We were told the world was ending. My parents, in their naivety, decided a picnic was the only way to celebrate this momentous occasion. That’s what you did on a hot, lazy, Sunday afternoon in Adelaide in 1976, on the day before the world was supposed to come to an end.
It was all over the papers in the weeks before. An earthquake and subsequent tidal wave were supposed to come and wash away the city. A clairvoyant, John Nash, was adamant that this would occur, and The Advertiser and The Sunday Mail had got wind of this, driving the city into tsunami frenzy. Dad, ever the cynic, thought a barbeque in the hills the day before would be in order to celebrate life and all things barking mad in Adelaide.
Not realising my world was about to end, my parents packed the old blue Kingswood station wagon, tossed my sister and I into the back seat to sit on some beach towels, the only insulation from the brown vinyl benches which were scorching and sticky in equal measure. The car would cool eventually, with every window wound down to the metal and a half hour drive ahead of us, it was sure to happen. My sister, Tracy, a mere four-years-old, would spew into a paper bag on the way. Any bend greater than a dogleg would send her stomach lurching and my head to stray from the confines of the car once I had released myself from the seatbelt to try to escape the slime and smell.
We made our way into the Adelaide foothills, away from the perceived danger down at the beach, a place my father would have preferred to go if it were not for the “hippies and Labor scumbags” who were lining the beach, waiting for the wave. Dad was livid that these idiots had taken over the place he saw was his birthright. A Brighton boy, he had grown up jumping off the end of Brighton jetty, lording around the neighbourhood as if he owned the suburb. His father, the local butcher, had a solid standing in the Freemasons and the local Lions Club. Why would he think anything else? His father’s clientele reached to the boundaries of Glenelg all the way across to Marion, then down to Hallett Cove. His home delivery service was legendary, more for the service he gave to the war widows than the quality of his sausages.
The picnic took place with a group of our family friends: the Swans, the Wainwrights and the Tunstalls, who were like-minded in opinion, dress and family structure. We all made our own way out to Belair National Park, far away from our sleepy beachside suburb and the supposed killer wave which was supposed to wash over the Adelaide Plains. Surely, we would be safe enough in the hills, away from the rolling concerns of Nash and his followers. The foothills of Belair would be safe, or so they said.
The spew-scented Kingwood wound its way through the back blocks of the hills until it finally found its destination. Dad was right, it was slightly cooler up there, with the tall eucalypts shading the picnic ground and the cricket set at the ready at the front of the Wainwright’s Valiant wagon. Mark Wainwright was still upset over the West Indies decimating us in the Second Test in Melbourne, as only a ten-year-old boy could bemoan the situation of Australian test cricket. He had been at his father to take him to the Australia Day test if Adelaide survived the wave. Clive Wainwright, his father, already spooked by the disappearance of a couple of girls from Adelaide in the past years was being non-committal. Uncle Clive would have preferred to go to the match with Uncle Peter, spending most of their time in the bar. Mark would have made them watch the game from opening stumps until dinner.
Our families lived within a stone’s throw of each other in Seaview Downs. This new suburb with its cream brick houses and sloping blocks. All the houses looked the same in their newness. The wonder of the 1960s building technology, all double brick and cooch grass lawns and a Besser brick incinerator near the back fence never crossed our minds. We were lucky. We had a lemon tree filled with redbacks by the sandpit filled with cat poo.
We were living the dream.
The adults began to unpack the picnic. Despite the hot conditions, the men started to construct a fire for the barbeque. Dad had brought briquettes from the hardware store, safer in the bush, he said, than gathering wood. More contained.
The women, settled on blankets nearby, unpacking bread and salads from multicoloured Tupperware containers. The little ones, including Tracey, stayed close by. Michelle Wainwright, in her nappy and a sundress, walked around in circles, looking up at the gum trees with the intensity of a belligerent cat. Her stare could cut through glass. We didn’t know then that she wouldn’t start talking until she was four. She was always a bit strange.
Josie Swan, a year my senior, lanky hair and floral sundress hung around the men. I wanted to be Josie Swan. She had always seemed so grown up to me, that extra year felt like decades.
‘Get us a beer, love,’ asked her father, Uncle Peter, as he tried to light the barbeque after tucking his floral, polyester shirt into his football shorts. His hairy legs fascinated me. My father’s legs had practically no hair on them.
‘Come on, Molly, I can watch Dad set fire to himself any day, let’s get his beer and go exploring,’ said Josie in the hearing range of the men. A raucous laugh broke out between the men. Uncle Peter was not known for his fire lighting skills. They should have left that to Dad. He would have had the bush alight within ten minutes given half a chance.
We collected a long neck from the esky, along with a couple of glasses and gave them to the men.
‘We’re going into the bush, Dad.’
My father looked me and Josie over. I didn’t register the slight look of fear in his eyes.
‘Don’t go too far in. Lunch won’t be long. And stay with Josie. You’ll look after her, won’t you, JoJo.’
‘Of course, Uncle Mal.’
We waved to the group of men and went towards the bush.
‘Mum and Dad worry. They say they are bad people around. I’m not allowed to talk to strangers.’ My seven-year-old knowledge sounded so grave.
‘Mum and Dad tell me that too. Still, they let me and Shelly walk to school. They don’t seem to worry then.’
‘I have to walk with Karen and Scott from across the road. I’m used to it now. Scott’s in grade five. He’s been told to look after us.’
‘Mum drives us to school if we can’t all go together. She says there’s safety in numbers.’
Such was our seven-year-old logic as we walked into the trees.
The air started to cool as we walked into the forest, the eucalyptus smell taking us in as the light dappled and dimmed. The leaves beneath our feet crunched loudly.
‘Josie, where are we going?’
‘To have a look around.’
