Chapter 12 - Dartmoor - The Coldest Place On Earth And A Royal Horse.
For sheer cold, for pure numbness of spirit and everything you didn't have protected, you couldn't go past Dartmoor in mid-winter.
I can get to shivering just by thinking about the place. A lot different in summer, the grassy clearing would be like an oasis in the bush, and you even had parties coming travelling there from Bendoc or Hayden's Bog for a picnic of a Sunday.
You could easy stumble on two or three families with their blankets and tableclothes spread, and later all joining in for a game of cricket. But for us, it was always after the snow of that first week in June that we came here, and I reckon it got colder every year that passed. This was surely one of the most freezing places on earth, or so we reckoned. Snow all round most of the time. In those first few days of June, it went from being plain cold to snowy and freezing. We'd have a stack of wood at Dartmoor 'cause it was badly needed.The hut only had acouple of beds in it and a table that was nailed to the floor. You know, just four posts with a bit of a slab top on it, a bench over in the corner. Outside was a little wash-tray. Come midnight, there's many a time I've had to get up to throw more wood on the fire because the cold had woken me up -and that's I even when I was sleeping in my wogga, a sort of early day sleeping j bag and bloody warm, too. Dead simple to make, just blankets sewn inside woolpacks, but even they weren't good enough for that place. That took a bit of courage, getting out of the wogga to feed the fire, in that cold, in the middle of the night. And if it was like that inside j the hut, you can imagine what it was like outside. If it wasn't -now, then you'd see the frost in the mud - it would be sticking up like icicles, two or three inches high. Though it's on flat land. Dartmoor! is pretty high up. must be around 3000 foot. Today, there's a sign pointing to Dartmoor on the old Bonang Road nearby, but, would you believe, it's pointing the wrong way; it's pointing in the opposite direction towards the old Hutchinson property. Misleads old people that come back, see. I can't understand how they could get that mixed up and not know exactly where Dartmoor is. I've told them about it.
Down on that road where the wrong-way signpost is, we often used to see Joe Oliver on his mail run. It would have to be abig snowfall to slow him, and he'd do the mail twice a week. He'd take the horse and coach up between Bendoc and Delegate - he had a white horse and a black one. It was the black horse this trip and the white one next trip. He done that run for nigh on forty years. The horse run cut out in about the mid-Forties, so he'd been doing it year in year out, with a horse and sulky on a thirty-two-mile run with thirty-two gates to open on the way, because a lot of it went straight through people's paddocks. He'd go around Hayden's Bog and come back over the Gulf, the side of Delegate Hill - that was the round trip.
Joe's black horse was a real gutsy animal that went by the name of Royal. He was the one that used to do the run when I saw him, because Royal was on that route from 1933 until 1945, when they replaced him with a car. And do you know what? Royal never failed to get the mail through in all that time, snow drifts, floods, nothing stopped him. The first year they had the motorvehicle, it couldn't get through in the first real heavy snow - the first time old Joe had failed to make it and from all accounts it fair broke his heart. They reckon Joe, always rugged up to the waist, and Royal, who never knew what it was like to have a rider astride him, did 50,000 miles on that run and when Joe fell sick, Royal knew the way himself and would stop at every single mailbox with no prompting from the relief driver.
Once, when there was an infantile paralysis scare on, they wouldn't let you back from New South Wales once you'd crossed the border. That didn't stop Joe and Royal, they just croassed over, then came back into Victoria by swimming a river, missing the border police. They did that a few times and we had the proud distinction of being the only place in the State where the mail got across the border. Years later, old Joe told me that he'd had to shoot his champion Royal. The saddest day, he told me. Royal had been running on a slope and his two forelegs had slipped from under him on the wet grassy surface and he slid under a fence, injuring himself. 'It was the rule that you didn't shoot your own horse,' said Joe. 'But we'd done so much together, spent so many hours alone, I couldn't ask anyone else to do it'We would use Dartmoor as a base, trapping the outer reaches of Reed's leases and gradually moving closer to the hut. Day after day, it would be the same routine. We'd set the traps of a daytime, you'd check them after tea. Only check them once during the day. You'd go round at night after you'd had tea, perhaps, when it was real dark, get the rabbits and come back and skin them, and by then it might be ten o'clock You'd get to bed, then really early next morning buzz off round them again, because if there was a frost, it would freeze the leg the rabbit was trapped by. They wouldn't feel it, and they'd just go round and round in the trap, wring it off and escape. We'd catch a lot of three-legged ones and thafs mostly what had happened.
