Thursday, February 03, 2011

Journey to Gunnedah


Last weekend I made a journey to my hometown of Gunnedah.

My parents generously lent me their car for the journey, and so leaving Port Macquarie at around 9:00 a.m. on Friday, January 28, I drove westwards across the mountains to the inland city of Tamworth – Australia's "country music capital."

Gunnedah is a 40-minute drive south-west of Tamworth. Total driving time from Port Macquarie to Gunnedah is approximately four-and-a-half hours.

Above: Driving across the mountains from Port Macquarie to the New England tablelands of north-western New South Wales. The major towns one travels through on this trek are Wauchope, Walcha, Bendemeer, Moonbi and Tamworth.

Above: There's a look-out in the Moonbi Range that affords an impressive view of the changing landscape one encounters traveling west. That's the Oxley Highway at left, descending off the range and heading toward Tamworth.

Right: My paternal grandmother, Belle Smith (1924-2005), at the Moonbi Lookout in 1950.

Above: Located in the Namoi River Valley of north-western New South Wales, Gunnedah is the major service centre for the farming area known as the Liverpool Plains.

Gunnedah and its surrounding area were originally inhabited by indigenous Australians who spoke the Kamilaroi (Gamilaraay) language. The area now occupied by the town was settled by Europeans in 1833. Through my maternal grandmother’s family, the Millerds, my family can trace its connection to Gunnedah back to the town’s earliest days. For more about the town’s history and my family’s connection to it, see the previous Wild Reed post, My “Bone Country”.

Above: Gunnedah's memorial to "Red Kangaroo," Gambu Ganuurru, the aboriginal warrior and leader of the Gunn-e-dar people of the Kamilaroi tribe. After his death in the late 1700s, he was buried in the traditional way inside a carved tree. This plaque in Abbott Street, marks the site where the tree once stood.

Right: Another tribute to Gambu Ganuurru, this one on Pensioners Hill.

Above: Looking across the western edge of town toward the Kelvin Hills, which I hiked in my youth – and most recently in 2000!

Above: Cohens Bridge crosses the Namoi River at Gunnedah. As a child, my Mum learned to swim in this part of the Namoi. It was known as "the dip"!

Above: Gunnedah Town Hall.

Above: One of the oldest buildings in Gunnedah – Roseneath Manor.

Located in Maitland Street, the building was originally a boarding house. My grandfather Valentine Sparkes (pictured at right during the First World War) stayed here when he first came to Gunnedah in the 1930s. It's now a bed and breakfast.

Valentine married the widow Olive Louis (nee Millerd). Together they raised Olive's two children, Eric and Fay, from her first marriage, and had four children of their own: Margaret (my Mum), Catherine (who died in infancy), Michael and Ruth.

When in Gunnedah last weekend I stayed with my Aunt Ruth (pictured at left).

Right: Ruth graduating from the Royal Women's Hospital in Paddington, Sydney, in 1968. Pictured with her are her parents Valentine and Olive Sparkes.

Above: Ruth in 1975 with her husband Rex and children Emily and Greg.

Uncle Rex died in 2006, and so, sadly, wasn't present (physically, at least) at his daughter Emily's 2007 wedding.

The adults in the photo above are (from left): Ruth, the newlyweds Matt and Emily, Michael and Valda Sparkes, my Dad and Mum, and Fay.

Ruth's home in Gunnedah is right on the edge of town. In the early evening of the day of my arrival, Ruth and I took her two dogs for a walk along the track pictured above.

As you can see from the image below, we were treated to a spectacular sky during our walk!

Above: At Ruth's new home with my Aunt Fay, her daughter Therese, and Therese's fiancee Kevin. I'm holding Ruth's little dog, Susie.

Above: At Ruth's home I was delighted (and not a little surprised) to see that the dove that once belonged to Nanna Sparkes was still alive. Nanna died in 1997 and her dove must be at least 15 years old!

When I visited Gunnedah with my parents in 2006 I took the photo at left. It shows my Mum (center) with her sisters Fay and Ruth. Behind them is Nanna's dove.

Ruth tells me that she used to have a number of finches in the cage with the dove. Now there is only one, but it and the dove have a lovely bond. It was wonderful to wake up in the mornings when at Ruth's and to hear the beautiful cooing of Nanna's dove. It somehow felt like a beautiful connection to Nanna.

