Ladies Day at Durham Downs

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One hundred women for one weekend in the middle of one point eight million acres of gibber in one aircraft hanger on Durham Downs. When Simon at Booked Out first phoned me he wasn’t quite sure what it was, where it was, and who these people really were, but he had the feeling that this gig was actually going to happen and I might be the author they were looking for.

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My hand shot up. Thank you, Simon. This was Love Like Water country, the country of my childhood. Bigger, bolder and another eight hours drive beyond the sheep and cattle property where I grew up in Queensland, I could smell the dust, see the straight gravel road stretching into an enormous sky, and hear the voices of women a long time on their own.

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Kristy is the young governess originally from Sydney who works on Durham Downs. She is also the National Student Representative of Services for Australian Rural and Remote Allied Health (SARRAH) and the Co-Senior Allied Health Portfolio Holder, National Rural Health Students Network (NRHSN). Kristy makes things happen. Four hours drive from the nearest town, she walks tall with a long stride. ‘It’ll happen.’ A week before, with fights still being booked, stopovers in the ‘nearby’ schools of Cunnamulla and Thargomindah yet to be confirmed, I had no doubt: ‘it’ll happen’. The generosity of the Bulloo Shire assigned Melinda from Thargomindah to drive me from one place to the next, hundreds of kilometres. With Melinda at the wheel, pulling wide as road trains barrelled through in a thunder of dust, I was in good hands. Melinda oozes love of the land. My notebook was ready between the bumps, catching the next bush remedy, wise saying, or story of the particular breed of people that live here.

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We arrived at Durham on dusk in a storm that blew down the marque, the first rain in one hundred days. It’s all in hundreds out here. ‘It’ll happen.’ Women had driven up to seven hundred k’s that day. From a ninety year old down to a couple of young children and all ages in between, swags were rolled out on the back of utes, across verandas, in the kitchen, down the creek, wherever. Seasoned bushies, newcomers, flying doctors and nurses, governesses, property owners – rural women. And a handful of men – the manager, head stockman, and three jackaroos, one from the neighbouring property who hadn’t been west of the divide for long – were on hand to mix cocktails, serve food, restock the ice, crank up the fans, be at the ready in a crisis, all with good cheer.

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My job was to inspire these rural women to value their stories. Kristy was sure I could talk through my own writing experience and have all one hundred women up sharing their stories within the space of an hour. I was glad of Kristy’s confidence. ‘It’ll happen.’ Follow-up tips could be workshopped after lunch. Lunch was a white tablecloth and wine affair. I had quietly mentioned that I didn’t eat meat. ‘You’re coming to one of the biggest cattle properties in Australia and you don’t eat meat?’ I nodded…over the phone. ‘Not a problem. We’ve got a great chef coming. She’ll knock up something tasty that’ll keep you alive.’

There were a number of presenters including a renowned photographer, a leading artist, a tarot reader and masseuse, a social networker, a hairdresser, singers, clothing designers, and…a pleasure consultant. Yes, the pleasure consultant from Mullumbimby came with graphs, suitcases of toys for sale, and a dance routine choreographed by the leading lady of Durham Downs whose lucky husband was standing in the wings laughing along with the rest of us.

From the cocktail party Friday night through a Saturday full of workshops, lunch, dinner, dancing and a recovery brunch Sunday morning, this was a celebration. Of boundless creativity. Of hardship, joy and love. Of women-power in all its wonder and possibility. Of free spirits and open space under a firmament of stars. Of stepping out – high-heeled, riding booted or barefoot – beyond the limits. The weekend filled me up. There were a hundred others that could say the same.

Meme McDonald December 2012