Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sharing Memories - Childhood Memories of Picnic Races at White Cliffs

Horses preparing to race
 As I remember, the vast distances between settlements in outback NSW definitely didn’t seem to place restrictions on the social life of the people living in these areas.  One of the most popular events were the Picnic Races that were quite a regular feature in many of the small settlements. 

The local horse breeders would travel long distances to compete at these events.  All the station owners, and station hands, along with their families, would pack up for the day and head into town for the race meeting and the dance that would be held at the local community hall in the evening. 

Keeping in mind these memories are those of are a young girl and that they are probably from quite a different perspective to that of the older generation,
 this is how I remember it. We would all be dressed in our best casual clothes, and our party dresses and shoes would be packed in the car for the evening event.  Pillows and blankets, and refreshments would be piled into the back of the car, and off we would head on the dusty road to the small opal mining town of White Cliffs. 
Opal mines of White Cliffs

The township of White Cliffs consisted of one sparsely settle street, with a pub at one end, a small general store and garage with one petrol pump on the other side of the road. Further along the street the bush nurse’s residence/office, and the local Country Women's Association (CWA) building, a post office and the Town Hall could be found.  Very few of the town’s residents lived above ground, and the town was and is still renown for its underground homes.  Miners dig out their kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms in the earth near their mines, where the temperature is much cooler than the searing summer heat above ground.

The White Cliffs Race track was a few miles outside of the town and consisted of a large dusty track, with roughly hewed wooden railings.  On the outside of the track there were a number of tin sheds, a larger one, where the CWA would serve, tea, coffee and freshly baked scones and cakes , then there were a number of smaller shelters, one acting as the local betting station and another as the bar where cold beer and soft drink was available to quench many dry throats.

It was a great opportunity for all the people of the district to catch up, as the distances between properties often meant it was weeks between seeing other people other than those who worked on the property.  It must have been quite a special time for the women to be able to get together and share stories, as I know in my mother’s case, she and the owners wife were the only adult women on Nuntherungie Station.

For the children, it was a chance to catch up with children other than your own siblings, we would all run off and play around the sheds, check out the horses and later in the day have a few laughs at some of the locals who had visited the beer shack one too many times. 

There would be general buzz around the track as everyone caught up, discussed the weather, lack of rain, prices of wool etc.  Then about every half hour there would be a hush over the crowd, and in the distance you could see a cloud of dust approaching as the horses made their way around the track towards the finish line.  The excited punters would jump up and down, hoping that their horse was at the front of the cloud of dust.  The horses would finally reach the final straight, and all the children would race to the barrier to watch the pounding hooves as they raced by.  Disappointed punters would tear up there betting tickets and head to the beer shed to mourn their lost, and the gentle buzz of conversation would start up again until the next cloud of dust and hooves made its way around the track.

The races over, it was time to wash off the dust and climb into our party gear for the evening “dance” at the local hall.  Younger children were fed, bathed and dressed in their pj’s and tucked into makeshift beds in the cars parked outside the dance hall.  Ladies would dress in their prettiest dresses and high heels, and men would don freshly ironed shirts and pants ready for a night of music and dance.  I was a little older than my sisters so I was lucky enough to be able to stay up a little later, and would sit on the side of the dance floor with one of my friends and watch the couples gliding across the dance floor.  I loved to watch the swishing of the ladies full skirts as they twirled and spun. 
Then the best bit of the evening came when the band stopped for a break, fresh hopps and sawdust would be sprinkled across the dance floor (to make it easier for the dancers to “slide”), and while the parents checked on the younger children,  the  older children would take the opportunity to run and slide across the dance floor.  I was not a child who liked to be bundled off to bed when there was a party, and somehow usually managed to be able to stay up until the dance finished.  This was a special treat as I would get to see the last dance of the night.  “The Streamer Dance” as I called it.  It would be announced as the last dance, and rolls of streamers would be handed out to everyone.  As the couples danced, the rolls of streamers would be tossed across the hall, unwinding and covering the dances in a  curly coloured blanket. 

The Dance over, we would be bundled into the car, a space made for me on the back seat amongst my sleeping sisters and we would head home with heads buzzing from the excitement of the day.

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