He was young, with no ties, a skilled shearer, and a bit of an adventurer. David James Jones arrived on Australian shores from New Zealand in the late 1920s, hoping to find work, settle down and make a new life for himself.
He picked a good area – Wentworth, a thriving riverboat port at the junction of Australia’s two greatest rivers, the Murray and the Darling − but he couldn’t have picked a worse time. Half the country was out of work as the Great Depression hit, and any work available was given to the local population.
The young Kiwi received many knock-backs as he visited stations along the river country of southwest NSW. He survived on handouts, along with any wild game he could catch and cook.
Virtually forced into the bush way of life, he became a recluse, a nomad, and stayed that way for more than half a century, creating one of the greatest stories ever to come out of the Australian outback, the legend of The Possum.
It is a story that has been captured on canvas, written about in books, featured in newspaper and magazine articles, with the film rights sold by the late Paringa, SA policeman and author Max Jones to Academy award-winning cinematographer Dean Semler, and later, to documentary interests in Melbourne. So far there has been no result.
The story of The Possum – named because of his habit of sitting up in trees getting honey from hives, or simply reading newspapers and magazines he had ‘borrowed’ from station homesteads – has captured the imagination of people world-wide.
But few realise that the 40th anniversary of his death, and burial, is fast approaching.
Possum was about 82 when he died in July 1982, cold and alone in isolated bush country alongside the Murray River near Ned’s Corner station, 70 kilometres from Mildura. It is believed he had been following one of his well-known bush tracks between Renmark and Wentworth when he succumbed to old age, and a bitterly cold winter.
He was found by two woodcutters and, within a week, thanks to the generosity of station folk and other well-wishers, he was buried on Wangumma Station, near Lake Victoria, with a headstone bearing the inscription; “David James Jones – at rest where he roamed.”
There have been few tears shed for Possum in the past four decades, but he hasn’t been forgotten.
Station folk often call in to the isolated family graveyard to pay their respects, and every so often the grave is also visited by campers, or people making their way between states by boat along the nearby Murray River.
Some family travellers who have read Max Jones’ book about the Possum have been so captivated that they scheduled a special camping trip to coincide with the anniversary of his burial – August 12 – where most have held a solemn graveside service.
One such traveller, Shelley, says one of the reasons she has a special bond with Possum was because she met him as a youngster of 13 while minding children at a property on the outskirts of Pomona.
“I was giving one of the kids, a six-year-old, a ride on a gentle old Clydesdale horse, when he slipped and fell to the ground,” she said.
“Before I could hop off to see if he was okay, a man ran out of the nearby scrub, picked him up and felt him all over to see if there were any broken bones. He told me to take the boy home straight away. It wasn’t until years later that I saw a picture of the Possum, and knew it was the same man.”
There is a bronze statue of the Possum in Fotherby Park, Wentworth, with a tape recording that best tells his story. There is a second life-size statue, carved from a red gum tree, on my property at Colignan in Victoria.
During his 54 years as a bush recluse, Possum was seldom seen, preferring the solitude of the bush. It was Max Jones the Renmark policeman who tracked him down the most, at one stage taking the then 60-year-old several pairs of reading glasses to try after he complained of sight problems.
Possum told Max one day he remembered going about three years without speaking to another person, and another time he asked if there was a war on because of increased aircraft activity in the region. (Ed’s note: That area was a fighter pilot training ground for World War Two pilots).
Old Possum often carried out long and tedious tasks for station folk, crutching sheep, getting rid of noxious weeds, mending fences or gates and chopping firewood. He had a great fondness for dogs, and had a bad habit of letting them off their chains, much to the annoyance of the station folk. But that didn’t stop them leaving clothes, non-perishables and other goods out on the porch for the old bloke.
Many people, knowing that Possum would never accept charity, were in the habit of leaving clothes and shoes or other footwear at bush rubbish tips, knowing full well old Possum would come across them sooner or later.
He survived on bush tucker, used snares to catch wild animals, dining on rabbits, fish or foxes, and often swam the river, using a tin or upturned bucket for buoyancy, to elude fishing or camping parties. His bush sleeping places included deserted shacks or pump houses, hollow logs and clumps of bush.
He was known to keep several old diaries, with very rough notes of some of his bush travels, both day and night, and some of the imaginative ways he used to trap animals for food, along with his primitive fishing equipment, some of which has been found at his bush hideaways.
The story of the Possum is truly one of the most amazing ever to come out of the Australian bush.