Look, over there. It’s moving quickly and it’s difficult to see in this light, but I’m certain it’s a government inquiry into big cats.
First up, can I say that I’m sorry if this gets out of hand and ends up costing money that could be better spent elsewhere. In our defence, we were young and it really was just a joke.
The fire support crew was a great summer job back in the 70s on university break. Outdoor work in the Grampians, reasonable money, and you kept fit. The high point of the work day was the lunch time cricket match on a dirt track in the middle of nowhere. It was a lot more fun than working in a factory in Melbourne.
Calling an outdoors labouring job great might be a bit of a stretch, but it paid pretty well and had good penalty rates for weekend fires. We also had the traditional social life of a large group of 20 year old Australian men working together in the bush, and occasionally this involved drinking beer in hotels.
The worst jobs were just tedious really: digging a toilet shaft four metres into sticky clay that refused to collapse and came out one mattock blow at a time, the production line style collection of gum tree seed for a Japanese contract, and of course, the rubbish run. This involved driving around all of the campsites in the Grampians and emptying the bins into a caged trailer. In the days before recycling a hell of a lot of the rubbish was cans and stubbies.
In one respect the rubbish run was a good job because you got to check out the tourist campsites and there was always that slight possibility that there would be some good looking women who were actually interested in chatting to smelly forest workers. As I said, a slight possibility, but hope springs eternal; and the really critical disadvantage of a job in the bush was the absence of women.
While fire fighter might sound like a good job description to offer these mythical women, garbage collector had a bit less cachet. So someone painted a sign on the rubbish trailer saying Puma Cage, just as a conversation starter. It was probably one of the permanent foresters but no-one ever owned up. Maybe Les, Dribbles or the Keg was responsible, as they did the trailer run when we weren’t around. One of the summer casuals was always sent out on the run so everyone did a few turns around the Grampians with the Puma Cage.
The sign actually worked a few times by getting some conversations started. For some reason people can get a bit worried about big cats when they are camped out in the bush listening to forest noises in their nylon tents on dark nights. Have you ever heard koalas mating? REALLY LOUD! The usual answer given about the Puma cage was a model of political spin that Julia or Tony would be proud of, “Oh, look, not lately, but some campers thought they might have heard one a while back. You just can’t be sure.” (Optional – “So, you here long?”)
Puma stories were old even then. They had supposedly escaped from US servicemen passing through western Victoria during WWII, or maybe a circus, or maybe…
One piece of evidence which should be referred to by the Big Cat committee is the Deakin University Puma study from the 70s and 80s. It might save a bit of work. This study started off as a result of a Puma supposedly wandering near a remote Education student camp on a proverbially dark and stormy night. Stone’s Green Ginger Wine and cheap Port may have been involved. The study checked out lots of stories and collected and assessed such physical evidence as could be found – scat, footprints, fur etc. A major factor supposedly proving the existence of Puma was the presence of lamb carcasses in remote parts of the Grampians. It was only at the conclusion of the book that they discovered that the top predator in the Grampians is the Wedge Tailed Eagle, and these birds are quite capable of carrying off small lambs.
The Grampians were badly burnt out twice over the last six years. During the fires people were talking about the tremendous loss of native animal life. If we were ever going to find physical evidence of the elusive Puma it should have been after the big fires. Apparently not.
Can we be sure that big cats in the bush aren’t just a scary story passed on by young men to young women for the same old reason? “There might be big cats out there. Don’t worry, I’ll protect you. Here, have some Green Ginger Wine.”
It was just a bunch of bored forestry workers, having a bit of a joke on the city slickers. Sorry it got out of hand. Call in at the Halls Gap depot and look around for a rusty old caged trailer. You just never know, it may still be out there….