15 May 1994, Sunday: After a wild eight-mile ride on the ferry M.V. Valerie Jane, Anne and I docked at the Penneshaw ferry port on Kangaroo Island, rented a car, and headed west; our goal was the Attarak Homestead (see map), a farmstay B&B we’d booked sixty miles in on Mount Taylor Road.
About 90 miles long and 19 miles wide with only 4,000 year-round inhabitants, Kangaroo Island was cut loose from South Australia’s mainland some 9,000 years ago. It is truly where the wild things are, a veritable Noah’s Ark of Australian wildlife. Australia’s renowned lost world of endangered furred and flying species, including kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, emus and the elusive platypus and echidna, the world’s only egg-laying mammals.
It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at the homestead, a large, sprawling ranch in the middle of the island. We had just entered the enchanted world of Rodger Borgmeyer, owner and host.
Rodger was about fifty-two and looked and acted like a thin version of movie actor Gene Hackman. He said that his wife, Val, was a schoolteacher. She was taking part in a horse show and had gone for the weekend. “When I moved here with my parents in 1955,” he said, “I was fourteen years old and I could ride more than twenty miles in every direction on their farm and not see a fence. It was a great adventure, even though it was hard work picking up stumps and milking cows by hand.” — (The Islander: “My Island Home – Rodger Borgmeyer – Best years of my life”, by Catherine Murphy Aug. 8, 2013).
We couldn’t help but notice several large photos on the walls that depicted Rodger with some of his prized thoroughbred horses. He made us comfortable in front of a large, warm fireplace in the living room and went off to the kitchen to make tea. Almost absent-mindedly I leafed through a large coffee table book entitled Three-Cornered Jack. In it were several articles and color photo spreads on notable characters of South Australia. Suddenly before me was a five-page article on Rodger with several action photographs. There he was on horseback hurdling a fence; and there he was again, jumping through a ring of fire.
Rodger came back in the room, bringing our tea on a tray.
I said, “You’re quite a horseman I see.”
“Yes,” he smiled. “The man that did that article stayed here a week. I race thoroughbreds and keep them at stud when they retire.” He pointed to a picture of himself on a magnificent horse leaping a log fence. “This one is Trumbee. He lives in the paddock out front.”
When Rodger left the room again to make our Aussie “tucker” for dinner, our attention was caught by three or four volumes of bush ballads. “Bush” is the Australian equivalent of “forest” and is also applied generally to any locality away from a large city or town. Bush ballads, as we later learned, have outlived most forms of Australian poetry, for a ballad simply sets out to tell a story in easy, rhythmic language, with or without a tune. These narratives are all in simple verse and deal with bush characters or their way of life in the tradition of European folk stories.
I learned that the heroes of Australian bush ballads are known as drovers, diggers, bushrangers, rouseabouts, ringers, shearers, swaggies, sundowners and other equally colorful names. The ballads celebrate “mateship” and feats of individual bravery and endurance over loneliness, heat, floods and distance. Most verses are good-humored, mocking or self-mocking in true Australian fashion; many remain moving and unforgettable, even when they preach.
This was my introduction to that story-world. Suddenly I was swept into life in the bush by the likes of Australian poets such as Adam Lindsay Gordon, W.H. Ogilvie, H.B. Boake, H.H. Morant, Henry Lawson, C.H. Souter and Victor J Daley (A Ballad of Eureka). One book was entitled The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses, by A.B. (Banjo) Patterson. It turns out Patterson is the same man who wrote Waltzing Matilda, Australia’s unofficial national anthem.
Rodger rejoined us as I put down the book.
“I’m fascinated,” I said.
“We get together now and then, my mates and me,” he said. “We have a few drinks and sing a few songs and swap stories. I know a lot of ’em by memory, much like the ‘cowboy poets’ in your country. Some of them were passed along by word of mouth from generation to generation, just like in the Old World. Others sound Irish or Scottish and that’s because they are. All of them tell a story and maybe that’s why they’re so popular.”
By now I was captivated. It seemed as if all of Australia – its history, its character, its people – had been boiled down into one essence, one life force. And that life force had a name – Rodger. I suddenly realized that the elusive “real” Australia I’d been looking for was right here, right across the coffee table. Rodger was the sum total of his people – of all that went before him. Eons ago, our ancestors could have been neighbors, but one sailed to America and the other sailed to Australia, evolving into people that were, according to Rodger, “the same, but different.” I studied the flames in the fireplace for a long time as dusk settled outside.
Our “tucker” was garden-fresh wonderful and so was the nighttime “ute” (pickup truck) tour of his 1,400 acres. His strong hand-held “torch” (flashlight) lit up the eyes of literally dozens of opossums, wallabies and other critters of the night. His property was alive with them!
He let me take a final picture of him with Trumbee and then it was time to go. Rodger packed us a lunch and we reluctantly said our goodbyes. This was Rodger’s private world and we were sad to leave it, but our memories of it will live forever.It’s the bush that exerts its tenacious hold on the Australian character and it was in the bush where English attitudes and language slipped their shackles and escaped, evolving into something brand new and wonderfully personified by Rodger Borgmeyer, my most unforgettable character in all of Australia.
|Author Patrick Simpson and his wheelchair-restricted wife Anne uncover their experiences exploring historical and cultural experiences around the world. Visit now to learn how independent travel for disabled persons is not only possible, it can be fun!! www.booksbypatricksimpson.com|