Good Country: Renmark, the internationalist

South Australia has produced notable contributions to culture, such as Jimmy Barnes, the ute and cask wine. Yes, cask wine was invented around 1965 by Renmark winemaker Tom Angove. And Renmark, the scenic Riverland town on the Murray River, has always cultivated original ideas and people and international culture.

Renmark began as Australia’s first irrigation settlement in 1887. Renmark’s founding brothers, George and WB Chaffey, established Renmark as a fruit colony serviced by water irrigated from the Murray. The brothers Chaffey were Canadians who had successfully created an irrigation settlement in California. So, from its inception, Renmark has been an internationalist. Also, in the 1950s and 60s, many migrants (particularly Greeks and Italians) settled in Renmark and worked the land.

With its mix of overseas tourists and residents, Renmark reminds one of New Zealand’s coastal city Tauranga. Someone who left New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty and relocated to Australia 39 years ago is Michael ‘Blue’ Henare. Blue is a chef, singer/guitarist and co-owner of Renmark’s ABS Smokehouse Pizza Café. “Sometimes, when I’m listening to old Maori music, like Prince Tui Teka, and the mist is on the water, it’s eerie: I think I’m in New Zealand,” Blue says. “And it’s very multicultural here. Around May, the backpackers come from all over the world (Germany, France, Sweden, Japan, Canada — you name it) to get that second visa and pick oranges. But even when the backpackers aren’t here, nearly every nationality is here too.”

Michael ‘Blue’ Henare at ABS Smokehouse Pizza Café (Photo: Michael X Savvas)

Blue is so passionate about multiculturalism that he includes in his set list a highly political hip-hop song, the Herd’s 77%, which condemns redneck racism in Australia. Whether all his listeners agree with the song’s words or not, Australia has advanced enough to face criticism about its faults. “I performed this song in front of 110 bikers in a pub in Paringa on Australia Day, and the bikers stood up and clapped,” he says.

Another singer/guitarist in Renmark – and the most colourful example of individualism in the region – would have to be Frank Turton aka ‘the Chookman’. His houseboat, Willitsinkorwon’tit, with its hermit crab shell formed by such items as a windmill, Hills Hoist, untamed geraniums, outdoor dunny and patches of corrugated iron can only be described as … actually, it can’t be described. It has to be experienced. Fortunately, the Chookman’s happy for people to look around his houseboat — as long as they’re okay with the Chookman’s shipmates, chickens, scurrying past.

Frank ‘the Chookman’ Turton (Photo: Michael X Savvas)

The Chookman acquired his nickname after raising an orphan chicken. “Eventually, it sat beside me in the ute, like a dog. I put it in me hat, and it became part of me act,” he says. “People didn’t come to hear me singing, but they came to see the chicken in me hat. I became known as the Chookman.” He often performs at Tamworth and outside Katherine at the Daly Waters Pub. “One day I did a show there and the chicken laid an egg on me head!”

The Chookman sleeps in a rainwater tank with a photo above his bed of him and Kris Kristofferson. But his all-time hero is Johnny Cash, whom he met in 1995 after seeing him play at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre. “I built a guitar out of the map of Australia. I met him and the Carter family in the hotel foyer. I was like a small kid meeting a hero. I asked him to sign the guitar, and he said, ‘I can’t do that’, and signed the back because he didn’t want to spoil the guitar. But then he signed the front too. He didn’t seem as big as he was on TV. Nice guy. Very human.”

For a piece of Johnny Cash (signatures expressing his humility and kindness) to be transplanted into Renmark/Paringa, the fertile ground of so much originality and individuality, by a fellow muso and rebel is fitting.

Apart from discarded peels of well-loved oranges and sticky remnants of succulent peaches there is nothing rotten in the state of Renmark.

Renmark Hotel (Photo: Michael X Savvas)
Renmark Hotel (Photo: Michael X Savvas)

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