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Free Rein The Autobiography of an Olympic Heroine

Free Rein The Autobiography of an Olympic Heroine

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Free Rein The Autobiography of an Olympic Heroine

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7 ore
Jan 1, 2017


the autobiography of two-time Olympic gold medallist equestrian Gillian Rolton. Gill Rolton is one of Australia?most accomplished riders. Her riding career has spanned over 30 years and includes Olympic Games, World Championships and internationals. Even more impressive when you find out Gill started eventing and showjumping at the relatively late age of 21. Free Rein follows Gill from her days as a horse-mad, music-loving Adelaide surfie chick to her inclusion in the Australian Sporting Hall of Fame. She reveals how injury to horse and rider meant she missed out on the LA Olympics and also on Seoul. After the incredible low of dealing with the harrowing death of a talented horse from botulism, Gill tells of her golden year when, with her wonderful horse Peppermint Grove and the rest of the team, she fulfilled her Olympic dream and won gold in Barcelona. Gill will always be remembered as the tenacious woman who helped Australia win consecutive team gold medals when she finished her last ride with a broken collarbone and ribs. Free Rein reveals an amazing woman who personifies the word ?rseverance?nd defines the true Australian spirit that is universally admired.
Jan 1, 2017

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With gold from the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympic Games, Gill Rolton is one of Australia's most accomplished riders and the first Aust female to medal in Equestrian Sports. Gill's riding career has spanned over thirty years, encompassing Olympic Games, World Championships and many internationals. Gill started her Eventing and Showjumping career at the relatively late age of 21. Her first eventer, Saville Row, was purchased for the princely sum of $200. It was not long until the duo charged up the Eventing grades and were soon long-listed for the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Unfortunately, Saville Row sustained a leg injury at the final selection trial and the team missed out. Nevertheless, Gill had been given a taste of the Olympic dream. In 1988, riding Benton's Way, Gill was on the verge of selection for the Seoul Olympics before she dislocated her elbow only days before the final selection trial, her Olympic success would have to wait. In 1992 it was 3rd time lucky! She had finally reached her first Olympics - and what a debut. Gill won team gold in the three day event. After winning the Australian Champs in 1995, Gill returned to the Olympic scene with Peppermint Grove, keen to snare her second gold. She did not disappoint her fans, helping Australia win team gold despite finishing the cross country with a broken collarbone and ribs. In 2000 Gill made a bid to qualify for her third consecutive Olympics. Riding a new, inexperienced horse, Endeavour, Gillian narrowly failed to gain selection, but was honoured to help carry the Olympic Flag in the Opening Ceremony. In 2001 Gillian has had considerable success on her new horse Aspire. Having won or placed in every competition thus far, the new combination looks like a promising prospect. Gillian is now a National Eventing Selector and an International Judge and will continue to identify and develop human and equine talent. She currently runs an Equestrian Consultancy Company and Clarendon Park Equestrian Centre.

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Free Rein The Autobiography of an Olympic Heroine - Gillian Rolton


Childhood dreams

Who could forget Gillian Rolton’s gutsy ride in the

Atlanta Olympics when she remounted her horse with a

broken collarbone and ribs to finish the event and help

secure gold for Australia.’


Walking out with the rest of the Aussie team for the Atlanta Olympics Opening Ceremony, the enormity of what you are about to do really hits you. You can’t help remembering all those years of toil, all that heartbreak and how the dreams of a young girl turned into a woman’s reality. You feel like anything is possible…

People often say to me, ‘Gill, did you always dream of winning gold medals?’ I have to say, ‘No, my first goal in life was to talk my totally non-horsey parents into buying me a horse.’

Mum and Dad (Esme and Lloyd) didn’t have any background with horses, apart from what they bet on at the racetrack and the short time my brother, John, had a horse. John is ten years older than I am, he was born in 1946, and he managed to coerce Mum into going to a horse sale with his horsey friends one day, ‘to have a look’. Naturally Mum and John came home with a horse: a gray mare called Starry. Mum had the horse knocked down to her and heard ‘sold to the lady with the white hat…’ when John pushed her arm up at the crucial moment — or that’s what they tried to tell Dad, anyway! They led this horse home from the sales and she lived for a short time on my uncle’s tennis court three doors down from us.

