18. Return to Birthplace

Unless you still live near it, people returning to the place of their birth are generally either visiting relatives, unravelling the skeins of family history, or participating in a census of the biblical kind.

These days the census comes to your door or even via the internet. I have no relatives in the area and though I have just discovered a family history skein that unravels in nearby Doyles Creek I was not aware of this when I am thinking of visiting Kurri Kurri.

Having left there before I even had a first birthday, I knew of Kurri Kurri mainly as the place of birth on my passport.  I knew it to have been a coal mining town and in the way of many small regional towns imagine it to be perhaps long past its glory days. I had visions of  tumbleweeds rolling down the wide streets, store fronts closed and a generally depressed air.

I’d never been back because living where I have it was never somewhere I went through to get to anywhere else. Our family holidays were 4 weeks in a tent on the south coast of NSW. We rarely went north.

Too, my mothers recollections of the place were distinctly negative. She arrived with one child under 2 and another on the way. She remembers a shambolic house, starlings in the roof and trying to wrangle a coal fuelled stove.

Most unforgivably for her it was the place where the doctor who was at my birth failed to diagnose a congenitally dislocated hip. What may have been a relatively easy fix was then, not. Instead, after months of doctors dismissing her concerns as those of any overanxious mother, she finally marched with a supportive friend (and me) into a hospital and demanded to see an orthopaedic surgeon. He told her she was absolutely right.

For my mother, from there, no doubt, worry, and daily care with a toddler variously placed in traction in hospital for some time, surgery, plaster up to the chest, a calliper and various complications along the way.

For me, exciting new opportunities to exasperate, whether singing endless verses of Old McDonald had a Farm in hospital,  dropping food scraps down my cast, pushing the family to the brink of sanity from the noise of my scrambling around on roller casters on a wooden floor (handy contraption made by a family friend) or kicking people with my calliper if they made fun of me.

My mother left Kurri Kurri the first chance she got. She never went back. After my visit I told her that there was a vacant lot where the house had been. The house must have been demolished.

Turning 50 though I decided it might be interesting to attempt a return engagement. So, I did what you do, these days. I cranked up the search engine and checked out how to get there/where to stay and there it was..


The 10th Anniversary of the Kurri Kurri Nostalgia Festival!

photo courtesy of Kurri Kurri Nostalgia Festival

I stayed nearby and, steeped in my role (known only to me) as ‘daughter of Kurri Kurri’ soaked in the atmosphere.

The centre of activity was the local park, lined with stalls offering lots of retro and vintage fashion. You could get your locks styled to match the era,  re-stock your corsetry collection, ferret through memorabilia, leaf through stashes of LPs, admire vintage vehicles, get your palm read, strut your stuff in the fashion parade or just get up and dance.

Though I don’t pretend for a moment that my weekend whistle-stop tour meant that I understood much about the day to day life and challenges of the town I did try to immerse myself in the Kurri Kurri experience.

I went on a walking tour of the murals led by the charming and informative Col. I visited  the tourist information centre and amassed a show bag of Kurri Kurri bits including the Centenary Book with black and white historical photos, a book about the murals and a Kurri Kurri Kookaburra pin. I frequented the delightful music themed cafe ‘Millies’, with its walls lined with album covers, a mini mirror ball and band-themed table decorations. I admired the larger than life Kurri Kurri Kookaburra and lined the crowded streets to watch the enthusiastic Marching Koalas pass by.

While there I also took a drive out along the road to Wollombi which brought an unexpected encounter with a deep sea diver and the poignant sight of memorabilia in a glass case relating to a soldier from the region who was awarded a medal for his bravery at Passchendaele.

At home after all the activity of the weekend I had the chance to sit quietly and look through my Kurri Kurri books. It was a fascinating but sobering experience. The Centenary Book was full of marvellous photographs. Events in the town were set against the backdrop of what was happening for the country as a whole. There were scenes from the very early days and signs that the spirit of the 1920s was alive and well in Kurri Kurri. I was intrigued by what might occur at a ‘Night of Indignation’. It did sound like a great opportunity to get any lingering gripes off your chest.

photo courtesy of Brian J Andrew OAM Secretary Coalfields Heritage Group: 1902 Kurri Kurri 2002 Centenary Edition

The thing that shocked me was the number of deaths each year from the coal mining which dominated the towns existence until recent decades. A number of deaths every year and then single disasters in which many lives were lost. To its very great credit the book provides the full name for each man who died and  the mine they were working at when they were killed.

Poring over all my Kurri Kurri info it was obvious that the closure of the mines threatened the collapse of the town and the collection of those tumbleweeds. Fortunately people cared and acted. Among no doubt many initiatives, a regional group called Towns with Heart was formed to work on ideas for development in the region. The idea emerged to commission murals with the town now boasting more than any other on mainland Australia. The Nostalgia Festival was also born.

I developed an affection for the Kurri Kurri Kookaburra which is the town symbol and perches proudly in the park. Kookaburras are striking, proud looking birds known for their raucous ‘laughter’ and strong beaks used to thrash prey, including unsuspecting barbecue meats.

It seems to me that if  you are a smallish regional town facing many challenges, you could do worse than to have as your town symbol a fairly bossy, robust, beaky and beady eyed bird.

In the local Aboriginal language of Awabakal, Kurri Kurri means first or beginnings. I feel glad and proud now to know it so much better as the place of my first breath and of my own beginning.

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