Off-season odyssey. Part I

From the Bottom, Up.

 

Doug was a postie, one year off retiring. Bert, I reckon, propped up the bar most nights.

“I drive an excavator, do as little work as possible,” he said.

It was a small town, the smallest. I got the impression Bert’s way was the general way. The sun was an hour or so off setting.

“Is there an oval here, blokes?” I asked.

It had taken a full day and a bit to get to Southport, much longer than I expected, but I had made the wrong turn, and, without a map, just, sorta, drifted along winding roads and the mighty, mighty Huon River.

Impossibly wide and glassy, it slowly pushed aside small townships and huge mountains, putting a lack of rush in my bones. No matter what we do to the world it will outlast us.

“Nah, well, not really. Why you asking, mate?” said Doug.

“Well, this is the Southern most pub in Australia. I’m looking for the Southern-most footy ground in the world,” I told them.

“What for?” asked Doug.

“To have a kick.”

They had a chuckle, while I ordered another beer from the Southern-most barwoman. A nice, dull old lady.

“Try Dover , back up the road. It’s the closest,” Doug said.

I’d been there. Had a kick. Me and the dog and ute. It was nothing special. No scoreboard, no rooms.

“Yeah. they only use it for Over 50s cricket these days,” he added.

“Thought so,” I said. “The pitch looked pretty permanent.”

“Back past that is Surges Bay but they don’t play there anymore,” said Bert.

“Surge’s?” I said, with a grin. I’d stop in on the way back out, for sure.

“Go west and there’s Ida Bay,” threw in the barwoman. “But that club doesn’t exist any more, either, or Lune River. Or Hastings.”

“I think Hastings might still have an Under 13s juniors team,” said a bloke with the oil stains of a diesel mechanic.

It’s the state of the bush, small towns everywhere, farms folding, youth leaving, teams fading.

“Things ebb and flow,” Bert said. “People will be back.”

Geeveston was the nearest real footy club. I’d passed it about an hour and three beers ago. Had a kick. Me and a local kid, no words said. A real lazy, keep-to-yourself sort of thing. The kind that gives you time and space to think about things.

To figure out what I’m really looking for and why.

Their scoreboard was like two beady black eyes, in a brick fortress of a clubrooms. The sort built after world wars. A slit in the wall, above and to the left of the doors, that held a score and said Visitors. A slit that had a score and said Us above the right. The ground had a fine, well-maintained surface.

But I was heading further back from big towns, further south, into overgrown places. Further away. From Geeveston and Dover and the bush of Surges Bay. There had to be something, somewhere near Southport, where the bitumen of a vast continent finally stopped.

Southport was once a whaling town, then, probably, a logging and mining town, before it faded. It would have had booms and busts, despite the constant rain and snow.

“I’m determined,” I said.

“There’s some sort of flat spot you can kick a ball on near the Community Shack,” the barwoman’s husband said.

 

I drove and had a look. There was no real township. Just the pub. About one winding kilometre back from it, was a sign in a driveway.

WHAT’S ON IN SOUTHPORT

Under it was shattered glass and an empty notice board. Nothing but moths and spiders. Behind that was a fence, framed by an old track running along the only real flat in that land of peeks, mists and valleys. It was overgrown, the setting sun catching the grass seeds just right, everything golden, hairy and cold.

When I looked hard, I could just make out the shape of and oval. There was no two ways about it.

I wondered what sort of games it had seen? The best goal, the best biffo? If it was whalers versus loggers? If local history was a guide, it would have had its heyday between 1890 and the 1920s. I wondered how deep the mud would have been back then? How hard the men in a place that rains 240 days a year? I wondered what footy meant to them? If their families dreaded or revelled in it? What was its place, its culture, its price?

And had a kick.

When I was done, so was the sun. I looked back, as it cut sideways, through a crack in the valley, lighting the underside of mountains that towered over it. I had left marks all over the oval, in the dew-covered long-grass, like one of those dance instruction sheets for travelling footyheads.

Dance 42: Intermediate. The maybe former honest player on some kind of holiday.

 

It may have been overgrown, forgotten, “some kind of flat spot to have a kick on”, but to me it was the stuff of legends.

As darkness fell, I paid it, and its ghosts, my respects and made for the bush to find a camp sight.

 

Comments

  1. Turbs was always good value at the bottom of a pack. Preferably when it was raining and the mud was a foot thick . Famous for having the worst van in the Otways. I had the worst ute. No contest. Hagar

  2. Matt, just love this turning of the ignition. Consider the trip ignited by a most enjoyable piece.

    Bruce, you must tell us more – of utes and vans and muddy packs, to quote Carroll and walruses in an Australian context. Nice to hear from you.