I, of course, can’t remember any of this, as I was seven months old at the time. All I can remember is that I always wanted a pony. While John and Starry were hooning around the back blocks and sheep paddocks of Eden Hills and Bellevue Heights with John’s mates, I was a toddler being wrapped in cotton wool at home and being called ‘precious’ and ‘princess’…ergh! Basically a spoilt brat — but not allowed to do the one thing I wanted to do — play with Starry.

Both Mum and Dad were terribly overprotective of their ‘dear little daughter’ — though on reflection I can see why. Mum had had three miscarriages (one with twins) between John and myself, and was in hospital for most of her pregnancy with me. I should have been this delicate little thing who loved dollies and painting, piano, cooking, knitting or sewing, not a boisterous tomboy — but unfortunately for Mum and Dad it just wasn’t to be.

John outgrew Starry by 14 and got into go-cart racing (much to Mum’s terror), so she was sold and I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t around any more. I kept talking about ‘Starry this’ and ‘Starry that’, but Mum and Dad hoped I’d grow out of it.

We had a suburban lifestyle and although, when I was a toddler, we were surrounded by sheep paddocks, this space was being built on by the day. We weren’t from the bush, we weren’t from the country and it wasn’t the perfect situation for a kid to have a pony any more.

So as I grew up, I was pointed in every other direction. I went to piano classes and, although I have a passion for music, I just hated being stuck inside practising scales. I kept gazing out the window daydreaming of my future pony. I did the athletics thing and used to come last because I didn’t want to try. I just didn’t enjoy it and nothing was going to change that. And then there were dancing classes. I quickly found out I had two left feet, so that wasn’t going to be a goer. I was sent off to do all sorts of things. Tennis coaching, golf, softball, netball. I could play them all, but I had no passion for them. I knew what I wanted even then, and that was a pony!

I went to a girls’ college — Woodlands Church of England Girls’ Grammar School. It was quite an exclusive and expensive school down at Glenelg and rather a hike from Bellevue Heights, but Mum and Dad wanted me to have the best start in life they could afford (or could stretch to).

In the early years we lived pretty well. By the time I went to school, we were living in a 40 square, two-storey house with a pool that Dad had built at Bellevue Heights. John was at Scotch College, a top boys’ college at Mitchum, and I was at Woodlands. Dad was a successful builder and life was good.

Eventually swim classes came along and I enjoyed my time in the water. I loved going to the beach with Mum and Dad and playing in the water there. I always loved the feel of the sun on my body and paddling in the shallows, but I wasn’t allowed deeper until I could swim. So there was an incentive to try at this sport.

I wasn’t a bad swimmer and ended up progressing from swimming lessons through the grades to making the squads, and from the squads I joined the Unley Swim Club. I even started the early-morning swim training, then progressed to the after-school swim training, the Friday night inter-club competitions and the Sunday time trials. It became a full-on sport. And, unlike horses or car racing (which John had progressed to by this stage), you couldn’t hurt yourself following an endless black line up and down the pool, so Mum was happy.

Dad and Mum were fantastic. Finally they thought I’d found something to take my mind off horses. Dad would get me up at 5 am every morning and drag me off to swimming. He would watch me train, bring me home to have my breakfast and change, then it was off to school. He’d then go off to work and Mum would pick me up from school and take me to training. She’d sit with all the other mums and they’d chat while their kids were following the endless black line…yet again.

It was repetitious but really good fun. There was great camaraderie between squad members and we were working towards attainable goals every time we dived into the water. But at Woodlands swimming was frowned upon, because it was classified as an individual sport and not a team sport like netball or hockey or softball. Tennis was OK if you played for the School Team.

So despite it being frowned upon at school, I went off to my swim training and became more and more competitive. I started winning a few events and ended up getting into a State squad and being named as part of a sub-junior State team to go to Melbourne. My parents went to see our headmistress to ask permission for me to go. Stupid mistake! She said no. She really didn’t want me to go away on a swimming trip, as it was an individual, not a team sport.

So my parents didn’t let me go — they couldn’t defy the headmistress. All that training, all that work, all those hours chasing that black line! As soon as I knew nothing was going to change their minds, I said, ‘Right, that’s it, I’m never swimming again.’ And I never did. Not competitively, anyway — there was no point. Whatever passion I had for competitive swimming was gone forever.

