Aussie Bells Part Two
By David Bell
"Sometimes I just want to throttle him!"
Fine Dining at the Ravenshoe Pub: We left Colin and Beryl's farm at Topaz to stay a few days with Stewart and Myra at Ravenshoe. They also have a few acres in the rain forest. Both farms have bush creeks running through them. On the Topaz farm Steven has purchased an old monster excavator and scooped out three big ponds that have quickly become home to all kinds of Queensland frogs, water dragons (large lizards that live around water), platypus and birdlife. On the few occasions I went walking around the farm I easily spotted the iconic platypus' swimming about in the ponds. Stewart's place has no ponds but does sport a sizeable stream full of small yabbies at the bottom of the bushy hill. Both places are abundant with colourful parrots and many other beautiful birds of various descriptions. Myra has a collection of bird feeders outside the dining room that she keeps well stocked. Consequently, you get to observe the local birdlife from the breakfast table every morning.
Colin's farm seems to have an over abundance of kurawongs, magpie-like birds that are constantly cawing and chortling from dawn to dusk. The good old kukaburra is also present in big numbers and Beryl even has a pet one she found injured on the road. Kukaburras tame easily and this one seems quite at home and regards Beryl as his mamma. She also has a pink galah she rescued (it had a broken wing) when they were doing missionary service at Griffiths near Canberra. That bird, too, regards Beryl as his mamma. She also rescued a clutch of water dragon eggs that had been washed onto the farm track in a rainstorm. She brought them home and hatched them in a box then released them near one of the farm ponds when they were big enough. She spots them now and again on her daily walks around the farm. She is becoming the Dr Dolittle of Topaz.
One night at Stewart and Myra's we felt too lazy to cook so Winnie suggested we go to the Ravenshoe Pub for dinner. Myra and Stewart seemed a bit shocked by the idea and we got the impression they don't eat out very often...after the dinner we left Stewart with the challenge to take his wife out to eat once in a while and get some of the old sparks flying again.
The Pub at Ravenshoe
A rare glimpse of a romantic moment Bew Road style
Not to be outdone
Winnie, the city girl, wanted to be sure everything went well and insisted on ringing the pub to book a table for four. That done we all tootled off to Ravenshoe and arrived at the pub ten minutes later. As we walked up to the door the pretty little waitress was waiting outside on the steps and greeted us with a chirpy, "Are you the people who booked a table for four?" Winnie and I were both surprised and delighted. Then, when we went inside the manageress was there to greet us asking, "Are you the four who booked earlier? Welcome and let me show you to your table." We have never been treated so royally before and we hoped the food would be as grand as the welcome and service. When we later related all this to Jess she laughed and said the pub people were probably shocked that someone actually called up to book a table at Ravenshoe and were keen to see what planet we came from.
We set our orders and the food arrived in good time. We were not disappointed; it was splendid. All this good service and warm welcoming blended with being with family, put us in high spirits. We joked and laughed and just had a really good relaxing time. To record the event we took a couple of excellent selfies.
Above: Stewart's selfie; it was supposed to include all four of us.
Below: It was up to me to show him how to do it professionally.
The next day Myra flew out to New South Wales to help Kate move to a new job and new town while Stewart went back to work for a few days before having time off to visit Jess and the grandkids in Mareeba. We went back to Colin's for a few days and the weather set in; rain and fog all day every day for four days. During that wet spell we enjoyed ourselves watching old movies on TV and smoking some of the mackerel we caught. We ate smoked mackerel in cheese sauce and I pigged out on pawpaws and watermelon. The rain and fog were actually a blessing; it forced us to sit still and share family time talking about the old days and doing family history stuff. After a few days we escaped the fog when Colin and Beryl drove us down to Mareeba to stay a few days with Jess and her family.
