The Mailman, South Australia

The Outback Mailman

A lesson in Geography

The Great Outback

The article below, written by Ernestine Hill, was published in the Mail of Saturday 30 July 1932 and was titled;
Postman's Knock in the Great Outback.
Pictures supplied by FRR.

It was a Joseph Rudyard Kipling that sang the overland mail in a stirring epic of Empire. South Australia has a 'Joe' Kipling that runs one. Son and grandson of men who have been outback mailmen for half a century. Kipling has been faithful to the Blinman trail through the ranges from Parachilna for 28 years.

To travel with him through these glorious hills and ravines at sunset is to hear many a rollicking story of the old coaching days, when he drove a six-in-hand out to the copper mines and sheep stations of those high, green valleys. Ah, those were the days says Mr. Kipling. No punctures, and a good round curse and the crack of a whip would get you out of a bog.

I've had 28 on board her going out and 32 coming back. Blinman was a big town when the mine was working, 3,000 people, three schools, four public houses, and a wine shanty, and teams all along the road, horse teams, donkey teams, bullocks, and camels. I've seen 500 camels out feeding on the hills at one time, and the camps of the wood carters and charcoal burners were everywhere.

My grandfather, George Pope, drove a mail of the very early days from Burra through Hawker, Wilpena Pound, Blinman, Wooltana, Wirrealpa, Moolawatana, Mount Hopeless, and Innamincka, new country then. He could remember the spearing of many a shepherd in the Flinders Ranges, and now you'd have to look a long way to find a blackfellow.

Larrikin Tommy and Matilda, camped here at the foot of the hills, are about the last of them. Tommy remembers my father when he was a boy, he must be nearly 90. Father took the mail over from grandfather, and I've made it a life job. I never get tired of It. When I wanted a holiday any time I just changed over to the mail from Wilcannia to White Cliffs, or the one to Cooper's Creek.

We ran the first car in 1922, and things have changed a good deal since then. If Australia's mailmen had written their histories, what stirring tales would be told. Following the pioneer into the wilderness, his only link for many years with the world he has relinquished, ever faithful under tremendous difficulties and a trusted friend in matters of life and death, to the outback mailmen of the five States is due no small share of credit in the colonisation of a continent.

South Australia, even in these motor car and wireless days, has one or two stories well worth telling. Every Saturday morning from Kingoonya, on the East-West line, Mr. Jacob Santing, a sterling old character of a Dutchman, makes out 200 miles through limitless seas of the saltbush for the opal fields in the Stuart Ranges, returning to catch the down train on Monday night.

This road is impassable in many places after wet weather, five tons of truck and loading down to the axles in red, creaming mud is a common occurrence, and to leave the track is to thrash round in the bush all night trying to find it again. Even so, it is never on record that the mail has missed the down train.

Arriving at Coober Pedy, it might be at midnight, Mr. Jacob, as he is affectionately known in the district, sometimes without a wink of sleep, turns round and comes back again. Along that road are seven sheep stations, and they run the whole gamut in the story of Australian pioneering.

North Well 1934 (Neil Elliott)

There is North Well, with its own electric light plant and hundreds of miles of waterpipes; Bon Bon, a big, prosperous station of the old school; Mount Eba, an elegant little homestead with merry children playing on its lawn; Twin Wells, pleasant and well equipped; McDouall Peak, a typical, comfortable outback sheep station; Ingomar, as yet little more than a tin shack in a nearly waterless stretch of country; and Mount Penrhyn. (South of Coober Pedy, east of the Stuart Highway)

Recently taken up by a solitary pioneer, unafraid of hardship and loneliness. Mount Penrhyn is a tiny one-man cabin of tin, with a black boy sitting at its campfire. Yet there, for all its humility, one finds that energy and optimism that have built Australia's past and will cement its future. All of these stations watch eagerly for the mailman. He is the event of the week, and a wonderful hospitality is accorded his travellers, whoever they may be.

When the mail is long delayed, sometimes they go out and haul it in, but that is rarely necessary. A sturdy soul, though Mr. Jacob may be late, he is never helpless. By far the longest and most arduous mail routes in the State are the tracks that lead up along Cooper's Creek into Queensland. Every alternate Sunday the Cooper mailmen pull out from Marree, on the north line, to Birdsville, the only mail in the Commonwealth that runs right across the border of another State, and from Farina to Innamincka and Cordillo Downs.