After a few weeks my parents felt pretty guilty that they’d made that decision. I was miserable, and I started putting on tons of weight. While I was swimming I had a huge appetite — I loved food — but I had been doing a couple of hours’ training a day and needed the energy. All of a sudden, cold turkey, no more exercise, but I kept eating at the same rate. Mum was feeling so guilty she kept indulging my every culinary whim.

I definitely didn’t immerse myself in study. I blamed the school for ending my swimming career and just didn’t want to be there. I immersed myself in music instead, the louder the better, and studied TV music programs and the football — very educational — not!

John had left school by this stage and had started a career in drinking copious amounts, car racing and journalism — pretty much in that order. I hardly ever saw him except to occasionally steal his Doors, Stones or Beatles records. I used to turn up the music so I didn’t have to talk to anyone.

While I was at school I used to hang around with the girls who had horses — I still wanted my own but had given up asking so often. My best friend was Gail Sargent. She had a horse (called Prince) from Grade One and her grandparents owned Sargent Stables on Seacombe Road, Darlington. Whenever I got the chance, I would go to the stables to help out and generally hang about the horses. I used to clean stables, groom, tack up and feed, and happily learned to do all those things you do with horses. Occasionally when I was really lucky I would actually get to sit on a horse. But I counted myself as fortunate, because I learnt about all the jobs I’d have to be prepared to do when I got my own horse.

I also used to go to Sheoak Riding School in Blackwood, next to the National Park. I used to ride this old bay pony, called Burna, because she used to go burning about everywhere. I used to fall off occasionally because she was quite unpredictable, but it was fun and a challenge. I never told Mum, though — she would have been horrified!

I was at the stables one Sunday and had worked my butt off (well, I thought so, anyway!) and the ride I was promised for all the work I’d done didn’t materialise. I got home, went inside and turned up the Doors full blast.

‘You’ve been at the stables all day, whatever’s the matter?’

I told Mum that I didn’t get my precious ride and try as I might not to, I broke down crying.

So, a year and quite a few kilos after the swimming debacle, Mum and Dad finally relented and we went horse hunting that next weekend.

Of course, the first horse we looked at — a seven-year-old, 15-hand, black thoroughbred gelding — I fell in love with. I said to Mum and Dad, ‘I’ve fallen for this boy, he’s the one that I want!’

We knew nothing about horses and Randy the Rig turned out to be a 17-year-old ex-pacer that couldn’t canter. But I loved him because he was mine. He was a rig, which meant he was ‘cut proud’ (part of one testicle was left) when he was gelded. That didn’t mean much to me at the time, though I did wonder why he kept trying to jump the mares whenever he could!

So my first goal in life was finally achieved at age ten! Randy the Rig was mine. In their wisdom Mum and Dad decided to send Randy to a riding school so I could have lessons while learning how to look after him properly.

We couldn’t get him into Sheoak so we found a riding school at Scott Creek that could take him. I’d go up there every Saturday to have a riding lesson on Randy. That was fine in summer, but then over winter, even my untrained eye realised that he was losing weight and his coat was getting all patchy. It turned out he had lice. It also turned out that this particular riding school was not feeding him or looking after him at all well. The final straw was when we found out that he was being used at the riding school to give lessons during the week, even though we were paying full tote odds for his board and keep.

We had to move Randy quick smart. So, after a phone call to Gail’s grandparents at Sargent Stables, we moved Randy to a warm stable and lots of food and attention in suburbia. And so began my everyday association with my horse. The early-morning swim training changed to early-morning stable cleaning. Life was good again.

By this stage John had left home. He’d actually gone to New Zealand, supposedly to pursue his career in journalism. I thought it was probably to escape the law — or the Army — John’s number had come up and he was supposed to be off to boot camp and Vietnam. He finished his cadetship in New Zealand and came home only to be shipyard off to Vietnam with the 9th Battalion. Now I was the only child at home.

Dad, who had his pilot’s licence, used to fly a group of his racing mates to the country race meetings on Wednesdays. I was occasionally allowed time off school to fly up with them — what a buzz, and how spoilt I was!

But the money started to run out. The building industry had one of its downturns and for a number of reasons we had to sell the house in Bellevue Heights and move to a flat at Cross Roads.

Dad would get me up early and drop me at the stables, so I could feed Randy and clean out the stables, or sometimes he’d do the jobs while I’d ride. Then I’d walk over to Gail’s place, get changed and catch the bus down to Woodlands.

