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Autobiography to Film | "Old Bob drills for water..."

Book | Script | Film

The Book

"Old Bob drills for water..."
From The Road from Coorain,
Chapter 3, "Childhood," by Jill Ker Conway

After the first shock of the boys' departure, my loneliness was moderated by the arrival of a fascinating new companion. The expanded size of Coorain meant that my father could hire a man who was a mine of bush lore and knowledge to put down a bore to provide a plentiful water supply for the Coorain homestead. Bob McLennan, universally known as old Bob, was not fazed by the lack of gasoline to power his well-drilling equipment. He had drilled many bores by hand in his long lifetime, and was quite ready to begin again. I watched intently as his auger was produced, the hole begun and steadily deepened as old Bob paced around in a circle, like some medieval figure on a treadmill. Since his task required slow movement, he had plenty of breath left to answer the questions of a curious child. We would find the first water at twenty feet, he said. It would be salty, and useless for our purposes. As each layer of soil came up, he explained about its place in the formation of the earth. We should find good water after about one hundred and twenty feet, he thought -- that was unless we struck stone, which would mean the sweet, fresh water was deeper underground. We both tasted the water at twenty feet, and agreed that it was very salty. At forty-eight feet, another stream was crossed, equally metallic in taste. Soon after, very interesting things began to come up with each return of the drilling equipment to the surface: gravel, shale, slimy black oily-looking mud. Bob began to look troubled. The going was getting harder, and the chances were increasing that he would hit rock. At ninety feet, there it was, solid and desperately hard to drill. Bob was philosophical, pacing steadily, but his auger now made a few inches a day. My parents joked that perhaps he would be in residence with us till retirement. Months of work and wages had been invested and it was too late to abandon this effort and choose another site. Many weeks later Bob was through his six feet of granite, and the water found at one hundred and twenty feet was sent away for testing. He and I had done a lot of tasting and shaking our heads over it. It was not very clear, and after we had carefully measured the flow, it was less than a hundred gallons an hour. Bob said it wouldn't do, but my father, hoping the job, now much more extended that he'd planned, would be completed, sent the water to the assayers anyway. The answer proved Bob's point. It was not fit for human consumption. It contained too much salt, traces of gold, a minute quantity of lead sulfate. So Bob resumed his slow pacing. He was a slight bony man, small in stature, slow and deliberate in all his movements, endlessly talkative. He kept the same pace in heat or cold, and he respected the earth he worked with. He called the earth "she," and he personified the hole he was drilling, now of epic proportions, and his auger. "Now we'll see what the bastard has to offer," he would say, winding his winch furiously to pull up the next load of earth. The mechanics of drilling were endlessly interesting to me. As the hand drill ate away the earth, metal casing was pushed down inside the hole. As the hole deepened, casing of a smaller and smaller size was pushed down inside the original. This provided the firm outer casing for the bore, within which piping and a water pump would eventually be installed. Bob began with casing of a monumental size "in case the bugger's really deep," he explained cheerfully. As each new piece of casing was driven into the earth and the next piece attached, a few inches of the original would protrude, requiring slicing off to make the joins even. These round wheels of metal became my toys, each succeeding size being delivered to me as a gift by Bob. It seemed that I had a family of them, all in neatly descending ages and sizes. I knew too few people to name them after actual acquaintances, but eventually I hit upon calling them after the various leaders of the Allies, both political and military. I knew who all of them were because I went regularly with my father to collect the mail, and he had me read the front page of each issue of the Sydney Morning Herald to him on the slow return journey from the mailbox. I named the amplest and most impressive circle of metal Winston Churchill, and a smaller but nonetheless impressive one, Charles de Gaulle.

Possessing in these toys a perfect symbolic system for representing hierarchy, I named a very modest one after the Prime Minister of Australia, thereby recognizing a set of power relationships I could not then have articulated. These pieces of metal were assembled to mimic the Quebec Conference, and a new character, larger than de Gaulle but noticeably smaller than Churchill, was introduced, President Roosevelt. The fortunes of war had already required regular reorganization of the rank order, my need after the battle of El Alamein being for a General Montgomery, second in size only to Churchill.

One day, more than six months after old Bob began his labors, my father and I returned from an afternoon expedition to see old Bob, a beatific smile on his face, rolling a sample of water around in his mouth as though it were a vintage claret. As we approached, he spat it out and said, "It's beautiful water, Mr. Ker, and she'll pump thirty thousand gallons a day." The assayers agreed on the quality, and time proved him right about the flow, which never faltered in the driest seasons. We never knew how many hundreds of miles he had tramped in his months of labor, but he wore out three pairs of boots and one steel auger. The equipment for the windmill and storage tank had already been purchased in anticipation of the moment. Shortly, a fifty-foot steel windmill tower and a forty-thousand-gallon tank on a thirty-foot stand towered beside our house.

