Living life on the long road
WENDY Blake is a petite woman, but her courage and strength belie her diminutive size.
At the tender age of 16, she chose to follow her heart which led to a life she could never have imagined; a life that contained hardship and heartache, but also great joy.
Wendy grew up in rural New South Wales, the only daughter in a family of five children. Her father cut sleepers for the railway but when Wendy was only eight, her mother died during childbirth.
Her father was then left to raise his children on his own and for a while he took them up into the forests with him while he worked.
The children's job was to mark out the sleepers in lengths, using a string line and charcoal.
They would spend up to a month at a time in mountain country, as Wendy's father and grandfather built up a stockpile of wooden sleepers.
During this time their father would teach them the rudiments of reading, writing and mathematics, writing with charcoal on the bark he had stripped from the felled timber. They camped in a shelter made from pieces of bark and cooked on an open fire.
"There was always a pot of stew simmering over the fire; we were always well fed,” Wendy said
"When the work was done, a team of bullocks arrived to snig the load down the mountain.”
Wendy remembers vividly the large and gentle animals standing patiently in pairs, waiting to be yoked to the wagon, each understanding their place in the team.
By the age of 15, Wendy was living with an aunty and attending a private girls' school. Her life was lonely and she admits she didn't fully appreciate her aunty's care and soon left to find adventure.
Fate directed her to a position as governess on a property in Queensland, west of Miles. This is where Wendy met the man she would spend her life with.
Charlie worked on a neighbouring property and, for a while, he and Wendy did little more than exchange long and curious glances.
To Wendy, he was older and worldly; and rather mysterious.
On peeking into his quarters one day she was astonished to see a wall covered with ribbons.
The ribbons, she was soon to find out, came from Charlie's love of rodeo.
Wendy went to her first rodeo in Chinchilla some weeks later. Charlie Blake was tall and handsome; a rough rider with the reputation of being a little on the wild side.
For young Wendy, the combination was irresistible and she was immediately smitten by the cowboy who rode in every event.
How long their courtship would have lasted is uncertain, but when Wendy's job as governess ended so did her time in the district. Charlie was not about to let his sweetheart go, and within six months of their first meeting, they were married.
Following Charlie out along the stock routes was an easy choice for Wendy.
She was not willing to be left behind while her young husband spent months away from home.
Wendy learnt to ride and work the stock and she grew to love the life as much as Charlie did, but life on the stock routes was not easy for a woman.
Wendy was sore, tired and sunburnt at the end of every day. Her bed was a swag thrown onto the ground, and to her weary bones, it offered little comfort.
Heat and dust became her constant companions. There were times she could think of little else, but soaking in a hot bath and washing her waist-length hair.
At times, Charlie and Wendy left the road to take up jobs on stations. 'Bellaringa' was home for a while, as was 'Moyglare' but Charlie's love of droving took them back to the stock routes. After their daughter was born, Wendy drove a truck, the baby in a basket beside her.
"I stayed ahead of the mob, looking for a place beside a creek or waterhole where I could fill buckets with water and boil them up on the fire to wash baby clothes and nappies,” she said.
"I never had any trouble finding the dinner camp, there would be drying nappies thrown over every bush and fence line to mark the spot,” Charlie said.
After a lunchtime break, Wendy loaded up the truck and drove on to make camp for the night.
She and Charlie still slept out under the stars, come rain or hail, but the baby slept in the truck with their dog, Lassie, keeping watch beside the open door. Wendy learnt to cook from Charlie, who'd learnt from his years in stock camps. Meals consisted of mainly tinned food and corned meat.
Those long days on the road with stock are a long way behind them now.
Riding from dawn till dark, the cattle feeding contentedly before them. They lived a life of their own choosing and enjoyed the unspoilt beauty of the bush.
Wendy and Charlie rarely saw another person between towns but had time to spend together; washing off the dust in secluded water holes and sleeping with the sounds of the bush.
"For the drover's life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.” - A.B. Paterson