We weren’t at Cross Roads long before we moved down to Saltram Road in Glenelg to live in another flat and money became even tighter. We didn’t have a car to pull a float any more so I had to ride to pony club shows.

By this stage another horsey girl, Jan Noblett, had come to Woodlands in Grade Five — her family had been involved with show horses for years. I started to go to shows occasionally with the Nobletts and went to the Royal Show to watch Jan ride.

I knew then that the next goal in my life was to ride at the Royal. This was impossible at the time — but I knew that somehow I would make it happen.

The first real show I went to was Macclesfield Catholic Picnic, on New Year’s Day. Gail and I went with Randy and Prince in a Goldners horse transport with some others from the stables. It was a huge adventure. We’d ridden to some small pony club shows and been with Jan to some proper shows, but we had no real idea of what we were doing!

I went in my Rider class and of course old Randy couldn’t canter so I was called in last. I didn’t do very well because I couldn’t do the workout. An older lady, Mrs Bald, from Myponga, came up to me after the class and said, ‘Dear, your old horse is lovely but he’s not going to get you anywhere. I’m looking for a child rider for ponies, would you be interested in riding them?’

I thought, ‘Wow, me ride your pony? That’d be fun.’ I didn’t ride him that day but we swapped phone numbers to arrange a time to have a trial.

Mrs Bald’s ponies were very good little show ponies but they also did novelties (mounted games). In those days you didn’t just do the show classes like you do now, you did absolutely everything. You did the riding classes and the mounted games, you did the show classes, you did the hunters, the hurdles and the jumping — the whole lot. The whole idea was to have fun as a kid then maybe specialise later.

I started riding her ponies and rode at some local shows. Because of Mrs Bald, I realised my next goal might be a possibility sooner than I had thought. I worked hard. I would ride Randy during the week and go to shows with Mrs Bald on the weekends. My next goal was achieved the next year, when we qualified for the Royal Show.

I competed at that Royal in the children’s Pony classes, the Musical Chairs and my Rider class. It was so exciting to ride on the hallowed turf that I’d always gazed at with envy. I was called in my riding class, ahead of a number of girls who would always beat me at the local shows on Randy, and ended up placing fifth after the workout. I was rapt. The other classes went well, with a third in the Pony class and a fourth after a pretty rough-and-tumble Musical Chairs.

Goal achieved! I was on to the next goal then — just like stepping stones, really. The next goal was easy to decide on, but not so easy to achieve: to win at the Royal on my own horse.

Now, this was definitely not going to be possible on my dear old Randy, but I loved him and I knew there was no way we could afford to have two horses, so I just kept plodding along with him. But even my parents knew I was going nowhere fast on Randy.

The realisation came when I went to an inter-club sports competition. I had worked for months to have Randy in good nick, well muscled and shiny. Even though I had taken hours to plait him and put the finishing touches on him, he never really looked like the polished show ponies that all the other kids had.

I went in the Best Presented Pacer class and Randy was the only horse in it. The judge came up to me, after I’d done the workout, and said, ‘Well dear, even though you’re the only one in it I’m going to give you second place. Because your horse is old, he’s not good enough to go into the Championship. You really should retire him and get something else.’

I continued that day and placed in lots of classes — I wasn’t going to let that judge get me down. That night I went home, locked myself in my room and put on some very loud Deep Purple and Free (I just loved Paul Roger’s voice) and cried and cried my eyes out. Mum and Dad decided that they had better go and look for a more suitable horse for me, as they knew there was no way to curb my passion for horses.

I didn’t want to sell Randy. I had to make a tough decision: keep him forever and never achieve my goal, or find a good home for him and look for another horse. For a while I couldn’t work out what I wanted to do. Eventually we found a lady who wanted a quiet old horse as a companion and the decision was made. I couldn’t sell him, but he went to live for the rest of his days on a nice property at Belair.

I heard about the January sales. These sales were held every year at the Royal Show Ground in the Thoroughbred Sales ring. Off we went. Of course, we weren’t going to buy a horse there because I knew you never buy a horse at the horse sales. Mum was wary after what happened the time she went with John! I was walking along the stables, looking at all the faces of horses that were going to be in the sale.

There was a little, dark, dappled-grey pony with her head out over the door. She had a most expressive face; a friendly but mischievous eye. I was in love.

