Go West Young Man
Fifty or so years ago Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II decided I was an ideal candidate to combat the Viet Cong as they fought against the South Vietnamese forces and the imperial USA troops trying to stop the apparently irrepressible flow of communism from the north to the south and into the idyllic paradise of FNQ – or Far North Queensland in Australia.
In 1964 compulsory National Service for 20-year old men was introduced in PM Robert Menzies’ government but it was with “All the Way with JBJ” under PM Harold Holt that I became part of the war machine – a very tiny cog or even a coglet – but I was part of the 1971 draft and sent off for basic training and later was selected for officer training. These were desperate times indeed. Australia felt that the dominos were going to fall any day and it was every man and even CSH to the pumps – and I learned vital skills:
- Marching around a square: Officer Cadet Hall! Do you really have three left feet?
- Saluting: No! No! No!!! The Americans salute that way with the short way up and the long way down!
- Killing: Yes sir – you drive the bayonet in thus! And then you …
Fortunately for Australia – and Vietnam – I never had to serve Her Majesty overseas, but all my training was carried out to the west of Sydney in and around the beautiful Blue Mountains area. On my final three-day navigation exercise before graduation as an officer (and, of course, as a gentleman) my group was hopelessly lost about twenty metres into the exercise in the rugged mountains. We were eventually found, taken back to HQ base where we were soundly abused … and then allowed to have a shower.
Not for us the comforts of hot and cold running water, with Spa-approved shampoos and skin-softening shower gels. Nope. For me and the other twenty-something naked soldiers trying to scrub off Blue Mountains mud there were a bucket or two of cold water hanging over a sheet of corrugated iron in the middle of the bush. My bucket ran out and as I ran to the nearest bucket still dribbling tepid water I cut my foot on the corrugated iron. Lots of blood.
- Medic! Get this man some attention!
And a short time afterwards I was flying through the stunning sunset in a small army helicopter over the Blue Mountains back to the emergency medical centre at the Royal Australian Air Force base at Windsor at the foot of the Blue Mountains. Beautiful sunset. Stunning mountain scenes. Flashing red lights of ambulances and emergency medevac vehicles waiting for my blood-drained body. I wonder what radio message they had received …
- This man needs a Band-Aid on his foot … now get him out of here.
The Great Western Trail
My memories of Windsor and the Blue Mountains came flooding back last month as I drove out through the horrors of Western Sydney suburbs hoping to trace some of my ancient history and to follow the Great Western Tourist Trail through the Blue Mountains.
The Windsor air base is still there, and lined by beautiful trees on its perimeter, and Windsor is a lovely town with strong links to its Colonial history. It is one of the oldest European settlements in Australia and dates from 1791. The Macquarie Arms Hotel (a “commodious inn” and named after Governor Macquarie), where I had a relaxed lunch, dates from 1815 and is Australia’s oldest continuously operating pub. Francis Greenway, a British-born architect, was sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation to Australia following his bankruptcy in Gloucestershire. He was to become a very influential figure in early Australian architecture, designing, among many other buildings, the Anglican church in Windsor.
My officer training was conducted at the Officer Training Unit (OTU) in Scheyville – a town close to Windsor. About 330 of us graduated from the unit and eight of the graduates were killed in Vietnam. I survived. My mother and a great friend, Kathy, flew down from Queensland to attend my graduation parade (Mr Hall! You still have three left feet!) and the graduation ball that followed in the Officers’ Mess.
The OTU Regimental Sergeant Major, a highly decorated and much respected Vietnam veteran, and who had so rightly abused my drill skills, later took a commission and served with me in the NSW HQ Command base where I was a very timid and inexperienced Second Lieutenant, but also somehow the Commanding Officer of the 13th Counter Intelligence Unit. “My” men told me what to do – and were usually pretty polite about it.
Many years later I was in Vietnam – as a civilian – trying to persuade education agents to send VN kids to my school in Tasmania. One day in Hanoi I walked across the Long Bien bridge over the Red River. A man about my age, wearing a US baseball cap, was pacing slowly over the timber struts. This bridge had been one of the most damaged by US bombing during the war, and had been repeatedly rebuilt by US prisoners of war. I wondered if the man in the cap was one of the POWs who had re-built and re-built the bridge … or one of the bombers who had repeatedly destroyed it.
Richmond, a short distance from the pretty town of Windsor, held little appeal and so I drove west, ever west, up to Bellbird Hill and the small town of Bell, where there were indeed frequent peals from bellbirds – or what I am now told are Oreoica gutteralis – whose clear chimes carried clearly over the crisp mountain air. Bilpin – a few twists and turns onwards – takes advantage of the crisp 26-degree mountain airs and grows vast amounts of apples.
I grew up in Stanthorpe in Queensland, another crisp apple-growing area, and later spent twenty or so years in Tasmania – Australia’s Apple Isle – so it was nice to travel through small villages offering fresh fruit for sale – along with apple cider, apple vinegar, apple dumplings and any other sort of apple product likely to make a passing motorist stop and make a quick purchase.
The Blue Mountains Botanic Gardens at Mt Tomah is or are a lovely stop. The high altitude offers cool climate plants and trees and the shaded walkways and fountains and waterfalls are delightful.
