Hughie Read lived in Watson when I first met him in 1989. But he was hardly your average suburbanite. Hughie had spent most of his life in the bush.
Aged 82 when we met, Hughie was suffering those many afflictions that come with old age. He'd had a bad fall and got around with the aid of a walking-frame. He was incontinent, and his home smelt of urine. The standard of hygiene meant that if we had lunch together, I usually brought a BBQ chook and salad and we shared that. But Hughie was generous to me. He shared his stories with me, and friendship.
Hughie was born in 1907 and worked on the family property at Naas, near today's Namadgi National Park. ''We'd get up in the morning and go out for a day's work in the bush. You'd roll up a bit of meat in a piece of newspaper, and a bit of tea and sugar and an old billy and you'd go off into the hills. That's what you'd have for tea, and very likely you'd open it up and it'd be full of bloody blowflies - you'd have to eat around them!''
His Father George demanded a lot of his young sons. ''Dad used to send Charlie and I from where we lived at Naas away up there towards the Honeysuckle. There was an old hut there - we were only about 10 and 12 - and we'd have to ride up and camp in this old hut of a night. He reckoned the smell of humans would keep the dingoes from coming in to attack the sheep there. By Christ we used to be frightened. You can imagine - kids.''
Earlier in the 20th century rabbits were in plague proportions. Hughie, like people on the land everywhere, put in much time trapping and poisoning them. Rabbiters' camps out in the mountains could be uncomfortable. Hughie remembered relative Roy Gregory's camp up in Orroral as having only blankets and bags for beds and being terribly cold. Hughie and Roy were just teenagers and one night were not alone in their bush camp. ''When a dingo howls," recalled Hughie, "it puts a shiver down your back - that's true. If a dingo howls, this shiver comes all through you. And they were howling all around that night. I was cuddling up to Roy!" he laughed.
Hughie had connections with fledgling Canberra. Starting from the 1930s he was paid to trap native animals - under licence - for the Institute of Anatomy. He vividly remembered meeting Institute personnel, and his trapping methods. Tiger cats (spotted-tailed quolls), platypus and wedge-tailed eagles were caught, and kangaroos were snared with a sapling spring-pole attached to a wire loop. Hughie placed specimens in a hessian bag and carried them out of the bush on horseback - though the eagle was caught live. Back home he placed the dead animals in a bath of formalin to preserve them until the Institute could pick them up.
Hughie spent much time riding and had a lot of affection for horses. "I was with Bevis West, Jack Maxwell, Doug Maxwell and Harry Cribb. We were all camped out on Jumbuck Flats. And they were gonna yard these brumbies. Two better bushmen never ever drew rein than Doug Maxwell and Harry Cribb. They'd go full race through the bush, duckin' and divin'. I'd run up a tree before I got half way."
Sometimes horses were treated cruelly or met sad ends. In the 1920s Roy Gregory had to shoot an old chestnut horse, named Billy, which had simply got too old. The body was left near Sawpit Creek in upper Orroral as a dingo bait laced with strychnine. The practice of using poisoned horse or brumby carcasses as giant dingo baits was widespread in the mountains.
Hughie made summertime journeys up to the snow-lease plains. With Charlie Crawford, he took sheep up to Kellys Plain, now in Kosciuszko National Park near Tantangara Dam. I took Hughie on car trips into that area of Kosciuszko. At Adaminaby the townscape was very different to the old town Hughie had known which was drowned by Lake Eucumbene. It was at Old Adaminaby, Hughie recalled, that local identity Herc West, in a classic bush stunt, rode his horse up the pub steps.
The Kellys Plain grazing trips offered Hughie a change from the routine at home, an escape from his tyrannical father, and they clearly were an enjoyable part of his life. Hughie and Crawford stayed at Crace's Hut - named after E.G. Crace of Gungahlin Station. The hut was draughty and uncomfortable - "a bloody bastard of a place" - and their bed was "bloody old stinking sheep skins". But the hut's lack of comfort really mattered little. The local fishing in Nungar Creek was excellent: "Every time you threw in a line, splash! Oh it was beautiful."
The bush has its ghost stories and Hughie knew many. One concerned James Davin, whose death was reported in the local press in 1907. Davin, manager of Gudgenby Station, had gone to Adaminaby and left there to return home in early July.
"It was snowing and he was drinking rum - rum's no good to you in cold weather - and he got down and he died. And the dog was sleeping on the tail of his coat, under his knees, and Davin was dead. And when the police went to get him, they took him up to old Circuits Hut [about four kilometres from Crace's] and trimmed his beard [to make the corpse presentable] and put the whiskers on the shelf. And while those whiskers were on the shelf, the door wouldn't stay closed. Men used to put things against it, but they'd just fall down and the door would come open. Harry Oldfield and Arthur Cochran come there one night - it was snowing and raining - and they were too frightened to go outside for firewood so they cut up a stool to make a fire. You get that sort of a fear, like when a dingo howls. Anyhow, Herc West later chucked the whiskers out the door - and for ever after the door closed."
My last visit to Hughie was in a Canberra nursing home not long before his death in May 1996. By then dementia had taken his stories. He did not recognise me.
- Matthew Higgins is a Canberra author and historian.
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