That's the Spirit: Megan O'Connor - Balladoran
Megan O’Connor’s roots run deep in the small communities of both Tooraweenah, where she grew up in the shadow of the Warrumbungles, and Balladoran, where she has raised the fourth generation of her family to call the district home. Through a business run from the family farm, the accomplished caterer has carved out a happy niche giving visitors and locals alike a taste of the region she loves.
Jen: How long has your family been in the district?
Megan: My family came to the district from the central coast in the 1920s and in 1936, bought a property out near Tooraweenah which was resumed by the (Warrumbungle) National Park in 1974 and is now Camp Gunemooroo. I grew up around Tooraweenah.
My husband Pete’s family is from the Gilgandra area, so our children are fourth generation in this district.
Jen: You’ve had the opportunity to move away on a number of occasions, but you’ve chosen to stay or come back. What does it mean to you to be able to stay in this region?
Megan: I guess I have an affiliation with the Warrumbungles and I just can’t help it. I go back up there and I burst into tears. I dragged Pete up to Camp Gunemooroo recently and the gate was locked, which is one of my pet hates because it was taken for a National Park for public use and now they lock it up and the public can’t access it! Anyway, we jumped the fence and walked the five kilometres up to the old homestead and just I stood there and balled my eyes out because I haven’t been back for so long.
Deep down, I’m a big softie. This place, this region, has meant the world to me. I like to be able to go back to where I feel comfortable, where I have fond memories and even though I’ve only been here at this property at Balladoran for 30 or 40 years, it’s home. It’s home because that’s where we’ve raised our kids and we’re happy to be here.
We relocated temporarily to Sydney throughout the drought of the early 90s, and it was such a wonderful feeling to be able to bring our young family back to our home, our town, our community, after 18 months.
Megan O'Connor, Balladoran
Jen: Do you think small communities have a particular character?
Megan: They do, absolutely, and Gilgandra is a wonderful community. I’ve never seen people pull together like they do when there’s something to be organised or something to be done or if there’s a tragedy, someone’s always there or on the phone saying, “What can I do?” or just turning up to do what needs to be done.
Jen: You and your husband Pete have turned your hands to all kinds of things over the years to make a quid, to provide for your family and to be able to stay in the region. Where did you get that work ethic?
Megan: Probably from my father. Dad was up at five o’clock every morning and when he was, up everyone was up. Whatever had to be done was done. Dad was a hard worker but not a smart worker. He could turn his hand to anything, he was a very good sportsman, he could fix most things. My brother’s the same.
I guess we just learned by example that if you don’t do it, no one else will do it for you so you might as well do it yourself in the first place.
Jen: That’s something that translates to community too, isn’t it?
Megan: It is, yes. I don’t get involved as much as others but if there is something I can do I will certainly go and help out. It’s just that I don’t like to be in the limelight and I’m not one for committees, but if someone came to me and said we need someone to cook a barbeque, or we need someone to do this or that, I’m happy to help out. I’ll go and do that.
Jen: So you’d rather be an Indian than a chief?
Megan: Oh, most definitely. Most definitely. But I do support community events through my catering business and in other ways.
Jen: Do you have faith in the future of small regional communities?
Megan: I think we have to have faith in the future. We just live in such a unique part of the world, let alone the country where we are out here. It’s hard country but can be beautiful country too. I just think that unless we keep these little communities going – if you’d call Gilgandra a little community, it’s quite a reasonably sized town – but if people keep leaving town and exiting the agricultural industry and shops keep shutting, all you have left in a small town is a row of barren structures with nothing going on. People will just go to bigger regional areas to shop and access services and doctors. And that would be a shame because there’s so many good people in little communities.
It’s interesting that here in our little region, we’re finding that people are moving away from the cities and larger regional centres because they’re craving a quieter, simpler lifestyle. Just up the road here there are two lots of people who came from the city because they wanted a change in their world.
You need to be a long time local around our area to appreciate the diverse climate and environment and how to best manage it.
Families who have come from larger city areas tend to have off-farm income, which makes some of the properties more lifestyle blocks, but it’s so lucky for our region that they have decided to settle in our communities – I feel that shows a trend back to country values.
Megan O'Connor, Balladoran
Jen: Speaking of off-farm incomes, your catering business must have given you an interesting insight into the changing tastes of regional people. Just because we live in regional areas doesn’t mean we don’t have sophisticated tastes, does it?
