Easter at Stawell

Some things just ARE. There is no preamble, no surge of anticipation. It’s a bit like sitting around the dinner table with your family. You just do it. You do it because that’s what happens at night when the day’s activities and tasks are mostly done. You sit, eat and talk. You also do it because you love it. A great meal with a glass of wine and good company is one of life’s great joys. It’s simple but moving. It has meaning.

And so, for me, is the annual pilgrimage to Stawell. It creeps up between the end of the cricket and the start of the footy. We don’t feel a thing as the world turns on its axis; the leaves turn brown, the mornings get darker, and the weather brisk. The calendar says Easter is approaching and at Easter I go to Stawell for the same reasons that in the evening I have dinner with my family.

It’s been that way for as long as I can remember. As a kid I recall my father packing up the Kingswood early every Good Friday morning with a rudimentary collection of items that could loosely be described as “equipment”, and we would set forth on an odyssey lasting in excess of four hours. We dubbed the Kingswood ‘The Golden Streaker’ as it was originally gold and to us it looked really fast, but a combination of gum tree sap and our cleaning it with velvet soap stripped the colour out, turning it into a blotchy, speckled, off-bronze. But it was always ‘The Golden Streaker’ to us.

It was loaded to breaking point. On the  roof rack were stacked the tent, tent poles, pegs, and a few chairs; and the back was crammed with food, bedding, the billy, the polystyrene esky, plates and cutlery, sleeping bunks, the hotplate, containers of drinking water, the hammer, spade and a case of clothing. Then the seven of us would pile in. Mum stayed home.

As we trundled up the highway with the car’s backside tilted awkwardly to the ground and the bonnet pointing to the heavens, The Golden Streaker probably looked like an obese praying mantis. I often wonder what visibility my father had whilst driving, though I do recall he used to say triumphantly “I’m driving by sound boys!” But Dad was a steady driver and nursed the Holden 202 motor along, rarely exceeding ninety kilometers an hour.

Once at Stawell we would erect the tent. And this really was some tent. Made from heavy duty canvas with white sides and a green roof the tent had survived near cyclonic conditions in Queensland and regular beatings at the hands of six rampant children. It was easy to find in any camping ground due to the distinctive and flourishing mildew pattern that decorated its side panels.

The meals in those childhood camps were simple but effective. Tins of braised steak and potato were heated up in an old saucepan over the open fire then slopped delicately onto our tin plates which were in turn balanced precariously on our laps. Sometimes the meal was so hot we had to stretch the sleeves of our jumpers over our fingers to prevent third degree burns. After dinner Dad would insist that we ate a banana to “keep the scurvy away”. He had a real thing about scurvy.

Of course there was no braised steak on Good Friday. That was fish and chips night. But before the fish and chips we had a mass to attend; the two hour Good Friday mass. (The reminder to attend mass was always Mum’s last word when seeing us off so we daren’t miss it). For kids aged between about five and fourteen, enduring a two hour mass after a four hour trip in a cramped car became a test of character. We reckoned the priest, a diminutive chap with a wispy red beard and a set jaw, sensed our fragile state and purposefully insisted on singing every verse from every hymn. It was like an exercise in religious persecution.

We would sit on the hard timber church pews as the end of mass approached, heads bowed with mental fatigue rather than in a state of religious tranquility, waiting for the last verse of the last hymn to finish. The organ would be playing, the choir (such as it was) would be exulting God and his many joyous ways, and we would endure. Then, miraculously, there would be a momentary silence. Could it be? Has it actually ended? NO! Another burst of the organ, more voices; a whole new verse would start up. Oh the agony!

But it would eventually end, like a bee sting eventually stops stinging, and we would do all we could not to sprint to the exit.

From mass we would return to the camp, get our bunks set up and bedding ready, then go to the take away for the fish and chips. Normally the poor shop attendants on Good Friday were busier than breeding cane toads. It seemed like the whole camping ground was in the shop. The place was a frenzy of deep fried activity. When an order was ready a red faced lady, whose sense of humour had left her many hours earlier, would yell out a ludicrous ticket number like “six hundred and twelve” and dump the parcel on the counter as if it was a bag of cement mix. If no one came forward immediately the call would go out again, this time with meaning: “SIX HUNDRED AND TWELVE!” Someone would inevitably elbow their way through the crowd, grab the parcel and slink off into the evening avoiding eye contact with the frazzled lady behind the jump.

