Brian and Dawn Hadfield began their marriage in the middle of nowhere, and that’s where they felt called to stay for the next 60 years.
Their lifelong connection with each other and the local Aboriginal peoples started on a remote outback mission station in south-east Western Australia.
Cundeelee Mission Station – almost 800km east of Perth and 160km east of Kalgoorlie – was first established as a government “ration depot”, and became an Australian Aboriginal Evangelical Mission station in 1949.
The area was home to Aboriginal peoples broadly known as the Western Desert or Spinifex Peoples – whose traditional lands in the Great Victoria Desert are so vast and seemingly inhospitable that they had little contact with outsiders.
“She used to teach out of an old corrugated iron hut … where you just had the aluminium roof between you and the blazing sun.” – Brian Hadfield
Dawn – a Sydney girl – entered this barren landscape at age 23 in 1958, after responding to a job ad for a primary school teacher at the new government school on Cundeelee Mission Station. Here she stepped into the position of Cundeelee’s first teacher.
“She used to teach out of an old building, which was one of the first permanent structures that the mission built there. It was an old corrugated iron hut made out of ex-military materials, where you just had the aluminium roof between you and the blazing sun,” 86-year-old Brian tells Eternity about his now 85-year-old wife, over a phone line from his current home in Kalgoorlie.
While Dawn was replaced with a male teacher before long, she was asked to stay on to work on the mission. She took it upon herself to learn the local language, Cundeelee Wangka, which weaved together the dialects of several different people groups at Cundeelee.
“There were four or five groups [of Aboriginal peoples] who came out of the desert in the early fifties to live at Cundeelee. I don’t think they had all ever lived together as one group before, but they formed one group at Cundeelee,” explains Brian.
He estimates around 160 Aboriginal people lived at the station (along with several missionary families), with numbers swelling to over 300 in later months of the year when friends from Yalata – an Aboriginal community on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain in South Australia – would travel by train and truck to join in annual ceremonies.
“The Aboriginal people preferred to stay in their humpies [a small, temporary shelter], and they’d camp anything up to four miles from the mission. Sometimes they would go further out if they were having corroboree times or if they had visitors coming,” Dawn explains.
She notes a dark side of the mission’s history – as many Aboriginal people ended up at Cundeelee because their land at Maralinga was taken by the British and Australian governments to test atomic weapons during “Operation Buffalo”.
Three years after Dawn landed at Cundeelee, a young electrician named Brian from Warwick in south-east Queensland arrived to help build a power plant.
“I went out there for two to three months to help out. We arrived at 1am on a Sunday morning after an eight-day trek across the Nullarbor Plain,” Brian recalls.
As Brian only intended to be there for a short time, it took Dawn by surprise when he asked her to teach him some of the Cundeelee Wangka language – offering to teach her a bit of Greek in exchange.
Brian shared Dawn’s Christian faith, and before long they began to spend time studying God’s word and praying together. The couple married in 1962 and decided to stay on at Cundeelee.
Living on the edge of the desert meant that water was often hard to come by.
“We had rain tanks on each of the buildings, and when it rained, it really rained and the tank would fill quite rapidly. But then you might not have rain for another six months … When the water ran out of the dam at Cundeelee, we would have to get water from the railways,” says Brian, noting the nearest train station was 42 kilometres away.
“That would be every three weeks, we’d get 9000 gallons of water. They would drop it off to a holding yard and we’d have to pump it up out of the tank. Then you’d transport it into the station by truck, around 300-400 gallons at a time, depending on the size of the truck. It would be a constant move through the night just so that you could get that water.
“That water had to last for three weeks no matter how many people were at the station. You washed with a rag almost.”
The station’s food was also dependent on the railway, arriving on the “tea and sugar train”.
“We got our bulk supplies once a week, and then there was fresh bread, meat and veggies which came in at night twice a week,” Brian explains.
The only source of healthcare for the Cundeelee’s community were monthly visits by the flying doctor.
“It was a monthly celebration! Everybody was down on the airstrip to greet the flying doctor coming in,” says Brian.
During their time in outback WA, Dawn and Brian managed to raise their family of seven children (although their last child was born in Sydney).
“The kids really enjoyed being out there. They look back on those times with great happiness,” Brian reflects.
Although he admits that the harsh environment was also testing: “It was a pretty hectic time. There were relaxing times too, but then there were times when you were just under the hammer.”
Brian notes the importance of community at Cundeelee – with up to four other missionary families living on the station at the same time.
“It was a real homogenised family of missionaries. You’d get differences here and there, but once they were aired, they were forgotten. You just gave it over to the Lord and said sorry where there was a need to.”
When the eldest two Hadfield children reached high school, they were sent to the nearest school in Kalgoorlie, where they lived with a missionary family who had also previously served at Cundeelee.
But it was Brian and Dawn’s connection with the local Aboriginal peoples that became the most significant part of their time at Cundeelee. So, when the family left the mission station in 1980 and moved to Kalgoorlie in order for the rest of their children to attend high school, they continued to visit Cundeelee.
And, when the mission station was closed in the mid-1980s due to the the lack of access to water, and the Aboriginal community was relocated to a purpose-built village at Coonana – situated ten kilometres away on the train line – the Hadfields still kept visiting.
In fact, Brian and Dawn came to play a key part in recording, preserving and teaching the language of these Aboriginal peoples from WA’s eastern Goldfields region. But that deserves an article of its own.
To be continued …
Keep an eye for part two of this story – to be published on Eternity soon.
With thanks to Kalgoorlie Baptist Church for helping supply photos based on their video about the Hadfields.
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