G’day from Iron Knob

I’ve been reminiscing about horseracing and the tracks I’ve visited such as Randwick, Oakbank, and Port Augusta. But beyond Victoria Park, Clare, and Singapore, there’s one that holds a particular place.

*

The publican’s boyfriend stood in the dock. He was a bikie who showed dismal regard for the court. The prosecutor shuffled his papers and then continued. “Behind the front bar of the Iron Knob Hotel the police found firearms and drugs. You’ve admitted these belonged to you. Is this correct?” The bikie nodded.

Again the barrister spoke. “Additionally, knuckledusters were also seized. Were these yours?” Some of the jurors noted the bikie’s chest swelled a little before he replied. “They weren’t knuckledusters,” he smirked. “They were napkin holders.”

The court found that the bikie’s girlfriend wasn’t fit to hold a license, and she was given three months to sell the only pub in the outpost of red dirt and bemused kangaroos standing in the moonlit main street as you weave past in your sad little car.

Welcome to Iron Knob. Population: 180.

*

The Middleback Ranges on Eyre Peninsula has been mined for many years. West of Whyalla and about an hour from Kimba a fifth of the steel required for the construction of the Sydney Harbor Bridge was quarried at Iron Knob.

Other local ore bodies are at Iron Monarch, Iron Prince, Iron Baron, Iron Knight, Iron Princess, Iron Queen, Iron Chieftain, Iron Duchess and Iron Duke. Local stalwart Bryan Lock, from the Iron Knob Visitor Centre confirmed that, “150 million tonnes of high grade ore came out over one hundred years.” I wonder if any future mines might be named Iron Gloves, Iron Butterfly or Iron Chef.

*

Among my old mates it’s a notorious item of clothing, and we talk about it more than we should. Fresh from the drive across Eyre Peninsula, Paul banged on my door. “How’s the trip?” I asked. We shook hands. “Not bad. I stopped at The Knob.” Iron Knob is sometimes, simply, The Knob. “And I bought a souvenir.” Hmmm, I thought, like sending a postcard from your proctologist’s.

From his bag he pulled a frighteningly fluorescent green and pink singlet. Festooned across the chest was an unlikely salutation, a surely ironic hooray from a forlorn petrol stop

G’day from Iron Knob

Paul loved that singlet. Every spring he’d drag it out. Over the years I saw him in it at the MCG and on Coolangatta beach. He also packed it when we went to Vegas, the Grand Canyon and California. Wearing it today, I doubt he’d be allowed into Disneyland.

*

It was the first country race meeting I attended. I recall crushed Southwark cans mingling with the dust, and Akubras on every second squinting head. There was an energetic crowd of gnarled types, and blue-grey saltbush stretching across to the hills where The Sundowners was filmed over five decades ago with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr.

Legendary bush jockey Phil McEvoy came from Streaky Bay, and made his debut at Iron Knob in 1970. He saluted. Three decades later his son Kerrin piloted Brew to victory in the millennium’s first Melbourne Cup.

I was at The Iron Knob Cup with friends from Kimba. We stood about on the edge of a cruel desert, but happily trapped within the racetrack’s exhilarating world. Gareth and Netty trained horses, and competed in equestrian events, and Gareth was the showjumping course builder at the Royal Adelaide Show. Netty’s father Arthur was a famed horseman, parliamentarian and one of the “Rats of Tobruk,” and if you asked Netty whether she’d rather a month in Europe, or a month at outback race meets, she’d answer immediately. No passport required.

I couldn’t tell you who won any of the races, or even The Iron Knob Cup. I doubt I bothered the bookies at all. But there was something strikingly elemental and persuasive about that place for it evoked a time long forgotten, when the men all wore porkpie hats and “madam” featured courteously in conversations, and cars didn’t have air-conditioning, and so, as kids in the back seat, we wound down the Kingswood’s windows, welcoming in wind and flies and the baked, shimmering earth.

*

The town had a peak population of 3000, and there were 800 residents when the mine closed in 1999. Within weeks it shrivelled to one hundred and fifty. Many of the shops and houses remain boarded up. Wardy’s take away food business is closed, and a for sale sign points sanguinely to its peeling façade.

Iron Knob’s annual race meeting is now gone.