The arrival of the water wrought miracles. My mother, freed of cooking for two hungry boys and a governess, raced through the household chores to work for three or four hours after lunch in her garden. The soil was fertile, there was ample fertilizer from the horses, cattle, and sheep, and the blessed water proved to contain only a little limestone which most plants flourished on. My father built a high windbreak, made of cane grass which grew on the property, to shield her seedlings from the hot winds. Inside it she produced a vision of paradise fit for a sultan's courtyard. In front of the house were perennial beds, lining the verandas. Two perfectly balanced rectangles of green lawn were laid out, framed by long, thin rectangular beds for annuals. To the south of the house was the vegetable garden, and to the north the citrus orchard. The northern side of the cane windbreak became a trellis for grapes, and a little to the northwest was the potato bed.

She had a fine sense of color, and a passion for scented flowers. Soon I would drift off to sleep in the evening bathed in the perfume of stocks, wallflowers, and heliotrope in summer, the crisp aroma of chrysanthemums in autumn. A whole bed was given over to Parma violets, and great fistfuls of them would sit in the middle of the round table on which we dined in summer on the southern screened veranda.

The fruits and vegetables were as marvelous to a child raised on canned vegetables and dried apples. The scent of orange and lemon trees, the taste of fat green grapes, and the discovery of salads were marking points of that first year of water.

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The Script

"Old Bob drills for water..."
Adapted by Sue Smith
from The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway

Scene #5.
Ext. tree, 1939
Bob McLennan pushes the bore shaft as Jill watches from a tree.

As Barry and Bill enter left of frame:

Barry: (OS) Mum says you can wait all day.
(SYNC) And the longer you leave it, the worse it'll be.
(OS) And it really hurts.

Bob: She says you'll come when you're hungry.

Ext. Coorain, 1939
Bob McLennan is pushing the bore shaft, as he explains to Barry & Bob.
Slowly panning left to Jill lying on the tree branch as Eve observes while cleaning rugs.

McLennan: (PANTING) You got your clays. Grey, yellow, and your red. Then your shale. Then oil. Then granite. And, down to buggery under all that, your Great Artesian Basin. An ocean of water.

McLennan: (OS) Yeah, it's a fight to the death see? Folks like you, you want to dig in out here, you got to suck out every bit (SYNC) of life she'll give you. And she won't give it (OS) without one hell of a row.

McLennan; (SYNC) Yeah. Typical flaming woman.

Ext. Coorain, 1939
McLennan continues at the shaft as Eve exits the house and crosses to Jill.

Jill: (OS) Grey, yellow, red clay, shale, oil, granite, water. (SYNC) Grey, yellow, red clay, shale, (OS) oil, granite, water.

Eve: (V/O) I've learned one or two things about life Jill.

Ext. Coorain, 1939
McLennan is standing at the bore shaft.
Jill watches McLennan hand a tin of water to Bill who hands it to Eve.

Eve: Mud in your eye.

Eve pours the tin of water over herself and all laugh.

Ext. Coorain gate, 1939
McLennan finishes packing up his pick up truck as Jill watches from the gate.

McLennan: (GRUNTS)

Jill: (OS) Come back when we've (SYNC) built our garden.

McLennan: (OS) Not for (SYNC) me little mate that's for your type. I'll dig in when I'm dug in and not before.

Jill: Grey clay, (OS) yellow clay, red clay, shale. (SYNC) Oil, granite, water.

McLennan: Get your roots into the granite girlie. The granite. But don't stub your toe on the effing (OS) stuff. (CHUCKLES).

McLennan climbs into his truck, starts the engine and heads off.

Jill: (V/O) The pattern of life. Others pass through. We remain.

Ext. Coorain/verandah, 1939
Jill balances on bore shaft rings as Barry & Bob compete to throw metal rings the furthest. Eve & Bill sit on the verandah drinking and chatting.

Jill: (V/O) And at the end of each day, a single shared hour. They don't always talk. Sometimes they just sit.

Jill: (V/O) And soon, she will shut out the darkness and gather her little family around her.

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The Film

"Old Bob drills for water..."
From the film The Road from Coorain
as directed by Brendan Maher

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