Ship name / Flight number: BA531
Arrival date: 22/02/1968
I was born in Tripoli, Libya, on 13 March, 1950. My father was an officer in the British army, and he was stationed there. After the Middle East, my family moved with him to Malta, and then Malaya. My father would disappear into the juggle to fight the Chinese communists, leaving my mother, my younger brother and myself in a house in Kuala Lumper. We didn’t have any extended family around us and I didn’t go to school. From there we went to Invergordon, in the north of Scotland, and then to Detmold and Nienburg in the north-west of Germany.
When we lived in Germany, I used to fly to boarding school at St Michaels in Seven Oaks, Kent, in the south of England. We had 88 acres of land to play in, and I remember building treehouses and playing cricket. It was an all-boys school – we would swap stories and stamps and I soon had a group of mates. I’d fly back to Germany at the end of the term. It was my first time away from my family.
By the time I was in high school, my father had left the army and my family had settled in England, but I still went to boarding school. I did my O-levels and two A-levels, in Maths and English, at the Kings School in Ely. I was hoping to join the army, like my father, grandfather and uncle before me. I wanted to join the Gurkhas, because my father had spent some time with them and said they were the best sort of men to fight with. However, Harold Wilson (who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1964-1970) decided that the Gurkhas should just be a regiment for Nepalese soldiers, and stopped British men from joining.
*Left: Rod Salmon, 1965
At the time, the Big Brother Movement was advertising trips out to Australia where you could ride a horse all day, and eat baked beans by a campfire and I thought; wow – this looks like me! I applied and we went to Australia House in London for an interview. One of the questions they asked me was, ‘what’s the capital of Australia?’ I said, ‘Sydney, I think’! Anyway, I still think Sydney should be the capital of Australia.
Despite my wrong answer, I was allowed to join the BBM and soon learnt that I’d be flying out with four other boys in mid-February, 1966. I was 16 years old at the time. My parents had travelled the world and sent me to boarding school, so they were happy to let me go, but it was still very sad to say goodbye.
I flew from deep snow in Suffolk to a furnace in Sydney – it was 90 degrees (Fahrenheit) when we landed. The heat just hits you off the tarmac. Even though I’d lived in Malaya, it still felt so hot. A friendly BBM man met us at the airport and we caught a taxi to the hostel in Burwood.
Because it was so hot and we’d heard of Sydney’s famous beaches, one of the first things we did in Sydney, was to take a trip to Bondi and buy t-shirts and board shorts. We then went and lay on the beach and got really, really badly sunburnt. We had blisters all over us and we were moaning and groaning about our seared skin for weeks. Being ‘new chums’, we thought we could just lie on the beach in board shorts with no sunscreen. We were white and red.
After about a week at Burwood, we were asked if we wanted to work in the city or the bush. I didn’t hesitate and chose ‘the bush’, because that was the reason I came – to ride a horse and eat baked beans by the campfire. We went out to Fairfield Training Farm for two weeks and learnt to milk cows, which didn’t really help me, because I was then sent to a sheep property.
When you get boys together, you’ve got to find out who’s the top dog. There was one guy in the group who thought he was the top dog, but my father had been in the SAS and he taught me how to box and not to put up with any bullying. I challenged this guy to a boxing match, and after that he settled down and stopped picking on the smaller boys. This was one time when I think my boarding school upbringing helped me. On the other hand, I didn’t click with any of the other boys, probably because I came across as a bit of a snob, with my posh boarding school accent. I soon had any snobbishness knocked out of me by other Aussies.
The next thing I knew, I was catching a train to a sheep property called ‘Yackerboon’, about 900km west of Sydney, near Cobar. The property owner, Mr Thomas, met me at the train station. He looked like he was six foot six, with hands the size of plates, and rough as guts. He had been to the RSL that morning and had a couple of drinks. After we picked up his wife – who was a ravishing blonde from Bondi – and his young daughter, we drove for an hour to their property. This was really going bush! The land was just brown – 1966 was one of the worst droughts. After the green rolling hills of England, if felt desolate.
