4 October 2021 ·
On the Trail of the Birdman of Coorong
Zoom-Zoom puts the brand-new BT-50 Thunder through its paces to discover one of Australia’s hidden treasures – the fascinating story of John Francis Peggotty.
Words Stephen Corby / Images Thomas Wielecki
It could just be the greatest story you’ve never heard. A child-sized, bearded bushranger who plied his pistol-packing, murderous trade while shirtless, covered in jewellery and riding an ostrich – the perfect steed for the soft and shifting sands of the Coorong wetlands on South Australia’s unique coastline. Forget Ned Kelly and his armour made from stolen ploughs; John Francis Peggotty (1864-1899) – referred to widely as the Birdman of Coorong and “South Australia’s only genuine bushranger” – should be just as well remembered. The life-sized statue of the ostrich he once rode, which stands proudly beside Lake Albert in the village of Meningie, should also be far more famous and frequented than it is.
So why have you, or more than half the people we asked in Adelaide, a mere 90 minutes’ drive away from the village, never heard of him? We went to the Coorong to find out. Due to a distinct lack of ostriches to ride these days, we took the brand-new Mazda BT-50 Thunder to help us fully explore the most remote reaches of an area where, it is said, old Peggotty’s bones still lie, draped in “at least a million dollars worth of gold chains and jewellery.”
Unfortunately, the weather on the day we arrive is best described as completely apocalyptic with occasional sunny breaks. The usually placid sea lake that makes the Coorong area so popular with birds, and the twitchers who fly in from around the world to watch them, has become a frothing expanse of white caps. Stopping at the ostrich statue, we read the marvellously descriptive sign next to it. We learn that Peggotty (“who was responsible for the robberies of many a lonely Coorong traveller and the murder of at least two”) chose to ride on an ostrich because the bird helped him to “soar away from police.”
With the wind picking up even more to speeds reaching over 50km/h, it seems quite believable that an ostrich, even with a jockey-sized man on its back, could take flight. The few ducks and swans that haven’t found somewhere to hide look truly miserable to be alive, while the pelicans the area is also famous for perform the unusual, visually alarming trick of flying backwards when they open their wings.
Sadly, it turns out, this is the kind of dramatic weather that photographers love and I find myself stranded atop a rugged cliff inside the big, brassy BT-50, as the wind rocks it from side to side. Closing my eyes – and praying that I won’t be pushed right off the cliff – it feels like I’m testing the suspension without using fuel. After spending some time appreciating the Mazda’s beautifully crafted, leather-lined and most un-ute-like interior, not to mention its heated seats, nature calls on me to attempt an outdoor bathroom break. Stepping just one foot outside the cosy confines of the vehicle, however, and my hair goes from city serious to Yahoo Serious.
“THE FABULOUS COORONG CABINS, RUN BY MIK BATKI [PICTURED ABOVE], FEATURE THE KIND OF ATTENTION TO DETAIL THAT SUGGESTS HIS NAME MIGHT BE SHORT FOR MIK-ELANGELO.”
It is with enormous relief that we eventually check into our accommodation for the night. The fabulous Coorong Cabins are run by Mik Batki, who is exactly the kind of bloke that was born to be in hospitality. He pours the kind of attention to detail into his homely units that suggests his name might be short for Mik-elangelo. We use the freshly baked bread we find on arrival to warm our hands before our bellies, and then fire up the wood stove. Expecting Batki to be something of an expert on the Birdman and his bushranging, I’m surprised to hear that he’d discovered Peggotty only eight years ago. “It’s incredible, but no one knew much about him before one of our locals, Denise, dug him up, or his story at least. You should speak to her,” he explains, with just the slightest whiff of mystery.
After a night of the kind of rest you can only get with an electric blanket beneath you and the warmth from a wood stove just outside your bedroom door, we wake to find ourselves in a completely different country. The sun is slowly vapourising the morning mist and the wind has died down so much that you can now hear the distant roar of the sea, just out of sight a few hundred metres away, on the other side of the lake and some hulking dunes.
“AFTER CRUISING EASILY THROUGH SAND AND ALONG RUTTED TRACKS, WE PICK A SPOT AND PITCH OUR TENT TO ENJOY AN EVENING OF GLORIOUS ISOLATION.”
