Narrogin

Narrogin is 192km south east of Perth, between Pingelly and Wagin. The name is derived from the aboriginal word narrogin, meaning “place of water”. In the age of the steam engine, Narrogin was the largest railway hub in Western Australia. In 1963 the population was around 4,000. There was a disproportionate number of police in the town due to the large indigenous population in camps close by. The main land use in the area was wheat and sheep farming.

All of the migrants’ belongings from the ship’s hold were transferred to the hostel by truck. They were stored in the camp’s original gym in long neat rows for easy access. The system of retrieving personal belongings was fairly casual. There was a caretaker on duty at set times, but no identification was required to remove items.

The only item I had stored in the gym was a large steel toolbox containing all my tools of trade. The day before I had to leave, I went to the luggage store to check on my toolbox. After an extensive search I realized it was missing. Someone had taken it.

I was devastated. I was in a strange country, with very little money and no tools to start work with. Probably the hardest thing to come to terms with was the fact that they had been stolen by a fellow countryman.

Armed with the rail pass, sleeping bag and rucksack, I shook hands with Gordon and boarded the train to Narrogin. When I do the welding test, they’ll pack me off back to Perth, I thought as I searched the carriage for a seat. The single rail track wandered in a long loop through hills, forests and open farmland, calling at small settlements and towns. As the sun began to set, the rich red colours of the soil reflected a rosy glow onto the surrounding trees – my first experience of the beauty of the Australian bush.

The train to Narrogin (2007)

The carriage was an old wooden compartment with an open veranda at the rear where stockmen ambled out for a quiet smoke. I leaned over the rail as the pinprick stars glided softly through the tree canopy. I felt like I had been transported to America’s Wild West. This feeling was reinforced when the train eventually pulled into Narrogin Station.

Narrogin Station (2007)

It was quite late by this time and only three people stepped from the train onto the platform. A middle-aged lady with shopping bags, a tall scruffy guy with a small haversack slung over his shoulder and me with my rucksack and sleeping bag. Standing near the exit was a large policeman, dressed in khaki shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. He wore a wide brimmed slouch hat and, on his belt, a shiny black handgun.

“Evening Marg,” he greeted the lady, with a tip of his hat.

He approached the haversack guy. “What’s your business in town?”

“Just thought I’d see if there was work around here,” he answered.

“No work here mate. Get back on the train,” replied the cop. Then it was my turn. He looked me up and down.

“And what are you in town for?”

“I’ve come to work on the pipeline.”

He looked at my travel warrant, then nodded to the station master who waved his flag and blew his whistle. The train pulled out of the station and disappeared into the dusk. It really did feel like the Wild West.

The cop followed me out of the station. “It’s too late to go up to the site. You’d best stay in town tonight. You’ll find Jean in the bar of The Horden Hotel – she’ll find you a bed.”

The Horden Hotel was situated in the main street. It was a typical country pub, complete with a wide veranda and wrought iron lacework. The pub was deserted apart from two fellows at the end of the bar and Jean washing glasses. After a brief introduction she led me to a small room on the first floor.

“Breakfast will be served at eight in the dining room behind the bar,” she said.

Narrogin and the Horden Hotel – 7th March 1963
Narrogin and the Horden Hotel (2007)

The next morning, I wandered into the dining room and was directed to a table near the window. A small thickset man sat opposite. He informed me that he was going to the camp that morning and asked if I would like a lift. He was the government surveyor and visited the site periodically to check on the route of the pipeline. After breakfast of cereal and mince on toast we set off for the camp in his ute. I had no idea what to expect when we got there.

The PWD1 camp, situated on a treed hill a few miles out of town, was deserted apart from the clerk, yardman and cook. The rest of the men were out on the pipeline. Two rows of tubular framed tents took up the main area. In front of the first row stood the portable kitchen and alongside that were two trestle tables and old timber benches. The meals area was protected from the sun and rain by tarpaulins strung between the trees.

Behind the second row of tents was a corrugated shed, housing the wood-fired water heater, two concrete troughs and two showers. To the right of the tents, a half-timber half canvas structure stood in front of the fuel and equipment shed. Harry Adams, the clerk, entered my details into his record book, then introduced me to the yard man Fred who showed me to a vacant tent and supplied me with a straw palliasse2, a water bag, a tilley lamp and a toolbox.

A short while later, the foreman returned to the camp. He smiled and held out his hand:

“G’day Harry. Who have we got this time?” he turned to me for an answer.

“Ray Jones,” I replied, “I’m here for the welding job.”

“Yes, but can you weld? The last two they sent me were as useless as tits on a bull! I’ll put you with Steve for a few days to see how you go. If you‘re no good, you can bugger off back to Perth. The rest of the crew are out on the pipeline and they won’t be back until about five. Have a look around. Dinner’s on at six.”

The camp was a strange mix of nationalities and characters. There were Italians, Eastern Europeans and a few local Australians. There were men who were hiding from the law or an ex-wife, along with a couple of single wanderers.

After meeting the men on their return to the camp, I discovered that all but a few were leaving that night for the long weekend break. I had arrived at the camp on a Friday and the next Monday and Tuesday were holidays. Everyone was leaving to visit their families apart from a few who had nowhere else to go.

Not wanting to stay in the deserted camp on my own for the next four days, I packed a few belongings into a small bag and hit the road to thumb a lift back to Perth. As luck would have it, the third car to stop was an early model VW and the young driver was going all the way to Perth.

As with most cars at that time, the only cooling was to wind the windows down – not very successful in the heat of the day. About half-way to Perth, we pulled into the car park of a wide veranda hotel, where I got to know my young driver, Eddy, over two or three schooners and a few games of pool. The drop off was Perth Railway Station and before parting company we arranged to meet in the Sportsmen’s Bar in the city on the Saturday night.

Friends at Point Walter were surprised to see me so soon and asked if I still had the job. They sneaked me into the camp and found me a vacant bed. They were all eager to hear about my brief adventure into the Australian bush.

I had a great time with Eddy’s mates. The juke box was running hot and the pool table well used. Eddy also promised to pick me up at the station early on the Tuesday morning for the trip back to Narrogin.

Ray Charles – ‘Georgia’  1963
Other arms reach out to me
Other eyes smile tenderly
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you

Next: 2007 – Narrogin revisit

Previous: Point Walter

  1. Public Works Department
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