Now and Then Bob Wainwright

Robert & Norma Wainwright . 

Old Age Is Not For Cowards

Written by Norma Wainwright

This is an amazing story of two pioneers of modern-day Australia, from humble beginnings to the creation of an industry that has helped to bring outback Australia to the world. The story is told first hand through Norma, there is no editing required as she is a natural, writing several books of her own so far, and I think another is on the way too. I hope you enjoy this story as much as I do ……


My husband Bob and I have been married 68 years and have lived in the West and East Kimberley since 1949 through the good times and the hard times. Our lives are intertwined!

I have always felt a love for this region and it has left such an impression on me that since the age of 42 I’ve been painting landscapes of the Kimberley and writing books about the area. In fact, I have completed 13 books all told, two of them Children's books. Some have not been published and probably never will be. The last one is still an unpublished 400 pages of Tales From a Top Town ...stories and photos from People who lived in Wyndham from 1960 and before, with much of my own input as a resident of 34 years.

Bob was 22 and I was 19 when we first met. He was working for an Earth Moving company, Bell Bros in April 1949, upgrading the Derby Airport. .

I had left my hometown in that year1949 to become a trainee nurse at Royal Perth Hospital and I received the award for the trainee most likely to succeed. However, 6 months later I was the first to leave after experiencing my first death of an elderly person, I just couldn’t handle it. I phoned my mother in tears and she suggested that I phone my older sister Val who was then joint manager with her husband Jim, to ask if she had a job I could do. Thus I flew for the first time, 14 hours of vomiting and fright in a DC3. . Looking dreadful on landing in Derby little did I know that Rab Bell, Bob Wainwright's boss, had seen me totter down the steps and reported to his young, unmarried workers that (A likely young woman had arrived in Derby)... Bob and I married the following year.

He purchased his first truck, an International 183 Tipper, only 3 months following our wedding.

Bob's first truck, International Tipper

I had become pregnant soon after marrying and we became parents to Michael Robert Ramsey Wainwright.  At that time Bob had joined the Main Roads Dept and we were based 50 Kls east of Broome and lived in a tent. Later in the year, we transferred to another camp not far from Fitzroy Crossing.

I got my first taste of Wyndham in 1952 when Bob was still working for the M.RD on a stretch of road around 90 miles from Wyndham. My baby was only 2 months old and we were tented out at Cockatoo Sands. We were road building with four other families and took it in turns with the other married couples to travel once a week to Wyndham for supplies. This would take a whole day return trip because the road was terribly sandy and we’d get bogged on many occasions. This was the main access road to all the stations between Wyndham and Darwin and the job was to harden the road with shale.  Later we moved to a camp at Carlton Reach (which is now named Sleeping Buddha).

NB. We were living at the Kununurra of the future!! However, our time in the East Kimberley was cut short when our two-month-old baby boy became very sick. One of the other families had a boy two months older than Michael, who died whilst his parents were trying to get him to Wyndham Hospital. (Buried in the Gully cemetery) in Wyndham. Two months after this tragedy our own baby was in distress, I was losing my milk supply and was having trouble feeding him. I was concerned that our baby was heading the same way(death) and I begged to go back home to Derby. Bob had no trouble cancelling his contract with Main Roads and we drove back to Derby.  As we travelled the long road home we went from station to station where they would give us goats milk to feed our son, and this worked very well. Each station owner/manager would get on the Pedal radio and advise that we were heading their way. Until we were able to get our own goat, we were supplied with milk from the resident Sergeant of Police in Derby who had his own goats.  We continued living in Derby for 8 more years until we came back to live in Wyndham permanently in 1959.  I now had 3 sons and my youngest was 10 months old. Bob had arrived a year earlier to start his business “East Kimberley Transport” but due to a lack of housing, I had to wait for a year until I could come up to join him with our children in April 1969.

I had grown to love the Kimberley in the 8 years I had lived in Derby.  Wyndham was much more of a bustling town than Derby back then due to the Meatworks industry and had a good variety of shops. Even though the water in the Cambridge gulf was muddy brown just like Derby’s mudflats, Wyndham was surrounded by hills and ranges so it was completely different.  I had cried for a week when I first arrived in Derby from Perth because it looked like something out of space, like on a planet somewhere.  It didn’t feel like a small country town and it looked so different and alien to me, like nothing I had seen before.  However, I loved Wyndham from the first moment I got there.  My biggest shock was the lack of electricity.  The town had no power and for the first 3 years we had to make do with wood stoves and Tilly lamps and I did the laundry in a wood-burning copper pot. 