The Mareeba Mango Farmers: The story goes like this: In 2013 Jess and her husband, Matt, took the plunge and decided to pack up and take a gap year touring around Australia. It's an Aussie thing; everyone should take a year off to see the country. I can see why; the size and diversity of the place and the things to see and do are endless. Anyway, Jess and Matt packed their wagon, tossed in the kids, rented the house out and put rubber to the road. They were only part way through their adventure when they got a call from Matt's uncle in Mareeba. He had just purchased an hundred an fifty acre mango farm and desperately needed a good farm manager. He believed that with training Matt would be the man for the job if he wanted it. It was difficult to give up the gap year half way through but the opportunity to begin a new career and live close to both their families was an offer too refreshing and good to refuse. They turned off and pointed their wagon to Mareeba.
Winnie and I were amazed at the size of their mango orchard; it was huge, acres and acres of beautifully pruned mango trees. I was also impressed by the amount of work required to maintain the farm. It was obvious from the hours Matt put in (working non-stop from dawn to dusk) that it was a labour intensive life they had got themselves into. Nevertheless, I have never seen a man so happy in his work as Matt. He is out in the open air working close to nature, soaking up new knowledge almost daily, working with big machinery and managing staff. He's in his seventh heaven at the moment; every day a new accomplishment. However, the fruit business can be a fickle one and we all hope this new venture will prosper.
Above: Rows of mango trees
Below: Mango blossom, July-August
It was not mango season when we were there - the trees were just coming into flower - but my mouth was watering just seeing so many trees and visualising huge juicy mangoes drooping from their branches. And while we there the job at hand was to spray the trees. The big farm tractor went through the trees towing a large tank that forced a chemical fog through the branches and leaves.
It was brought home to me how much work it took to run a big mango orchard. We were there in August which is, effectively, Queensland's late winter and the trees were pretty much dormant, the flowers just beginning to bud. However, it is by no means holiday time as the trees need regular spraying to ward off the myriads of tropical insect pests and fungi that could ruin the whole crop before the season even starts. Also, there are thousands of trees to prune and fertilise, weeds to keep down, new plots to prepare, and trees that have succumbed to a fungus or parasite infection to be cut down and burned. Matt is constantly studying about such things as new hybrid mangoes and new and better ways to control pests. I couldn't help but think how much harder it is in Mareeba to run an orchard than it is here in our cooler climate with fewer of natures little destroyers. But we can't grow mangoes, lychees, custard apples or bananas.
While I was sitting in the shade of Jess' outdoor dining porch, a flash car rolled up the drive and four well-dressed guys got out and started talking to Matt. After a while they handed him a business card and left. Matt told me later that they were fruit marketers from Sydney hoping to make a deal with him to buy his fruit to sell in Sydney. I thought this was a good thing but Matt was cautious. He said fruit merchants from all over Australia arrive at this time of year and visit all the mango farms, but one has to be careful in dealing with them. They promise a good price for the fruit but when it comes to paying send only half or less, claiming it was damaged on delivery or the market wasn't as good as expected and other sundry scams. A farmer can lose out big-time, especially when he also has to pay for the shipping. Matt was even sent to the city a while ago to see how the fruit markets operated and saw first hand how growers like him often ended up with the short end of the stick. He said you just had to find a dealer you can trust because there were plenty of sharks about who would rip you off in a heartbeat. Those four guys who talked to him on the drive looked a bit suspect to me.
Then there was harvest time in November and December which was particularly hectic and crucial to the profitability of the business. Mangoes all ripen at the same time which means a very busy two months. It also means that the money that keeps the farm going and the expenses paid all comes in at this one crucial period. Labour to pick and pack the mangoes is also hard to find, most of it coming from backpackers and itinerant workers.
