Athenapallas's Blog

December 12, 2011

THE MAN WHO LOVED CROCODILES and other Adventurous Australians


By Marg Carroll, published by Allen and Unwin 2011.

(A short version of this review is published today in Newsbite the e-magazine of the NSW Writers’ Centre.)

This book is the third of a series written over the last decade about rural Australians both indigenous and non-indigenous: the first  Ordinary people, Extraordinary Lives 2001, the second Re-inventing the Bush: Inspiring stories of young Australians, 2008, and now this third book about 15 adventurous older Australian,  all up 57 remarkable men and women across the continent.        

The Man Who Loved Crocodiles

This last book in particular is a perfect companion for us                  

 city folks who are apt to whinge a little

and forget how our land was forged by such people

 as inhabit the pages of this extra-ordinary book.

Marg tracks real lives,

 ‘wherein lie the ingredients of the best dramas: bold dreams and overcoming mighty obstacles’.    She is motivated by her own search for inspiration, the result is she succeeds in inspiring her readers as well.

 This is a book to be treasured over time. Open it up anywhere not only at the Crocodile story,

but maybe the one about the Camel Lady who rode a camel       

The Camel Lady

across the desert following in the tracks of Burke and Wills,

or the Torres Strait Islander who dived for pearls and

then became a national singing star, or

 the Czech immigrant who survived 13 Nazi prison camps through the power of meditation,

or the Supermum who raised 13 children mostly on her own,  finally learning to read after she recovered from a brain tumour in her seventies,

or the Indigenous entrepreneur who created a tourist enterprise, conservation haven,and education foundation for bush Aborigines,

or the woman who founded an organic skin care business, or…..

The story of a person who has lived long and well is a privilege beyond price’, Marg asserts and the process of delving into another life is ‘akin to uncovering a treasure’.

I was struck by the importance of curiosity and being involved as key ingredients to a well-lived lasting life and as Marg tells these stories she reflects on the nature of courage and daring. In fact she felt that all 15 of her story tellers could have won awards for courage revealed in so many unique ways. These are not fearless people but people who keep engaging in life and who face their fears and triumph over them.

Marg has found these people like a bush Hercule Poirot following up all sorts of leads, looking in surprising nooks and crannies via networks, friends, family, the internet and the media but most of all she has followed her own sense of adventure for exploring issues close to her heart like the environment, a better life for First Australians, the protection of endangered species and nurturing young people.

In these stories there were many brushes with death and she unearthed a variety of spiritual beliefs but in all there was a respect for the beliefs of others and real openness of hearts and minds.

 Not only did Marg find these special people, she formed remarkable alliances with them so that they could trust her with all of their stories, the good and the bad. It was a true collaboration and Marg became in some way or other an extension of them and their families.

She is the master of the first paragraph in all of her stories, immediately giving you a succinct word picture of the person and their character and whetting your appetite to learn more.

 Novelists and short story writers need to take lessons from her. Take the first paragraph in her very first story:

 ‘You may not pick Heather Innes─ slight in stature with short-cropped reddish hair, a cheeky grin and quick wit─ as a champion sports woman, top pilot or formidable crime fighter. Her modesty and mastery of understatement ensure no hint of an illustrious past.’

She is also the master of the concluding paragraph.

She finishes her story of Back Country Milkman with the following:

 ‘He has experienced the three most significant events of the last century, the Great Depression, the fall of Singapore and the dropping of the Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He had the longest milk run in Australia over 3 decades and he just signed up for another milk run by which time he will be 96’.

One of the strengths of this book is how the author weaves historyand relevant often startling statistics into the stories so that the reader is learning not just about the people                 

Marg with the Desert Writers 2010

 but about the broader society and culture in which they lived. 

Some of this is confronting and surprising for people

who have never met a bush Aborigine,

watched the sunrise in the desert

 or seen buffalo or crocodile at close quarters or

 grown up living in a bark hut papered with old copies of the Women’s Weekly!

(Marg workshopped her some of her writing for this book on Jan Cornall’s Desert Writers Trek in 2010.)

Some statistics in the book blew me away: of the 330,000 prisoners of war who toiled on the infamous Burma-Thailand railway  one in three died, repeating a common belief that they buried a man for every sleeper laid and  11,000 POWs lost their lives from Allied bombings.

Our story-teller, Bush Country Milkman survived both the horrors of the railway and one such bombing in a ship bound for Japan only to end up working in a coal mine 10 kilometres from Hiroshima just before the A-bomb hit.

Ian the Indigenous entrepreneur/philanthropist of Kings Creek Station with his wife Lyn help the local people,who in the absence of a health clinic, come to them with ear infections, scabies, pneumonia,starvation and the impact of alcohol and he  has recently established an education foundation to send young people to schools in Adelaide to escape the downward spiral of life in their own communities. 

