It was October 1990 whilst watching A Current Affair on TV that I first became aware of Ray Bellchambers and his Wildlife Sanctuary “Humbug Scrub.”
The Park is adjacent to the Parra Wirra National Park and Ray’s TV story told of how he inherited the Sanctuary from his father (Tom), after his father’s death. Ray took over the running of the sanctuary, whilst also living on the premises.
Anyway, I rang the TV station and asked if they would please provide me with Ray’s phone number, (this is before the internet or mobile phones), as I was quite moved, he was running the sanctuary on his own & I wanted to volunteer and help him out on weekends, if he was open to the idea. They obliged and I gave Ray a call and introduced myself and told him I had seen his story on TV and offered to come up on weekends and help him out.
Ray suggested I come up the following Sunday and we could have a chat, have a walk around and see what can be sorted out.
So, on the Sunday morning I arrived at Humbug Scrub and Ray was leaning on his vehicle, (an old Ute), we introduced ourselves and Ray invited me into his little cottage for a cup of tea.
I was instantly smitten with the park! All the beautiful trees, the little winding paths, the amount of wildlife that surrounded me, there were Emus & Kangaroos roaming free and an abundance of birdlife everywhere!
The cottage was just so cosy and enchanting, I actually felt like I was stepping into some sort of time warp, but in the best possible way. There was no electricity, although there was an old generator if power was needed on the rare occasion, there was no mains water, just a reliance on Tank captured rain-water.
Ray told me all about the history of the park and his father’s passion for the environment and all the animals and birds that resided in the area. He told me of his Father’s passing and how he came to be living on the property and looking after his ailing Mother. Ray continued to run the Sanctuary in a similar vein as his father had, but due to financial challenges, he sometimes had to work up the Riverland to help make ends meet.
One day (many, many years before), Ray rode his horse into town for his weekly supplies, he noticed a young girl on a neighbouring farm. She appealed to Ray and so he decided to call in and become acquainted with the family.
All went well and finally Ray decided to muster up the courage to visit again and ask the girl’s parents permission to ask her to attend an upcoming local dance with him. However, during the second visit, he noticed an even more charming girl hovering behind her mother’s skirt and it was love at first sight between Ray and this 2nd daughter! So instead, Ray asked if he could have permission to ask the second daughter to the dance and everyone agreed.
Ray told me it wasn’t all that much longer after the dance, they were married!
Ray said his new bride found the start of their new life together quite challenging at times, as his mother, (whom he was still caring for in the cottage at that time), wasn’t impressed with sharing the little cottage (nor no doubt her son), with another woman. So, Ray built a separate little kitchen and bathroom and things finally settled down into a routine.
He told me of the many happy years he spent with his beloved wife and they had 4 children. He told me although many of the 16 years they spent together were tough, as they never really had a lot of money, they were rich years in every other sense and they were perfectly suited to each other.
Ray said his wife was an incredibly hard-working woman and very “strait-laced,” whereas he described himself as hard-working and “a bit of a lark,” so they complimented each other beautifully.
Ray said his father had first settled there in 1905 and initially started an orchard. However, as he began to understand & appreciate the local area more and the Wildlife and Native Scrub, he quickly became an advocate to protecting it all and ensuring it remained an area of conservation for the flora and fauna and most importantly protected for generations to come.
Like his father before him, over the years Ray acquired a deep understanding of the area, there wasn’t any part of the local environment or flora & fauna that he wasn’t able to describe to you in great detail. Whether it be the habits of a little trap-door spider, or the mating call of a particular bird, he could explain to anyone that wanted to listen anything that was worth knowing about the environment he lived in. It was on one of these ventures into the bush Ray told me how birds use the calls of frogs as they migrate, they fly over waterways and use the night sounds of frogs to navigate where they are going and back again.
I tried a few times to encourage him to consider writing a book, but he kept saying he didn’t think anyone would be interested in it, despite my assurances a lot of people would be.