Matt also told us that at harvest they only sold one third or less of the fruit grown. The rest was dumped as waste, even though it was of high quality and perfect to eat. The cause of this incredible waste was the market; people and shops only wanted perfect looking fruit. Anything with a spot or blemish, even though it was minute, was rejected. Consequently, over two thirds of the annual crop became a heap of compost; and this was just on Matt's farm, it's unimaginable what the waste must be across the whole state of Queensland. I was also left wondering why, with all this bounty only five hours by plane from New Zealand we have to put up with inferior Asian and South American tropical fruit in our shops. Darrell, Colin's son was also a bit perplexed when he visited his brother Steven in Hong Kong; he found Mareeba mangoes in the street stalls selling cheaper than in the shops of Mareeba. The market place is an odd beast indeed.
We had a great time on the farm and I ate to excess the winter fruits on offer: pawpaws, watermelon, and a couple I had never seen before. Out in the Yard there was a huge tree with round maroon-coloured fruits the size of an average apple. Inside they were pinkish-white in colour and quite creamy in texture. The flavour was sugary sweet. I ate heaps of them. We also bought a couple of custard apples and I soon found the reason for the curious name; the flesh was like lumpy custard in texture. It was not unlike the strange maroon fruit in flavour.
A delicious custard apple
The rich maroon coloured fruit from the big tree in the yard
Stewy with Kip, the latest addition to his collection
At a beautiful waterfall near Tinaroo. Left to Right: Toby, a most thoughtful little boy
with a gentle and caring personality. Jack, very intelligent and studious. I think he will
be very academic. A great kid and incredibly mature for his age. Lexi, a little character
with a mind of her own but affectionate and a little sweetheart. Uncle David, not much going on there. Aunty Winnie, a smart Chinese cookie. Kip, everybody's favourite. A happy baby who smiles all the time. Grunda Stewart, like his brother, nothing to write home about.
Swiping sugar cane stalks from the side of the road
|Stewart sitting on a pile of rock he never got|
around to mining 38 years before.
|Stewart at Cardigan holding his claim stake |
planted there 38 years earlier
After Paddy and I staked our claim on the Cardigan, focus centred there; it had more dump and it was a little richer than the City of Bagdad. We were aiming for a 1/2 ton of tin from 100 ton ore crushed. Paddy was an Irishman who worked on shift with me at the tin company. He was a bit older than me but we became quite good friends and being Irish he liked the odd tipple. I also enjoyed a drop or two so we would often spend a little too long at the local watering hole on the way home from work. This frequently happened when I was to take Myra out on some date or other and I would end up arriving at Myra’s door trying really hard to behave in a proper and sober manner and hoping the half tube of tooth paste and the packet of peppermints eaten on the drive over would disguise the beer fumes from Myra’s Mum. They must have been good peppermints because Myra married me anyway. I remember some witty advice old Paddy gave me at one of our boozy after-work stops. I’d just told him for the fifth time to drink up because I gotta go and pick Myra up! Paddy replied, "Just one more while I tell you a little truth lad. Now a young lass when she meets her man, and her good sense now clouded by love and passion, believes, absolutely, that once married she will soon sand those rough edges off him and polish out those annoying little flaws. She believes with all her heart that once under her control he’ll soon change. Of course he never does. The young fellow, like you right now, whenever he meets his breath-of-life, gets swallowed up in her perfume, her soft skin, her tinkling laughter, and can think of nothing but her soft, gentle hands. He loses, for the moment, his stout heart, and his good sense gets swept away. In this moment of enchantment he believes absolutely that she will never, ever change; that she will remain a goddess forever. Believe me, lad, they all change!" This pretty much shows Paddy’s character. He had many pieces of advice for me on all things and after a beer or two we would argue on everything from politics and religion to the beginnings of the universe. After three or four beers we would start singing, or Paddy would start to recite some poetry he had written; he had dozens of them, all, to me, beautiful works of art. One thing though, after that fourth beer you didn’t let Paddy sing for too long; he was bloody terrible so someone would quickly say, "Hey Paddy, give us a poem!" and off he would go. He could hold us all, half drunk, spellbound for an hour or two. I never much liked poetry but I liked his; it spoke to us ordinary folk.