‘That’s the one I want.’ I couldn’t bear the thought of her going to someone else in the sale. There was no way I could talk Mum and Dad into making a bid — but luckily she was passed in. We went to find the vendors afterwards. They were the Willises, a well-known Adelaide showing family, and quite reputable.

We said, ‘Is she for sale and would she suit?’

And they said, ‘Actually, dear, she’s not really for a beginner rider.’

And I said, ‘I’m not really a beginner, this is going to be my second horse.’

They looked knowingly at each other as if to say, ‘Oh yeah, right, I don’t think so.’ But they said, ‘OK, come up and stay for a weekend and see how you get along with the pony, and if you get along well we’ll consider selling her to you.’

So I did, and I had a great time that weekend. I rode the pony up there, she went well and there was no way I was coming home without her. Dad said he would try to raise the $400 to buy her.

Before we brought her home, though, we had to organise other stables, as the Sargent Stables had been sold for housing. Friends of ours had a couple of pretty basic horseyards at Bellevue Heights, and Dad offered to build two stables there. He worked like a navvy on his weekends to get the stables built and we all put in time helping him out, digging, mixing and laying bricks as we could. It’s amazing how quickly things can get done when everyone chips in.

We brought Trelly (Petrella, sire Petreem, dam Arabella) to her new home, and for the first few weeks she was really terrific. But, like most young well-bred ponies, she became quite mischievous once she had settled in. Since I was young and enthusiastic but not really very knowledgeable, Trelly very soon started dumping me. She was like any youngster — if they can get away with things, they do, and she basically got away with murder. She used to buck me off quite frequently, so we thought we had better enlist the help of someone who really knew what they were doing.

An experienced local instructor, Pat Hutchins, started coming up and riding her a couple of times a week and giving me lessons once a week. Pat was great — knowledgeable, disciplined, but fun. She didn’t take any nonsense from the pony — or me!

I had lessons on Saturday mornings and there would be a whole procession, Dad in the front with his hand up telling the neighbours to stop their mowers, and Mum behind ready to pick me up off the floor if I got dumped. Trelly had an aversion to lawnmowers and would rear-spin and buck if we made her go past one.

The perseverance payed off, and pretty soon she was going well enough to go to her first show. She won both her Maiden and Open classes, and I was second in my Rider class — we were on our way to achieving that third goal.

Trelly did very well in the local shows. She was a really well-bred pony, not top of the range but a really good all-rounder, and that was the difference between then and now. These days everybody gets a horse and straight away they specialise, whether it be in showing, showjumping, eventing, dressage, polo, polocross or whatever. Back in those days you did everything. And not only was she a good pony hack and a good dressage pony, she’d also do the fun things like musical chairs, bending races and flag and barrels. They were so much fun because it wasn’t just one judge’s opinion — with novelties, first past the post won. It was great to mix it up and there was a really nice balance.

Mum and Dad started driving me to the shows. By then they had bought an old brown Cortina and we hired a float each weekend. I still used to ride the two hours to Riding Club and the two hours back, but for the shows we were spoilt and were ‘chauffeur driven’.

I can remember one early morning in particular. We used to park on the side of a very steep slope and on this morning Dad had parked and gone down to clean the stables while I went to ride. There I was, riding across a paddock, and the next minute I look around and there’s the brown Cortina hurtling down the steep descent, straight towards the creek at the bottom of the hill! Dad had obviously forgotten to put the handbrake on — the car had bolted down the hill and crashed into the creek. Luckily no one was hurt. Around this time, Dad had started to give me driving lessons. I planned to get my licence on the day of my 16th birthday, so I used to drive up to the stables each morning. That particular morning we were running late and Dad drove. Lucky for me I wasn’t the one who had forgotten to put the handbrake on, because Dad would have gone ballistic!

The very early mornings continued and there was no risk of my passion for horses waning. Mum and Dad decided that, even though we didn’t have much money, it would be great if we got some land a little bit further out of the city. In those days land was very cheap, so we started looking for places to buy where we could take Trelly as well.