We could hear the murmurs of the barbeque over our footfalls.
‘We’re not too far in. We won’t get into trouble. If we scream, they will be able to hear us.’
‘Don’t worry. It’s fine. Mum and Dad are just over there.’
We walked forward, the dry grass crackling under our feet. The scent of eucalyptus mingled with the pine trees which were interspersed in the forest. I was running out of breath.
‘Keep up,’ she told me.
‘I can’t. Dad says I can’t do exercise. My legs are wonky. I’m going back to hospital for another operation soon,’ I told her.
This stopped Josie in her tracks. She stopped, turned and put her hands on her hips. She looked me over, then down to my feet, and back to my face.
‘My Dad thinks your Dad’s an idiot. There’s nothing wrong with you.’
Josie turned and continued into the bush. Stunned and ashamed, all I could do was follow her. I was not willing to stay in this foreign place alone.
What I wanted to ask Josie was if I was normal, why was it I was forever seeing doctors. How could she explain the callipers that were placed on my legs the moment I woke up until the time I went to bed, the splints which were still on my legs when I went to kindergarten, that set me apart from the other children. How could she explain that people saw me in the street and pointed and stared? And why did her Dad think that mine was stupid. My Dad wasn’t stupid. She was wrong.
Tears stung my eyes, blurring my vision.
‘Come on Molly, let’s see what’s over there.’ Josie pointed at a clearing, making further strides into the bush. ‘We won’t get lost.’
Of course, I followed her. We were safe, up in the hills well out of the way of the beach and the tidal wave which was supposed to come and wash away our lives as we knew it. We were told we were safe, here among the eucalypts of the national park, with its canopy dappling the crackling ground, dry leaves and twigs crunch beneath our thongs. The gum scented air was tainted with smoke and sausage scent. It was so dry, in this heat. Water would evaporate, barely turning the dusty ground to mud. Of course, Adelaide would stay strong. Don Dunstan would hold back the waters. My father had joked about the Premier’s stand on the matter.
‘Flaming poofta,’ were his words.
‘What’s a poofta, Dad?’
‘A very bad man,’ my father had replied. My father had extolled the virtues of the Liberal Party on his children from a young age. Anybody related to the Labor Party was pinko, commie scum. Looking back, my father had no idea what bad could be on this day where the world was supposed to end.
We pressed forward into the bush. Our parents’ laughter could be barely heard.
‘Josie, we’re going in too far.’
‘I want to go back,’ I whined.
‘Come on, scaredy cat. What are you afraid of?’
We didn’t see him at first. He was hard to spot. He leaned against a tree, baggy shorts, dirty navy-blue t-shirt, rubber thongs and long, matted hair. He blended with surroundings. If he hadn’t called out to us, we wouldn’t have noticed him, nor paid any attention. Dad would have called him a filthy hippy, if he had seen him. Any man with hair longer than his collar was marked with this brand in my father’s set. It was just the way.
‘Hey, girls,’ he called to us.
We stopped in our tracks, and looked over at the man, leaning against the tree.
‘Josie,’ I whispered, ‘We should go back.’
‘It’s fine, you big scaredy cat. He’s a hippy. He’s harmless.’
Josie wandered over the man. ‘What do you want?’ she demanded of him.
‘Do you know how puppies are made?’ His voice scared me. It was deep, almost a chuckle, nearly a laugh. I didn’t know men could make such noises.
‘Josie, we’re not supposed to talk to strangers,’ I whispered to her, but she had walked over to the man.
The man turned to Josie and grabbed her arm, placing her against a tree. I stood there, waiting for the dry earth to swallow me. He turned to her, stroking her back as she squirmed in his grip.
‘Let me go!’ she whined, trying to wriggle from his grip.
‘But you want to see how puppies are made.’ I had never heard a noise come out of a man like this. Men did not have deep growls. The did not sound breathless. They didn’t hold little girls that they didn’t know against trees.
‘I said let me go!’ Josie sounded scared, as she continued to struggle against the man’s grip. He had her pinned between his legs, one hand holding her, the other starting to snake down his shorts.
I continued to stand a short way back. What was I to do? I was seven years old, here on the day that the world was supposed to end. We couldn’t be sure if Don Dunstan was able to turn back the tidal wave at the bottom of the hill. We couldn’t be sure that Adelaide would be there when we got back. This was the day the world was supposed to end. Taking every bit of bravery in my seven-year-old’s body, I picked up a rock at my feet and threw it as hard as I could at the man. It hit him on the back of the head, stunning him.
My other weapon came from nowhere. My shrill scream pierced the canopy of trees, sending birds scattering through the dry branches.
The two actions were enough for him to loosen his grip on Josie, allowing her to escape the man’s grasp. The man was stunned, rested back against the tree. One hand on the back of his head, the other on his penis.
We ran, screaming, through the trees, back to our parents, our sandaled feet carrying as fast as we could go, making as much noise as we could, knowing we had been lucky to escape this danger, though we could not entirely comprehend what the danger was about.
Our parents were shaken by our account, but not after they had given us both a hiding for talking to strangers. The men of the group armed with barbeque tongs and tea towels went into the bush to look for the man. My mother walked down to the phone box at the entrance to the park to call the police. They came quickly. Josie and I tearfully answered their questions. The man was never found.
Nothing more was said of the issue. Ever.
Despite the hysteria and blather, despite the standoffs between the Church and police and even though the tidal wave never came. Don Dunstan, much to my father’s chagrin, had prevailed. Adelaide stood firm, dry, dusty and as resolutely parochial as it had ever been. A beacon to liberal conservatism if ever there was a place.
It was still the day the world changed. It would take me a very long time to work out why.
Long, C (2013) Don Dunstan, Earthquakes and Tidal Waves… Almost