Today, the mine has re-opened and employs about thirty. In a few, fleeting years the ore will be finally exhausted, and then like Coward Springs, Radium Hill and Yudnamutana the town will quietly expire. But, for now, the Iron Knob Tourist Centre sells tea towels, and has a gem bar. There’s a dusty School Dux Board on its wall.

I doubt it, but hope they still sell G’day from Iron Knob singlets.

 

About Mickey Randall

Favourite film: The Shawshank Redemption Favourite song: Khe Sahn Favourite holiday destination: Gold Coast Favourite food: steak Favourite beer: VB Best player seen: Dogga Worst player seen: Frogga Last score on beep test: 3.14159 Favourite minor character in Joyce’s Ulysses: Punch Costello

Comments

  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    One of my favourite race horses as a kid was Steel Helmet, ridden by the wizened postillion R Cox; would have been the omen tip of the century had it raced over there.

    Made it to Iron Baron once on a Grade 5 camp, where we stayed at Point Lowly. Almost as big a highlight as the trips to the Playford Power Station and the Port Pirie smelters.

    Thanks Mickey.

  2. Ahh, Mickey.
    I know this place.
    In fact, I’ve spent a night in the Iron Knob ‘campground,’ really a stony gravel compound next to the servo.
    As three Victorian uni students on a trans-continental pilgrimage to the North, we’d spent Christmas and Boxing Days at Wilpena Pound and had thoughts of New Year at Streaky Bay.
    Pulling into Iron Knob for fuel late one evening, HK Kingswood with all windows wide open, skin stuck to seats, we were happily inconvenienced to find the servo closed for the day.
    “Ah well, let’s camp here.”

    Missed the singlet next day.
    But we were camped on Streaky Bay beach later to hear SK Warne’s hat trick v England.
    Iron Knob. Brilliant.

  3. Good to be back in Australia for the regular “South Australian Useless Information You Didn’t Really Need (or want) To Know” series. Priceless (worthless).
    Mickey, Swish and Crio are always reassuring that I am not (completely) mad and my childhood memories are (mostly) reliable.
    Mum and Dad were from Eyre Peninsula (Wudinna and Port Lincoln) so Iron Knob held a childhood fascination. Mining towns often had intriguing place names – Rum Jungle etc. Rarely lived up to the billing.
    Swish – Bobby Cox finished up getting too heavy and riding over jumps. He was known as “Autumn Leaves” for obvious reasons.
    Must buy a carton of Coopers on my way home tonight to wash all that awful French wine out of my system. Thanks Mickey.

  4. Great stuff Mickey.
    I seem to recall we souvenired a signpost to there one evening en route to the west coast.
    Peter – your recollections aren’t bad for an old boy…I certainly recall Steel Helmet and also Bob Cox.
    Dad used to love the “Autumn Leaves” legend – it was actually Les Boots.

  5. Poor old Iron Knob – visited one day when on a school trip to Whyalla (we went to all the exotic places) while still a going concern but glories, such as they were, quickly fading. My Whyalla born mum talks of seeing Dawn Fraser swim laps of the Iron Knob swimming pool with her legs tied together. No-one was expected to return to where their father came from, otherwise my mum would have ended up in Peterborough that evening. Thanks Mickey.

  6. Swish- Playford Power Station and the smelters? Where did the good kids go on camp? Makes my Grade 6 trip to the South East and various logging operations look like a week on the Amalfi Coast. I remember a family trip to Whyalla when I was a boy because the house had very low ceilings, no air-conditioning (of course) and it was well over the ton every day.

    E.r- I would think that Almanackers who’ve spend a night in Iron Knob is a highly selective club! A HK Kingswood across to Streaky Bay; now there’s a trip. I’m sure if you rang the servo they’d post you over a singlet!

    Peter B- trust you’re enjoying the Coopers. We had friends here last week from Louisville, Kentucky who thought the sparkling ale was a treat. “Autumn Leaves” is a good nickname. “Bluey” for jockeys, I guess. Welcome back from Europe too.

    Crio- I reckon “Nowhere Else” a bit further south on the Eyre Peninsula is a frequently borrowed sign too.
    Dave- You were also sent to Iron Knob on a school trip! And the convicts from the Sydney and Tasmanian colonies thought they did it tough. I reckon the Dawn Fraser swimming laps of the Iron Knob pool with her legs tied together is a yarn worth telling! I shouldn’t mock the region too much as my Dad was born in Whyalla, but escaped early.

    Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting.