We found a property at Happy Valley near Clarendon. It was ten acres with a tin shed on it. The tin shed was actually the previous owners’ holiday shack. It was timber-lined inside with some reed matting on the floor. It wasn’t really bad, but going from a lovely two-storey place with a swimming pool at Bellevue Heights, through a series of quite nice flats to…a tin shed, well, it was rather a culture shock to say the least. Not so much a culture shock for me, but certainly a shock for my friends at Woodlands — it just didn’t do to turn up at Woodlands in a brown Cortina and live in a tin shed.

This is when I really started to feel like I didn’t fit in at Woodlands any more. Until Year Seven it hadn’t been that bad, but by the end of Year Seven I was definitely feeling out of place. The next few years made it worse because I wasn’t one of the hockey/basketball/netball sporty jocks, who were the ‘in crowd’, and I wasn’t in the academic crowd either because I was too busy working with horses. By Year Ten I had started to do some really silly things, like sunbaking on the ivy-covered parapet across from the chapel.

I can remember one day I was sunbaking on the parapet when I should have been in Chapel and Miss Baddams caught me. I had my bikini on instead of my Bombay-bloomer underwear; I didn’t have ribbons in my hair; I had sandals on a non-sandals day; and my tunic was too short (we had to have only 5 cm of leg showing when we were kneeling down — my tunic was probably 15–20 cm above the knees).

But the main thing Miss Baddams was worried about was that I’d grown my nails. I’d been chewing my nails all my life and Mum and Dad had been trying for years to get me to stop. I desperately needed a new saddle and so Mum and Dad said, ‘Right, if you can stop chewing your nails over the year and grow them, we might see if we can get you a saddle for Christmas.’

Miss Baddams took me to her office, gave me some scissors and told me to stay there until I had cut my fingernails. I literally stood there all day. There was no way in the world I was going to cut those nails because I desperately wanted a saddle. While I was standing there I was thinking, ‘Why am I at this school? Mum and Dad can’t afford for me to stay here. Really, it’s the difference between me having a horse and leaving Woodlands or me not having a horse and staying at Woodlands.’

Well, there was no contest in my eyes. So, that night at home I declared, ‘I’m not going back to Woodlands, I don’t want to go back. It’s a waste of your money.’ And of course Mum and Dad tried to make me stay because I’d been there ten years and the most important years at Woodlands were certainly going to be Year 11 and Year 12. At the time I certainly didn’t see what I was throwing away and there was no way in the world that they were going to make me go back. I never went back to that school again.

After ten years of being at an all-girls’ college, hanging out with girls and doing a very girlie sport, I hadn’t really spent much time with boys. I started Marion High School completely overawed. My cousins were big footy jocks there. My older cousin Richard Bednall was Head Prefect at the school and he was told by his parents to look after me. I found out later that he basically said to his mates, ‘Well, OK, this is my cousin. Hands off but look after her.’ Damn! His mates were all the footy jocks and the surfers and they were the great-looking guys and cool dudes at school — and they’d had the brief not to get involved but to look after nerdy me! That first year was pretty lonely to begin with, but at least I had a car (well, I had Mum’s car — by this time a green Escort) and I had a licence to drive it.

None of the guys had a car or a licence, so it didn’t take long for me to become the designated taxi driver. Pretty sensational, driving the most popular boys in the school around to all the parties. And I soon made some good friends. But I was still very focused on horses, and even more focused on doing well at shows.

Waikerie Horse Show is an Easter show, and it’s one that we always used to go to and it was always fun. I’d go with Gail Sargent. We’d pack up the two horses in the float and Mum and Dad would drive. Gail and I would sleep in the back of the horse float while Mum and Dad stayed in a tent. Staying in the back of the horse float was really good fun, because you could sneak out and go to the campfires without Mum and Dad knowing.

One particular Waikerie, there I was at the campfire and I think we were drinking Brandavino or cider, one of those really revolting cheap drinks that were in vogue in those days. Anyway, there we were, a bit tipsy at the campfire, and I was talking to this girl sitting next to me. I thought to myself, ‘Now, I don’t know this girl through horses but she looks really familiar.’ Well, over a number of drinks it finally came out that Juli Curtis (that was her name) also went to Marion High School. She was part of the really ‘in’ group and had the biggest crush on my cousin Geoff.

This night was the start of a lifelong friendship — and also the beginning of my more rebellious years.


The rebellious years

When I got back to school after the Waikerie Horse Show it was all totally different. It was sensational. I was hanging around with the top bunch of girls. They were quite an academic bunch, all pretty bright.

