Portrait

An afternoon in the Tantanoola pub, on the trail of a tiger. By Claire G. Coleman.

Monica the Tantanoola bartender

There’s a tiger in Tantanoola, South Australia, at least that’s what the tourist signs on the highway say. They are compelling and I am sure I am not the first wanderer to follow the signs in an attempt to discover what the tiger is. They lead to a small town, a few streets of houses, a post office barely visible from where I am parked and a low pub of rendered painted stone. Atop its gable roof is a cutout of the legendary creature stalking dangerously.

That is not the Tantanoola tiger.

I step into a well-lit front bar, sit down, order a cider and strike up a conversation with Monica, one of the three women behind the bar. She was the first person I noticed when I entered the place. The only man who works here is the chef, and you see him only when he sticks his head slightly comically out through the service hatch.

The pub is pretty busy for a place not near anywhere in particular, though Tantanoola is not far from Highway 1 and the Limestone Coast caves. There’s a town, certainly, but the only thing I have ever seen that resembles a destination is the pub with the tiger. Other than that, it’s just typical country-town houses and a broken-windowed train station on a line that no longer rumbles with trains.

When I first walked into the front bar there had been about six men and a couple of women. I don’t know how long they had been drinking there, but each of them finished the drink in their hand and left with choruses of cheerful goodbyes. There’s a lull. Only a couple of people are left drinking when I get talking to Monica. But she knows she’s going to get busy – it’s Saturday night and there’s a table for 20 booked. The giant balloon on the table tells me it’s a 60th birthday party.

Monica’s hair is a glossy dark burgundy bob; she tells me later her hairdresser daughter from Adelaide does it. I am not surprised that Monica isn’t from Tantanoola. She moved from Adelaide to Kalangadoo, 30 kilometres away, with her husband and kids just over two years ago for what she calls a “sea change”.

She sums it up like this: “We found this beautiful place and never looked back.” I ask if she misses anything about the city. She doesn’t hesitate before saying no, then qualifying with “my daughter is in Adelaide, that’s the only thing I miss”. She lives in a rental house on a small property with some room for the kids to “ride around and have a bit of room to play”.

There’s a toy tiger on top of a wall in the bar, watching the drinkers drink; it’s about the size of a two-year-old child. But that is not the Tantanoola tiger, either. Monica is everywhere at once, taking orders for food from the dining room, pulling beers, talking to friends and locals who sit on the bar stools and strike up conversation. She’s friendly and energetic and smiles a lot. The pub is the centre of town in a very old-fashioned sort of way, not just physically, although that is true, but also the centre of the social life of Tantanoola. Monica seems to know everybody in the town, or at least everybody who drops in to drink and to eat.

She was a full-time mum before she left the city. She “worked in the kitchen” in the Kalangadoo pub, owned by the same couple as the Tantanoola pub, before starting behind the bar here. She has worked in Tantanoola for about five months and she loves it. I notice she looks tired, but she tells me it’s not the work. Her husband is home from his job as a truckie and they have been spending a lot of time with their kids.

I read the framed newspaper articles on the wall to try to understand the story of the Tantanoola tiger.

Apparently, the tiger had been terrifying the people of the area in the latter half of the 19th century. Sheep had been found torn apart, others disappeared entirely. There were stories of an escaped Bengal tiger stalking the bush. It was tracked yet never found and then finally, in late 1895, an animal was caught in the act of killing a sheep and shot by Tom Donovan. A stone’s throw from the border, on the South Australian side, there’s a pretty, even smaller town named after him.

They stuffed and mounted the corpse that Donovan killed and now it’s behind glass in the Tantanoola pub. Monica and I talk a little about the tiger; she says she doesn’t even look at it. It’s clearly not a tiger. The newspaper clippings said it was a wolf, but I know what it looks like: a great big beautiful yellow dingo.

I had a morbid wish when I first saw it behind glass that it was a thylacine. But a dingo being mistaken for a tiger is classic Australian crazy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 20, 2018 as "Tiger hunting". Subscribe here.

Claire G. Coleman
is a Noongar author whose debut novel Terra Nullius has been long-listed for the 2018 Stella Prize.