Paddy found it easier to work really hard at trying to find ways of making hard work easier. This is not necessarily a bad trait but probably wouldn’t make him first choice for a partner in a tin mine where a lot of pick and shovel work could be expected. But he was my good mate and he gave a lot else of value and in those days I had enough muscle for both of us, anyway. It all seemed to work just fine.
Stewart mining tin the old way, 1976
So Paddy and I got ourselves a pretty good tin-scratchers mine and we rolled our sleeves up went to work on the weekends with boundless enthusiasm. I was under no illusions it would be hard work, but I was up for it. I have to say that I didn't jump into it blind; it took me a good year or more to research all the old maps and claims, make applications and learn everything I could about mining tin. I didn't even know what tin ore looked like or where to actually find it. I learned that once you got your material it had to be taken to the crusher to extract the tin, but before that it had to be assayed to determine the quality of the ore. Paddy and I didn't have access to an assay lab or jaw crushers so we had to do it the old fashioned way. I credit another old workmate called Graham Meritt for teaching me how to do this and giving me many other invaluable tips on tin scratching. He was our foreman at the tin company and a cantankerous old bugger if ever their was one. He was also an old miner and prospector so he was a walking library on tin. We became great friends but our
friendship had a peculiar start to it.
When we worked on the night shift company cars would come into town and pick the workers up at the local car park. One night there was a mix-up and for no other reason but old Graham was a nasty old mongrel, he started in on us; me in particular. I took exception to something he said and decided my honour had to be defended the only way I knew how, which was to smack the living daylights out of the old bugger; old being about forty. So there I was all fired up and dukes up ready to rumble. The old fellow just grinned at me said, "What a silly young bugger you are," and strolled off and got into a car and disappeared into the darkness leaving me standing by myself fuming and sputtering. I don’t know if I’ve ever before or since felt more foolish standing there in the dark ready to beat the crap out of someone and not a bloody soul in sight. I learned that night that fists are not the only way to sting someone, one of the many things old Graham was to teach me over the next two years. After this rocky start we seemed to get on just fine and Graham took me under his wing and shared as much of his vast knowledge if tin as I could take in.
Saturday mornings would often find me in Janice and Graham Meritt's kitchen sharing a coffee or breakfast and enjoying the Irvinebank sunshine. If it was right after night shift we’d jump in his old Holden ute (four wheel drives almost unheard of out there in those days ) and head into the bush for a days prospecting; the plan usually was to find some old abandoned mine, sample ore dumps, and check old shafts and drives for possible tin shows (seams of tin showing through the walls or floors). It was on these trips that Graham showed me how to methodically sample and prove up an ore dump. The first thing was to take your hammer and shovel - two items we carried with us everywhere - and some water from your water bottle. Then you would grab a handful of small rocks and fines from the ore dump and place them on your shovel keeping everything dry. With a hammer you next ground it all up until it became fine sand, after which you emptied your match box. Everyone smoked back then so matchboxes were always on hand. Next, you filled the empty box with the sand you had just made, making sure that it was level with the top of the little cardboard match box tray. The sand was then tipped onto a clean shovel and washed in a circular motion with a little water using the dip and shape of the shovel much like a gold pan when panning for gold.
