I thought my life had ended. I was thirteen, so melodrama was the flavour of the day, but things did look dodgy. My family had just moved from Coonabarabran, population a bustling 3000 (half of whom played in our back yard), to Peak Hill, population 1400. Or so they said. I think the town sign may have been painted by a cock-eyed optimist … or maybe they included dogs, kangaroos and emus in the tally.
The Peak Hill we arrived to in January was flat, hot and dry. It looked like the kind of place you’d die in, your back pressed against the trunk of a gumtree, gasping, ‘Water! Water!’ as crows perched on the toes of your Dunlop Volleys, waiting for the perfect moment to start in on your carcass.
But the Peak Hill of my arrival quickly transformed into a warm and welcoming rural community where I spent four calm years growing from child to adult. The town was safe, so my brother and I were afforded a great deal of freedom, both day and night. And despite the absence of the most basic entertainments available to other youths of our time - movies, roller-skating rinks, shops, discos, cafes - we had fun. Loads of it.
Here is my Top 5 list of teenage entertainments from Peak Hill in the early eighties:
· Yabbying - A willing parent would drop us all out of town at our favourite dam. We’d catch yabbies, picnic on jam sandwiches and swim. At the end of the day, we’d hike the few kilometres home along the paddocks, a hessian sack full of yabbies slung across our shoulders, our shorts dripping with muddy dam water. We’d boil up the yabbies and gorge on them, then do the next thing on my list …
· Cards - We’d sit up, all night long, playing Five Hundred or Euchre. I know! Sounds more like a group of old-age pensioners in a retirement village than a gang of teenagers, but we had a hoot. We even tried Bridge a few times, but someone always had to sit out and nobody wanted down time. We’d shuffle, deal, shout, play trump cards, eat Jatz and cheese, laugh and sip endless cups of steaming hot tea.
· Sunrise over the Harvey Ranges - Rising well before dawn, we'd meet at the corner of our block, hike up onto the small hill at the edge of town and watch the sun rise over the distant Harvey Ranges. Of my Top 5, this is the entertainment that moves me the most when I think about it. I still remember how it felt sitting on that ridge - the coolness of the pre-dawn air, the anticipation, the delight at the changing colours of ranges and sky. How blessed we were to have grown up with friends who took joy from such simple but magnificent things!
· Church - Again with the retirement village overtones, but Peak Hill Uniting Church was a huge part of our social life - church, youth group, carols by candlelight (always outside beneath the gumtrees so that you’d go home with galah droppings in your hair), Sunday School picnics and, best of all, fellowship lunches. You have never seen a spread until you've had lunch at a country church gathering. Admittedly, every second dish, sweet or savoury, contained pineapple chunks - but the cooking was superb, like something you’d see in a special foodies’ edition of Country Style. I still salivate whenever I see a trestle table. Takes me right back to the towering sponges and curried chicken casseroles of my youth.
· Bush Dances - Blue Light discos might have made it to the sophisticated metropolises of Parkes and Dubbo by the early eighties, but we were still leaping around to the jaunty strains of the violin, the piano accordion and that most sophisticated of instruments, the lagerphone. I must have stripped the willow and polkaed my heel and toe in every tiny memorial hall within a fifty mile radius of Peak Hill. And there were quite a few! It was marvellous fun, especially for an unco-ordinated lass like me. I always looked like a chook with a nervous twitch when I tried to dance to modern music. (The fact that I have even used a term such as ‘modern music’ is rather telling!) But in bush-dancing, all I needed was energy and a whole heap of enthusiasm. Best of all, many of the dances were progressive, so if I accidentally poked my partner in the eye or dragged the skin off his shin with over-zealous foot-stomping, I didn’t have to face him for more than a minute or two. It was a clumsy girl’s dream come true. Furthermore, there was always supper at half time, pineapple chunks included.
I don’t know what teenage entertainment would look like in Peak Hill nowadays. But my sentimental heart hopes that, somewhere out there, there is a time-warped enclave of young men and women who are still catching yabbies, relishing the changing colours of daybreak and ripping the skin off each other’s shins to the jangles of a lagerphone.