All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: An Alice Girl by Tanya Heaslip

on May 21, 2020

An Alice Girl 
Tanya Heaslip
Allen & Unwin
2020, 318p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

An extraordinary story of growing up in the late 1960s and early 70s on an outback cattle property.

Whether working the mobs of cattle with the stockmen, playing cattleduffing on horseback or singing and doing lessons at their School of the Air desks, Tanya Heaslip and her siblings led a childhood unimaginable to many Australians. Growing up on a vast and isolated cattle property just north of Alice Springs, Tanya tells of wild rides, of making far-flung friends over the Air, of the dangers, the fun and the back-breaking work. As the eldest child, her added responsibility was to look after the littler ones, so she was by their sides dealing with snakes, the threat of bushfires and broken bones.

Tanya’s parents, Janice and Grant ‘the Boss’ Heaslip, were pioneers. They developed Bond Springs Station where water was scarce, where power was dependent on generators and where a trip to town for supplies meant a full day’s journey. Grant was determined to teach his children how to survive in this severe environment and his lessons were often harsh. In a childhood that most would consider very tough, Tanya tells of this precious time with raw honesty, humour, love and kindness. This is the story of an Alice girl.

What an upbringing this was, for a girl from the burbs who has never really been to the outback!

This year, my husband and I had planned a trip to Uluru. I had always wanted to go and I thought that once they banned climbing it, it would be a perfect time. Photos without people traipsing all over it! However of course, we’ve had to postpone that trip – probably until July or so next year. When I was planning it, I learned that Alice Springs isn’t actually as close to it as I thought, in fact it’s a four hour drive and I’d have to make our holiday a bit longer if we were to see both of them! That’s how clueless about that area I am… the meantime, until I can go there, this was an excellent way to learn a little bit more about it at a more grass roots level, from someone who spent their entire childhood on a cattle property outside of Alice Springs.

It might be the same country I grew up in but it might as well be a million miles away! I was fascinated with the accounts Tanya gave of her and her younger siblings playing outside for hours, learning to ride and muster the cattle on the property, doing long distance learning and school of the air. Even more interesting were how people on remote properties managed to maintain social lives with those others who were also in similar situations. Things like cattle sales and local shows were something that people came from miles around to attend, catch up with others and kick back. A lot of the farmers had planes, so could fly to each other’s properties if required. And given your nearest neighbour could be over 500km away, which would be a 10/12 hour round trip in a car, a plane was not only a useful tool in terms of helping to muster and inspect properties from the air, but also to keep each other connected. Tanya’s father also had a property in South Australia and then added a third property in another part of the Northern Territory and using the plane to travel between them cut down on travelling time considerably. A four day drive between the NT and SA property became an 8hr plane ride, broken into 2x4hr chunks with a refuelling stop in Oodnadatta.

In some ways, this feels like an idyllic childhood. There’s a lot of freedom, to roam and explore. It seems they’re all connected in varying degrees to the land and it definitely teaches a hard work ethic as well as patience and understanding. This is not an easy lifestyle, which is the other side of the coin. There’s potential for a lot of danger: snakes, falling off horses, dehydration and heatstroke, etc. You’re a long way from any medical help and this can be serious, such as the case of Tanya’s mother’s fourth pregnancy. The hours are long, the work is backbreaking. The heat is endless, the dust and flies and relentless sun. It’s a harsh environment and when Tanya’s father took over the lease of the property, the area had been in a drought for ten years. That’s a long time and this sort of endeavour often relies upon things you cannot control, like the weather. The isolation is tough as well – Tanya and her siblings were raised alone and a bit wild….when meeting other children at first, they had no idea how to interact with them. It was a daunting, anxiety inducing experience. For women like Tanya’s mother, you have to be incredibly resourceful and resilient. Her story is told through Tanya’s observations. Never ending cooking and washing and cleaning, taking care of the men with their food requirements is basically a full time job. And those who aren’t happy with the benefits will probably leave and go elsewhere. For Tanya’s mother, connections to others in the “area” (broadly speaking) are vital. The governess/teacher/nanny types they employ to come and help look after and teach the younger children are also a lifeline for the wives, providing adult, female conversation and companionship when they can be alone long hours whilst their husbands are out working the cattle. It’s a lifestyle probably not suited to many and you have to really want it, love it, thrive on it in order to be successful. And I can fully admit, I wouldn’t be able to cope. The heat alone would do me in (I get burned when it’s less than 20 degrees). This was the 60s and 70s – no internet. No TV. No phone. Basically communication was via radio and very limited. But something that did very much come through for me, was that despite all of these challenges, the people who populate this remote area built their own very remarkable type of community.

I enjoyed this a lot. It also stops an interesting point (tying back in to Tanya’s guest post from yesterday) where she’s about to leave for boarding school, so perhaps one day there’ll be more about that experience.


Book #90 of 2020

An Alice Girl is book #29 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020


2 responses to “Review: An Alice Girl by Tanya Heaslip

  1. Marg says:

    This does sound like an interesting read.
    We have a trip to Uluru booked for September. So far, it hasn’t been cancelled so I am still a bit hopeful that we may get to go. We’ll see.

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