When we get to the water, it’s like glass and the birds are out in force, with regal black swans swooping from the sky and harrying ducks out of their way. I have little time for bird watching in general, but I make an exception for pelicans, which seem far more like dinosaurs with wings. En masse, in their strictly regimented flying squadrons, they are also thrilling to behold. Up close, on a kayak borrowed from Batki’s well-stocked activity store, it is possible to sit among the birds and be studiously ignored.
The weather is now far more friendly for bushwalking – which sadly turns up neither bones nor jewellery – as well as, more importantly, for camping, our choice for accommodation on the second night. The BT-50, which boasts bountiful ground clearance as well as easily switchable four-wheel drive, makes light work of the rugged track that Batki kindly leads us to in his Subaru. He sends us on our way with complete assurance: “You’ll get through there – you’ve got a proper four-wheel drive. Mine’s just a toy.”
After cruising easily through sand and along rutted tracks, we pick a spot and pitch our tent to enjoy an evening of glorious isolation, and a dawn heralded by what sounds like the song of a billion birds. It feels as though we are the only humans in existence on the entire planet, watching the fowl play, and that nature cares not at all whether we are here or not – it just gets on with being beautiful and wild.
Finally, the day arrives when we can meet with local school teacher and historian Denise Mason [pictured below], Meningie’s resident expert on all things Peggotty. Her answer to my first question – why don’t we know more about the incredible story of this eccentric bushranger – is an ever so slightly sly smile. “Some years ago, when the lake dried up here in the drought, we lost a lot of business and we were given some funding from SA Tourism. We wanted to do something that would revive the town, so a call went out for interesting stories,” Mason explains.
“WHEN IT FIRST CAME TO LIGHT, THE WHOLE COMMUNITY WAS GOING MAD: ‘IT’S GOING TO WRECK THE COORONG!’”
Somebody uncovered a tale in Pix magazine – an “irreverent” tabloid from back in the day, heavier on entertainment than facts. Mason proffers a copy to us as a kind of unholy relic, and inside it lays out the extraordinary and colourful story of Peggotty’s past – sliding down London chimneys to steal jewellery, moving to South Africa to race ostriches, and finally being gunned down on his mount, in the dunes, covered in gold. It’s an absolutely rollicking read, but is it true? “With tongue in cheek we’ve kind of run with it. We can’t say if it’s true or if it’s an urban myth, but who cares, and there’s enough truth in there to make you go, ‘Well, maybe…’” she says, smiling winningly.
The kernels of truth include the fact that there was an ostrich farm in the area, and that some of them escaped and ran wild. And that Australia did have bushrangers. “When it first came to light, the whole community was going mad: ‘It’s going to wreck the Coorong! Everyone will be over there, digging for gold’. It did cause some angst but, for the most part, we love it and it’s really tweaked a lot of people’s imaginations,” Mason adds. So, at the local school, is the Birdman taught as fact? “It depends if I’m teaching history that day,” she laughs.
Like all the other tourists, I climb aboard the ostrich statue (which, it turns out, is actually an emu painted in ostrich colours), before we head out of town.
“THE BT-50, IN 4WD LOW-RANGE MODE, DEALS WITH IT ALL EFFORTLESSLY, AND I’M SOON CREATING A MOTORISED VERSION OF THE CHARIOTS OF FIRE OPENING SCENES.”
The track down, and the sea-battered sand, both look wildly treacherous and more than a little tricky, but I should not have feared. The BT-50, in 4WD low-range mode, deals with it all effortlessly, and I am soon happily creating a motorised version of the Chariots of Fire opening scenes.
Fortunately, the last leg on our journey back to the city takes us through the towns of Strathalbyn and Meadows, and the famous Adelaide Hills area, home to some truly incredible winding roads. In beaming autumnal light, with the leaves exploding in reds and golds on the trees and under our wheels, the BT-50 shows off the very best of its car-like handling and I am jealous, once again, of just how easy it is to find great driving so close to this southern capital. We may not have found the bones of this wonderful bushranger, nor his treasure, but we have certainly come back with great memories, and colourful stories to tell.
The famous Adelaide Hills area is home to some incredible winding roads.