Lyn, Lizzie and child Kings Creek Station

Every day he sees bush people trying just to survive.                          

‘I listened to PM Rudd’s apology

 to the Stolen Generation that is a white man’s term.’

 His wife, Lyn calls these bush people the Neglected Generation

 while he sees the official apology as only words and instead urges action. ….

‘Why didn’t Kevin Rudd apologise to the kids who are uneducated and starving,

 to the old ladies who are waiting for dialysis,

to the people who are committing suicide, to men who have no work.

 That would be a real apology.’

In the story of Peter  the last of the buffalo hunters we learn that   20,000 bulls were captured and killed in an industry in which indigenous and non-indigenous people worked side by side producing leather hides to be used for a huge variety of industrial purposes as well as saddles, buckets for windmills, seat coverings,  and hand bags. After synthetic leather hit the market in the fifites the industry collapsed.

Another striking thing about many of these stories are          

Peter and Lena

 the enduring partnerships  

which survive through periods of great hardship

and strain and the tragedy of illness and loss,

 like  Peter and Lena both of the Stolen Generation…

Lena received horrific injuries protecting her husband from a crocodile attack…

A theme of such partnerships, even when not tested in such an extreme way, was that they gave strength to each other and even when they ended helped  to forge a new life for themselves.  And in many cases, the comments and ideas of family members whom Marg interviewed, become a mirror in which the person is also reflected, often candidly without flattery but with droll humour and affection.

Beautiful and original descriptions  abound in this book.

As Marg approached Claret Ash Farm where Jan harvests and produces her organic skin care products that are exported  to exclusive outlets in Japan, Marg comments,            

Jan at Claret Ash Farm

 ‘Even on a perishing day bright flowers light the garden-

 the orange of marigolds and nasturtiums, purple lavender

 and the last of the autumn roses.

Floppy pink petals of Echinacea, yellow yarrow,

blue-starred borage

and the white frills of chamomile daisies are scattered

through beds of pumpkin, rhubarb and silver beet….

All Beds face the north east for maximum sunlight and slope down to a dam where Black Angus weavers graze.

This is an oasis in my journey from the parched east.’

In her lovely story of the Artist Ada still a working and recognised artist at 79

who at  the age of 64 established her own Gallery and Studio in Milthorpe 

Ada at Mt Canoblan

 after her beloved husband had died tragically,                                        

 Marg describes one of her paintings:

 ‘The fine strokes of Japanese calligraphy adding dimension

where there was none, colour where white prevailed and

 becoming a landscape of the  mind as well as what we see before us.’

In other stories like the one of Pam, the founder of the Landcare movement, Marg makes great use of  quotes to illustrate what Pam was able to achieve.

For example Margaret Mead’s statement,

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world. Indeed that is the only thing that ever has.’

And later as she describes Pam’s extension into local government and her advocacy for women at all levels of decisions making, she quotes from one of Pam’s speeches,

‘Shakespeare made his woman characters as strong as men and his men as tender as women.’

I love it when we see more of Marg in the stories as she is undoubtedly one of the characters we get to know when she travels with her husband and with her story tellers while they show her how they live and work.

 She is one gritty lady, not just for following the Man who loved Crocodiles,the famous film maker, hunter and conservationist, as he flushed out lethal salties in the bush,

but also for the many times she sat and listened and recorded peoples’ pain,deep secrets and experiences of the whole gamut of human emotions as they recalled sometimes unimaginable horror and deprivation.

There is plenty of humour in the stories which comes as much from Marg as from her subjects.

 I like her account of flying to Horn Island in the Torres Strait to meet  Seaman Dan, the oldest person at 74 to win an ARIA award. This island was also the site during WW 11, she tells us, of an Australian airforce base for 5000 men and nine women!

‘Swirling around the islands that Seaman knows so well,                          

Marg and Seaman Dan

the waters are turquoise, merging into cobalt depths.

The water looks inviting but beneath the wharves lurk crocodiles,

 A fresh breeze lifts off the sea. Islands surround us:

“Tuesday, Wednesday and that’s Friday Island,” Seaman points out.

Weekends don’t rate a mention.’

Marg must have the last word to this wonderful book:

‘Real stories can touch our humanity and move us to understand not just the person we are reading about but also ourselves. Rich lives such as these build a mosaic of Australia over the past century-surely a priceless legacy.’

April 7, 2011



'Ancient Olympia

The start of the first official OLYMPIC GAMES was declared in 776 BC by King Ephitus at a time when there were many Hellenic states.    The games were held   what is now the prefecture of Elia in Greece 24ks from the modern  town of Pyrgos at the site of Ancient Olympia.

