Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Burracoppin

Nanna & Zayda at Burracoppin
Burracoppin is a tiny town in the Western Australian wheat belt, half way between Perth and Kalgoorlie. But to our family, it is a place of mythical qualities, full of stories of adventure and legend from a time long ago. Mum's sister Leonie was born with a bad dose of asthma that saw my grandmother making frequent trips to the Perth children's hospital and had everybody fearing for her life. The doctors told her that if they moved to a place that was hotter and dryer, it would help with Leonie's condition. My grandfather worked as a wool buyer around Merredin, spending his weeks up there and making the 160 mile trip down to Perth every weekend. It was decided that if the family relocated up to Burracoppin, it would not only help with Leonie's asthma but would reunite the family seven days a week. And so the family moved to this little country town with a population of around 60.
Today Burracoppin has a population of 37. If everybody is home. Mum made her last journey up the Great Eastern Highway with my grandparents and her sisters almost 60 years ago in an old Chevy. This time she made it with us in a Toyota Landcruiser. As we drove alongside the water pipeline that runs the whole length of the highway from Perth to Kalgoorlie, I was full of anticipation of being able to match locations with the many stories that Mum has told me of her time growing up. Stories of Prince the pet sheep who had escaped the removalist truck when the family were moving back to Perth and ended up travelling in the back of the chevy squashed in beside the three girls. The humpies that the local aboriginal families lived in alongside the pipeline. The boy who on deciding to show my young mum his willy ended up with a bull ant on it for his trouble. A very sore learning experience for him on the risks of unwanted flashing and a reprimand for my mother for causing grievous bodily harm with a vicious insect. I also wanted to revisit some of my own scant childhood memories. I had gone up to Burracoppin with my Nanna and Zayda when I was around 5 years old and I have a few "snapshot" type memory images of the place. But mostly I wanted to relive some of Mum's experiences with her. Where exactly did she tie Leonie to the tree? What was the "soak" that I'd heard so much about? Was there anybody still in town who could tell me stories about my grandfather? I had hopes of spending the night in the Burra pub having a meal and a few beers with the locals and trying to pry the older ones for information. But when we arrived in Burracoppin, the pub was boarded up with a 'for sale' sign hanging in the window. The streets were deserted. Even the refuse tip had permanently closed. It seemed like a bit of a ghost towin in the making and I had the horrible feeling that maybe we'd driven 300km chasing wild geese. What's more, when we went looking for Mum's old house, armed with a picture from back in the day, we couldn't find it. She seemed sure that she'd lived on the corner block of the main street, but the house there held no resemblance whatsoever. What's more, she insisted that she used to walk across the railway line to get to school, but the railway line was nowhere near this house. We cruised down the road until we found a house that seemed to match the one in the picture. The roofline was identical, the only one in the street like that. We stopped out the front to size it up a bit better and the owner came out to see who the passers by were. I explained our mission and showed him the old photo saying that I thought that perhaps Mum had lived here 60 years ago. He took one look at the picture and said that yes, this was definitely the house. I gave him the photo to keep and asked if we could come in for a look. Mum seemed uneasy in the fact that her memory and reality were perhaps slightly askew. Wasn't the backyard bigger than this. And I'm sure we were on a corner. And wasn't the kitchen over the other side of the house. Nevertheless, we spent a good hour talking to Ash and Tammy who lived there now and checking out the different rennovations that had happened over the years. On leaving, we took a few photos of Mum with Ash and Tam out the front of the old house. The old inhabitant with the new. The only problem was, it turned out to be the wrong house. Mum's ill feelings were confirmed by Shirley on the phone later that night. Their house had been the one on the corner after all, but it had been changed beyond recognition. It was no longer the same house. Ash did provide a valuable piece of information though for anybody seeking out the history of Burracoppin. "Go and speak to Gwen. Been here the longest and knows everything about the place". As it turns out, we were lucky that we did go to the wrong house.

Burracoppin Rock

The next day Gwen took us on an extensive tour of Burracoppin. For a place that you could drive through in ten seconds and not realise that you'd missed it, she had an awful lot to show us. In total we spent four hours running around with her. She told us that the railway track had been relocated to the other side of town, explaining mum's confusion at the fact that she was sure they used to cross the railway line to get to school but how could that be possible with the layout in front of us. We went to the footy club and looked at pictures of guys that Mum had gone to school with, posing proudly with their successful premiership team mates.
The rabbit proof fence
We visited places that Mum had never known about, such as the old well from 1864 and the dams used for hosing down the old steam trains as well as a disused gold mine. Burra it seems had quite an extensive history. We went to the soak, which had been a dam where mum and her sisters frequently spent their time. On one occasion mum had fallen in while hunting tadpoles and the sisters had to wait for her until her clothes dried, fearing that she would cop it from my Nanna for her folly. We climbed Burracoppin Rock where Joy, Shirley and Leonie had spent so much of their youth. 60 years ago Mum would have clambered up the rock in a jiffy. Back then she would have been a similar age to Jazzy and Finn who were doing just that. But now I had to provide a supporting arm for assistance and the journey up was a lot slower. But we got there anyway and took in the great view that couldn't have changed too much in the last hundred years. Bushland and wheat fields for miles and miles. The only real sign of modernity was the distant wind farm that is soon to be commissioned. The last place that we visited was something of a surprise to me. I knew that Burracoppin held a special place in my own family's history, but it turns out to be a significant place in a part of Australia's history. It was in Burracoppin that the great rabbit proof fence was started. A fence stretching from Esperance in the south to Port Hedland in the north, the longest fence in the world, aimed (largely unsuccessfully) at keeping the rabbits out of Western Australia, had its first post banged in in the red soil of Burracoppin. Evidence of the old fence still exists and the local shire is building a bit of a memorial to the fence, based in Burracoppin. And it seems that there is a buyer for the pub. There may be some life in the old town yet.

1 comment:

Krust said...

Beaut story. Visited for the first time on the weekend. Dad and my step mum live next door to Gwen in the old General store. Fascinating history and hopefully the pub will see some life again in the future.
Stuart