Above: My childhood home in Beulah St., Gunnedah.

The house itself still seems to be in good shape but what's happened to the garden?! As you can see from the picture below, which was taken in 1992, Mum had a beautiful, abundant and diligently maintained garden around our home.

It wasn't just the garden of my childhood home that I found to be in a bit of a mess but also St. Joseph's Catholic Church – the church my family attended throughout my childhood in Gunnedah. However, I soon discovered that there was a good reason for the apparent signs of disrepair. The church is actually in the process of having its roof replaced.

From the height of the weeds growing at the building's entrance, I gathered that this process has been going on for quite some time. Masses are being celebrated in the nearby chapel of the Convent of Mercy, at which my parents and I shared a delightful afternoon tea with the good sisters at around this time last year.

Above: The interior of St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Gunnedah – Saturday, January 29, 2011.

I've been told that the stained glass windows of the church are unique in that they depict scenes, not of the life of Jesus, but of St. Joseph.

Above: The statue of St. Joseph on the grounds of Gunnedah's St. Joseph's Catholic Church.

In the background is the original church building, now the St. Joseph Hall. When I was in my last years of high school (1982-1983) I'd help my Dad conduct the weekly housie (or bingo) nights for the parish in St. Joseph's Hall. Dad would call the numbers while I and my friend Maree (and sometimes my brother Tim) would sell tickets for the "special" games. This was in the days well before smoking bans, and so the hall was always thick with cigarette smoke. It really was terrible!

Across the street from the church grounds was a BP service station (or "gas station" as my American friends would say). As you can see from the photo above, it's no longer there.

So why did I photograph this long-abandoned site? Well, it holds a special memory for me. You see it was to this station that I'd often steal away when working at housie. I didn't do this just to get away from the smoke or to get a snack. No, there was a guy who worked there that I thought was just beautiful – although at the time I wasn't ready to admit that to myself. He probably wasn't that much older than me, and yet there he was on Friday nights working the evening shift at the BP service station. I don't remember his name, I just remember that I was drawn to his broad, handsome and tanned face; his lithe, muscular body; and the way he wore those butt-hugging shorts of his!

Looking back, it's amazing how, on some level, I must have been conscious of my attraction to him, yet couldn't (or wouldn't) allow myself to entertain the possibility, let alone admit to myself the fact, that I was gay. I guess I just wasn't ready. (But I
soon would be.)

Above: A view of Gunnedah from Pensioners Hill.

Above: Sign of the times.

Talking to family and friends in Gunnedah I learned that many people are concerned and angry about how every level of government – from local to federal – is "in bed" with mining, oil and gas companies. Attempts are being made by both Australian (BHP) and foreign (the Chinese Shenhua) mining companies to buy out farmers on the Breeza Plain, south of Gunnedah. Some of these companies want to engage in the highly controversial practice of longwall mining underneath the deep alluvial irrigation aquifers of the plain. Shen-Hua has made enormous financial contributions to the community life of Gunnedah in an attempt, some say, to win local residents over. But most I spoke to were critical of the presence and influence of Shenhua in the town, and its attempts to buy land for mining. "We should be selling the milk, not selling off the cow," a friend told me. And on a Four Corners discussion board, a resident of nearby Singleton noted the following:

These mines eat up properties, destroying legacies that have been handed down over generations. My own mother is afraid to pass the farm that her family owned and she was raised on in fear of what she might find. . . . The farm next-door was sold to the mines years ago and she wants to remember the area as it was when she was a child, but I want to know the land that is part of my history.

Above: Gunnedah's memorial to author and poet Dorothea MacKellar (1885-1968).

MacKellar is probably best known for her poem “My Country.” Her writings appeared in London's Spectator, the American Harper's Magazine and the Sydney Bulletin. She also had four volumes of verse published, The Closed Door (1911) The Witchmaid, and Other Verses (1914), Dreamharbour (1923) and Fancy Dress (1926).

The MacKellar family owned several properties in the Gunnedah area, including “Kurrumbede” and “The Rampadells”. Throughout Dorothea’s early life, she and members of her family made regular visits to their Gunnedah country residences from their Sydney home.

The first draft of what was to become one of Australia’s most quoted and best loved poems, “My Country”, was written in England at a time when Dorothea was feeling homesick. Never quite content with the verses, she wrote and re-wrote the poem several times after returning to Australia and living in the apartments above her physician father’s consulting rooms in Liverpool Street, Sydney.