Back to our first meeting, after our initial cup of tea and chat, we set about doing some tasks to see if I would fit in and if we could come to an arrangement. The first job Ray assigned to me was to clear a fire-break around the water-pump shed and the hose that ran from the shed, across to the animal enclosures. Fire breaks always needed constant checking and regular maintenance, as South Australian Summers can be fierce and there’s always a high risk of extreme danger during Summertime in the Bush. Ray went off to do some of his regular chores and we later met up again to have lunch together under the beautiful, tall whispering Pine Trees, just by the feed sheds. There were strategically placed tree stumps under the trees for make-do seats and it was so nice and cool sitting in the shade of the trees, listening to the birds singing and watching the Wallabies in the distance. We chatted and threw our crusts to the Kangaroos, Emus and Magpies that were hovering nearby looking for titbits. It was such an enjoyable day and first meeting and as I packed up my things and Ray walked me to my car, he put his hand on my shoulder and said: “You know Mark, I think we are going to be good friends!”
I had the same feeling and told him if he’s happy for the help, I would love to come up 1 day each week, (as I also worked full-time), and we agreed Sundays were the best, as that was the day the Sanctuary was open to the public. We agreed I could do whatever chores needed to be done, whilst he keeps an eye on things and meets and greets the day’s visitors to the park. We said our goodbyes with a lot of warmth and an anticipation of a friendship about to blossom.
So, from then on for the next 2+ years, I would venture up to the park every Sunday morning and stay the day. Whatever Ray needed done, I would just jump in and do, he would always have a mental list of jobs ready for me. Mostly it was cleaning out the animal and bird enclosures, cleaning their water and feed bowls, or clearing fire-breaks, but occasionally Ray would ask me to take some visitors around and show them the area. This usually meant taking them down the backtrack behind the lake, (this was actually an old fire track), into areas that were normally fenced off to the public and showing them the real native scrub taking them through to an old ruin, where we would see many wild kangaroos and Emus (as opposed to the wild, but relatively tame ones that frequented the public areas), and other species of fauna that were shyer, such as small mammals that you’d rarely spot in public areas, like Echidnas. I loved the work; I loved the silence and solitude and sometimes I would even feel a little annoyed when visitors turned up at the park and disturbed the peace and quiet!
If I knew I couldn’t make it on a coming Sunday, I would call Ray and arrange to go up on a Friday night and sleep overnight. This made it easier to be ready to do some work on the Saturday morning. Ray’s religious beliefs meant he technically shouldn’t work on Saturdays and as such, the Park wasn’t opened on Saturdays. However, that worked quite well for Ray and me too and we easily worked around that. One thing that still strikes a sudden flashback memory into my mind today, is the smell of wood smoke. Ray had no heating and as such, he had a little open fire burning in his kitchen most nights, except in Summer of course. The smell of the wood smoke was really comforting but infiltrated everything, every fibre of your clothing, your hair, your skin, even your shoes! The cottage has 2 bedrooms, a small kitchen, a small lounge room, 2 little “sleep-outs” and a tiny laundry. There was a little “outhouse,” but finding it in the dark was a journey in itself and a long walk, so I used to just sneak out “into the bushes,” when nature called as Ray had told me to do. I remember one Friday night, I had sneaked out and climbed the hill and found an old log and I was getting myself all comfortable when I suddenly felt a big cold, wet nose on my bum and I shrieked with fright! It was the old Donkey, Ray had forgotten to lock her in for the night, so she popped by to say hello!
Ray used kerosine lamps for lighting and they did the job, but they did stink and yet also reminded me of home, as Mum always used a kerosine heater for us kids when we were growing up.
My overnight stays never varied, I would arrive after work, usually about 6pm and Ray would have a shopped bought cooked chicken waiting for me, (I knew this meant a trip into town for him and it really warmed my heart that he would do that). He would have all the required cutlery laid out and covered with a Tea-towel, there would be white bread (sour dough was unheard of in those days, especially in the bush!) and a little dish of butter and finally, but most importantly, a shop bought cake! The routine never varied either, I would arrive, we would chat and he would make a cup of tea (I never did tell him that I don’t drink or even like Tea. I’m a coffee drinker), but for some reason, I enjoyed Tea with Ray. Then I would set the plates out and carve up the chicken, as Ray attended to the Billy on the open fire for the Tea. After we finished eating, we would clear everything away, wash the dishes in the smallest amount of water you could imagine in the sink and sit by the little kitchen fire and Ray would fill me in on all the happenings in the park from that week. A Cape Barron Goose had hatched a clutch of 8, a buck Kangaroo he hadn’t recognised before, was causing a raucous in the top paddock, a Brushtail Possum had tried to move into one of the Bird enclosures, there was always so many little stories to tell. More often than not, the stories inevitably led back to his past, he would tell stories of his mother, his father, his wife or his son John who passed away. I would just sit there and listen, as the fire would cackle and spit, occasionally throwing an ember out and making us both jump. The flames would cast eerie shadows over the walls of the little cottage and dance on Ray’s old careworn face. I would often be tired from working all week, but would sit there blissfully taking it all in and struggling to stay awake. Some of Ray’s stories were quite funny, some sad and some a little boring and the boring ones would make it harder to stay awake! Occasionally we would have a night visitor like a Brush Tail Possum that had come in to enjoy the warmth of the open fire and to see if there were any morsels, they might avail themselves to, needless to say, they never left empty handed.