The Games were  to honour of Zeus the King of the Olympian Gods, father of Athena, whose gigantic temple at Olympia was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Little remains of the temple but it might have looked something like this:

The Ancient Games took place around the first full moon in August and consisted of merely a foot race of about 500 metres. Gradually longer races were introduced as well as the pentathlon (a contest of running, leaping, wrestling, discus and spear-throwing), with chariot races as well as the pancration, a vicious combination of boxing and wrestling.

The early competitors were naked and were required to undergo a training of ten months, to make sacrifices to the Gods and to vow that they would compete fairly. There were official trainers as well as the judges who awarded the prizes─wreaths cut with a golden knife from the sacred olive tree in honour of Heracles, the mighty but disgraced son of Zeus who defeated monsters and man-eating animals in his famous 12 labours.

Marvellous stories were told of the feats of the victors at these ancient games. In a single leap they would cover a distance of nearly 17 metres, and one year the winner of the nine mile race kept running past the finishing line before he stopped at Argos, fifty miles away, the same evening.                    

The Games were held every four years and vast crowds camped

on the slopes of Mount Cronos or in the dry river beds.

Dense throngs stood around the racecourse and

must have suffered in the heat as water was scarce and often polluted.

A holy truce was declared for a whole month during which

all warfare was forbidden and the land of Ellas was considered sacred.

These ancient games were exclusive to male athletes and spectators

and the story goes that if any women were caught within the precincts

they would be thrown from a nearby rock!

There is one story however, of a Spartan woman being detected in male attire

but as her son was the victor of the Games she was forgiven.

Writers, poets and historians also read their works to large audiences,

and the citizens of the various city states of the ancient world got together in a way that happened nowhere else.

 The Modern Olympic Games were instituted in 1896 and except during the first and second world wars were held every four years in various cities around the world including Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004 where thousands of athletes compete in hundreds of events and sporting activities.


The Olympic Flame is lit at the ancient site in Greece and

carried by runners to the city where the games are held.

In modern times the good will and good fortune

generated by the games rivals the work of the United Nations

in trying to bring the nations of the world together.

So into this rich history comes the story of one of our own Olympians,

Nadine Neumann, a young woman who would not even have  even

a spectator let alone competitor in the ancient games.

Wobbles an Olympic Story written by Nadine is her story,

the story of a young girl who became one of the fastest and

most versatile swimmers of her generation in the world,

who was part of the world of elite sport in Australia in the 1990’s,

and who by the time she was 20 had experienced more physical and

mental suffering than most of us ever have.

This book was written during her painful journey of finding a new life

after the cruel, triumphant, gloriously crazy Olympic dream.

Frighteningly real, insightful and compassionate,

 Nadine reveals what it was like inside the Olympic swimming family in Australia.

Nadine’s story will make you angry and sad and affect you so deeply you will start to question things about your own life, your obsessions and the culture that carries them.

 A beautifully constructed book, showing all the skills Nadine learnt in her University English teaching degree.

 Cleverly she starts the story at the end of her Olympic dream, about to dive into the water at the 2000 Olympics Sydney Trials and then takes you back to where it all began for her at her local swimming pool in Ryde.

She tells her story through her own child’s voice and as the story progresses we see her change, but once she has decided that she will go to the Olympics there is no way she can be diverted, and her family become her ally in this dream. She is Herculean in the pursuit of her dream.

Nothing will stop her: not the punishing training regimes and internal politics of the day,

the undiagnosed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome triggered by glandular fever,

the broken neck and major depression,

the social isolation and fractured relationships

and the family hardships related to supporting her and her quest.

There is some wonderful writing in this book which make you realise what a multi-talented woman she has become. She uses short sentences, sometimes even single words like Euphoria, to great effect, showing the ability of a novelist to build tension, suspense and the desire to keep reading.

Even though sometimes you want to shake her and say, please stop, no more, she carries you on her journey, willing you to be on her side and to understand what it was like for her, and she succeeds.

There are many extracts which I have noted but this is one of my favourites.

To me the sound of water is the sound of heaven the tinkle of bubbles as the surface breaks and swirls around your ears, the rhythmic bass-drum of your breath, the roaring cymbals of your feet agitating the waves of your body curves, the melodious movement of an element that supports you, surrounds you, becomes part of you completely. And the symphony plays through a silence that makes you feel the song is yours alone….’

If you have ever marvelled at the Olympic swimming,

or swum yourself and felt the water element embracing you,

had an extraordinary dream in your ordinary life, overcome suffering with not too much grace,

felt like curling up and dying when it all gets too much,

you will find much in this book to illuminate your way.

It should be compulsory reading for all young would-be athletes and their families

 but it is much more than that– it speaks to all of us and

we should thank Nadine for her courage in telling it so well and using her natural writing talent to such great effect.