  3. Matt Zurbo says:

    Hagar! You should contribute to Almanac! The only writer I know, and a damn fine one! A good blush bloke and a veteran loyal servant of both footy and cricket. How is Gypsy Point? Still spinning the rock?

    Thanks, John!!

  4. Paul Daffey says:

    Matt,

    Great piece.

    I love eastern-most and southern-most, etc. I once stood on a rocky promontory in County Kerry that was the western-most point in Ireland. It gave me great satisfaction to know there was nothing between me and the Canadian coast.

    I also love county footy grounds, and I love Tasmanian grounds the best. There’s something about the lushness and the moody weather, and they have the best stories in Tassie.

    I also love one of Bruce’s characters in his book of short stories, Night Animals. He was the ex-ruckman president. Every club should have one.

    I left Night Animals in a hostel in County Kerry.

  5. Matt Zurbo says:

    Yeah, Daff, Bruce is the duck’s guts.

    (You once lived next to where I once lived, when I was in the city for a year, working in a factory in West Melb, seeing Viva’s daughter.)

  6. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Matt, have you read Daff’s book about country footy grounds? It’s great. You’ll be able to write your own about your footy travels. There’s certainly a feel of wonderment about footy grounds and the people that played on them.

  7. Richard Jones says:

    MATT: I share your own and Daff’s love of rural n regional footy grounds. I drive my wife bonkers with the need to circle an oval in the middle of nowhere — in the car. no unnatural jogging around the circumference.

    We’ve done the 4 Gambiers, when over in S.A. for a country championships series, hosted by Mt Gambier; two or three on Kang. Island where big follower B. Lade hails from; Robe in coastal S.A. on the way back from Adelaide on a separate excursion; a couple or four en route to Mildura, including Sea Lake, Ouyen and Nullawil (we might have had to make a detour to get to one of the afore-mentioned 4) and Camperdown and Colac west of Cat Town.
    Also Talbot, Maldon, Trentham and Hedges Oval (the home of Royal Park) all of whom contest the Maryborough-Castlemaine District League.

    I’ve covered Loddon Valley and Heathcote District League finals played on ovals in Inglewood, Colbinabbin, Bridgewater, Calivil, Toolleen and Lockington, to name just a few. Lockington Oval is pretty unique. Around three-quarter time, or perhaps a tad either way, the dairy cows start to saunter across adjoining paddocks to reach the milking dairies before it gets too late.

  8. Matt Zurbo says:

    Man, good on you, Richard! Am jealous. Where did you play/are you still playing?

    When Otway were in the Hetsburry/Mt.Noorat League, consisting of 6 teams from mostly dairy districts, the games would start at 1.30, so the milkers could get back to their jobs by sunset.

  9. Andrew Starkie says:

    Richard Jones, like you, when entering a new country town, I instinctively drift towards the local oval. I find ovals reassuring. They’re a pulse, evidence of life, community.

    Memory:

    When I was in Grade One, mum and dad drove my sisters and I around Tassie for two weeks. I had car sickness the whole way. One happy memory came from visiting the Queenstown oval on the west coast. It’s gravel. It’s a mining town. It was raining (of course) and they were training. A tubby bloke in a Collingwood jumper led to the flank and juggled one in his hands. There’s a small grandstand down one wing. ‘Geeze, they’re tough,’ Dad said. I was in awe. Never forgotten it.

    Years later, about ’03, when driving around Tassie with a few colleagues, one female and a footy hater, I dragged them across the isle to Queenstown to see if the oval still existed and if it was still gravel. It is. I went and stood in the same pocket I had with dad twenty odd years earlier. Knowing me, I probably got all misty-eyed. I spoke to the local publican and he said they thought about grassing the oval, but voted against it.

    I took a photo which hangs in my kitchen today.

  10. Matt Zurbo says:

    Yeah, what an oval Starkie! Love to see that photo one day.

  11. Richard Jones says:

    MATT: I played for Sydney Uni in the Sydney A. Rules comp. in 1962-63. We were the only true amateur side in that league.
    Later in the mid-sixties played for Port Moresby club in the Papuan Aussie Rules comp. We wore old South Melb. guernseys — white with the red V.

    No cotton jumpers back then so in the tropical heat & humidity you’d wring them out, by hand, at every quarter break. So the career has been over for a few decades now, Matt.

    Like Andrew I’ve been to the gravel Queenstown oval. Very sobering to look at the surface. Also an oval in a town in the north of the state — the town where murals are painted on shops and buildings and the sides of pubs.

    I reckon Paul Daffey has a chapter on Tassie footy grounds [and Tassie footy characters] in 1 of his books …. not sure whether it’s in Local Rites or Beyond The Big Sticks.