Tin is a very heavy metal so eventually you will wash away all the lighter sands and minerals leaving the heavier tin sitting in the dip of your shovel. Now here’s the neat trick Graham showed me - something any Tin miner worth his salt would know. You take the tin from the shovel and carefully place it on a one cent piece; If the amount of tin from that match box of ore dump neatly covers the one cent piece and builds into a nice little peak then that sample is running at one percent tin metal at around seventy percent purity. If it doesn’t peak up nicely it will have other sands and metals in it and be less than seventy percent pure tin, affecting the final pay out. Many an old prospectors' livelihoods relied on their ability to judge the worth of an ore body accurately and in time, so would Paddy's and mine. Though I didn’t know it then, these forays with Graham would hold me in good stead a bit further down the track. We would quickly do a few of these bush assays around an ore dump until we were confident it was worth further attention, or we were certain it was not an ore dump but just another bloody pile of rubbish. Finding a likely prospect is when the fun stopped and the work began. First the area had to be pegged and a claim filed at the mining warden’s office; again, Graham showing me how to go about all this. After the claim was registered work could progress further out at the mine. I was maybe nineteen or twenty when I registered my first claim and set pegs around an old mine called the City of Bagdad. I had grand dreams that this was the start of me becoming a mining mogul and was certain, as only a twenty year old can be, that I couldn’t miss.
And speaking of missing, it was around this time that a certain buxom, brown-eyed, brown-haired and utterly gorgeous new lab assistant arrived at work. I would see her about the place when I was on day shift or afternoon shift and if I thought she was looking, I would flex my muscles mightily (blue singlets and tight stubby shorts being the everyday work attire of the time), suck in my guts, puff out my chest, and strut about the place like a rooster outside a chook pen. But that’s about as far as it went. I could clamber around old mine shafts, play a decent game of rugby, stand up and scrap with a man if I had to, but when it came to making a move on a pretty girl I was a proper drongo. Things went on much the same for about six months or more and I had pretty much given up, thinking she probably didn’t even know I existed. Fortunately someone else took up my cause. I was just finishing my day shift on the loader and had handed it over to the afternoon operator. As I was driving out past the office and laboratory one of the married ladies who also worked in the lab waved me down. When I stopped she and the brown-haired beauty came out. The married lady introduced us and the rest is history. She was Myra Morris and ten months later became Mrs Myra Bell and somehow still is.
The brown-haired beauty, 1977
A map showing the location of Cardigan mine
I had welded up a large dolly-pot out of half inch plate and five inch bore casing. I also made a dolly-knocker out off two inch round pipe. The samples were then placed into the dolly-pot one at a time and I pounded away with the dolly-knocker until that rock was dust. It took me weeks every night after work pounding away until dark to grind up all the samples. The sound of that thing must have driven the neighbours nuts; Bong! Bong! Bong! for hours on end. We were living in a house in Atherton at the time and luckily, we had a biggish back yard. One night the old chap who lived in the house behind us came over to the back fence and cooeed out to me. I didn’t mind the interruption, I was getting a bit sick of being a one man stamp battery. He asked me what I was up to and I explained, expecting him to have a whinge about the noise. To my surprise he said, "Hang about, I want to show you something," and disappeared into his shed. He was soon back with a small dolly pot and pestle, a beautiful thing and very old and wonderfully cast. The old chap was about eighty and he told me it belonged to his grandfather who had been a gold miner on the Klondike in Alaska. He also pulled from his pocket a small leather bound diary about the size of a hymn book, opened to a page and said, "Here, have a read," and while I was reading he wandered off, returning a few minutes later with a couple of stubbies. The entry I was reading described the man’s journey to the Klondike. He wrote that it was something like thirty below zero and that there were sixty men all trying to fit around a pot belly stove in a very small hut and hoping they didn’t end up like some of the poor sods they had seen frozen dead in the snow on the trek in. We finished our stubbies and talked a little about other entries in the diary. He insisted I take the dolly-pot as I might be able to put it to good use and I could give it back to him when I finished. It was really too small for what I was doing but I took it to please him and gave it back a few weeks later. Our meeting was a wonderful little interlude that gained me a new friend and insights into the mining adventures of another place and age.
