Our property was once owned by the Whelan family, so when Mary Whelan’s daughter Emma booked a tour for she and her mum, we were looking forward to hearing some stories about the river.
Mary will be 80 next year but she’s in pretty good form and took to kayaking like a professional. And once we were on the river, the memories started to spill out.
Firstly it was just about who once lived on the properties we were passing on the tour, and how Mary came to stay almost every Christmas holidays. She remembered swimming for hours in the river, riding her horse, fishing. All of Mary’s memories of her days at Kiah involved the river. It was a profound time for me in particular as I could hear Mary’s love of the river in her shaky voice and the way her stories all resonated with my own love of this place.
As we pass the section of river always known as ‘the crossing’, Mary says “well with the Kiah cemetery being on Greg’s place, of course, everyone had to cross the river here to go to the funerals.” [Mary Whelan, December 2019]
“They used to build a foot bridge here, so everyone could get to the funeral. And then of course it would wash away in the next flood. So when the next person died, they’d have to build another bridge….” Who knew!? The cemetery is no longer used but will always remain as the final resting place for many who immigrated here from Ireland.
We go around the big bend in the river near the property called “Freshwater”. Mary tells me she thinks this might be “where Shelley lived, but his place burnt down. A few places burnt down including the Hall of course.”
“I think this is where they put all us kids in the ’52 fires. We had to wait in the river, with tarpaulins over our heads. The whole dairy herd was with us – all of us sheltering in the river. We all survived!” [Mary Whelan, December 2019]
Further along, Mary says she recalls a big hole in the river where there was always fresh water to pump – as long as there wasn’t a big drought. And sure enough, we still call it ‘the pump hole’. Mary tells me of the day she and a bunch of other kids went down to the pump hole for a swim. She was only little and there were no adults with them (!). Then she spots the rock ledges and excitedly tells me that’s exactly where they jumped in.
“That’s the rock I jumped off when I was about 6. I couldn’t swim and went straight down. When I came up, I had to learn to swim pretty quick!” [Mary Whelan, December 2019]
When Mary married she brought her husband to Kiah and they went fishing. She reckons he had no idea – she had to teach him everything. She said coming here taught her the fundamentals of life. How precious water is, basic survival skills, how to swim (!), how to light a fire – and how to put one out. Skills that too many young Australians miss out on learning these days.
So today as I watch my two young grandchildren and their friends running around in their bush campsite – all filthy dirty (with the good dirt!), getting sticks to toast their marshmallows, asking for the 100th time “can we go for another swim?”, I think of how wonderful this playground is and how lucky we are to live here and share it. It makes my heart sing.
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