Such was the pressure on the cooks in the shop that the frozen chips and the white lump described on the chalk board as “flake” were only briefly submerged in the boiling oil, covered in a liberal film of salt, and wrapped up for our consumption. My bowels refused to function for about a fortnight after the Good Friday feast.

The Easter bunny would deliver his chocolate goods to us on Sunday morning. The eggs were often left at the entrance to the tent in a neat little pile. We didn’t know which egg belonged to which child so it was normally a case of first in gets.

Like all children we began to question the whole Easter Bunny concept as we got older. One particular Easter Sunday morning we awoke to discover that the Easter Bunny had failed to make his chocolate egg delivery.

I remember we all awoke and stuck our heads out of our sleeping bags. Our breath was visible in the frigid morning air as we surveyed the tent’s interior. No Easter eggs anywhere. One of my brothers braved the cold, got out of his bed and did a lap of the tent’s perimeter. Upon his return the news was grim.

“Any eggs?”

“No”

As we lay there contemplating the gravity of the situation we heard the car door open (my father slept in the back of the station wagon rather than on a narrow camping bunk), and we listened intently to the rustling sound of a small plastic parcel being dropped to the ground. There was a grunt and a groan and the car door closed again.  Upon investigation we found our Easter eggs in a plastic Safeway bag conspicuously close to the car door.  Dad didn’t emerge from the car for some hours, the previous night’s frivolities having taken their toll, and the Easter Bunny vanished into history.

I loved, and still love, the mornings at our Stawell camps. Leaving the warmth of the sleeping bag we were immediately embraced by the sharp chill of the morning air that sits at the foot of the Grampians. It’s a chill that takes particular toll of the toes and fingers.

The ground was slightly damp and so getting the fire started involved a search for dry leaves. The leaves were piled onto the hot coals and we would all bend down and blow furiously on the coals until fire sprung to life. With the fire came warmth – eventually. But until then we stood in a circle with shoulders hunched and hands buried deep in our pockets, and we would stare at the fire like it was one of the seven wonders of the world. Breakfast was a bowl of cornflakes and bread toasted against the naked flames with lashings of butter and honey. And a banana.

After watching the athletics during the day we would return to our camp and organize our own athletics competitions. Like the Stawell Gift, our races were handicapped, with my older brothers giving me a start, and my younger brothers out in front. The races were over journeys ranging from 50 metres to 800 metres. Dad was the adjudicator and the handicapper.

To make things interesting we also organized what we called our Back Black Jacket Derby. This was a race where we all ran with our jackets (which were all hand-me-down black) on backwards, thus restricting our arm movement, and thereby making the contest a lot more even. Some of these races were epic events with throws at the tape as heroic as anything seen in the history of the Stawell Gift itself. The victor was triumphant, the losers often in tears. Sometimes the handicapper was blamed for getting it wrong.

But despite the trials and tribulations of camping and the enormous fun we had entertaining ourselves across the Easter weekend, nothing could match the exhilaration of the climax to the Stawell carnival on Easter Monday afternoon; the running of the Stawell Gift.

At 3.45pm five or sometimes six nervous runners who had made it through the cut throat qualifying heats and semi finals would make their way to the top of the Gift track just as the finalists have been doing since 1878. We had witnessed their journey across the Easter week end; we felt like we knew them.

Any vantage point was used to get a sight of the track. Adults stood on their toes; kids sat on Dad’s shoulders. We normally stood next to the gate that led onto the hallowed turf in front of the old grandstand, and peered over the top like a family of merecats.

An extraordinary, all encompassing silence always descended over the crowd as the starter stepped back onto his little box, raised his arm with gun in hand, and yelled his instructions to the runners. We could hear them clearly:

“WALK TO YOUR BLOCKS”. They did, sucking in deep breaths, flicking legs, swinging arms.

And then moments later,

“GET ON YOUR BLOCKS”. Slowly the runners crouched onto their blocks, got steady and bowed their heads. Their fate was now in the lap of the sporting gods.

“SEEEET!”

My heart would be pounding at the base of my throat as if it was trying to escape. No one moved, no one breathed, the birds stopped chirping.

The runners rose gently on their blocks and waited for the gun, the breeze blowing against their silk, coloured vests giving extra tension to the moment. They waited. We all waited, perhaps for just a few seconds, perhaps for an eternity.

We would see the puff of white smoke a split second before hearing the gun go off, and another bloke would dash into history.

And so it will happen again this year.