  7. Luke Reynolds says

    Iron Knob- sounds like an ordinary Iron-Man villan.

    Always sad to see a town boarded up, even if it was only set up as a mining town. 3000 at it’s peak would have contained people with many stories. Wonder if Iron Knob had footy and cricket clubs there?

    Really enjoyed the read as usual Mickey.

  8. Thanks Luke.

    Agree that Iron Knob the superhero has been tragically neglected by both Hollywood and Bollywood.

    Iron Knob had a good oval, and when I was up the road at Kimba a school team of ours was bowled out for eleven there.

  9. Dave Brown says

    Potted history of football in Iron Knob as best as I can make out from an hour or so on Trove. There was an Iron Knob football team / club from 1901 onwards. This coincides with BHP taking up mining licences and sending iron ore to the smelter at Port Pirie. The first step was building a rail line between Iron Knob and the port at Hummocks Hill (which later became Whyalla).

    There remained a single Iron Knob Football Club which would play against clubs and rep sides from Whyalla, Port Augusta and Pirie. Iron Knob’s players were known by delightful monikers such as the ‘knobs’, the ‘knobites’ and the ‘ironstone boys’. The club would divide itself at different times into a three club internal structure. In the 1920s it was Ramblers, Centrals and Baron. In 1939 it was Central, Knob and Buff. In 1952 Iron Knob entered a team into the Whyalla Football League B-Grade competition and were runners up in their first season.

    The electronic trail runs cold after that as Trove’s SA newspaper availability ends in the mid 1950s. It would appear that junior footballers from Iron Knob these days play for the Roopena Football Club in the Whyalla League.

  10. Thanks Dave, that’s excellent.

    There’s so many country towns whose current state disguises a rich social history. I’m sure there’s dozens of defunct footy clubs on the west coast alone given that Kimba had a self-contained competition until 1990.

    Urban drift is unstoppable but takes many scalps on its way. Footy clubs, schools and pubs (institutions I know well) are sad victims of change.

    As with many places Iron Knob has a history worth sharing. I’m sure it produced some sports people of note, and would live to know their stories too.

    Great research Dave. Thanks again.

  11. Great stuff Mickey. i’ve been to a diverse range of tracks, with others on the bucket list, but Iron Knob never crossed my mind. Considering they don’t race there any more that’s probably why !

    Southwark Cans. It brings back, unpleasant, flashbacks of Melbourne beer strikes during my miss spent teenage years. The ritual Xmas beer strike gave Melbournians an option of Southwark and/or Westend. Were there many worse drops than that pairing ?

    Glen!

  12. Thanks for that Glen.

    If we accept that beer is art then one person’s Picasso is another’s Ken Done. With it’s unique bitterness I reckon the original Southwark would have found an audience in today’s hipster market. But West End is intolerably awful.

    Then again I think Heineken is European VB. The great benefit of globalisation is the wonderful choice of beer we now have.

    All of this said the annual beer strikes would have been dreadful for most.

    Cheers (a most appropriate farewell).

  13. Trucker Slim says

    Hi Mickey

    What a great story and tribute. And this from someone with no interest in horse racing. Having toured a lot of WA (a long time ago, with one Matty Q) it was amazing to see that in most towns there was a racecourse. The life and death of small towns and particularly company towns is sad and fascinating. I don’t think history is going to look to kindly on how our greater society treated such places and the people that populated them and helped them grow.

    Are you familar with Dennis Glover’s ‘An Economy is not a Society’? While it tells the tale of a forgotten working class suburb of Melbourne I’m sure there would be echos of the treatment of the town and people of Doveton, near Dandenong in the stories of Iron Knob.

    And then there’s Jimmy Buffett’s song, Ringling Ringling, about a dying little town:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-W9X2zseJo&list=PLxxLSYsrpim7eWwWZKkJMQ8eRQ590hJF7&index=3

    Cheers and thanks again

  14. I reckon one of those mines should (and still could) have been named Iron Mike in honour of that great but flawed pugilist. Apt because both would be tough and ugly.
    “The Striders” was a running club whose membership was almost exclusively made up of young (why why why?) Whyalla teachers, nearly all of whom had been dragged kicking and screaming away from their leafy green suburbs of Adelaide by a heartless Education Dept of SA to the Housing Trust Jewel of the Desert for a 4 year stint. For one of their regular social do’s they minted a T-shirt with the aphorism “Happiness is BHP on the right!” The red dirt encrusted steel works were on the right of the Eyre Highway as you drove away from Whyalla towards home sweet home. Needless to say the permanent residents didn’t understand or appreciate the light hearted nature of the sartorial jibe and it gave them yet another reason to regard the over educated blow-ins with contempt.