You could hear the constant ‘POMP POMP’ of the Frogs calling from the nearby dam. When you’re in the Australian scrub at night, animal sounds reverberate and sound magnified against the cool, chill night air, as there’s a lack of cars, people, civilised life etc. From time to time the local Cockatoos would scream out into the night air, clearly not happy a Possum, or Emu below had disturbed them. Their screeches would resound across the valley and into the night, letting everyone know they had been disturbed and so you needed to be disturbed too.
Bedtime was never late; we would usually retire to our rooms about 8:30 to 9pm at the latest. Of course, there was no TV, no mobile phones or internet and reading wasn’t really an option as the kerosine lanterns gave off a wonderful night glow, but weren’t good enough for reading a book and the smoke from the fire would sting your eyes anyway.
I loved my little room, it smelt musty like old houses do, my bed had seen better days and although I am not a tall person, my feet would hang over the end of the bed. I had a tiny little dresser that must have been a century old and my pillow was lumpy, (in hindsight, I suspect it was stuffed with goose-down). But I always slept like the dead when staying with Ray, it was like being on a min-retreat and my bedroom window overlooked the back paddock behind the cottage and so in the mornings, I would open my window and be greeted by Magpies singing, an assortment of Parrots fossicking for seeds, Kangaroos that had come down from the top fence, looking for Ray to feed them early, or looking for a drink from the old water tub. But always my favourite was this one Emu that would be waiting for me, (how she knew I was staying overnight, I never understood), but she would poke her head in my window and I would have a piece of bread waiting for her.
The mornings at the park are always fresh and crisp, there’s a feeling of renewal and rebirth so to speak. Drops of dew hang precariously from the leaves of trees and bushes, there’s a sense of anticipation in the air as the animals and birds start to wake up and make themselves known and even more so, let others know they have awoken! It’s extraordinarily noisy when you have Emus grunting, (to me it sounds like “GLUMP GLUMP”), Corellas and Cockatoos screaming, Ducks and Geese quacking and honking and Magpies calling, before long the Peafowl would start screaming “RAYOR RAYOR” their calls resounding across the valley, not to be left out, the little bantam rooster would start crowing. It was a cacophony of many and yet a chorus & choir of nature, it was just bliss! No matter how early I woke up, Ray was already up, he would have dressed and started breakfast by the time I had emerged from bed. But the minute I got out of bed, it was a mad race to get dressed, it was freezing!
Often Ray would have fed some of the animals and birds that were nearby the cottage before breakfast, then we would settle in to eat. Breakfast (like dinner the night before), was always the same and always very simple, Tea and Toast, with the occasional Weet-bix if I was lucky. There was an old can of International Roast coffee sitting in the corner of a kitchen cupboard, but as it looked like it had been sitting there since Queens Victoria’s day, I never ventured to open it and try it. To make the toast, we would put the bread on an old long Bar-B-Que fork type thing and hold the bread over the open fire. I used to really enjoy this and the toast tasted so much better than toast cooked in an electric toaster. That is, until one night about a year later, Ray and I were sitting by the fire and he used the fork as a back-scratcher, it was only then at that moment, I realised he had done that often and it was the same fork we used for toast in the mornings! From then on it was Tea & Weet-bix only for me!