Theirs is now a trail of tragedy, of stations abandoned and of homesteads engulfed in the sand through five years of merciless drought. From Marree the road lies through Lake Harry, once a government date palm plantation, past the deserted homesteads of Dulcaninna, Etadunna, Killalpaninna, Kopperamanna, Ooroowillannie, Mungerannie, Merty Merty, Mount Gason, and up across Goyder's Lagoon, past the letter boxes of Clifton Hills and Pandi Pandi to the Condamine, and the last little town in West Queensland.

Clifton Hills 1901

With but a few isolated souls in 360 miles of wilderness, resource and initiative are needed. The mailman possesses them to a marked degree dragging his car through at times with horse, camel, and man power, using the roofs of the old homesteads as mats through the sand. Recently the young driver was unlucky enough to break a piston rod on the road down from Goyder's Lagoon.

He and his companion walked 16 miles to the nearest bore, where luck presented them with two ancient and decrepit horses. Tearing their camp sheet to strips, they made bridles and bits with wire, and rode bareback for 70 miles to Mungerannie for assistance, living on galah meat, and arriving at last at the township of Marree a whole week late.

On the lower route there is not a soul to be met, not a human habitation for 200 miles. After leaving Murnpeowie, 80 miles from Farina, the mailman camps for the night at the old ruined homestead of Blanchewater, a famous horse run of the fifties, where old hands can remember the mustering of 1,000 horses at one yarding. Four miles from this old homestead is St Mary's Pool, once deemed bottomless, but so silted up by the recent years of drought that it is but a shifting quicksand.

From Blanchewater his way lies past Mount Hopeless, last desperate turning point of the explorers Burke and Wills on their tragic journey. He is in the 'dead heart of Australia' now, the bed of that great traditional inland sea that once made of the island continent two islands.

It was at Lake Callabonna, 20 miles from Mount Hopeless, a black lake of jellied lava, in which the diprotodon's bones were found several years ago, and the largest meteorite that has ever been discovered on the Australian continent, weighing 30 cwt.

At Lake Crossing he swings on to the course of the Strzelecki, and faces a Sahara of wind-blown sandhills. The first of these is 'the Cobbler,' and here in a bad season he must abandon the truck and change back to the trusty 'ship of the desert', taking on the mails and passengers across 170 miles of sand in a camel buggy.

Innamincka Coach 1897 (SLSA)

It is a sad pilgrimage now, a trail of skeletons. On the bank of the Strzelecki lie the sand-swept ruins of four stations that only 10 years ago were hopeful and prosperous, running their tens of thousands of sheep and cattle. The first is Carrawina, with an empty, tumble-down homestead, and 60,000 pounds worth of fences engulfed, where five years ago the cattle died in their thousands on the salt wells and the creeks.

There are Tinga Tingana and Merty Merty, that once proudly vaunted orange gardens and grape vines, both homesteads buried deep in the drought sands, and Toolachi, with the last few remnants of its herds not worth mustering. On the way through the mail passes Nappacoongie, a ruined well, that some years ago fell in upon an unfortunate who had gone down to repair it. Without even a last call to his mates this man went to his death, and the broken well stands as his sepulcher.

Thirty-five miles from Nappacoongie, right on the bank of the Cooper, is the Innamincka Hotel, with its historic pile of bottles 20 yards square and five feet high, relic of 60 years' thirst. With the Cooper in flood up to his axles, the mailman thrashes across it past Innamincka Station, past the historic trees of the ill-fated explorers' depot, and out past Patchawarra Bore, a mile deep, to Cordillo Downs, almost on the border.

There he is met by the motor from Nappa Merrie, 27 miles across the netting fence, a prosperous homestead on a great permanent pool, now in the occupation of Mr. E. Conrick, son of J. C. Conrick, the first pioneer of Cooper's Creek. For a long time this mail contract was in the bands of Mr. John Patterson, of Farina, and many a strange incident he tells of the old coach mail of years ago.

Once he camped along the waterholes for days with twin passengers a month old on board; once he slung a woman across the flood to a homestead, on a tied wire and a hobble-chain swing, and once he travelled alone with a dead man beside him on the box. The man had contracted beriberi at Innamincka.

'He was quiet a long time' said Mr. Patterson, 'and I found he was cold. It was raining, and I had to camp for the night. I left him on the box seat. It takes a lot to frighten me, but that was an uncanny experience'. The following week the man's mate came down with the same disease, and the mailman made a close race with death, to Farina.

Modern Transport

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