*Left: The shearing shed at Yackerboon, c.1966
When we arrived at Yackerboon, I saw there was a big shearing shed and a separate homestead. I wondered where I’d sleep. I thought I might be in the shearing quarters, but I was put in this other shed, which had a metal bed frame in the corner with a mattress. This felt exciting! It was quite late at night by the time we got to Yackerboon, and Mr Thomas said: ‘we’ll start early in the morning’. I’d just had a ten-hour train trip and a one-hour drive and we were starting work at dawn!? He looked like a tough fellow and I decided that I would not want to tangle with him.
At 6.30am he picked me up in the ute and we drove around the property. I kept having to jump out of the ute to open and close all the gates, and I thought – how many paddocks does he have? One paddock was 24,000 acres, which I later learnt is the size of Campbelltown (where I now live). It took all day to drive around Yackerboon.
Once I learnt that my job was to check the fences in case kangaroos were stuck in them, the extensive tour of the property made sense. Mr Thomas showed me how to replace the fences with new posts and wires where needed. I was given a motorbike to get around the property. There was no sign of a horse! The baked beans were to come.
After about two weeks, Mr Thomas (I was never invited to call him by his first name) took his family to their beach house at Merimbula and I was left at Yackerboon on my own. I was shocked. Here I was on this vast property, in a small shed, with only two weeks’ experience of living there, and no one to talk to. They left me a Labrador (dog) for company, and I used to talk to him quite a bit. He became my best friend, and we would go everywhere together. I also had a small radio, and I used to listen to the ABC Country Show. I had to get more batteries every time the postie came out. I’m a gregarious sort of person and, having grown up in boarding schools, I was used to having people around. It was very lonely.
With the dog bedside me, I didn’t feel scared. And I had a gun. While I was in Burwood, I went into town and bought myself a 2-2 rifle. It was incredible that in 1966, I could just go into a shop in George Street and buy a rifle, with bullets, at the age of 16!
I think you can tell when people have grown up in the country – there’s a lot missing in their lives. I think the boss had been raised in the bush and he didn’t get that a 16-year-old, who had just left his family in England, thousands of miles away, should not be left on his own to look after an enormous sheep property for a month!
Before he left, Mr Thomas taught me how to use the sheep dogs so I could move the 2000 sheep between the paddocks. There was no feed and barely any grass, so the sheep would eat anything.
He also taught me how to kill, gut, and butcher a sheep so I’d have mutton to eat. Having done duck and pheasant shooting in England with my dad, I was used to killing things, but killing a sheep by pulling its head back and cutting its throat was just awful, traumatic.
While the family was away, I had to cook all my meals for myself. There were chooks for fresh eggs but there was no fresh milk. I was allowed to order food from Cobar, and the postie delivered it to the post box on the main road. Finally, I had my baked beans! I used to eat a lot of mutton – it’s not like lamb. The smell of it now turns my stomach. I still like lamb chops, though.
*Left: Sheep at Yackerboon, 1966
When the family returned, I went back to going up to the homestead for breakfast. I was given my food on the back doorstep, no matter what the weather was doing. Even at Christmas, and even though I’d been there since February, I wasn’t invited in to share a meal. I had to eat my Christmas dinner on the back doorstep on my own. I was friendly with the wife and daughter, but they still didn’t include me. This hurt, and it didn’t make me want to stay at the property.
One time, Mr Thomas asked me to chop a great pile of ironbark logs for his fire. Being a boy who went to boarding school, the skin on my hands were still very soft. When I showed him my badly blistered palms from using the axe, he said: “just piss on them!” I was shocked and amused by his off-hand response.
The best time at Yackerboon was shearing time. There were seven shearers and a roustabout who was 16 years old like me. In the breaks I’d be talking about going to boarding school in England, shooting pheasants, and sailing in the Norfolk broads; and he’d be talking about fights in town with another bunch of shearers. I think he was a wayward boy like me, so we had quite a bit in common. It was good to have a mate and someone to talk to, other than the dog.
The bush was such a dry, brown and dusty place. The sheep kicked up dust moving from paddock to paddock. They were brown, just like the landscape. All the time I was out there, it never rained once. (Maybe that’s why I’ve planted lots of green trees around my house now). It still felt exciting and like I was on an adventure. But when you start seeing sheep dying, because of the drought, and you see the crows feeding on the dead carcasses, it was too much for me. To actually see a sheep dying of starvation is really awful. Mr Thomas didn’t have any rams, so there was no breeding program – no new life. At the end of 1966 and into 1967, the summer just kept getting hotter, and more sheep were dying, and I knew that I didn’t want to carry on here.