So I suppose you could say we checked them twice, after dark and again early next morning. In the morning you'd pull up the traps as you went and leave them in a pile at the end of the run. Then it would be back to the hut for breakfast After that, you'd go back to your piles of traps and move them to a fresh place. We did it that way, breaking it all with breakfast, because by then the frost may have lessened or melted. There was no point in kneeling down on frosty ground all the time, it would leave you unable to move after only a short while. You'd get them all reset by lunch. Then it was back to Dartmoor or wherever to sharpen your knife, there wasn't much else you could do. The weather governed you. So that was it, day in or out Mainly out there it was Roy and myself, though Dad came sometimes and I can remember once there was five of us there trapping.
We'd spend a while down there, then go back to Dillon's to trap, then on to the Hungerford's right up in the highest country, up on Gunmark. At first I could only handle a few traps, but it wasn't too long before I'd have as many traps out as my brother Roy; about eighty. We could catch anything up to thirty rabbits a day each. Dad was a bit forgetful about where he'd set his traps, but Roy was dynamite. If he lost one trap a year, we'd be talking about it for a week. We'd be flat out at it, seven days a week, with not a day's rest while we could catch a rabbit and earn a quid. We never ate them much -I can't stand them - just took the skins and threw the rest away. Winter was the only time you could go because the fur was top quality then. The later in winter, the better the skin. It went white, you know. The whiter the fur, the better it was for selling. Black patches on a rabbit skin means it's not as desirable. Colours range an awful lot in wild rabbits, with whites, greys, blacks, creamy ones, piebaldy ones. Up at Hungerford's you could get blue ones. Two or three blue ones every morning. A real distinct, pretty, black-blue colour. 1 used to fancy myself a bit in them younger times, and could skin two rabbits in forty-five seconds. We had a competition. It's in the Guinness Book of Records, I think, where a bloke done two out of a freezer in forty-six seconds and I beat him. But mine were hot rabbits, fresh caught, not frozen.
Hours of our time was spent sharpening our knives, as there wasn't much else to do when you're snowbound, I suppose. Most of 'em we'd make ourselves. They were that brittie, the steel in the knives, that I can remember breaking acouple in half just spreading butter on my toast. So that knife would go towards the rabbiting. Well, you'd just keep it, you wouldn't throw anything away, and in your spare time you'd put a point on it, then you'd roll it up in an old sock and use it for rabbit skinning. You wouldn't have a fancy pocket knife on a chain or anything like that. I remember the old man carried a pipe knife, a pen knife they called it, just a little cheap and nasty thing; he wore it out in the finish, sharpening it so many times. The only bloke I can remember having a special knife was Jack Windle from Bendoc, and he was always one for having a knife so sharp it could shave you. But that's all he ever used it for. I'll bet it never saw a rabbit. He only had the thing to show you how sharp it was and how much hair it could cut off the back of his hands. I always used to look at the back of his hands every time I met him, and 111 swear I never saw any hair there for years. Rabbits and the bush wasn't his area much.
