In search of Hurtle, sheep – and people!
Monday 9th March 2020. Today would be a box ticked on a mental ‘to do’ list. Some may wonder why I would make such an effort to reach a remote spot on the other side of the world – not to mention stopping there for two nights. The thing to remember is this: To my parents, Keith was once the object of their dreams. It was to be the place where they would live in a new house, raise their children, and start a business. New beginnings in a New Land. With hindsight, it was also the place that all but broke my mother’s heart, and where my father’s aspirations came to nought. In short, Keith had an important place in my family history, so I had to go there.
Our base for this visit was the Keith Motor Inn. Like much of the buildings we saw during our walk last night, it is a fairly recent affair, and the room was spacious and modern. It had an en-suite with a huge, walk-in shower, but oddly no wash basin. Instead, after using the toilet we had to return to the main room and use the sink that formed part of a mini-kitchen, complete with microwave, toaster and kettle. There was also a fridge, partly stocked with a variety of snacks and drinks like a hotel pay-as-you-go bar. The prices were quite reasonable ($9 for a bottle of wine), but our needs that morning were for something more than instant coffee and a bar of chocolate. As stated in Day Six, we needed to find somewhere in town that was open – and our best bet was the pub.
Following the directions given us by the barman, we found the restaurant was in a neighbouring building, and the entire staff (one lady) was happy to see us just after 7 am. This was probably because we looked to be the only other punters for a hundred miles, and how many times can you do the crossword? Our choice for a cooked breakfast was adequate but not inspiring, and we at least left with a better idea as to how we could fill our day.
Keith may be a one-horse town (with no evidence of horse), but when asked where the other 1,088 residents had disappeared to, our friendly breakfast lady said “The beach”. And why not? It’s only an hour away… It would take no more than an hour to complete my pilgrimage that morning, so for the rest of the day we would do likewise.
We’d already found the present butcher’s shop, on a site where Mollie once manned the counter (see Day Six), and we’d passed the church building (closed) where she’d worshipped, so all that was left to visit was the house. This was where Hurtle lived with his wife Grace, and children Geoffrey and Lorraine. Once the Veale family arrived in early November 1949 (the start of summer), Mollie helped there with household chores and looking after the children, then joined Eric and daughter Susan to sleep at a house further down the road belonging to Hurtle’s sister Gladys. But where exactly was Hurtle’s?
The above two maps hold the answer. The one on the right is modern, but the other was drawn by Eric Veale in January 1950 – and it is pretty much to the same scale. The arrow marks the spot where I took the photo below.
We spent a bit of time walking round the neighbourhood, examining other houses of a similar era, and found one that may have belonged to Gladys. We also spoke to only the second person we’d seen that morning – a neighbour of the old Hurtle property who reckoned to remember the family. He’d only been a boy, but he did remember Hurtle coming back to live in another house nearby in the late Fifties. As he was buried in Keith cemetery in the Sixties, it seemed to fit.
That was almost the end of my nostalgia trip for the day – until I spotted something from the car on the way back to the other side of the tracks: a station platform. These all started out as wooden structures, and the one at Keith should have been long gone. But what was this right by the disused track, next to a silage bin?
Mid-morning, and (almost) all my objectives for visiting Keith had been achieved. I hadn’t bargained for our visit falling on a public holiday, so we were not really getting a true reflection of the present-day town, but it could not be helped. Having spent the bulk of yesterday driving for over two hours on long straight roads, I did not relish doing something similar today – but what else was there to do? We knew how to get to the coast, and we’d been given a recommendation as to the best place to find both civilisation and scenery: a place called Robe.
Bearing in mind Hurtle was a sheep farmer, and my father had to adapt his book-keeping skills to slaughtering livestock, this particular animal had its place in my parents’ story. I hadn’t the least idea where Hurtle’s farm was (they used to drive out to it), but five minutes along the road towards Kingston we passed a field full of the critters. It might not have been the same farm – but I sure wasn’t going to miss a photo opportunity like this! So, I stopped the car at the side of the (empty) road.
In my defence, just remember how Keith itself was devoid of both people and traffic. The countryside is flat, has long straight roads with wide verges, and as I got out of the car with camera in hand for a two-minute break, there was just the one car approaching us from the opposite direction. The moment I had my camera raised to take the shot, a loud blaring of a car horn fifty feet from my shoulder almost made me drop the darn thing… Another car had come up behind us from nowhere, and with the other vehicle approaching at speed while our car partially obstructed the highway on his side – he’d had to slow down. Elaine was NOT a happy bunny. The sheep felt the same way and fled. I was in the doghouse. So, here’s the zoomed-in shot of the woolly stampede – and now you know what it cost me to get it!
There’s not a lot to Robe, but what there is does make for a pleasant few hours investigation. Like other small districts we’d encountered, there is just one main street to walk up and down, plus a beach and a small harbour. Thankfully, from our point of view, there was also more evidence of human habitation. We’d found where at least half the population of Keith had elected to spend the holiday.
The day had started off with plenty of sunshine, but on reaching the coast we found a strong breeze had sprung up, bringing a layer of cloud with it. By the time we’d done with shop window-browsing and worked up a thirst, we were ready to explore the bar at the Caledonian Hotel. This is what I would describe as ‘a real-ale pub’, with beer pumps displaying names that were entirely unfamiliar. On holiday, Elaine and I tend to drink a light beer like German lager, but nothing of that sort was on offer. The girl behind the bar kindly offered us some samples to try, and after finding the courtyard pretty sheltered, we took our choices outside. At first there was just one other couple (with dog) out there, but it seemed we were just the advance party, and the area soon filled up with families (and assorted dogs).
We learned two things here: The first was that the Aussies had come up with a light dark ale called ‘Happy Pig’ that Elaine found suited her taste… The second was a story about the Chinese. Years ago, a group of travellers from China wanted to migrate to Melbourne by boat. At that time there were mandatory port fees to pay throughout the State of Victoria, and none of the travellers could afford them. Now this place is only about 120 kilometres (75 miles) from the State border, so they sailed up the coastline to Robe, landed on the beach a hundred metres from the pub – and then walked over 500 kilometres to Melbourne! That’s a true story, and there’s even a ‘memorial’ on the beach to mark the occasion.
Back on the road, fuelled by a HUGE pizza and a side order of beer-fried chips (yum), we returned to base without incident (roos, sheep or otherwise). Relaxing in the motel after the long drive, I was surprised (pleasantly) by a phone call from Linc (see Day Three). While our planned rendezvous with him and his wife Lyn was still a couple of days off, he recognised that our journey to Victor Harbor tomorrow would take us past Lake Alexandrina at the mouth of the Murray River. His sister lived on the shores of the smaller Lake Albert at a place called Meningie, and she was extending an invitation to us for a refreshment stop on the way. Would we be up for a slight diversion? Of course we would!
In the event, we had no idea how much of a diversion it would turn out to be…
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