After a Saturday breakfast we would head out to feed up the rest of the animals and birds, both the enclosed ones and the wild ones. Then we would go for a drive around the boundaries of the park and check everything was in order. Twice I recall Ray had found someone had planted a crop of marijuana deep in the bush in his park, hoping it would grow and no one would notice. Ray reported these types of things to the Police. But 99.9% of the time, our boundary drives were uneventful, except we would always be greeted and even followed by a flock of Choughs. Choughs are a marvellous and intelligent birds and very family orientated and protective within their flock. This particular flock knew Ray’s Ute very well and he always had titbits ready for them, I genuinely believe they saw him as a part of their family and was of no threat. We would find a spot that Ray had been pondering the night before (for whatever reason) and head out into the bush in that area and do a “check” that all was well.
Ray may have lived an isolated life, but he was well read on current news. He made a point of buying and reading the weekly papers, to keep abreast of world events and we would often discuss what was happening on the other side of the globe. After our morning venture, we would head back to the cottage for another cup of tea. Cups of tea appear to be a marker of one job done, before starting the next. I say this as my grandmother, my Mum and Ray, always had to have a cup of tea, to mark the ending of one task, before jumping into the next task.
If it was a Saturday and we had done the bare minimum that needed to be done for the day, (in other words, all the animals and birds needs had been catered for), I would then head home after lunch, respectful of Ray’s religious belief that Saturday was technically a non-work day.
I remember one Saturday after one of our jaunts into the bush, we had come back and had lunch under the Pine Trees and I had dozed off. I suddenly woke up to something fluttering inside my shirt and in a mad panic I started dancing around and flapping my shirt and screaming thinking a spider or small lizard had creeped under my shirt, yet Ray was killing himself laughing! It turned out he had put a huge moth down my shirt as I napped.
Ray had a great sense of humour. He would often chat to ladies that had come to see the animals and birds and then whisper to me (whilst chuckling), how they were clearly keen on him.
There was one Sunday morning when a little old lady had come up and asked me where the toilet was, I pointed her in the direction of the little green shed and off she went. Ray waited for a minute or so giving her time to settle in and then he threw a pine cone on top of the little green toilet shed roof.
Now Pine cones make a hell of a racket when they hit corrugated iron and then roll down the slope of the roof. To anyone inside the shed it sounds like a war-zone! Anyway, a scream emanated from inside the shed and the poor little lady came running out all flustered and panicked and I had to calm her down and explain it was just a pine cone that “fell from the Tree branches above,” she was shaken, but reassured enough to go back in and try again. When she was safely tucked away back in the Loo shed, Ray and I had to do everything we could to stifle our laughter.
Another of his favourite pranks was to show people his father’s grave and explain its history and encourage them to ask questions and motivate their interest in the history of the grave site. Once he had them engrossed, he would say:
“But there’s no way they’re going to bury ME up there!”
This would prompt them to become inquisitive as to why not and they would always ask: “Why not?” (You could see they were thinking perhaps the hill is haunted, or maybe there’s some grisly history to be told about the gravesite “up there”).
He would quip back: “BECAUSE I’M NOT DEAD YET!”
Ray was awarded an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for his conservation work and I was so pleased, proud and chuffed for him that his life work was recognised, but Ray being Ray, just took it in his stride.
It wasn’t long after he won his medal that I was heading off to Europe and the Sunday before I left, Ray gave me a hug and then stepped back with his hands on both my shoulders and he looked me square in the eye and said: “Mark you go and have the time of your life, but I may not be here when you get back.”
I just laughed and patted him on the shoulders and responded: “Are you kidding me? You’re going to outlive me my friend.” Little did I know he must have had a premonition his health was failing.
Ray passed away whilst I was overseas, he was 82 years old. Ray was my mentor, he was my friend, he was an inspiration.
My friend Ray and me…. The cottage stands stark Against the sun-drenched hill A shadow of a memory Makes my heart stand still A whisper from beyond Passes through the trees What became of yesterday What will become of me No farewell to remember Only images from the past Words that once were spoken Shall stay with me to the last Morning mists shall dampen Midday sun shall scorch Evening shadows will darken Our refuge, your cottage porch Listen to the Choughs my friend They sing out to your glory Their fledglings are still told The legend of your story Remembering our time together Brings a little sadness and pain My friend, my dear friend Ray I wish we could do it all again!