And then I got to Lithgow
Lithgow is a town with a huge railway industry, a small arms industry, and a terrible local hotel. I spotted signs offering “traditional colonial accommodation” and had visions of roaring log fires, deep leather sofas and afternoon tea with hot scones. Pulled over. Went to the bar.
- Do you have a room for one night?
- Yes mate. $ xxx and $ xxx for key deposit
- Is breakfast included?
- No mate – try over the road
- Do you have WiFi
- Can I see the room?
I went upstairs, tugging my bag behind me. Found the room. A previous guest had ripped a hand basin off the wall and raw plumbing dripped and leaked into the synthetic nylon carpet. The bed was cramped into a squalid corner. The bathroom was down the threadbare-carpeted hallway. Back down to the bar.
- Sorry – this is not acceptable. Can I have my money back please?
And so I drove on, hoping to continue the Great Tourist Loop, but found when asking directions at a local shop:
- No mate – don’t go that way
- No way mate – take the left turn at McDonalds, then the right at Big Rooster take-away shop and go all the way down to the bottom of the valley and come up again
- No – don’t send him that way – he’ll get lost!
I got lost … missed turn-offs, backtracked, visited the Red Rooster about four times, found I was heading east when I wanted to go west … and decided to head for Katoomba and forgot about the rest of the great tourist loop.
Katoomba is a lovely mountain town, but just before you get there is a place called Medlow Bath.
I have been to Bath in the UK, and to Baden Baden and Wiesbaden in Germany but Medlow Bath? There is a train station there. There is nothing else there … except the surprising Hydro Majestic Hotel. http://www.hydromajestic.com.au
Dr No, Ernst Stavro Blofeld and any number of 007 nasties from Hollywood would feel at home here. The delightful hotel, perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking superb mountain and valley scenes, was built by Mark Foy, a Sydney department store entrepreneur, and has recently been fully renovated with greys, silvers and black dominating the décor. A large wedding party was checking in when I arrived so I chose not to try the in-house casino, the tennis courts perched on the edge of cliffs, or the tearooms where Pussy Galore may have been sipping her Earl Grey tea or fingering her .38 pistol.
The Carrington hotel –
Yes sir, we are much older than the Hydro Majestic
is a lovely old hotel perched at the Paris end of the main street. It has a stately Grand Dining Room, a bar named for Champagne Charlie, one of the earliest elevators installed in any Australian hotel, lots of lovely lead-light windows, a huge games room with two open fire places and two full-sized billiards tables, a library and a room being used for the Leavers’ Dinner for Grade 10 kids from Oomagoomabalah State High School, with tired and patient teachers looking bored and with sixteen-year-old girls squeezed into ball gowns and looking like a million dollars, and sixteen-year-old boys looking like sixteen-year-old boys in ill-fitting suits and with spots on their faces.
The Old City Bank bar and brasserie is part of this huge hotel – and served up some excellent lamb and rough red wine after a day’s travels – and is just up the road from the superb old Paragon tea rooms – wood panelling, art deco lights, alabaster carvings – and great chocolates.
Katoomba is a lovely small town, with its splendid Blue Mountains Cultural Centre (featuring an exhibition called “Tracing the Line” with works by some of Australia’s finest print makers), the John Wilson gallery with an excellent display of works by this local artist, and the Wild Boar Gallery – no pigs here – but I was offered a glass of champagne to celebrate the opening of a new exhibition by local disadvantaged artists, just before the arrival of Aunty XXX – an aboriginal woman treasured by local artists.
The area is best known for another aboriginal legend – that of the three sisters.
Meehni, Wimlah and Gunnedoo (no relation to “Yes, ma, I’m gunna do that tomorrow!”) were members of the aboriginal Katoomba tribe who fell in love with men from a rival tribe, and following an inter-tribal battle, were turned into pillars of stone. These striking stone pillars, (see featured image, LEFT) high above the Jamieson Valley, are now a major tourist attraction, and can be viewed from two cable cars or a vertiginous mountain railway.
One day I wanted to take the local train (less horizontally challenging) to the small town of Zig Zag, but was told by the helpful woman in the Katoomba Railway Station ticket office
- Why do you want to go there? The town was destroyed in a bush fire a few years ago and they never rebuilt it
… and so on to Faulconbridge, where the Brook Community Theatre was presenting David Williamson’s play Don’s Party. In the 1970s I played (I think) Don in this acerbic drama – and had to advise my then Headmaster that I was doing so, since the language in the play was pretty caustic … and may not have reflected well on the reputation of the school and its English teachers …
The main house – again built by Mark Foy as a staging post for his journeys to the Blue Mountains – is now a lovely gallery featuring many of the big-bosomed beauties favoured by this Australian artist, as well as sketches and models of the delightful children’s characters he created – the koala Bunyip Bluegum, sailor Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff the penguin – all of whom feature in the classic novel The Magic Pudding.
The pudding is one that always reforms into a whole pudding – no matter how much of it has been eaten– and as I slowly wound my way back down the steep roads of the Blue Mountains and to Mascot Airport, I found myself rather wishing that I, too, could go back and do it all again.
- Journey: November – December 2016
- Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2016. Norman Lindsay image from Internet.
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