© Max Merckenschlager

Winner, 2009 Henry Lawson Festival (Henry Lawson Poetry Statuette) Grenfell, NSW.

The sedges and the bracken ferns are marching up the hill;
below, the scene at Spion Kopf and Ladysmith is still.
They shoulder arms to stringybarks and blackwoods in their hosts
and bow in silent homage to a thousand miners’ ghosts.

Down gullies deep, nine thousand more are working at their claims –
the Brownings, Carrs and Kellys, in a culture-pot of names.
That spectre with a shovel and his mate with swirling pan,
may hail from Cork in Ireland, or be German, Swede or Ghan.

A bugler sounding reveille draws miners from their beds,
and commerce cranks through Mafeking in slabhut stores and sheds.
A city stitched from canvas twinkles brightly after tea,
while valleys ring in chorus of the male-voice harmony.

"No Orients! No Women!"– but their ruling shall relax;
they’ll save their spleen for governments that over-rule and tax.
A family is coming – one asleep on father’s neck;
her siblings four to seven years are old enough to trek.

The winter rains and horses hooves make gluepots of the roads
and wagon wheels are sinking fast beneath their precious loads.
Then opportunist bullockies see hauling business thrive,
by sucking hapless owners out with teams of ‘four-wheel-drive’.

The children search for Australites that fell from outer space
and hone their skills of prospecting for colour in the trace.
They know the scrub’s surprises and it spills their childish laughs,
while careful feet avoid the mouths of miners’ blackened shafts.

A chilling front of several weeks is disinclined to go;
it numbs the toes of students as they cross the fields of snow.
The food’s consumed – now hunger parks in every miner’s tent,
as goodwill and camaraderie are gathered up and spent.

But hark! From Mason’s Paddock there’s an echoed, cheery cry;
a wagonload of vegetables has come to boost supply!
Then snatching up their polished picks, that mountain-tempered band
revisits hardship stoically, to wash the gold from sand.

Footnote: Mafeking is a retired goldfield of The Grampians, Victoria.
At its peak, Mafeking was a bustling tent city of 10,000 miners.
Visit the location today and be humbled by Nature’s ability to reclaim its own and hide most signs of human endeavour.

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