By HARRY CLARKE
You’d be hard pressed finding a nicer spot to get married on Queensland’s Western Downs than the Columboola Country Veterans Retreat.
Nestled just east of Miles on the fringe of the vast Barakula State Forest, the quaint campground spans roughly 200 acres, dissected down the middle by a scrubby stretch of the Punchbowl Creek.
The actual ‘Punchbowl’ sits in the centre. It’s a mini gorge, a big crack in the rocky earth that creates little waterfalls when it rains and forms a deep waterhole at all other times.
It’s like a scene from a Banjo Paterson poem. Flocks of galahs and cockatoos come in to play in the shade of mature red gum trees and a variety of wattles scatter the banks of the creek.
“It’s the tranquility,” explains traveller Sandra Moore, when asked why she and her husband, “Pony”, have made the place home for the past six months.
“You can properly relax. The most amazing part of it all, is that being here has helped Pony to interact with people again, because he’s been quite broken.”
Sandra and Pony met 13 years ago on the deck of a seaside pub at Shorncliffe in Brisbane’s north.
It was love at first site, they reckon. They hit it off and bumped into each other at the same pub again two weeks later. Both were reluctant to fall into a relationship as they were both coming off long term marriages.
But Pony, whose real name is Robert Moore, couldn’t hold back his feelings for Sandra. He dropped “the L-word” via text message within weeks, much sooner than he’d planned.
Sandra worked in disability care and Pony was an aircraft mechanic at the Brisbane airport.
That was Pony’s profession. He’d served for 25 years as an aircraft mechanic with the Royal Australian Navy and was a Chief Petty Officer by the time he left HMAS Albatross, the Navy base at Nowra NSW.
Everything seemed fine until he suffered a “breakdown” from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder a few years ago, after he’d met Sandra.
During his career in the Navy, Pony had been deployed twice – once to the Solomon Islands on a peacekeeping mission and earlier to East Timor.
The Australian Defence Force was involved with the United Nations in assisting the East Timorese as they voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999.
It was a peace keeping mission, but Pony was on the ground with the Navy in the capital city, Dilli, while pro-Indonesia militia were committing violence against independence activists. There were lots of civilian casualties.
Pony witnessed the aftermath of the Suai Church Massacre, which left an estimated 200 women and children dead.
“We were in Singapore getting a minor refit for our ship. We were only supposed to be gone for six weeks,” Pony said.
“Then we got recalled to come back. We didn’t even know where we were going. We couldn’t tell our family.
“We started to help get all the Timorese election officials back into Dili, into a safe area. They came under attack quite often. There was militia and they were burning buildings in the area.
“There’d been reports that basically a whole township got rounded up, put into a church and got set alight. We came across that, and that wasn’t pretty.”
Needless to say, the scenes from that episode were what triggered the onset of Pony’s chronic case of PTSD, nearly two decades later.
It’s been a very difficult battle, but Sandra has been his rock.
At the beginning of this year the couple, now retired, loaded up the caravan at their home in Morayfield and set off on the road. They plan to travel for at least 10 years. Their next destination will be South Australia.
But for months their travel plans were halted by pandemic lockdowns, but that’s turned out to be a blessing. Pony has found solace at the Columboola Country Veterans Retreat.
For years it was just a campground on Punchbowl Creek, but owners Colin and Venessa Jackson have converted it into a peaceful place to welcome returned service men and women.
Pony and Sandra arrived in April this year as long term partners, but quickly Pony realised this was the perfect place to make Sandra his wife.
Fellow military veterans who frequent the retreat have become close friends. So close, that several of them made up the numbers at their wedding when some family and friends couldn’t attend due to travel restrictions.
The couple married at Columboola on September 5. Sandra was walked down the aisle by Darryl Bishop, a local Vietnam War veteran who lives on the property next door to the campground.
Sandra said the day couldn’t have been more perfect.
“We decided we just wanted to make it ‘country comfy’. There were just so many beautiful things around, so everyone can just wear shorts or a singlet and a hat – whatever they wanted to wear,” she said.
What made it particularly special for Pony, was that some of the guests were wearing service medals.
He’d arrived at Columboola Country Veterans Retreat with his long term partner and a crippling mental illness caused by war.
But he’ll leave with new mates he can relate to, fellow servicemen who understand the pain he goes through.
“Because he’s had all the vets here, they all get each other,” Sandra said.
“I can only try to understand and help. The veterans might not have all been through the same thing, but they’ve all been through something.”
When they eventually pack up the caravan and get back on the road, they’ll leave with new “friends for life”.
Sandra will leave with a husband, and Pony will leave with a wife.