We didn’t have a butcher in town in those early days and had to go to the Meatworks to buy beef cuts.  We would ask for the cheap cuts, mince, sausages and stewing steak because we were in the first years of our transport business and didn’t have much money to spare.  These were really hard years but socially they were fantastic. The Meatworks was a social gathering place at night and most weeks there was a dance night as well as an outdoor movie night. There was a Hall at the Meatworks and the whole town would come together for old-style dancing, Pride of Erin etc. and everyone loved to waltz.  The hotel owner’s daughter was a pianist who could play all the old-style dance tunes, and with the help of a homemade drum, the whole town would dance to this music.

Several years later the butcher who sold us meat at the Meatworks, Eddie Warnock, started up his own shop at the 3 miles. One amusing memory for me was entering Eddie's shop one Saturday morning to purchase meat and I wrote out a cheque to pay for it. On Monday there was a knock at my front door and there was Eddie holding out the cheque while asking me if I would re-sign it. I was totally embarrassed to see that I had signed it with HIS last name rather than my own.  If I did something like that now it would be assumed by all that I was in the throes of early dementia.

In the early 60’s we took out a bank loan to build our dream home in Wyndham. We moved into it in 1962 and I was so excited to have electricity for the first time. Our new house fronted onto the highway with our trucking depot at the rear so we had access to a large generator for running lights and ceiling fans. What bliss this was and one weekend prior to moving in, while the house was still empty, we went over to the house just to sit under the living room fan to cool down. Small blessings are always remembered!  We have been owners/builders of 5 homes over the many years of our lives in the Kimberley. NB Our first home, a tent which Bob had to re-erect after huge rainfall following the historic Atomic blast in the Montebello Islands in 1952.

Life in a tent

I started Netball in both Derby and Wyndham which became the current Basketball of today.  The first meeting in Derby was at the Port Hotel and the Wyndham meeting in my own home.

I had a fall and hurt my right knee when I was 25 and weeks later developed Rheumatoid Arthritis. My fingers gradually became twisted and I am now partially crippled., not helped by a bone on the bone right hip after a near-death experience at age 80, when succumbing to a Golden Staf infection However life still progresses.

During the 34 years we lived in Wyndham I joined several organisations and became an inaugural member of the Wyndham Historical Society, CWA, Wyndham Arts Council, Repertory Club and Hospital Auxiliary.

Bob called the inaugural meeting of the Wyndham Pistol club and was also part of the teams who dug the holes to become swimming Pools in Derby and Wyndham

We finally left Wyndham in December 1992 to live in Kununurra but Wyndham has always remained strong in my heart.

At my age of 88 it is a joy to be awake and aware each day. My latest and favorite saying “Old age is not for cowards “ Norma Wainwright. Click to Tweet

Story End

In 1984 Bob and I bought a video shop in Kununurra (Knx) which went 'broke' in 1992 due to mismanagement.  I had the job of sorting out and paying off accumulated debt. We sold the shop to a local Businessman and it was pulled down and re-built.  Now owned by Bevan Spackman as a Variety Store. Bob and I moved from Wyndham (Wyn) to Knx on Dec. 28th that same year when I took over the reins of our Bungle Bungle Tour business.

Our challenges have been numerous but a couple of things stand out in my memories.Seeing my two eldest sons leave Wyndham to board at Hale school at ages 10 and 9.  Bob asked me to book them in because he wanted them to have a better education than he'd had. Unhappy at first but settled in. They both chose to stay on till 18 and 17. They both have done well in life. Youngest son came home after one year but also has done well as a businessman. 

The year that we lost two trucks and two drivers was probably the biggest challenge for Bob on two fronts I had to juggle our dwindling finances to keep the boys at boarding school until Insurance money was paid. I have always been a good user of money and we coped. Bob had many challenges! He had several of his teeth hanging by a thread (severe pain) when a bullock was being loaded into the cattle crate at Nicholson station. Luckily the manager's wife was a nurse and she offered Bob liquid foods and pain relief until he could get to a Dentist in Wyndham

His greatest challenge occurred earlier this year when he had gangrene in his right foot with subsequent amputation. He copes very well in his electric wheelchair and remains his stoic self 

I wrote this poem in 2015 because I recalled the many times that I asked travellers, who if they had visited Wyndham.  95 % of them replied “Yes and we drove down the main street and drove out again” Read Here

Norma Wainwright

Old Age Is Not For Cowards Old Age Is Not For Cowards Old Age Is Not For Cowards Old Age Is Not For Cowards

1 Comment

Leave a comment

Share via
Send this to a friend