Photos of Ancient Olympia courtesy of T.Palimperis

Other Photos courtesy of Nadine Neumann

July 31, 2010


Filed under: Modern Athenas,Novel in Progress — athenapallas @ 8:38 pm
Tags: , ,

 In the West Macdonnell Ranges of Central Australia our writing guru Jan Cornall taught us these 4 noble truths:


At the finale to this wonderful week of learning, writing,                      

Desert Writers Walking

exploring country, listening to the stories of traditional owners  

and visiting  secret women’s  places,  

we presented our work at  the Desert Writers’  Festival of Hermannsburg .   

While it was good to realise that as writers we cannot fail and that the process is the truth,  

the power of our group experience combined with the talent of  eight extraordinary women to produce some wonderful examples of writing in a variety of genres including film script, biography, poetry, haiku, memoir, short story and novel. 

Athena was  asked to present a short precis of her latest                  

Desert Writers Listening

work in progress, Digging Up the Dead   as  well as to read 

 a scene she wrote under the  mesmerizing influence 

of her desert writing experience. 

But  be warned, as noble truth no 3 asserts, 

this may bear no resemblance to the finished work! 

Digging Up the Dead

Athena Pallas, nicknamed Pal,  is a very unusual Diviner  who is summoned  in 1992 to Yungaburra, a small mining town  in Queensland, by David the mine geologist. After the death of Gary, the blast engineer  in the open cut coal mine, and with the coal running out on top, the mine bosses decide to go underground to extract the rest of the coal left in 1972 when a gigantic underground explosion sealed the mine entombing 12 miners. Alice,  Gary’s girlfriend and the  daughter of George  one of the entombed miners joins Naomi, an Aboriginal elder concerned by  the mine’s desecration of sacred burial places, to help Athena  find out where and how the miners died and to stop the re-opening of the mine.  David, Alice and Naomi have a secret ally who is funding Athena’s assignment and gradually other townspeople like Stan the wily newspaper editor and  Edgar the enigmatic Mining  Warden are drawn into the events that follow. 

Mysterious signs and happenings lead Athena  to think she may be the mortal manifestation of Pallas Athena, 

Desert Writers Climbing

the Warrior Goddess of Ancient Greece, or

that  someone or something is trying to drive her crazy. 

In any event she will need all of the powers of this goddess

as well as those of ancestral Aboriginal spirits 

 to complete her mission and defeat the mine…….. 

As  the plot thickens Athena has a vision of herself at the Gateway to the Underworld where she engages in mortal combat to save George and learn from him what really happened underground in 1972. 

……An enormous roar came from the depths of the tunnel like the explosion George had described but I knew that this was no mine explosion because although loud it did not bucket us with a fiery gaseous wind.  

However I knew we were in trouble when Cerberus the guardian dog  of the Underworld sprung into our presence and sat defiantly on his haunches in front of  us. 

Up close he was a terrifying sight. With three huge heads all with vicious white teeth he reminded me of  the jagged jaws of the continuous mining machines that tore out and swallowed the coal before spitting it into the shuttle cars.  

Here the similarity ended for I could see  the end of his serpent’s tail between his legs and there were innumerable snakes attached to his body.            

Nicholas Guarding Desert Writers

The snakes and his tail were deadly 

if you were foolish enough to  touch them. 

I threw my aegis shield over George to try 

and protect him from the pernicious poison I knew the Dog had in store for us if I defied him and tried to enter the Underworld. 

Cerberus seemed to be able to read my thoughts for suddenly there was a swishing sound and movement of the air in front of me. One of the Dog’s heads moved towards the sound and then the head flung itself towards us. 

I grabbed my shield to stop it before I realised it was detached from its mighty body as if it had been decapitated by an invisible sword. The hideous head fell useless at my feet, but I knew that even a two-headed Cerberus was a formidable opponent. 

Before I could think of a plan, his whip like serpent’s tail flashed out from between his legs and caught me on the side of my head. Without my helmet I would have been showered with the most toxic substance known to the gods-capable of immobilizing whole armies let alone  one woman, albeit the Warrior Goddess and daughter of Zeus. 

Recovering from this close encounter with Cerberus’  tail I lost sight of his heads for a moment and he leapt towards me with all his remaining teeth bared. I cried out: 

‘Zeus, don’t leave me, I have much to do in mortal realms. I must return above.”  

As I yelled these word another decapitated head hurtled towards me………. to be continued maybe …..

The audience clapped enthusiastically when she finished reading this scene but now the writer is left with the task of working out what on earth this means both  for Athena and the story! 

She will keep you posted maybe…… if she survives… 

*From One Continuous Mistake, The Four Noble Truths of Writing by Gail Sher

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