  12. Magical – thanks Matt. “Mystic cords of memory” that bind us to the past and tell us who we are, or who we meant to be – before we lost our way.
    I can remember some amazing cricket grounds from growing up on Yorke Peninsula in SA. Grounds without grass (obviously) and without towns or houses. Just crossroads where farming families laid a pitch and there were only 3 or 4 names in a scorebook. Sunbury had Gutsche’s (Possum, Squirt, Graham and Kevin); Newbolds, Aldenhovens – they were a champion team with a ground that was half sheet limestone.
    There was another ground called Honiton – next to Lake Fowler – the biggest salt lake in the area. The bare ground ran away steeply on one side toward the lake, and there was a tall barley crop between the boundary and the lake shore. You were on strict instructions that when the ball went past you scurrying downhill – you had to watch exactly where it disappeared into the crop. There would be 5 minute interruptions while the fielding side kicked the ground beneath the dense crop hoping to feel leather instead of limestone. I remember the players all put in 2 bob for ‘ball fees’ before the game, and the only ‘spares’ had got a thorough belting at practice.
    All journeys are journeys of the spirit. Go well.

  13. Well, Turbs, Harms and Daff I do have a story about the southern most ground. I went to Tasmania last December with my son, Jack, who is seriously good at the grab. We were down there to meet Aboriginal family and after we ran out of peculiar old ladies to visit we decided to go as far south as the rental bomb would take us. We went through Geeveston, Southport and got to Cockle’s beach in one of its 70 days of sunshine. Jack immediately wanted to buy land there until I warned him that the Queensland girlfriend may not thank him. She’s a ripper that Shelley and I don’t want her out of the family. You can understand my caution. Jack only wanted to buy because we worked out the deposit for 90 acres was about $3,000. Anyway we wandered around the beach at Cockle Bay, had toasted sandwiches cooked by a lovely lady with a wig at Ida Bay and then returned to Huonville because Jack was determined to have a beer at a place that advertised ‘Fish and Chip’. We both wanted to know how big that chip was. But as it turned out the restaurant was a floating pontoon and as we looked like a dangerous couple of Otway footballers we were invited to dine on the top deck in glorious sunshine and a view of the river. ‘If ya wanna drink yev goota buy food,’ the chef type bloke warned. We went for the local scallops and a couple of Boag’s draught. They don’t approve of Boags that far south but we were in a mood so he gave them to us. Twenty bucks a shout: stubbies and a box of scallops. Footy and cricket games from the past, Aboriginal aunties,the house with a thousand dolls in wooden crypts built into the wall, the b&b with the lady’s antique nightie on a hanger behind the door, we discussed the lot. Would the lady come back for her nightie? Would she be alive? Would she be alright to observe? Another $20 shout. Land at Cockle Bay. Rang Lyn to say we’d bought it to kind of test the water. The water was cold. Rang Shelly to see what she thought, she just laughed, didn’t seem to care too much either way. She’s a ripper. Rang Lyn back to say we were gamin. She wanted to know how many shouts we’d had. I didn’t care, they were the best beers I’ve ever had in my life. I can’t remember too may happier moments. Kids born, in a tent with Lyn as a Sea Eagle flew over us at dawn (read Bloke for more), catching a big crayfish at Moonlight Head. They are all great memories. Nine for 19 against Irrewarra. Named in the best for Katunga in a GF I can’t remember because the Wunghu rover knocked me out before the game started. I still remember your face cocky. Yeah, they’re all good memories, or failures to remember, but the pontoon deck on the Huon just about takes the cake …. although I’d love one more chance to snag the ball on the wing at the Bay and pass to Jack for a goal. We tried to do that for two years and failed. Rule one came unstuck. I wasn’t getting the ball. And when I did he was always out of range; fifteen metres away. Another shout. Then we had to work out who could afford to lose their license most. And it was me of course, I might be dead before it ever went to court. Thanks Jack, great trip, even when on our last night the only pub near the airport was televising rubbish cricket in silly clothes. Nice beers there too. All of them. And I woke up. Good on you mate. You can have my bat. When I’ve finished with it.

  14. John Harms says:

    Brillo.

    Great to have your words on the almanac page.

  15. The Cascade ‘Pale Ale’ from south of the Mason / Dixon Line is more than acceptable as well Bruce. We call it green death.

  16. Dave Nadel says:

    Nice to read a contribution from Bruce Pascoe on the Almanac website. “Bloke” was one of the books I read over the summer holidays, absolutely loved it, as a book on aboriginal identity, as a book on corruption in the fishing industry, as a love story, as a thriller and just as a rattling good yarn. I recommend it to all knackers. Thanks for the story, Bruce.

  17. Matt Zurbo says:

    Bruce, you are and will always be a Champion!! Writer and bloke. And mate! A ripper yarn! As one would expect! Ripper!

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