Gunnedah’s Dorothea MacKellar Memorial was erected in 1984 and is located in the town’s ANZAC Park. It depicts her as the young woman who wrote “My Country”, and gazing in the direction of her beloved “Kurrumbede.” That same year, Gunnedah resident Mikie Maas created the “Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards,” which has grown into a nationwide poetry competition for Australian school students.

. . . I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror -
The wide brown land for me! . . .

– An excerpt from "My Country"
by Dorothea Mackellar

When in Gunnedah last weekend I caught up with a number of friends from my school days at St. Xavier's Primary School and St. Mary's College.

At left I'm pictured with my friends Danielle (left) and Jo. We're at the Gunnedah Municipal Pool.

Twenty-eight years ago, in September 1983, when Danielle, Jo and I were in our last year of high school at St. Mary's, we joined with friends Joy and David to climb Nobby Rock (right). Situated north-east of Gunnedah, it was known as Ydire by the Gunn-e-dar people of the Kamilaroi tribe.

Above: Danielle and Jo on Ydire – Sunday, September 4, 1983.

Above: Jo, Danielle and Joy atop Ydire – September 4, 1983.

Right: I also caught up with my childhood friend and neighbor Dianne. We also went through primary and high school together. She's pictured with her partner Ken (right) and friend Craig.

Above: Anyone for tennis? Dianne in 1980. We often played tennis in the street!

Left: With Andrew, one of my best friends from primary school – Sunday, January 30, 2011.

It was just by chance that Andrew was in Gunnedah last weekend with his wife and children for his older brother's birthday. It was great to catch up with him. We worked out that we probably hadn't seen each other in almost 20 years.

Above: A photo from 1975. If I recall it's my 11th birthday. I'm standing with Andrew while my younger brother Tim (left) and good friend Michael are in front of us.

Above: Leaving Gunnedah on Sunday afternoon to return to Port Macquarie, I decided to drive out toward the Kelvin Hills.

In my childhood my family would often spend time on the Kelvin property of our friends' Ray and Gwen.

With Gwen, her sister Barbara, and one or more of Gwen's adult daughters and their families we'd hike through the Kelvin Hills. Those ventures into the Australian bush remain very special to me.

Right: Gwen, surrounded by her sister Barbara (left) and daughters (from left) Diane, Wendy and Denise – January 2009.

Gwen's husband, Ray, died in the late 1970s. She moved into Gunnedah from Kelvin in the early 1980s. Although she still lives in Gunnedah, I didn't get the chance to see her or members of her family during my visit to the town last weekend.

Above and below: Images from two hikes we did in the Kelvin Hills in 1981.

Above (from left): Denise, my brother Tim, Gwen, Barbara, and Barry (Barbara's husband).

Above and below: Some images of the Kelvin area, north-east of Gunnedah – January 30, 2011.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Gunnedah (Part 1)
Gunnedah (Part 2)
Gunnedah (Part 3)
Gunnedah (Part 4)
My "Bone Country"
This Corner of the Earth
A Visit from the Hometown Relatives

Also, did you know that parts of the 2006 film Superman Returns was filmed just outside of Gunnedah? For more about this, see


brian gerard said...

One of your best posts, Michael. Just great. Plus that black and white picture of you is terrific. I do love these posts about your roots and family.

Mareczku said...

What a treat, Michael. You are such a talented journalist and have such a full and rich life. Thank you so much for sharing with us. God bless you always.

Raphael said...

Mick, every time you return 'home' you seem to capture a different part of it and share it. I wish I could comment on each photo you put up.

You have made me realise that with my blogs, that they can be about one thing, but link to others and now that I am slowly learning how to do mine, I hope you don't mind me sneaking a peek at yours often for hints?

I agree with Brian, that black and white of you is one of the best I have seen of you since being in Australia this time. A man you are.

Good post Mick, good post!

IndianIndoorPlumber said...

Those pictures are a feast for the eyes.I can relate to the sense of nostalgia that exudes out of this post. Great read. Thanks for posting!!

Boggy said...

Loved the stories. I had an English teacher, Mrs. Millerd, at GHS in 1949. A relly?

Kylie Walker said...

Thanks for having a photo of Roseneath Manor on your blog. My Great Great Great Grandfather built that home and it's the only photo I can find. Cheers