Back to my donging. Once a sample was pounded into sand I put it on the shovel and worked out what percentage of tin it contained. That done I finally had a complete picture of how much tin there was, where the rich bits were, and where there was nothing but Queensland dirt. All of this came from the knowledge gleaned on my weekend forays with Graham. Months were spent piling up heaps of dump; sometimes with shovel and wheelbarrow, sometimes with a backhoe hired from work. Paddy and I would spend our weekends out at the mine heaping up rock. Sometimes it would be just Myra and me. Eventually, we had 100 tons of rock ready for crushing. This was done at the state battery in Irvinebank where you booked a hopper and given a crushing date; usually a couple of months after the hopper became available. As long as we had the ore in the hopper before the crush day everything would be hunky-dory. There’s not much to tell about this bit but I hired the loader from work and operated it myself. I also hired a truck when needed to cart the ore to the crusher; a good 100 ton or thereabouts. It felt good to see all our hard work sitting safely in the hopper and it should have been a simple matter of just sitting back and waiting a couple of months for them to crush it. But no such luck in the tin-scratching game. After a couple of weeks I started getting phone calls from blokes I knew who lived in Irvinebank. These were tin miners who had pretty much been in the game all their lives and they all had the same story. They had been down at the hoppers and came back with the advice, "Stew, I put a bit of that ore of yours on the shovel and can’t see any tin, mate. I think ya might do ya arse. Better dump her, mate!" We had already spent eight hundred bucks on trucks and loaders and things and it would cost another twelve hundred for the crusher. This was in 1980. While we wouldn’t lose a huge fortune, it was still a fair sum to kiss goodbye, especially for Paddy with seven kids. To give you some idea, I’d just bought a brand new car for six grand and was hoping the money from our tin would help pay it off. For me though, it was more about losing face, about what an idiot I’d been. It got even worse when the manager of the state battery rang and asked me if I was certain I wanted to put that ore through. I was really starting to feel quite sick about it all. By this time I’d left the mining company and taken a job at the Kairi Research Station, milking their cows and intending to tin mine on the weekends and holidays. Now, the mining wasn’t looking too good. I ended up ringing Graham and he simply asked if I’d done everything the way he’d shown me. I told him I had and to the letter. He told me to back myself because those silly buggers wouldn’t know tin if it bit them on the nose and that there hasn’t been any tin come through from out there for forty years so they don’t know what they are looking at. After giving it some thought and talking to Paddy, I rang the manager back and told him to crush it. Our crushing started at midnight and as Paddy was on night shift I would do the first watch; it was wise to be at the crushing to make sure it was done right. I must admit I was scared stiff. But by 1am there was a nice wide band of beautiful dark brown tin the colour of Myra’s hair coming across all the tables. My heart soared, just like the time I first met my brown-hair beauty.
"You bewdy!" I hollered for joy and Oh, the relief! My feeling of euphoria went with me when I left to go and milk the cows, and it was still there when Paddy arrived from work. It was still there until the last grain was crushed and washed to tailings ! Oh, so, so good. Such a bloody good feeling! I felt vindicated, relieved, and a little bit richer! Our tin from the Cardigan mine dressed out at point six of a percent, which meant that from the one hundred ton of ore crushed we recovered six hundred kilograms of tin, a bit over half a ton at seventy-four percent purity which is top shelf stuff. My bush assaying with shovel, match box, and a one cent coin indicated it would go about point five of a percent at seventy percent - close enough, I reckon! Paddy and I, after expenses, each pocketed about $3500.
The old crusher plant at Irvinebank fallen into a state of
disrepair since the crash of the tin market
We sold our tin at $145 per unit, the highest price ever recorded at the time! Tin prices rose to $157 per unit two days later. They fluctuated just below these prices for some months then disaster struck; the bottom fell out of the tin market and prices dropped to below $40 per unit, eventually plummeting to around $20. That spelled the end of tin mining in Australia. Disaster also hit Paddy when his beautiful wife Pat passed away with no warning, leaving us all absolutely bereft and destroying Paddy’s and the children's world. Shortly after, our firstborn arrived bringing happiness and joy to our world at least.
So farming it was for me.
|Stewy's ute that took us over the mountain roads to the mines|