*Left: Wool bales at Yackerboon, c.1966
Was I homesick? I couldn’t even talk to my parents – there was no telephone. I probably wrote two or three letters, and they replied, and that’s when I felt really homesick. I think boarding school toughens you to move away from family. It hardens you, but I’m not a hard man. Even though my dad was in the SAS, he was a soft, kind, man. It was lonely out there. After a year, it was time to move on.
Mr Thomas could see that I wasn’t too keen to stay. I don’t know how I told the BBM that I wanted to leave. I remember the BBM used to get a minister to come and talk to us. One night a car pulled up in the dark and I went out with my gun to see who it was. The driver said he was the minister from Cobar and he was checking in on me. I think I told him that I wanted a change, and he passed this onto the BBM. I finished up at Yackerboon in 1967 and went back to Sydney and then the BBM got a job for me in the southern suburb of Cronulla.
At Cronulla Wharf, where the ferry to Bundeena leaves from, there was a boat yard owned by a Scot. On the same day that I met Glen, I was shown a hostel in Cronulla where I could stay. My job was to repair boats. I also met a boat builder who was making little wooden boats, and I really liked helping him.
Then I took a job as a postie in Cronulla, riding a bicycle. This was the first job that I got without the assistance of the BBM and I didn’t have much to do with them after that. Next, I became a travel agent for Thomas Cook – which is where I met my wife, Joy. In search of another adventure, I hitch-hiked through Queensland with a couple of mates and went to work at Mt Isa Mines. Joy caught the bus north and worked at the travel agency up there. After a while, we got fed up with the drugs that were circulating in Mt Isa and decided that it wasn’t a good place to settle down. We came back to Sydney and moved in with Joy’s parents in Campbelltown and we’ve mostly lived in Campbelltown ever since!
*Left: Rod and Joy’s wedding in Glenfield, Sydney, 1973
Joy and I got married on 27 October 1973, when I was 23 years old. My family didn’t come out for the wedding – they probably couldn’t afford the airplane tickets after paying for three private school educations for their children.
In 1974, we tried living in England for a while. I worked as a chef in a private school in Devon, which was a bit of a challenge! After our daughter (and eldest child) was born, Joy’s Dad got sick, so we came back to Sydney. I didn’t regret leaving England again. Australia is just a fantastic country. Everyone whom I’ve met since I’ve come out to Australia has been kind and good.
When I went back to England, I started learning karate. I was quite good at it, so I set up my own school in Campbelltown. It was both a hobby and a job. I got a third Dan black belt in karate and was a national kata and kumite judge and referee.
*Left: Rod with his karate pupils, 1985
Joy’s Dad was a house painter and I worked with him for a bit, and then made it my main job. I set up a small business and employed eight young men. I got painting contracts from the housing commission so there was always lots of work.
Working with wood has also been a big thing in my life. I worked in a boatyard in Cronulla, and also in England, where I learnt to build timber dinghies. Then I became a cabinet maker, making furniture and kitchens. I learnt from others, on the job. I have found that if you show that you want to learn, people are keen to teach you.
When I came out to Australia in the late 1960s, I had to register to be part of the Vietnam conscription ballot. Luckily, I didn’t get chosen. If I couldn’t have gone in as an officer with the Gurkhas, then I didn’t want to be part of the army.
Over the course of my life, I’ve had 23 different jobs and lived in 25 different places. With my varied life experience, I worked as a life coach for a while. I think, with my father being in the army and being stationed somewhere different every two years, I was used to moving around and living like a gypsy. I was always looking a new adventure.
I’m the only person in my family who emigrated. My younger brother and sister came to visit but decided to remain in England. My parents visited once. I don’t know whether they were impressed or not, even though I took them to beautiful beaches like Cronulla and Bondi. My parents were very English. Once Dad retired from the army, they liked staying put in England.
*Left: Rod and Joy Salmon with their children, in-laws and grandchildren, 2018
In addition to my daughter, I have two sons who were born near Campbelltown. My daughter and eldest son are school teachers and my youngest son runs an IT business from Perth. Joy and I have five grandchildren. My family are happy here. Coming out to Australia with the BBM was the best thing I ever did.
*Left: Rod Salmon, 2023
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