The melancholy song, played at full blast, came at the end of a one day 700 km three leg train journey from Terang to Melbourne, Melbourne to Tocumwal and Tocumwal to Bundure, a request stop on the line to Narrandera.
Certainly the country side was little different at either end; treeless volcanic plains with 700mm of annual rainfall at Mortlake to a practically flat and treeless but drier and hotter 430mm rainfall spot in the Riverina.
My last leg was on the Red Rattler, an antiquated but picturesque diesel rail motor, which ran up and down the line every day.
I and my newly acquired sheep dog who was accompanying me, had been picked up by the station overseer, as it seemed everyone else normally on the property, was playing tennis or just playing up in Urana, the nearest town. It had and I think still does have a legendary tennis club.
The situation was that I would be paid five pounds a week and live with five or six other jackeroos, around a flywire enclosed verandah, near the homestead.
A cook came in every day to provide breakfast. Lunch was usually cold mutton for making our own take out lunches. The cook provided dinner at night which was usually based on meat from an old wether grazed on saltbush. A taste memory to savour and never boring.
I had previously worked on my family’s farm during holidays and fulltime for a year after I left school.
We had Corriedale sheep, Hereford (beef) and Shorthorn (dairy) cattle as well as a bit of cropping.
But that was on about 750ha and Coonong stretched across more than 17,000ha.
I could ride most horses, drive tractors, cars and trucks and undertake most maintenance tasks reasonably well.
But I’d not had a sheep dog before and in my time at Coonong I never really trained my dog to do the things I wanted it to do.
Interestingly, I discovered two years ago at a Coonong jackeroo reunion, that Ken “Biscuits”Arnott, one of my fellow jackeroos, had nonchalantly without checking, sent his dogs into a shed to flush out 30 or so rams and they had left about a dozen inside. That got everyone in a panic for a while and embarrassed Ken no end.
Meanwhile I had supposedly mustered a 5ha paddock near the homestead and managed to leave half a dozen sheep behind, which bugged me until 2015 when I heard Ken’s story.
When I went out on a horse I nearly always carried a transistor radio in my saddle bag so I’m not sure I was all that well fitted to big station life.
In fact I’d only gone to Coonong because my uncle was a great friend of Coonong’s manager in WWII and my parents thought it would be good for me. But during the year I wouldn’t have spoken more than 100 words to Mr Smith and in retrospect neither I nor the others, ever had a meal in the cavernous homestead.
As a result of the wartime friendship, two of my cousins had preceded me to Coonong and it is strange now that I didn’t ask them what to expect.
One cousin Oliver, too young to have a driver’s licence, regularly ferried people and goods 150 km or so to and from Wagga Wagga. No one had thought to ask him if he had one. So in today’s terms of stringent occupation health and safety regimes, we were pretty laid back.
Twelve months after arriving in the antique and picturesque Red Rattler, I left Coonong on the same conveyance, but continued on to Narrandera. From there I had a sleeper on the night mail train to Sydney, where I met up with my family to help look after cattle we had at the Easter Show. In the harbour city I was a ‘new boy in town’ too.