Galapagos Duck

For me, Sydney in the years 1971 to 1976 was idyllic.  I had left behind the cold damp climate of Ireland to find myself facing the long freezing winters of Toronto.  After five years of purgatory, I decided that enough was enough and the lure of the South Pacific won me over.  I escaped and I have never regretted that move.

For one sight of the piercing blue sky, the profusion of bougainville, the immense drowned-valley harbour, with its ferrys scuttling from point to point, and the string of beaches and headlands up and down the coast was enough; I fell head and heels in love with the country.

And I was living in Kirribilli the night of October 20, 1973, when the Opera House was officially opened, and the sky exploded with a magnificent display of pyrotechnics.  Life felt really felt good.

Sydney Opera House as seen from Kirribilli
And at sunset, with the harbour bridge in the background

For my first two years in Sydney, I was employed as a computer programmer with Nestlé, at their offices on Foveaux Street, close to Central Station.  They were good employers and I was relieved to have a steady income; when I received my first salary, my account was empty. And it was there that I met Philip Cockell, with whom I am still in contact.

Soon after I joined Nestlé, I was recruited into the football team, that participated in a local works league.  Our home ground was a pitch beside the Nestlé factory, and when we were downwind, the smell of chocolate was quite overpowering.  We got quite accustomed to that smell, but visiting teams usually visibly suffered: having a home game was definitely an advantage.

But I was ambitious in those days –  I guess that I still am –  and a plodding existence in Nestlé was not for me.  In 1973, I was offered a similar position in a local computer services company – IDAPS Computer Sciences, and I made the move.  And after a few months I was promoted to manage their small group of programmers.

It was in the early days of service bureaus and few companies could afford their own computers.  Our clients would deliver their data on paper at the end of the business day and our key-punch operators would convert it to card or paper tape.  The data would then be loaded on our mainframes, processed, print reports produced and delivered to the clients, in time for the start of the next business day.

During normal hours the programmers worked on new developments or enhancements to existing systems, and at night we provided on-call support, in case of production failure.  As I lived close to the office I handled most of the on-call support, and there were few weeks when I did not get called in at least once to sort out a program bug or operator error.  It was after one such late night that I stumbled upon The Basement jazz club.

The Basement was located in the basement (where else?) of a nondescript  building close to Circular Quay, not far from my office.  In those days meals were served from early evening and live jazz from nine o’clock to the wee hours of the morning. The food was good and the house wine inexpensive and I soon found myself going there regularly, usually alone during a weeknight, sometimes with friends at weekends.

The Basement opened in 1973 with a relatively unknown modern jazz group called Galapagos Duck.  And later on, most nights they would be joined by other jazz musicians and a jam session would get going.  I used to love to sit there at a secluded table, sipping on a bottle of wine and letting my mind wander.

Galapagos Duck performed continuously at The Basement for 16 years and to this day still appear there from time to time.  They made their first album – Ebony Quill – in 1974, and I still have a copy.

The cover of their first recording

Sometimes when on my own and in a nostalgic mood, I turn the lights down and the volume up, and with my glass of wine at hand, ‘Ebony Quill’ takes me back in time to a late night in Sydney.

Listen with me to one of the tracks…


Brian’s Farm

Brian’s Farm

Bumping along dirt roads, the rear mirror filled with dust

Crossing dehydrated stream beds, impassable in the wet

Gate after gate, opened and carefully closed

Until only the lonely cluster of welcome awaits

Embracing, kissing, laughing, relaxing

Nothing had changed, at least not that we wanted to see

Cold cans cracked, news exchanged, it felt good to be together again

Country Roads had brought us home once more

Wood fire crackling, the smell of roasting lamb

Smoke in our hair, the taste of cheap red wine

The air throbbing with the sound of Hot August Night

And we were as one, and it felt so very, very good

It was not quite dark, when alone I walked up the hill

Intoxicated with the beauty of the southern sky

The smell of the night breeze in my face

I didn’t ever want the night to end

Sitting on a rock, still warm from the summer sun

Listening to the rustle and occasional squeak in the bush

Recalling so many nights of carefree abandon

Loving one and loving all.

I wrote that piece a few years ago, as part of an assignment for an Open University course in Creative Writing.  The particular task was to recall a beautiful personal memory and to include all the five senses.  I called it ‘Brian’s Farm’ and it was loosely based on my memories of a period in my life in Australia, during the years 1971-6.

When I knew Brian, he was in his mid to late twenties.  When he was eighteen he bought a track of undeveloped bush near Guyra, about 70 km north of Armidale in northern New South Wales.  I seem to remember that he had about 3000 acres, but I could not swear to that.  His land was partly undulating, before backing up into the hills, and it included mineral rights to a river that flowed down from the hills, and contained evidence of gold and sapphires.

Now, when I tell you that Brian spent the first two years on his land living alone in a tent, while he slowly cleared a small area of bush to create some paddocks for sheep and horses, you can start to realize that he was an exceptional individual, of true pioneer spirit.  He was of medium height and not heavily built, but he oozed strength.

I once met his father, a stocky balding little Englishman of florid complexion. I think that he was an English teacher in Armidale.  I don’t remember his mother ever being mentioned.  I suspect that his father helped him with the funds to buy the land.  In those days, undeveloped bush land cost only a few dollars an acre.

Brian’s first building that he erected was a large wool shed, with a kitchen attached and containing a wood fired oven.  At the back, he added a second small building, containing a shower unit and toilet.  With the door open, the view from the toilet across the valley was stunning.

The shower unit was a marvel of engineering.  The water from the roof of the woolshed was captured in a huge tank and from there it was pumped up the hill to another similar tank.  From there it flowed with some force to a boiler above a wood fireplace.  A cold shower was available at any time, but before having a hot shower, the water had to be heated.  The shower room was large and had a ceiling shower head of enough diameter to allow six people to comfortably shower together.  Brian encouraged communal showers, ostensibly to economize on water!

When Brian completed the woolshed, he started work on a small bungalow for himself, and that was where he was living when I first knew him.  At that time, he was offering the opportunity to spend a week in his woolshed for a quite modest cost.  And of course, it not just gave Brian some additional income, but brought some social opportunity into his otherwise hermitic existence.

Visitors had the opportunity to ride his horses, to go rock climbing, and to prospect for precious stones and gold.  For those who doubted the existence of treasure in the river, Brian would show his jars of topaz and gold nuggets.  And there was of course the wildlife, with lots of red kangaroos, kookaburras, and plenty of snakes.

The nearest ‘civilisation’ was The Red Lion Tavern in the tiny village of Glencoe, about 25 km north.  Any visit to Brian’s farm was not complete without an evening in The Red Lion, with its roast lamb, washed down with copious glasses of Aussie red.  How I would love to be able to turn the clock back to those days.

The Red Lion Tavern in Glencoe

But life moves on, and there have now been nearly 500 full moons since I left Australia on my South American travels.  I am yet to return.

I lost touch with Brian; keeping in contact was not as easy in those days of writing paper, envelopes, stamps and snail mail.  I did hear that he married and then was once more on his own.  It would have been a lonely life for a woman, especially if she was a city girl.

Occasionally I wonder what he is up to these days. Could he still scale Chimney Rock or do a forward roll over two wool bales, like we used to

Once upon a time…