  15. Thanks Trucker especially for the book and song suggestions. I agree that it is in mining towns that we witness industrialisation at its most naked and predatory.

    Thanks Kevmak. The Striders organisation was infamous and I attended some of their shows. One was a bushie. The t shirts are legendary. There used to be reunions in North Adelaide pubs from memory.

    I agree with your Iron Mike suggestion too!

  16. PS- Around 1992 my friends Gar and Netty trained the winner of The Iron Knob Cup. It was called Prince of Chance.

    Of course there was much trackside celebration as the connections drank from the cup, which, being Iron Knob wasn’t a cup at all but a frying pan. So fine champagne was drunk from the frying pan before the connections repaired to the Kimba pub and continued into the evening.

  17. Cat from the Country says

    Delightful memories
    I have not been to Iron Knob however your story took me right there.
    Having been up the Sturt to Newcastle Waters I had a really good picture in my mind.
    Driving the Nullabor and playing the Links is on my Bucket List so I will ensure finding the Knob for a visit.

  18. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great stuff Mickey love your ability to take us all to a particular place and you continue to educate us about sa even as a person who has lived my whole life there

  19. Cat from the Country-‘ thanks for that. Like you I love a good country race meet. I reckon everyone should drive the Nullabor at least once. Good luck with the world’s longest golf course!

    Malcolm- Thanks for that. Any famous sports people come from Iron Knob? I can’t think of any.

  20. Hugh Jolowicz says

    I’ve already done this once and got locked out and my offering disappeared. One more try. August 30th 1967 My eighteenth birthday. My mate and I hitch hiking to Mt. Tom Price from Sydney. We had no idea what we were doing, both from London. We left Sydney with my guitar, an over night bag each, and two bottles of coke, that’s Coca Cola ! I think I’m right in saying that the road has been moved since then, but we got dropped at a left hand turn into the town. We decided that we should go to the pub where I could enjoy my first legal drink. We had several, the guy behind the bar was pretty friendly and it was late afternoon when we decided to go out to the main road and camp in one of the derelict houses we’d seen there. There was no roof on our new abode but there were four walls and importantly an open fireplace. We’d be snug as.It was dark now and I had a large sheath knife and was just splitting a piece of weatherboard when a car pulled in right up to the front door lights on full, we could see anything. We heard a door slam and then a voice said “put that knife down”. We could see in the headlights now it was a policeman. And he wasn’t too pleased to see us, “what are you doing?”
    “What’s it look like”, said my mate Bob. Definitely the wrong answer. “Pack your things you’re coming with me”. There was no point in arguing, we re-packed and he put our stuff in the boot and us in the back seat.
    He was rude to the point of being really rude.
    He took us back into town and stopped at what looked like a normal house and ushered us inside a small hallway/office. Leave your bags here he said, you can bring your sleeping bags”. He then led us up the garden path, actually I think it was down, but anyway. There was at the bottom of the garden what looked like two concrete cells and he opened the heavy iron door of one of them. My main worry was Bob, he was the nicest guy under the sun, but he had a temper on him. I was relieved when the door slammed shut with a sickening thud. There was no light, not even the pretence of a bed, a bucket in the corner which I didn’t even see until I inadvertently kicked it. I’ve been a professional ski instructor for twenty years, living in some of the coldest places you can imagine. But never was I so cold as that night. I tried to crawl into my sleeping bag with my head as well, hoping that my breath would warm things up. Sheer exhaustion put me to sleep fitfully, I don’t know who he was, but he had an accent, my memory is vague, he could have been English like us. I’m not sure. Anyway I’ll keep it clean and not say what I’m thinking. The following morning he came and let us out, we collected our bags which had obviously been gone through in detail. We weren’t drug users so there was nothing to find. He put us back in the car and drove back to the main road, “where are you going?” he asked, “Mt. Tom Price”, I said defiantly. He laughed and turned left, “You’ll never get there”, he said, then added, “I never want to see you again”. Bob said “the feeling is mutual”. But anyway we did, and he didn’t.[see us again]

Leave a Comment

*