in Mike and the Bush Mechanics on 12 October 2010
RENNIE gave me a lift from Miriam Vale, north of Bundaberg in Queensland, to Agnes Water, about 40 minutes away on the coast. Agnes Water is the last surf beach before the Great Barrier Reef.
It was a Saturday afternoon and Rennie told me he was going to throw himself in the sea. He had his surfboard stowed in the back of the ute. It sounded like there was something he needed to wash away.
He was 50 years old, with a heavy, but still-athletic build. He shifted constantly in his seat. There was a restlessness about him and the force of it engulfed the cab. He wore a shabby fedora-style hat and had a gap between his front teeth – the combination lent him the air of an old circus performer.
In fact, he was a shipwright by trade, a boat builder. At 14, during his school holidays, he began working as a deckhand on fishing trawlers. Then, at 16, he took three months off school and worked a stint as a cook at sea, and came back with ten grand for his troubles. School couldn’t keep him after that. He began his shipwright’s apprenticeship the next year.
I asked questions and Rennie’s tales tumbled out. He wasn’t a direct storyteller. “Bloomin” was his adjective of choice and he baited every line with it, twice over.
He’d worked on many famous boats and yachts built in this country: Australia II, Sydney-to-Hobart race winners, even Collins class submarines.
Some years ago he packed it in to start a business up north. “It was supposed to be about the simple life. I went to the Whitsundays with lots of money and left with none. It was the dengue. Nearly bloomin‘ killed me.”
Now he worked fixing up mining accommodation, moving from site to site and living each place a while. “All the ugliest places in the bloomin‘ country,” he said. “I never thought I’d be startin‘ again at 50.”
I mentioned that I wrote a column about sustainable housing and living.
“Don’t get me started on the building industry,” he said in a wild staccato, like I’d triggered an eruption, but his throat was too small a passageway for the flow of his mind. “The whole thing’s a bloomin‘ fraud. What’s wrong with this country is there’s too many rules and we’re too bloomin‘ comfortable.”
He told me that in north Queensland, all the coal money meant big, stupid houses. “In Gladstone, people are building garages with turntables in them, so when you drive in, it turns the car around for you.”
Rennie had chosen the timeless way instead. He had bought an expired mining lease on a hill overlooking the water near Gladstone, and was sculpting a small home into the rock, more than a kilometre through bush from the nearest car access. Sheer granite walls and benches.
“Gosh. Incredible!” I was the one gushing now. “I love hearing about handmade homes like that. Amazing. So how’d you do it? Can you just build anything you turn your hands to?”
“You could say that.”
He told me he’d carved a natural swimming pool deep in the rock behind the rest of the home, with a 40-metre skylight shaft. A few barramundi live in the pool. He used mirrors, like the Egyptians did, to shine light from the skylight throughout the other rooms.
He’d been working on the house for 16 years. “Started when my wife was alive. That’s the trouble with life, you know. You think you’ve got a plan and then your wife goes and bloomin‘ dies just to bugger it all up.”
The beach at Agnes Water