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Posted on 4 Jun 2020 in Non-Fiction |

TANYA HEASLIP An Alice Girl. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Tanya Heaslip is ‘An Alice Girl’ and she reveals what life was like growing up on a remote property north of Alice Springs.

This new memoir from the author of Alice to Prague (reviewed here)  starts dramatically. The author, her youngest brother, Benny, her sister, M’Lis and her friend are in a desperate race to stop cattle duffers stealing their father’s cattle:

We knew that the cattle duffers had stolen Dad’s cleanskins – young cattle that had not yet been branded – and were now driving them hard towards their own bush hide-out… And for all we knew, they had some of Dad’s best branded steers, and were intending to cross-brand them too.

The chase, on horseback, is fast and dangerous, over ‘long, low, flat mounds of red earth sweeping towards the glint of wire in the distance, potted throughout with rabbit holes, treacherous for horses’. Luckily, at the last minute, the cattle duffers are beaten. Luckily, too, it all turns out to be a game:

[W]e didn’t need real cattle. They were as vivid and alive to us as if we’d had a full mob at our disposal. Our imaginations easily filled in the gaps… But I secretly thought Brett and Janie, Joanne and Matthew had played the baddies rather brilliantly this afternoon.

Such games were part of Tanya Heaslip’s life on a remote cattle station north of Alice Springs until she went away to high school. She remembers her early childhood vividly, and with honesty for the relentless work, the harshness of the land, the heat, dust, bushfires, storms, snakes (she tells some wonderful snake stories) and, especially, the isolation. But she writes with much love for the land and the people she knew as she was growing up.

She begins with the story of her parents’ pioneering adventures. In 1964, in the middle of a ten-year drought, they took up the Government-held lease of an isolated outback cattle property called Bond Springs. Both Janice and Grant were 26 years old with three children under the age of four when they borrowed the money to buy the lease of this 1813-square- kilometre failing cattle station. To begin with, they ran it alongside Grant’s parents’ sheep property, Witchitie, four days’ drive south of Bond Springs. Grant travelled constantly between the two properties over ‘red, deeply corrugated dirt roads’.

The first mob of cattle Grant bought to replenish the stock at Bond Springs had to be taken there by train (a three-day journey to Alice Springs in a ‘stinking hot goods carriage’), then overland through a huge storm and across a dangerously flooded creek. ‘Hell of a journey’, Tanya’s taciturn father later wrote in his diary, ‘Hard job. Horses had had it. Men had had it. But it looked as though we got most of the cattle.’ 

The second purchase of cattle entailed an equally hazardous 500-kilometre droving trip to get the animals to Bond Springs. Tanya Heaslip’s descriptions of both journeys bring home the unforgiving nature of the land, the heat, the exhaustion, the almost-disasters that the men overcame by sheer determination not to give in, and the ever-present danger of cattle breaking loose from the mob and the whole mob scattering and being lost. It is a story that could have taken place in the earliest days of colonial Australia, but occurred within living memory.

Tanya’s father’s work running the station was a constant round of checking and fixing fences, bore-holes, tanks and yards, mustering cattle, sorting, branding and castrating them, and trucking them off to market. There were constant worries over money, and battles with what he called ‘bloody bureaucrats, communists and socialists’. Her mother ‘did everything else’, and ‘a bush woman’s work was all consuming’, especially on a property where bore water was undrinkable, drinking water came from tanks filled by the rare rainfalls, electricity was supplied twice a day by a tiny generator in the nearby tin shed, cooking for the family and the stockmen was often done in extreme heat, and red dust covered everything.

For the children, too, work was unremitting. From the time they could sit on a horse, their father would round them up to help with mustering or whenever he needed extra hands. Tanya describes one particular occasion during shearing at the Witchitie when the children were called on to help round up reluctant, fleece-heavy sheep on a day when the temperature exceeded 45 degrees. Water, which had been hung in bags on trees around the extensive property, became putrid and she couldn’t drink it; consequently she suffered heatstroke. Her father responded as he usually did to any sickness or accident: ‘You’ll be right.’ He clearly loved his children but he was a hard taskmaster, and the constant pressures made him ‘as hard and unyielding as the red, dusty land he was seeking to tame’.

 In spite of all the work, Tanya writes glowingly of the freedom they had as children; of the vast, beautiful expanses of land and the colours of sunrise and sunset (red, apricot, pink, purple and black) that made her ‘heart sing’; and of nights out in stock camps where they would be:

… sitting on swags, watching the crackling flames flicker up into the air and light the darkness as we listened to Ray [a ‘good-natured Irish stockman’] sing to the stars. Someone would lift the billy off the fire and we’d all drink sweet black tea. Ray’s gentle lyrics and guitar playing transporting us to different times and places.

Unlike her siblings, Tanya was never completely happy around horses and cattle and she would retreat into imaginative fantasies fuelled by the books she read avidly. She loved school and learning, and she describes how the School of the Air became established. On a visit to the outback, Adelaide Miethke, a retired school teacher, noticed that the children were excessively shy of each other and that they relied on the correspondence school for lessons. With the help of John Flynn, who had set up the Flying Doctor service, and three other men, she managed to make and distribute pedal radios to outback stations, then created lessons that could be taught over the air in a way that allowed children to communicate with the teacher and hear the responses of other children. The scheme was launched in 1951, and this radio contact became a lifeline not just for children on remote outback properties, but also for adults, who used the radio to exchange news and information. Although radio conversations were limited to five minutes and often disrupted by static, it was especially appreciated by outback women, who were often completely isolated from the company of other women. ‘School of the Air was the best thing, ever,’ says Tanya. So, ‘Thank you Adelaide Miethke.’

There is much more to this book than just hard work, cattle and isolation. There are the long-term stockmen who became the children’s friends; bush characters; horse-breaking; accidents; their father’s purchase of a light aircraft and his pioneering use of it in fighting bushfires. And there are the occasional get-togethers on another station, like their first Christmas party, where Father Christmas arrived in ‘a battered white ute’ because, as Tanya’s mother explained, the reindeer had to be left at the police station for ‘a rest and a drink’. There is also the excitement of attending local agricultural shows, learning to prepare and show their prized cattle, and learning how to ride in gymkhanas. Tanya remembers, too, the four skilled Aboriginal stockmen who, once government alcohol restrictions for Aborigines were lifted, began to follow their women into town, and eventually stayed there. ‘Within ten years,’ she reports, ‘Dad’s four top stockmen were dead’ from alcohol poisoning and alcohol-fuelled car accidents.

The book ends with Tanya’s departure for boarding school in Adelaide. A traumatic event for a 12 year old who had never been away from her home and family for more than a few days, and was used to wide-open spaces and freedom. But she thought about her passion for learning and determined that she would go away and live in the places she had read about in her ‘beloved books’, and ‘Then, one day, I will write about it and this land, so it’s always with me forever.’

An Alice Girl is written with love for the land and the people of outback Australia, and it is a fascinating account of a childhood most city-bred Australians could hardly imagine. Occasionally, it seems as if Tanya found everyone she knew beautiful and lovable, and sometimes her early immersion in Enid Blyton books leads her to eulogise a little too much, but this is what childhood memories are like and Tanya Heaslip conveys those emotions and impressions with imagination and skill.

Tanya Heaslip An Alice Girl Allen & Unwin 2020 PB 344pp $32.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (// are archived by the British Library.

You can buy An Alice Girl from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.