table and chair set from some part-time bus drivers in Bacchus Marsh, plus we received a beautiful quilt… there are so many kind people.”

It’s good to have some positives to balance out memories such as the week after the fires, when each day would bring news of another friend confirmed lost from the hill above their house – Kinglake’s notorious Bald Spur Road, where only three people survived.

The journey home

Sonja and Colin kept visiting their block from day one, but others who stayed away are finding it harder to return.

Helen Legg has found that those who left their homes before the fires hit are dealing with rebuilding better than those who experienced the inferno. Those with young children are also finding the rebuilding hard work and Helen is also concerned that former residents who have found accommodation out of the area are not been getting the support they need.

Further along Ninks Road, retiree Steve Law has been slowing working away at preparing his block for rebuilding – a new house site has been excavated and the old footings will form the basis of a memorial garden – but when he finally reached the point where he felt ready to get his block BAL assessed for fire threat level, he discovered the free scheme had closed. He still plans to get a shed up and caravan onsite by February – but isn’t so optimistic about how he’ll persuade his wife Vicki to return.

“She’s not real keen,” he admits.

They stayed to fight the fire but, despite their toughened glass staying intact, their curtains exploded into flames from the radiant heat, forcing them to find refuge by the Diamond Creek – along with a small herd of goats, some ducks and a singed wallaby.

For many of those receiving rental help from insurance companies, the money runs out in early February – some earlier – so the financial pressure is on, too.

“People think we’re rolling in insurance money, but it’s cost me $19,000 just getting the block ready and, with the new building standards, everything’ll cost more, too,” he said.

No one is quite sure how they will react to the first code red day this summer; one case worker said it took her several hours to calm a Strathewen survivor who thought she smelled smoke on a 39C day in December.

Then there is the anniversary itself to deal with.

Sharing the experience – and strength

But there is a strong sense of sharing. A survivor now living in a caravan on her land relates how touched she was when a young man pulled up one evening with a six-pack of beer.

“He said ‘I’m living in a caravan too and I don’t know if your husband enjoys a drink, but I’ve been driving past every day on my way home from work and decided it was time to call in and say hello’.

“They ended up talking for hours.”

It’s the women who have really led the way with looking after each other.

One of the strongest support networks that has emerged in the aftermath of the fires is the Ladies of the Black Belt, formed when a group of St Andrews women realised how few of their neighbours they knew – and how many needed help and support.

“Most of us live on acreage so you don’t see a lot of your neighbours; we thought afterwards we really should get together and help each other through this thing,” Rae said.

A list of about 78 directly affected women in St Andrews North was pieced together and in May, 21 of them returned to the Black Belt for a lunch – held at the repaired vineyard home of Cathy Lance.

Since that first emotional meeting the group has remained in contact, meeting two or three times a month, cementing friendships, having fun and sharing enormous support.

“It is the silver lining that now we have discovered the friendship and support of so many talented, interesting individuals,” says Cathy.

“We meet for coffee about every three weeks,” adds Elizabeth, who knew 17 of those lost in the fires.

“It’s the only group of people I feel truly safe with.”

Widowed and rendered homeless on Black Saturday, Elizabeth admits she still has very bad days when she does not cope.

“I bumped into a neighbour outside the shops the other day and he said: ‘You good, Elizabeth?’ I’d had an awful week and just went off at him: ‘Of course I’m not good! How could I be good?’ “

But all agree that, without the fellowship of the Black Belt – and support from centres such as Helen’s Place – they would be far worse.

“We didn’t really have a plan when we started, and we still don’t have plan,” laughs Fiona, wife of a CFA volunteer, and a stalwart of the Hurstbridge support centre since day one. “We thought ‘Well, it’ll stay open at least a month’.”

Now they are hoping the centre might become a place to sell the art and handiwork survivors have created.

“I think that’s our strength,” counters Helen. “We changed to meet people’s needs as they emerged, and we’re still evolving.”

POST SCRIPT June 2010: Steve was right; his wife didn’t want to return and they have now bought a property in Albury, where they are settling in well. Rob has now retired and weeds all day long if he can – and feels a lot better for it. But, as the second winter sets in, Rae is still living in a caravan. At least one other person in this story is now divorced, and one is in a new relationship.

Jacqui of all trades

Published in Outback Magazine, Dec/Jan 2010

SEE: http://www.outbackmag.com.au/stories/article-view?553


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

Rhyna and Gem

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.

Countdown to a hard-earned cure

10 Mar, 2009 12:00 AM
SINCE her latest life-saving operation, Patty Carlyon counts her life in days.
When you have been told you are going to die as often as she has, every day is a blessing.

Last Wednesday, it had been 168 days since a bone marrow transplant operation – just one of too-many major operations Patty, 11, has endured since being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in November 2005.

Everyone’s hopes were raised when Patty went into remission in mid-2006. Then, last July, her life came crashing down when the leukaemia reappeared. Determined to make the best of the bad news, her family held a huge party and sent her off to hospital in a limousine.

“I’m really well now and, if my next tests are good, I’ll be able to go off boiled water. I’m already off the ‘clean’ diet,” she said, referring to a food regime she had been on for months.

Her diet had been limited to food prepared within half an hour and boiled water to reduce the risk of food poisoning or bacteria while her immune system was low.

Of the past 168 days, about 100 were spent in hospital, so Patty was more than happy to come home in time for Christmas. She still has fortnightly blood transfusions and goes back to hospital for regular tests, adding to the strain on her parents, Kim and Ron, and family.

Sibling Elizabeth, 8, sometimes gets fed up with the extra attention Patty receives. Yet it was Elizabeth whose bone marrow was the perfect match for Patty – and she bravely endured the pain and discomfort of donating it.

“They took out a litre of bone marrow; she’s so skinny it’s hard to imagine there was a litre in her,” Ron said. “But she was so brave – she didn’t complain at all. She really wanted to do it for Patty, but they fight like cat-and-dog the rest of the time.”

Patty is proud to have played a role in improved treatment of children with leukaemia. Because she suffered massive secondary infections from cold sores when her immune system was destroyed by chemotherapy, patients are now treated for cold sores and urinary tract infections before problems set in. A heart echo test – colloquially called the ‘Patty test’ – is also given after chemotherapy to prevent the massive heart damage that nearly claimed her life three years ago. “She is the first [patient] to show that the heart can heal with the aid of a pacemaker,” Ron said.

“And I was out of the transplant [recovery] room in just 13 days,” Patty said. “That’s a new record.”

Not that it was all plain sailing. She contracted a virus and again got a cold sore infection, which spread straight to her kidney, liver and lungs, and almost killed her.

She pulled through to keep hold of two other ‘records’: the longest time spent in intensive care (eight months) and the only child to be treated on all eight floor levels at the Royal Children’s Hospital.

Patty has spent more time in hospital than at Sunbury Primary School in the past four years. She can rattle off medical terms with ease and has a mature approach to life.

Getting well still takes priority over schoolwork but she has a clear goal in mind – she wants to be a nurse. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, even before I got sick.”

For now she keeps counting the days: in 572 days, doctors can be sure her transplant is fully successful. In 1657 days, she will be officially cured.