About Damian O'Donnell

OK - which is the odd one out: Love the Cats and flannelette shirts, especially in winter. I get on extremely well with red wine. We just seem to hit it off. Love horse racing in Spring. Used to love cricket. Go to Stawell every Easter and contemplate life around the fire. Love water skiing, especially in summer. Love a great oil painting. Will read most things put in front of me. Thought 'The Sorpranos' was the best TV show ever made - by miles. Run an accounting practice in Melbourne's suburbs.

Comments

  1. John Butler says:

    Dips

    I was always pretty leery about that Easter Bunny myself.

    Thanks for a lovely read on a sunny weekend.

  2. johnharms says:

    Dips

    Super stuff.

    Right to the heart of it all.

    My old man always used to bang on for too long from the pulpit, and we’d invariably miss the opening ten minutes of World of Sport.

    I’m thinking Almanac camp at the Gift in 2011.

    JTH

  3. JTH – an Almanac camp at Stawell – what a cracking idea. I fancy the Easter Bunny might struggle on Sunday morning if a few of the Knackers get wound up on Saturday night.

    JB – its funny that history repeated. I got found out one Easter Sunday morning in similar circumstances!!

  4. Peter Flynn says:

    Dips,

    Great read.

    I get similarly excited each year just before the running of the Melbourne Cup.

  5. Dips,

    we tend to relax in the Autumn bliss of Rocky Cape over a pint or two and take more than a passing interest as one of the local kids who grew up grazing his knees on the gravel road out the front runs occasionally.

    We are all round (some very round) sportsmen here abouts, and experts as well.

    Perhaps you may like to come over and watch a Burnie Gift one New Years day. You would be well looked after. I have connections who would be interested in meeting a past place getter from Stawell.

    Cheers, Phantom.

  6. Phantom – I’ve always wanted to make that trip. When I was trotting about I always went to Maryborough on New Year’s Day (up in Victoria’s gold country) and ran at the carnival up there.

    I might take you up on that one day !!

  7. Martin Reeves says:

    Nice read, brought back some fond memories.

    I spent every Easter of my childhood making the journey from Warrnambool to Stawell to visit the grandparents. Some childhood recollections include:

    – fish and chips from Trapper Johns on Good Friday
    – wondering what went on at the Drill Hall
    – Saturday morning spent wandering High St Mall
    – recording the place getters (plus times) for the heats in the programs on Saturday
    – disappearing to the ‘carnie’ during the long distance running
    – walking amongst the bookies on the hill
    – the highland dancing competition
    – standing on an eskie at the finish line for the semis and final

  8. Onya Dips,

    Beautiful reminiscence. I might bore you one day with tales from our annual boys’ weekend in Deniliquin.

    Dropped into the Gift for an hour in 1996 (after walking in Wyperfeld). Saw Cathy Freeman win the women’s 400 metres from scratch. She looked tiny, but her strides were so big.

    I always thought of her in a red tunic after that.

  9. Daff – I remember Freeman’s run at Stawell. It was a beauty, but nothing on John Smith’s effort to win the men’s backmarkers in the late 70s (I think) from scratch or close to it. He was a magnificent specimen – about 6’3″ and built like Kouta.

    Love to hear your tales of Deniliquin one day.

  10. We used to camp at Lake Fyans which was handy for a trip to Halls Gap as well as the Gift. Problem was finding a designated driver back to camp after the obligatory pub crawl in Stawell. We also used to fit in a trip to Great Western on the Sunday which from memory was a rest day at the gift. Good chance to stock up on supplies from Bests.

  11. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Daff, did you go to to the Denni Ute muster?

    An Almanac camp at Stawell sounds awesome . I love the heritage of it.

    Barney Cashmore who lived at Gunbower( opposite the butcher shop which he sold to grandpop who also ran at Stawell) won it one year. We used to love going to his house and admiring his beautiful sash- which was in a glass case with a lovely wooden frame and on the wall above the fireplace.

    An article about Barney is on the wall of the shop if any one who is passing through that way is interested.

  12. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Great article Dips, You always describe the atmosphere so well

  13. Pamela – what agreat way to store the sash, in a glass case. A.G. Cashmore won it in 1920 (I didn’t remember it I looked it up) but the bloke who ran third, EJ Goonan, I’m pretty sure was the grandfather of a bloke I went to school with. Amazing hey!

  14. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Dips. There was a controversy about the Gift Final that year. Something to do with the other runners.I will get a copy of article from newspaper(cousin has it ) one of these days.

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