Off and running

Host: Jenny Underwood
Written by Jenny Underwood – Owner, Pine Hills Station.

This week’s blogs are from one of our regular hosts, Jenny Underwood, formerly from “Eversleigh” Station south of Hughenden in north-west Queensland and now of “Pine Hills” Wallumbilla in south-west QLD. Before going to live on Eversleigh, Jenny was the sole teacher at a small school 65km south of Hughenden. Cameron Downs School is only one a few schools left in Queensland that is not based in a town or settlement.  It is right in the middle of a 65 000 acre cattle (and until the ’90s, sheep) property called “Cameron Downs”.

In her blogs this week Jenny gives an outline of the history of the school, as well as some insights into her life in the district as the Principal of the small one teacher school. 

This is the first instalment of a five-part series called “The Bush School”. Visit Jenny’s profile page to find the other instalments.

One of the absolute highlights of the school year is the annual sports day. After weeks, or even months, of practising their running, throwing, jumping, ballgames, and marching skills, not to mention belting out the war cry ad infinitum, students gather (inevitably on a very windy day) on ovals across the country to pit their skills against one another. Isolated schools are no exception – of course with such a small enrolment there is no Inter-house competition – but the annual Small Schools’ Athletics Carnival was always a “must-attend” event on the school calendar.

Cameron Downs was one of three small schools within a 50-70km radius of Hughenden. We gathered regularly to have coaching clinics, go on school camps, enjoy “cluster days”, and attend visiting shows and exhibitions. While we may not have seen each other very often great friendships were forged among the schools. There were also a number of children who lived on more isolated properties too far away to access a “real” school and so they studied via Distance Education. The Distance Education children were also part of our athletics carnival.

Each year one of the schools was responsible for the running of the carnival. Considering some families had well over 150km to travel to attend the carnival it was always overwhelming to see so many cars (generally white 4-wheel drives!) lined up outside the school fence.

1993 – my first Small Schools’ Athletics Carnival which was hosted by Prairie State School. Prairie is a former railway town on the Flinders Highway east of Hughenden. Children from the three small schools – Cameron Downs, Stamford, and Prairie lined up ready to compete in the always hotly-contested March Past.

No child missed out on competing in any event. More often than not the school only just had enough children to compete in the team events. Relay races proved a bit of a challenge but a handicapping-type system ensured that little kids weren’t competing against big kids over the same distance. Sometimes schools shared competitors if a team was short.

The Cameron Downs School Captainball team – Year 1 to Year 7. No one was too young or too little to participate and compete.

The whole day was full of fun, loud and enthusiastic cheering and happy, smiling faces. The rivalry was friendly and the sportsmanship was genuine and heartwarming.

The following year it was Stamford’s turn to host the carnival. Stamford is 60-odd km south of Hughenden on the Hughenden-Winton road. It is also an ex-railway siding and during the early days of the wool industry many thousands of bales of wool were carted into Stamford and loaded onto the train to head south to the woolstores.

Stamford School was relatively new and in 1994 didn’t have a school oval so the athletics carnival was held at the local race course. The track was dirt and proved a bit tricky to negotiate around the burrs which popped up out of the ground.

1994 March Past. Our two little preschoolers were very proud to be a part of the team too!

Our new sports uniform being worn for the first time.

As always, parents and families travelled many miles to attend the carnival and everyone had a great time. Often at the end of a carnival families stayed on and enjoyed post-event drinks and a barbecue.

Then in 1995 it was our turn to host the carnival. It hadn’t rained for well over three years and the district was suffering badly, not only from drought, but the collapse of the wool market. Things were very tough but the spirit to host the carnival was high.

Cameron Downs didn’t have an oval or even a running track. So, with typical bush ingenuity the school community made one in the paddock at the back of the school and residence. Graders were brought in to level the ground. There wasn’t much clearing to be done as there were no trees and the grass had long vanished; the biggest challenge was clearing the track of rocks. Many a working bee was held to get the school facilities ready to host the carnival and to ensure that the running track was accurate and top standard!

1995 Cameron Downs Athletics Carnival. All ages were catered for and special activities were organised for even the smallest competitors.

The field events – high jump, long jump, shotput, and the ballgames, were held in the school grounds. Considering today’s preoccupation with strict Health and Safety guidelines, there would be many who would shudder at how we ran the carnival.

The girls’ high jump event.

I don’t need to caption this photo – the atmosphere throughout the whole day was one of pure enjoyment!

Everybody competed and demonstrated true sportsmanship. Competitors supported and congratulated each other at the end of each event. Children wearing opposing uniforms spent much of the day walking around with their arms over each other’s shoulders or playing together in the sandpit between events.

However there was one event which generated distinct rivalry – the parents’ race!

The parents’ race. It was one of the favourite events of the annual sports day.

Every school depends upon the support of its school parents and local community. Our small schools were no exception. The dedication that was shown by the parents towards their schools was phenomenal. They went to huge lengths to ensure their children did not miss out on any of the experiences that could be taken for granted in bigger schools in the more populated areas. The facilities we had may not have been world class but they suited our purposes. Children learned quickly to appreciate that the little things in life are often the best.

To me, this photo perfectly sums up the whole spirit of our small school communities. It remains one of my best memories of the six years I taught at Cameron Downs State School.