Besides Juli there was Jackie Stewart (known as Jack), who was always in a bit of trouble but very sporty. She was wild but very focused on doing the best she possibly could in her netball. Jackie Stewart is now Jackie Blyth, the coach of the Ravens netball team and also South Australian State netball coach. Then there was Felicity Cook, now Lewis. Felicity was the diplomat. She could talk to anyone and she had the teachers wrapped around her little finger. Now she is the Mayor of Marion and I wouldn’t be surprised if she took her political career further in the future. Then there was me, Gillian England…the wallflower!

But Juli was the wild one of the bunch. Or so it seemed. She was always the one smoking and always the one coercing me to take the girls out for a drive so that they could have their fags. I never smoked, because I had a very clear memory of once being in the car with my parents, and both of them were smoking with the heater on and I half-choked from all their cigarette fumes. I swore then I would never touch those foul, smelly things. Never did. Never have. But I used to take the girls out so that they could have their fags.

Where did the boys go on a Friday afternoon? Down the coast. Juli, Jack, Felicity and myself would follow them down, but instead of hanging around on the sand with full make-up on, getting a tan and watching the boys out in the water, like the other girls, we’d actually paddle out on our own surfboards…much to the guys’ embarrassment and distress! Girls just didn’t go surfing, they didn’t go in the water, they didn’t get wet because it wasn’t the done thing. We thought, ‘No, damn it, we’re going to get in the water and actually have a paddle.’ We’d begged, borrowed and stolen surfboards from all over the place, from various different friends, brothers, cousins, from wherever we could get one, and we all started trying to surf.

About this time we started to hang out in the Matric (matriculation) Room (a room set aside at school for the Year 12s) occasionally. If there was no surf or really bad weather we’d all meet up there. There was one guy with really dark, brooding looks called Ian. He wasn’t good looking in a surfy sort of way like the boys we would normally hang out with, but interesting, and absolutely absorbed in his guitar. We always thought he was a little strange. He would never come down the coast with us, he’d never get into the footy, or do any of the sporty things. He seemed a bit of a loner.

Juli knew him pretty well, as they were in the same class. I can remember one particular afternoon he said to Juli, ‘I’m just jamming with this bunch of guys, we’re getting this band together. Do you want to come and have a listen?’ Juli asked me if I wanted to come along, and I did.

We drove into the city and found the grungy little practice rooms in Bloor Court. As we climbed the stairs all we could hear was a thumping base-line, fluid guitar licks and a frenetically screaming voice. We walked in the door and there was a guy with an absolutely amazing voice and a shock of dark hair wearing a purple tye-died T-shirt, belting out ‘I’m a Man’. The guys were totally immersed in their sounds and completely oblivious to us.

I looked at Juli and I could tell we were thinking the same thing…these guys were really good! They played Hendrix, they played some Free, they played the Doors, they played Deep Purple, and they played some songs we’d never heard of. They were loud, and they played some blues, but mostly they were into rock’n’roll. They were sensational! It was the first time I’d been up that close and personal to live music, and I was hooked. So much passion — so much focus on what they were doing. The realisation hit me: they had found their talent and were enjoying every minute of it.

It’s amazing how sometimes you just know about some things — horses, people, talent. I knew that day we’d see lots more of this bunch of guys in the future. You can’t be that good and just fade away. And I was right. The skinny blond base player with the friendly smile — Glenelg Savery’s record store worker: Les Kaczmarek, a guy who’d tape me all the good new albums whenever I’d drop into the record store and talk music for hours. The dark and broody guitarist with feeling: Ian Moss. The guy in the purple tie-dyed T-shirt with the amazing voice: Jimmy Barnes. Don Walker wasn’t there that day as he was already studying Applied Physics at the University of New England, Armidale. The band became Cold Chisel.

Matric year (Year 12) is probably one of the most influential years of anyone’s life. It’s the year you have to grow up, find your direction and decide what your place in the real world will be. But for me it was also the year that I started to ride a 16-hand Anglo Arab that didn’t look the least bit Arab. It was another grey by Petreem called Dahlreem (or Mr P).

The Trenouth family owned stables at Bellevue Heights but had decided to move. The daughter, Peta, a nurse, didn’t have time to ride any more. Peta’s boyfriend, Wayne Copping, had been showing Mr P at a lot of the shows down in the southeast of

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