By ERWIN CHLANDA
A man sharing his boundless energy between raising cattle and developing, from the ground up, tourism at Ayers Rock, has died aged 93.
Peter Severin (pictured) was born in 1928 as one of four children and the son of a tax official. He developed a liking for the Navy, became a cadet but after an accident decided to get as far from the ocean as he could – into The Centre, mostly as a stockman, enjoying the quietness of the evenings around the campfire, with poetry as the entertainment.
He took up Curtin Springs station 80 km from The Rock with 1400 head of cattle in 1956, taking over a debt of 18,000 Pounds, a “small fortune” as his son Ashley put it at yesterday’s “funeral and celebration of the remarkable life of Peter Severin”.
This left no more finance “for equipment, stock, infrastructure. They had to make it all happen on their own”.
Mr Severin’s unyielding persistence, shared for some 60 years with Ashley, came in handy but so did good luck: The family could not have survived hardships such as a nine year drought without Ayers Rock around the corner. In all of 1961 the total rainfall was just 49mm.
Tourism there started with Mr Severin having a cup of tea one day with bus operator Len Tuit, credited to be the first to recognise the tourism potential of Ayers Rock (this was well before the 1985 handback to its Traditional Owners and restoration of the name Uluru).
Mr Tuit suggested Curtin Springs would be a good stop-over – so why not providing facilities and food for his passengers?
The next need was fuel – would Mr Severin provide it?
The word “no” wasn’t in his vocabulary.
The Rock wasn’t much fun without climbing it and Mr Severin, part of a crew of four, installed the chain. (It was removed recently and climbing was banned.)
A length of chain and two posts were on display at yesterday’s memorial service.
Meat – not just cattle on the hoof – was an obvious product worth developing, and the Severins don’t do anything by halves.
They built a small abattoir and an airstrip to transport meat by light aircraft to surrounding Aboriginal communities.
Curtin Springs is one of the Territory’s oldest licensed roadhouses.
Mr Severin, or someone he assigned, provided weather observations daily to the Bureau of Metereology for more then 50 years – a record, they say.
All these activities called for not just entrepreneurial energy, but savvy in dealing with ballooning red tape. The first was in Mr Severin’s blood, the second not.
He despatched Ashley in a truck to a Mt Cavenagh to get cattle. He was stopped at Kulgera by the local cop.
POLICE OFFICER: Do you have a driver’s licence, Ashley?
POLICE OFFICER: Hop in. Drive, and I give you a licence.
Off they go.
POLICE OFFICER: There is a car in front of us. Stop suddenly.
ASHLEY: The brakes don’t work.
POLICE OFFICER (Clearly near exasperation): I’ll give you your licence.
The bureaucratic demands linked to catering, fuel supply, selling alcohol, accommodation, transportation, aviation and running a killing works producing meat for the public and so on were time consuming and at times expensive in lawyers’ fees.
The conflicts between the roadhouse and Indigenous activists were frequently volatile.
Mr Severin got lambasted for not selling alcohol to Aborigines as well as for doing so.
Granddaughter Lisa described the relationship between Ashley and Peter as a lifetime mateship marriage: “From a little girl to the adult I am now I witnessed a unique bond between Poppa and dad, an unwritten language even, that only they could understand, being the nod of the head, or the motion of the lips … not that any of us could understand.
“These two men have been together longer than most marriages last.”
On the “very rare occasions” of arguments “it was said, done and dusted and back to business as usual as there was just too much to be done.
“There were no grudges to be held. Poppa and dad worked their entire lives alongside each other, from sunup to sundown and many times out into the dark.”
Much detail about his life came from Mr Severin himself, interviewed in a documentary screened to the mourners.
A radio was “the only contact to the outside world, to talk to our neighbours at certain times and certain frequencies” and anybody could listen to anybody else’s conversation.
Far from being delighted that Telstra was expanding the point-to-point phone network to The Centre Mr Severin deplored its impact on the social fabric.
“Before everybody could tune in and listen to everybody’s conversation. [The new phone] cut our interaction with other people to a vast extent. Sometimes a station changes hands and I don’t know who the new owner is.”
On the video Mr Severin explains how cattle fodder influences the taste of their meat (saltbush gives a beautiful flavour); how to avoid cattle rushing; where to sink bores.
Mr Severin’s wife Dawn shows a quandong cheesecake.
When petty political issues affect the meat business the family convert the abattoir to a small factory making paper from spinifex – yes, spinifex.
Mr Severin was a member of the Alice Springs Masonic Lodge for 65 years, travelling from Curtin Springs in his beloved EH Holden every month.
Freemasons’ District Grand Superintendent Eric Neil recalled Mr Severin’s Masonic career started in about 1961. He became Master and was recently conferred the rank of Past Junior Grand Warden of the Grand Lodge of South Australia and the Northern Territory and also held high rankings in other orders of Freemasonry.
The memorial closed with the suggestion by CEO of Hospitality NT, Des Crowe, to change the name Lasseters Highway to Severin Highway. Big applause!
PHOTOS: At top – busts of Dawn and Peter Severin, a branding iron, a stock whip and part of the chain leading up Uluru. In the background the open coffin is placed on two rusted 44 gallon drums • Curtin Springs roadhouse • bagpipe player Neil Ross leads the pall bearers into the big hall, almost full •