Travel Story Beyond the black stumps of legend

The Black Stump - Paringa, SA.
Picture: Colin Kerr

We're in search of the authentic outback icon

Over the years there has been much contention and debate about what is the outback and where it actually begins.

Well, it seems one answer to this double question, is that it really depends on your own experiences and where you are, or indeed what side of the country you might be on at the time. Another, possibly more accepted response to the question, is that it’s actually all you can see and experience out there beyond the proverbial “black stump”.

Looking into this a little further, however, it seems that both answers might be right, for at last count there are no fewer than 11 recognised and recorded black stumps located at various places around the country. So, in reality, the real answer to this question is pretty much up to you ... and the debate will no doubt continue.

Clearly, however, there is no debate on what is, in fact, the biggest black stump in Australia, located in the remote Murray River town of Paringa, near the spot where the South Australia, Victoria and NSW borders meet. The curious thing about this particular black stump is that it has not always been where it is, and immediately you might ask whether its move may have had something to do with a realignment of the outback?

The simple answer here is no but the story behind this huge feature in the middle of town in Paringa is, indeed, quite an amazing one.

The story here goes back to 1984 when well-known outback character Frank Turton, and his wife Diane, were enjoying a houseboat holiday cruise on the Murray River near Chowilla Station, upstream from Renmark. One day while cruising along, they sighted a massive 600-year-old river red gum tree trunk and root system hanging over the bank of the river. The old tree it seems, had fallen into the river during the huge flood of 1917 and, becoming a navigation hazard, it was later dragged back on to the riverbank where it had lain ever since.

Now Frank, who had always been a resourceful man with some quite zany, even eccentric ideas, had, for most of his life been a noted wood carver and turner.

At the time of his tree stump discovery he operated a workshop in Paringa producing a wide range of wooden products, signs and souvenirs and instantly he recognised that to have a giant black stump (like the one now before his eyes) as a showpiece and tourist attraction outside his Paringa premises, would be a really good idea.

Now, weighing over eight tonnes and situated 50km-plus away from Paringa, the stump relocation was never going to be easy.

Undeterred, Frank pushed on. After securing permission to collect the stump and transport it from all the relevant authorities and parties involved, he then went about hiring a huge chainsaw (which he sourced from Queensland) to cut through the 2m-diameter trunk of the old river red gum.

He then proceeded to lash a dozen 44 gallon drums to the stump (for added flotation) and, with the aid of his houseboat, pulled it into the water and began towing it down the river. This must have been quite an intriguing sight!

Travelling about 2km/h during daylight hours (far too dangerous for such an operation at night), Frank’s trip was not without a few mishaps. 

He totally miscalculated the amount of fuel he’d need and ran out on three occasions. 

At one point there was a very near collision with a 1200-tonne cruise vessel, the Murray Explorer.

He hit many hidden snags and got tangled in overhanging willow trees on several occasions. 

By the fifth and final day of travel, Frank’s big concern was that, as the dry timber root soaked up water making it heavier, the whole thing began to list and the stump had sunk some 15cm lower than when he first started out.

The good news was he finally made it OK and the stump was taken out of the water by a big crane near the Paringa Bridge and moved to where it now stands today — outside Frank’s place in Paringa. 

A short time later, Frank returned to the original tree site and collected the huge trunk of the tree and over the years, proceeded to make quite a few river red gum slab tables and many other souvenirs — a resourceful character indeed!

So, next time you’re thinking of the outback and heading out there beyond the black stump, spare a thought for Frank and the effort he went to in bringing the outback just a little closer to civilisation.

Slick chick tricks

Apart from his long-term creative skills with wood Frank Turton, for many years, has developed a splendid reputation around Australia as a country music entertainer. A fascinating feature of his shows has been Frank’s use of several trained bantams (chickens) which he refers to during his performances as “wild eagles”.

 Is it any wonder why he is known as “the Chookman”...

In his spare time between shows, Frank continues his production of carved and turned wooden souvenirs and signs, so keep an eye out for him on your travels. He’s one of Australia’s larger than life characters!

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