The Magic of Memory: in the footsteps of Colin Thiele. Eudunda, South Australia.

Sculpture of Colin Thiele by Chris Radford,
commissioned by the Eudunda Business and
Tourism Association.
Unveiled at the Eudunda Memorial Gardens
on 9 November 1995.

(This blog post contains images of the late actor David Gulpilil)

We had to leave the house last Saturday. It had only been a week of lockdown but the four walls seemed to be closing in on us. The winter weather had kept us indoors anyway. Too cold and rainy and windy to even get to the park for our ninety minutes of fresh air. Where to go? It couldn’t be too far, as the winter days are short and we had already slept in until almost lunchtime…

We decided to drive to Eudunda, and then head up to Robertstown. Eudunda is the birthplace of one of my all-time favourite writers, Colin Thiele (16 November 1920 – 4 September 2006).

Colin Thiele: writer, poet, teacher

Colin Thiele’s most famous novels, both set in South Australia, were Storm Boy and Blue Fin, and they were also both made into films. I still remember the aching sadness and gratitude I felt as an 8-year-old reading about Mr Percival the pelican- and ever since I refer to all pelicans as Mr Percival. My favourite, though, was Sun on the Stubble, about a young boy of German heritage growing up in a fictional town based on the area around Eudunda between the wars.  The character’s name was Bugsy, as his initials were stamped onto his schoolbag: Bruno Untermeyer Gunther. B.U.G. I loved his adventures, and Colin Thiele had a wonderful, gentle sense of humour and the descriptions of everyday life were so vivid they remain part of my way of looking at the world to this day.

Colin Thiele died on the same day as Steve Irwin, the famous ‘Crocodile Hunter’. Irwin died at age 44 after being pierced in the chest by a stingray barb while filming a documentary in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. His death became international news, so the passing of Colin Thiele, who died of a heart complication at the age of 85, was not as widely registered by the general public at the time.

Both of these men led good lives. They inspired others and were passionate about their vocations. They loved their natural environments and were able to communicate this love to others.

The information board near the statue in Eudunda

Born at a place in the Hundred of Julia Creek in 1920, Colin Thiele said he always wanted to work the land, as his German parents did when they settled in South Australia.

I had great freedom – the kind of freedom that is only possible where frontiers are wide and the world is still young. In the hills beyond our farm I roamed at will, usually alone. It was a wonderful world to grow up in with its space and solitude, its wild life, its summer heat, winter mists and the miraculous rebirth of spring.

Colin Thiele describing his childhood

But the Great Depression took him into Adelaide, where he studied before served in the Second World War. He taught English and then went on to run the Teachers’ College at Wattle Park in Adelaide.

The different places he lived, from Julia Creek to Port Lincoln and his experience in Darwin during the war and everywhere in between were the inspiration for his characters and settings. His childhood and all of the details of life on the farm and living in small rural communities with a German heritage were my favourites; they reminded me of stories my Mum Dad would tell me about farming when they were growing up. It was a busy life and lots of hard work- but no one seemed to complain about the lack of luxury and the hardships, as everyone they knew were living a similar experience and they made the most of it and saved their money and relied on their family, community and faith to sustain and guide them.

Storm Boy: A story of a boy, a pelican and the Coorong.

Storm Boy lived between the Coorong and the Sea. His home was the long, long snout of sand hill and scrub that curves away south-eastwards from the Murray mouth, a wild strip it is. Wind swept and tussocky.

from the novel ‘Storm Boy”

The 1976 film stars Greg Rowe as the titular ‘Storm Boy’, better known as Mike to his dad Tom Kingsley (Peter Cummins), whose own nickname, ‘Hide-Away Tom’, effectively summarises his hermitic tendencies. It takes place in a remote South Australian lagoon system and national park called the Coorong, where the Murray River opens out into the Southern Ocean. ‘Storm Boy’ is thus named by Fingerbone Bill (David Gulpilil), with whom he rescues a trio of pelican chicks, abandoned after their mother’s death. Storm Boy forges a friendship with Fingerbone and one of the pelicans, named Mr Percival. But the idyllic rhythms of lagoon life are challenged by the encroachments of the real world, and all that implies for Storm Boy’s unconventional childhood.

SPOILER ALERT: In search of friendship, Mike encounters another recluse in the wilderness, Fingerbone Bill , an Aboriginal man estranged from his tribal people.
Eventually, Mike’s Dad insists that he release the grown birds back into the wild. However one particular pelican, named ‘Mr Percival’ by Mike, returns. The bird forms a deep bond with the boy until sadly, Mr Percival is shot by duck shooters. (This is why I can’t watch the film again- I cry too much!) With the wise guidance of Fingerbone Bill, Mike learns of the cycle of life and is eventually allowed by his father to attend school for the first time in a nearby town. On a more positive note, one of the three pelicans who played Mr Percival lived out his days at the Adelaide Zoo and passed away in 2009.

In the story of Storm Boy, the landscape is as important as the people.

Fingerbone knew more about things then anyone Storm Boy had ever known. He knew all the signs of wind and weather in clouds and sea.

from the novel ‘Storm Boy’.

Eudunda, Point Pass and Robertstown

Eudunda is located 110 km north-east of Adelaide on the Thiele Highway via Gawler and Kapunda.

Eudunda came into existence as an important watering hole for cattle and horses which were being overlanded to South Australia from western Queensland in the late 19th century. Their destination was Kapunda (26 km southwest of Eudunda) which, at the time, was a town effectively owned by Sir Sidney Kidman.

Many German migrants settled in the area as farmers. There are many churches dotted around the little towns, most notably the Point Pass Church on the Robertstown road with its fairytale spire. The Eudunda Lutheran Church also has a striking design: it seemed very futuristic as we looked at the panorama of the town from the lookout. The Viterra silos also had a beautiful mural – as many silos in small country towns seem to do nowadays- but we couldn’t work out what the little girl was doing. Praying maybe? (I have done some research on South Australian silo art and discovered the Eudunda one is not quite finished yet! The descriptor on its Facebook Page says…’ There IS a connection, and a story, that is shared between the two Silo Banks; one of hardships, community and day to day experiences as narrated in Colin Thiele’s novel “Sun on the Stubble” and which will further connect the region’s unique identity with reference and a sharing of pre-European ties as well as rural, farming and agricultural histories.)

It gave us something to talk about as we drove along the delightfully named Hallelujah Hills which can be seen from an equally delightfully named township of World’s End. In the mid-afternoon, the sunlight on these green hills was beautiful; we could see the contours of the hills and they were a deep, velvet green. Apparently there is only one road with goes over these hills; I had presumed we could cut across them to get to Kapunda for a late lunch but no dice- we had to backtrack back to Eudunda to take the Thiele highway back to Kapunda. The Hallelujah Hills are a popular section of the Heysen Trail- a 1200km walking trail that starts in the Flinders Ranges all the way down to Cape Jervis.

Lehmann’s General Store in Robertstown was unfortunately shut on Saturdays: I will be sure to pop up there another day. My Mum and Dad drove there a few months ago and told me about the old-style store with the merchandise on shelves behind the counter and the friendly Mr Merv Lehmann as shopkeeper. SA Life magazine has a lovely tribute to Mr Lehmann and the store on their website.

Post Script…

I returned to Eudunda a few months later to do the ‘Colin Thiele Trail’ with friends; by this time the silo was finished and it made a lot more sense! Click on this link to download the PDF maps.

The General Store was also open on our return visit: I bought some boiled lollies to chew/break my teeth on.


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