Twenty-five years ago, at the age of twenty-two, Andrew had an out-of-body experience as he fell from a windmill on his family’s sheep station at Paynes Find, Western Australia. Aside from the awful fright, and hurt he must have felt, Andrew had a lot of good luck in that he survived the impact without serious injury. Andrew didn’t have a spiritual epiphany from his out-of-body experience and doesn’t consider himself to be ‘spiritual’, yet, he says it was something of an out-of-the-ordinary event that still remains with him. However you’d like to look at it, Andrew’s story of coming close to death, and being out of his body, is an epic one and he tells it brilliantly. It at once captures the spirit of country Australia and gets you thinking about the soul of things.
The windmill at Eadu was not the furthest watering point from our homestead at Oudabunna Station but it was towards the very southern end of the property and only a few hundred metres from the Pullagroo boundary. It would take an hour of riding on the little red Honda 100 we had named Spike to get to Eadu. The mill rides were one of my favourite things to do on the station. I loved the chance to grab a bag with a scrubbing brush, water bottle and a couple of mum’s freshly cooked ‘fur balls’ and head out to the far away parts of the station.
It didn’t matter if the summer heat was blistering your lips until they cracked or the winter chill was freezing your fingers onto the hand grip, a mill run was always fun. You would never know what you would find and what would need your attention. It was a good feeling to be the first one to see something awry and to be able to fix it with just what you had on hand or what you could make from the wood, wire, and pipe that could be found laying around every mill.
Most of the time you would be sensible and enjoy the ride. The bike was not big but it was fast enough, with a fairly quiet engine. If the wind was blowing so that it carried any noise of your approach away from the direction of travel, then you could often get close to bush turkeys or startle sleeping roos that would not hear you coming until you were almost on top of them.
Then one day something happened at Eadu that was far more serious than just a broken trough or jammed pump. A willy willy had hit the windmill full on and the head of the mill had twisted on the column and was hanging upside down from the platform. My immediate thought was we would be moving stock and carting water for a month or more until we could get help from one of the few windmill crews that had the skills and equipment for this type of work.
The fan was eight feet in diametre with steel blades that came off a central hub. The case of the mill was cast iron and full of oil, and heavy gears drove a steel piston attached to the rods that went down the inside of the water pipe to the pump. We simply didn’t have the gear for a job like this. The Nissan was the biggest engine we had on the property and must have been off the assembly line in 1965.
However, by early the next morning dad had a plan for fixing the mill. It was to bolt a gin pole to the framework of the windmill to hold it solid. The pole would extend above the height of the mill and we would attach a pulley to the tip of the pole. Using a steel cable and all the power of the Nissan we could muster, we would lift the broken fan and raise it above the height of the windmill column and then lower it to the ground. How easy would that be!
We left early for Eadu after a cup of tea and another ‘fur ball’. My brother Dylan rode out front on one of the Hondas. Dad was in the Nissan with my sister Mel. I was driving the Suzuki with a trailer carrying the gin pole and Gooch our dog, his paws dancing on the toolbox, snapping at branches as they whipped by.
When we arrived we secured the gin pole to the side of the windmill tower with chain and tie wire. Then we undid the metal rods that connected the windmill to the pump so the column that extended down the bore was no longer attached to the windmill. I went up the tower putting the pulley in place (and then back down it again) while Dylan ran the cable out and Mel and dad secured it to the Nissan with a ‘U’ bolt and clamp. Before long the revs on the Nissan increased as the effort in pulling up the cast iron head caused the motor to really work.
I wasn’t sure if some weakness would be revealed and the pole would bend with the weight of the head once it was taken off the tower and only being held by the pole. Metal scraped against metal as the head was lifted higher. It was time to stop to see if the head was about to come off the tower pole.
Scrambling up the tower again I could see it had about an inch to go before it was free and, calling down to dad, I said I would stay on the tower, on the opposite side of the cable, and help the head off with the last bit of pull. More revs and even slower movement backward and the last few millimetres began to be pulled up as the head reached the very top of the tower pole. Then it happened! The head was now off the tower and with a grinding squeal, it lurched forward with the movement of the pole and jammed itself in a new position against the tower.
It was at this stage I made a big mistake. Normally my common sense would have told me that the failing gin pole was not able to take the weight of the head and was the reason it had moved in the first place but without hesitation, I swung around the front of the fan and was using what little purchase I could get to move the fan out of its jammed position.
The whole weight of the fan moved again and then the entire weight of the head pushed against me and began to come loose from the tower. From my perched position there was no way I could swing back past the fan to the safety of the other side of the tower and realised that 150 kgs of metal was pushing against me, five metres up in the air, with no support.
Falling back, I lost hold of the tower completely and just had enough time to kick out with my legs and push myself away from the fan so it didn’t crush me when I hit the ground. I was now pretty much horizontal and falling to the ground. The rocks around the base of the bore were looming large and my thought was that my back was going to be smashed as I hit the rocks.
I don’t really have a belief in the supernatural but something happened that I didn’t understand. As I was falling I was looking at myself from about ten metres away, standing safely on the ground but watching my body fall. I clearly remember seeing dad turn his head, unable to watch my impact and my brother yelling out something which I have never been able to remember.
I hit the ground, somehow landing safely between the rocks and saw all the air leave my body. Then I literally bounced half a metre back in the air. As dad opened his eyes, the windmill head hit the ground, the metal of the fan blades screaming as they twisted and bent with the impact, before I fell back to earth from the bounce. After that, I had a moment of blackness and was back in my body. I felt like I needed to get up and stand. I was trying to roll over but dad, Mel, and Dylan were pushing me down, telling me not to move.
Mel and Dylan were really shaken but what really shook me that day was the horrified look on dad’s face, watching his son possibly become a paraplegic or die, in front of him. I think I blacked out but remember thinking how lucky I was that the fan missed me, otherwise I would have been a bloody mess under the steel. As it was, one of the blades grazed my cheek and I have a small scar under my eye as a testament to the accident. I don’t remember the trip home but when we arrived I had a huge hug from mum and went to bed.
I went back to Eadu plenty of times to collect sheep and do a next mill run to check the tanks and trough but dad brought in the windmill people to reassemble the head.
I’m so glad Andrew’s remarkable story had a happy ending. Just to let you know, this is a condensed version of it. The full story may appear in a future book, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, if you have a soul story you’d like to share at Spirit my way, please email me at email@example.com. I’d love to hear about it!