It pains me to say it, but if you’re a 21st-century kid, please don’t experiment at home with anything mentioned here. Not only is there a risk of injury to yourself and others – indeed, in some parts of the country you may really get eaten by a crocodile or Admonished by a Stranger – but, and perhaps this is worse, your parents may be thought too poor to buy you an X-box.
There’s an old Australian poem with a chorus that goes something like: Stringybark and greenhide, it’ll never fail ya! Stringybark and greenhide, it’s the mainstay of Australia. By the time I was old enough to be aware of such things, greenhide was still in common use on the big cattle stations – probably still is in some places – but farmhouse roofs of stringybark had long been replaced by that enduring symbol of Australia, corrugated iron. Relatively cheap, easily transported, white-ant proof and to a large extent fire resistant, it was the wonder material of the 19th and early 20th centuries. To an Australian kid growing up in the 40s and 50s, discarded corrugated iron, no matter how small or damaged the piece, was a commodity more precious than gold and number one in childhood’s Catalogue of Desirable And Useful Things To Have. This catalogue, verbally handed down through generations of child-artisans had at its head three items, the first two of which were scrap lead and Number 8 fencing wire.
Hard to come by, the lead was assiduously hoarded to use as a trade good or to make sinkers for fishing lines. Easily melted in a jam tin over a fire in the backyard, the metal was poured into sand moulds formed in another tin, or dropped by the teaspoonful from shoulder height into a bucket of water. Number 8 wire could be used for many things, but if you were lucky enough to score some offcuts in good condition, reasonably rust-free and more than a couple of feet long, they could immediately be converted into bob wires for the entrance trap on a pigeon loft or, in the case of AAA-grade samples, into tines for a gidgee, the three-pronged, barbed fishing spear, the design and name of which came to its makers from the Nyungar-speaking peoples of the south-west.Three lengths of wire were hammered straight then one end of each was bent at 90 degrees to fit into holes burned with wire into a shaft made of a very young sapling, preferably tea-tree or paperbark. The other end was heated and bent into a tight tick; the bottom of the vee sharpened as much as could be without weakening it too much and the upstroke highly sharpened at its end to make a very effective barb. The tines were then fastened to the shaft by wrapping with finer wire or, if you were lucky to have a piece of the right size, by forcing a short piece of water pipe down the shaft and over the tines. Gidgees were used to spear flounder, mullet, blue manna crabs and cobbler, the large estuary dwelling catfish whose poisonous spines made their delicious flesh a perilous prize.
Wonderful stuff lead and wire may have been, but it was corrugated iron that topped the list. A piece 60 cm or so long could be folded lengthwise, belted flat with a length of pipe – fathers’ hammers were precious things, reserved strictly for nails – folded and flattened again then bent over at the centre to form a vee. This was a kylie, the south-west’s hunting boomerang and another legacy of the Nyungar, used to throw into the shoals of mullet that in those days schooled in shallow water by the tens upon tens of thousands during the annual run. But all these desirable things paled into insignificance if you found a sheet big enough and sound enough to make that most prized of all possessions – the tin canoe. Such a treasure was lugged or dragged home and laid reverently in the backyard, weighted down with old bricks or coondies – big stones – until the other necessary materials could be gathered: a fruit crate, preferably an orange dump; some flathead case nails – these could sometimes be salvaged from the crate; a short length of 2 x 4 or thereabouts; and some tar, gouged from the roads on hot days or scrounged from council patch gangs. The rest was easy. The corrugations at each end were hammered out as well as could be done with a piece of pipe or heavy wood, the stern was one end of the fruit crate nailed in place and the bow was the 2 x 4 similarly attached. The tar, heated over a fire, was used to patch nail holes and the “seams” around the wood. A thin board from the side of the crate was sawn in half to make the hand-held paddles, the use of which was an art in itself, almost as difficult as balancing and steering the canoes whose combination of construction method and materials often made for interesting forward progress.
With a good kylie and a well-made gidgee you had dominion over the denizens of river and shoreline, able to provide a bounty of fish and crabs for the table – if they weren’t so badly damaged that your Mum made you feed them to the chooks. The “thwoock” as a kylie caused panic among a school of mullet was enough to wipe away the cares of the world and three feet, a metre, of cobbler – okay, okay, two feet then – wriggling on the gidgee made the sky blaze with righteous light. But a canoe made you King of the World; Master of River and Swamp; intrepid explorer of Hitherto Unknown reedbed and billabong and beholden to none. Until, that is, you heard your little brother yelling from the water’s edge: “Ma said if yer don’t come home for yer tea she’ll bastard skin yer alive.” Dan took a while to master the art of swearing.