Megan: No, not at all. But I admit that I struggled when I first began to serve food to the public – we had a little business in Gilgandra for 10 years, a takeaway store basically, but we didn’t do any fried food, we did good, wholesome food. I’d try something new and people would look suspiciously and say, “Hmmm… what’s that?” I’d tell them and they’d say, “Yeah, I’ll just have a pie thanks”.
In the end I’d nearly force feed people just to get them to try something new.
Pete would say to me “You can’t make people eat it”! But I’d persist because they didn’t know what they’re missing out on and in the end, they’d go “Oh, this is really lovely!”
And finally, I helped give the evolution of their tastebuds a little nudge along. So when I started doing the catering, I’d make suggestions about something and they’d go oh “I’ll just have a baked dinner, eh?”… “yeah well you can have that on Sunday at home, how ‘bout we do something a bit different?”
I’m very fortunate that I now do a lot of work around the region with places and people that are very open to trying new things and humouring me.
Jen: Is that an ongoing myth that if you come to the bush your choice for coffee is black or white?
Megan: It’s a myth for sure! Right up there with the idea that no-one has more than three teeth in their head or that, being from Tooraweenah, you’d have six fingers on each hand...
Jen: Hang on, I’m from Tooraweenah!
Megan: That was the biggest joke… oh wait, you’re from Tooraweenah! Your finger falls off eventually and there’s no scarring (laughing).
Look, I think people are basically the same everywhere you go but they adapt to their community and Sydney people adapt to city life because they had to whereas we adapt to country life because we can’t go out and buy a bottle of milk when the fridge is dry. We have to think ahead, you have to do a bit of planning. You have to make provisions for a drought and you have to put food on the table. You do that the best way you can and if that means getting off-farm income, you go and do that. But I think people are basically the same wherever you go, so we’re not different out here, we’re just… maybe a little bit more relaxed.
Jen: Do you think there’s a greater resilience in small communities?
Megan: Yes, there is. But the drought wore that very thin for a lot of people. I know people out there are struggling very hard, particularly not too far west from here, but they’re diehard farmers and they just stay on and do what they need to do. There is resilience but I don’t know how you’d explain it or define it.
I think there’s a sense in small communities that we’re all in it together, whether that’s good times or bad, and I think that helps.
The bigger regional centres having felt the impact of rural adversity is also helping – for instance, Dubbo having water restrictions. When the cities feel the flow on effect, I think that makes it a little bit easier for small communities to realise that people are aware of what they’re going through, and that helps us to keep coping a little bit longer.
Jen: I think it also makes people in the cities realise just how resilient these small communities are.
Megan: That’s true too. One thing that does irk me is when people say, “Well you choose to live there…” but I say and aren’t you lucky that we do choose to live here because who else is going to grow your beautiful Angus steaks? Who’s going to grow your wheat for your flour? You’re lucky there are regional people who want to stay here, so don’t judge people because that’s where they live, be thankful that they do want to stay and continue doing what they’re doing.
Jen: What’s the best thing about living in and being part of a small community?
Megan: How can I put this? It’s being compatible with the other people around you. Knowing that there’s like-minded people around you. They might be a little bit left-of-field or way off key but basically when push comes to shove, they’ll be there. I have a handful of people I wouldn’t call my friends, but I’d call them acquaintances and know I could make a phone call and they’d be here in the drop of a hat if I needed them.
I have my hair done twice a year in Gilgandra and the hairdresser and I have a good old squawk together when I go in there. I sat down and she started putting foils in my hair, and my phone rings. I said “It’ll just be Pete – he’ll be right,” and let it ring. Then it rang again and I let it ring again. She said, “You sure you don’t want to get it?”. Then it rang again and she picked it up and handed it to me and said, “It’s obviously important – answer it!”
It was Pete saying there’s a fire at home and I’d better get back there. I said, “I can’t – I’m at the hairdresser!” (Laughs).
It was a terrible, windy day and a fire had flared up from down the road where six weeks before we’d burned some trees on the side of the road. The fire had gone underground and come up through a pine stump and the constant wind from that week just set it off and it blew right across the scrub.
By the time I got back home within half an hour, seven neighbours were here and they’d it put out.
So I could have sat there and finished getting my foils after all! (Laughs.)
But that’s what I’m saying – when push comes to shove, you know someone will be there to watch your back. Out here, you know they’ll have your back.
*This interview was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of social distancing measures.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Megan O'Connor, Balladoran