Our abode in Miallo, North Queensland Australia.
A story about the life of a migrant in Australia, by Werner Schmidlin
It was 1958 and we had just travelled about 4000 Km by car with ourthree young children – from Yarramin South Gippsland, Victoria, to Miallo in far North Queensland, where a job as a cane cutter awaited me. When I originally wrote this story, Malcolm Fraser, our Prime Minister in the 1980s, coined the phrase: “Life wasn’t meant to be easy.”
When I was musing about that expression of the Prime Minister, I realised that I had come to that conclusion long before Fraser’s utterance slipped off his tongue that “Life wasn’t meant to be easy.” In fact I did at the exact moment when we came to the farm in Miallo, 10 Km north of Mossman, and Stan Andrews, my new boss, showed us our abode.
It was a kind of a hybrid, embodying all the features of a house, barracksand a shed; nothing to brag about, but it kept the wind and the rain out. The farm had no mains power, but an electrical generator supplied us with light. Once again I had to think about what Schmidlin Oma had said to me before we left Germany – never to expect anything. What she actually said to me many, many times was: “Don’t expect that the fried chickens will fly into your mouth in Australia”- a German proverb. What she wanted to tell me was that there is no such a thing as a free lunch in Australia.
The dwelling’s entrances were at ground level and fitted only with stable doors, cut horizontally through the middle. The windows had no glass, just corrugated iron shutters in a timber frame. A coach bolt inserted on either side fixed it into the window opening, substituting as hinges, so the shutter could be opened and closed. To let daylight or a breeze into the rooms, the shutters had to be held open with a prop. We had various lengths of props stored near the windows to allow us to vary the opening. The kitchen was “adorned” with an old kerosene fridge and a wood stove. The ‘bathroom’ was attached to the side of the “house” with a “bush shower” suspended from the ceiling.
Since our dwelling was located in the horse paddock with eight horses freely roaming around, we had to get used to, horses poking their heads into the kitchen and neighing. At first we made the mistake of giving them bread in order to befriend them, and it didn’t take them long to make a nuisance of themselves when we sat at the table. All the doors in the dwelling were stable doors, cut horizontally in the middle to make two parts. This had a particular reason. All the rooms were facing towards the outside, and since the area was notorious for snakes, rats, bandicoots and cane toads, the closed bottom half kept them out and the open top half let the air in. The mosquitoes, especially at night were bothersome, and sleeping under a mosquito net, and burning mosquito coils during evening meals was absolutely imperative.
One day Karola inadvertently left the bottom half of the kitchen stable door open, while she was at the back of the dwelling hanging out the washing. She heard a noise coming from the kitchen and went to have a look. To her surprise she found a horse inside. There was not enough room to turn the horse around and so Karola had to back it out through the door. She never forgot to close the bottom half of the kitchen door again. In the end the horses became such a nuisance, apart from their droppings attracting flies, that we had to put a fence around the place to keep them at a distance.
Carpet snakes were not so much of a bother as they were nocturnal, and once they had had a meal they slept for a few days to digest it. However, the venomous Black Snakes were on the move in the daytime and one had to be constantly on the lookout.
Having small children, and living in close proximity to the sugar cane, was a worry. On more than one occasion, when I came home, I would find Karola and the three children sitting on the kitchen table, waiting for me to dispose of an unwelcome visitor. Our in-house defensive arsenal consisted of, a stick, a hoe, a cane knife and a rifle. Stan gave us excellent advice, on how to avoid stepping on snakes: “When you walk, always look down at the ground in front of you, and when you want to watch birds, stop walking”. I have adhered to his advice ever since; and although I had had many close encounters with Black snakes, I have never stepped on one. Doris, our second daughter, complained a few times that she thought a snake was in her room during the night. Karola dismissed it as a dream or fantasy, until one day she found a Carpet Snake (python) skin in the children’s bedroom.
The bush shower in itself was a simple and interesting contraption, doing efficiently what it was supposed to do and it was economical in water use. It was a bucket-like container holding about ten litres of water, which was dispensed through a rose at the bottom. An extremely dirty cane-cutter could easily clean himself with as little as four or five litres of water. A spring-loaded valve attached to a mechanical lever prevented the water from running out of the shower, and to let water out, one had to pull the lever by way of a string. When the string was let go, the water-flow stopped. So, the procedure was simple: pull the string to get wet, soap yourself, and pull the string again to rinse off. The shower had a rope over a pulley in the ceiling, which made it easy to refill. The plumbing was of an equally unsophisticated nature: just a cement floor with big gaps on the bottom of the four walls, to let the water escape.
I must not forget to mention the epitome of early Australiana – the smallest of small Australian ‘cottages’- better known as the outhouse, the dunny the thunderbox or in a normal house the toilet. Our toilet was about fifty yards from our dwelling, in the middle of the horse paddock, and looking like a lone sentinel. The construction was simplicity in itself: corrugated iron all round including the door; while the interior had a simple timber box with a lid, which hid a deep hole below. It was often necessary, before we could take over ‘occupancy’, to first chase out, rats, toads and, at night, carpet snakes. They used it for a different purpose than we did – for shelter, and the latter one to catch a meal of a bandicoot or rat. The snakes have learnt from bitter experience that toads are highly toxic and they gave them a miss.
I never had the courage to describe our living conditions to our families back in Germany. Karola’s family would have been worried sick and would have made every attempt to persuade us to come back to Germany, whilst my family, I imagined, would have said, “Serves you right. Didn’t we tell you not to go to Australia?” But once again, Oma’s maxim, “Don’t expect fried chickens flying into your mouth”, helped me through difficult times, especially in the beginning of a new chapter in my life in Australia.
Werner Schmidlin 2001