We used Lane's Ace traps, no jump traps or anything like that, nor them old three-star Griffiths. We never bothered with them, they were too heavy to lug about. Three-star Griffiths wereagreat big old-style thing about two foot long. We might have a couple set around the hut to catch the jays, which were forever picking your skins off the wires. The skins would fall to the ground and be useless. The jays would pull the skins off and pick the meat off the skins. Dartmoor hut would be laden with skins, hundreds round it and on it We could dry them pretty quickly, if the weather was right. What we got today would be dry by tomorrow. On the wall the sun favoured, we'd have pegs sticking out, and another long stick across that might have twenty skins pegged on it. Well, the jays used to land on top of them and pick the skins off the wire and if they fell they were valueless. Neatness was everything when you went to sell them. We used to catch these buggers, tie a sheet of paper on them and let them go. You could see them trailing the paper for miles. Lot of them shook it off, though. They'd have got it off later, 'cause them jays have the sharpest beaks, like icepicks. But it did the job, once they cleared out they wouldn't come back.
We dug 800 acres out for a bloke at Craigie once, fixed up the net-tingfence and started digging. We started at the back of the property and worked towards the front, and dug every burrowout. There was about sixty acres left at the front, but we didn't touch that until we thought every rabbit had gone into that area. When we started on that, we got hundreds of them every day. Some burrows held thirty rabbits and they'd all be dead, packed in so tight behind one another that they'd suffocate. We got 1400 rabbits in the last few acres.
Up at Hungerford's, which was about five and a half miles crosscountry south from our place at Dillon's, there was a complete deserted homestead and school. Hungerford's homestead was a just a grand dream evidently, in our grandest country and you can be standing there sometimes, when the wind is blowing hard in the tree-tops, yet hardly feel a sensation of it on the ground. Sounds of leaves whistle from far off and only after a minute or two do you realise that the sound has its origin in the leaves sixty or seventy foot above. When we went up there after rabbits or in the possum open season, we would camp in the Hungsrford house. Hungerford was apparently the name of the bloke who built it and Dad and them said hehad half a dozen blokes working for him. Today, it's right up in the high country tops, where the timber is as big as they come, and ferns are ten foot tall and you can't push through the country hardly at all. It's as thick up there as anywhere I've ever seen. I remember one day up there I went to climb over a log and it rose up to meet me. Must've had 10,000 leeches on it and they all wanted a piece of me. There's no country past there, just absolute virgin bush before you get into the Errinundra area. Anyway, the bloke who built Hungerford's place cleared one big area of about 200 or 300 acres. It was still all clear back there in the Thirties, now it is back to being timber country.
I think people underestimate how quickly things can revert back to being natural. Hungerford's is another of those forgotten places that should have been preserved, a six-room house, and that's big for an old place in these parts. And a school, too. The house was an L-shape. The stove was in one part, then came the kitchen part, and then there was two bedrooms with a double chimney, one in each room. That's all I can remember. We used to camp in the one room, shut the door and have the other room with a fire in it as a bit of a lounge room. The house certainly wasn't in bad condition and though it only had palings on the roof, it never leaked. It had a good floor and everything left in it. The stove's still there. I don't rightly know when they abandoned it, but a long time before I arrived, maybe twenty years before.
I used to feel like a country gent when we camped in there after the rabbits, a bloody lot different from the chill of Dartmoor. There was a real plan to them buildings, all built in a line. First there was the house, then there was a log hut where they put the cheese in them round rings, great bundles of them. Then came the school. It had four wallsand the roof wasfour-sided with along point on the top of it. sticking out the middle of the roof. A four-sided roof - very fancy for these parts. Last time we went up, there was a snake dead in a pickle bottle. All that's still there, but the school had fallen over. Some of the house has fallen too, but there's still some bits standing. You can't believe what's hidden away in the bush up here. Unique places, because no one ever builds things like that any more. Of all the places up there on the tops, for its natural beauty this was the nicest. Great trees, and that high up, even the air seemed better. Grass and soil were all good.This hill wasn't better than the next one. I was in the bush every day of my life then, but I can't say as I never looked forward to heading up towards them parts.
Extract from Martin Thomas, Mountains of Memories, 1991.
Published by Hutchison. ISBN 0 09 182631 4.