DESPITE THE CHALLENGES OF RECENT DROUGHT, THE THOMAS FAMILY EMBRACE THE BEAUTY AND WIDE OPEN SPACE OF THEIR HISTORIC QUEENSLAND PROPERTY.
THE BEACONSFIELD SHEARING SHED
is eerily quiet until the boot-clad feet of 14-year-old Lucy and siblings Peggy, 13, Hamish, 10, and seven-year-old Bess, dash through the sprawling structure alongside Brutus Creek, 19 kilometres north of Ilfracombe, near Longreach. The scent of lanolin is imbued in the timber of the eight-stand shed, but it has barely been used since owners Peter and Kimble Thomas began destocking the 20,000-hectare property three years ago, as western Queensland’s worst recorded drought unfolded. Peter, Kimble and their children moved from Charleville in January 2014, where Peter had worked in rural banking, to take over Beaconsfield from his parents. Unfortunately, their return coincided with the onset of the prolonged drought. “It wasn’t part of the business plan,” Peter admits. “But everyone was going through the same thing. There have been dry times before; we have rainfall records that date back to 1890 but it’s hard to find a run of years comparable to this.” Peter’s family have owned the historic property since 1911 and the National Trust-listed Beaconsfield Station Sheep Wash — built on Brutus Creek in the 1890s — is evidence of the innovation within the sheep industry as it developed in western Queensland. “Pete used to lecture me on sheep; he lives and breathes them,” says Kimble. “We thought we’d regret not giving it a go at Beaconsfield.” When Peter and Kimble returned, the young family began feeding their merino sheep and cattle, then spent the next 18 months destocking and ended up left with pets and poddies. After significant winter rain last year, they bought some cattle and sheep and are now about a third stocked. Beaconsfield usually runs about 15,000 head of sheep and Peter and Kimble are hopeful of summer rain and the opportunity to buy further stock once their black soil, open downs country has recovered. Despite the challenges of drought, the Thomas family are optimistic about their future and have embraced the wide open spaces of Beaconsfield. Hamish and Bess are learning through the Longreach School of Distance Education while Lucy and Peggy are away boarding at New England Girls School in Armidale. “The drought has been a challenge but you have to stay positive and hope that it will turn around; in the meantime you live every day and always have something to look forward to,” says Kimble. “I love living here because the kids have the freedom of going wherever their imagination takes them.”
CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT
Hamish, 10, with one of the family’s half dozen pet hens; Brutus Creek runs by the house; a few of the pet poddies left at Beaconsfifield after the Thomas family destocked their property due to drought; this corner of Kimble’s garden is an oasis in a dry landscape. “Despite the hardship of the drought and not having water, the bougainvillea’s always look good,” says Kimble; the historic Beaconsfifield woolshed is largely original except for a section that was replaced 10 years ago after a storm; the Thomas family at the garden entrance with the original station gates, which were recently restored. “The gates were scattttered around the property and I just love them,” says Kimble. “I wanted them to be a feature around the homestead so we picked them up and painted them.” FACING PAGE The Beaconsfifield mailbox north of Ilfracombe, near Longreach.
I grew up in Papua New Guinea and went to boarding school in Toowoomba when I was in Year Three. I have fond memories of PNG; I’d be up in the hills and down rivers barefoot with the local kids. My father was born in Argentina and his parents managed cattle properties there before they owned their own in Zimbabwe. Dad met my mother at the Brunette Races and they worked on King Ranch properties in Australia before moving to New Guinea. After I left school I went up to the Kimberleys and did camp cooking. My sister, brother and I set off in a little Corolla with three swags on the roof! I met Peter at the Wellshot Hotel in Ilfracombe when I came out here for a B&S ball in 1995. He has an amazing sense of humour and is very quick-witted. Pete puts everything into what’s at hand and he’s a great dad. I love having animals around me and seeing my kids out in the open space. The children learn to ‘have a go’, whether it’s driving a car or hopping on a horse, and they are happy to work in the yards, clean troughs, muster and look after animals. To have a bit of a nurturing soul is a good thing in life. We hope we have seen the drought at its worst and we won’t see it again. The hardest time was during the Christmas holidays when the kids wanted to play outside but there were no hoses they could play under or dams they could swim in. Everything was dead. I started painting in the middle of the drought and it was quite the saviour for me. There was no water for the garden so it was my little escape. I was able to do an oil painting class through the Regional Arts Development Fund, which I am also involved in. I recently organised a garden design day in Ilfracombe as the town ran out of water and had to have it carted in. Many people don’t know how to propagate so I thought I would get the garden designer to cover that as well. I love involving the kids in our garden and Hamish enjoys helping me propagate. We’ve planted so many trees since our dams were filled in July so I hope we get a good run of years now! ABOVE, FROM LEFT The original structural drive gear used to power the board in the woolshed when it was steam driven; a bauhinia tree in the garden is a favourite place for the children to play. FACING PAGE Only a handful of sheep graze in the horse paddock since it was destocked.
Beaconsfield has been in my mum’s family since 1911. There’s a fair bit of history here as one of the original properties at Ilfracombe and many generations have lived here and put their own stamp on the place. When the opportunity came up to take on Beaconsfield we thought we’d regret not giving it a whirl. There’s some pride in continuing on the family business but it doesn’t guarantee your own success. Kimble and I moved back here in 2014 and launched headlong into a drought but hopefully we are on the other side of that. The challenge now is to keep the wheels turning and restock. I enjoy working with animals and my family as much as I can. Kimble is a great friend; she is a good mum and is very supportive of the kids. She’s passionate about animals and gardening and her family history is interesting; her father has raised cattle in four different continents. Part of the reason we moved back was that there’s a lot more things for kids to enjoy when living on a property like this, such as working with animals and riding motorbikes. For the last few years there have hardly been any animals in the district. One day during the drought we were coming back from Longreach and there were some cows on the side of the road and the kids were so excited to see them. We started destocking early in 2014 so we didn’t experience stock dying or getting bogged in dams. The cattle were the first to go and for 18 months we were on the hop the whole time, reassessing and setting trigger points to make things happen if it didn’t rain. In 2015 it was amazing just how lifeless everything was; there wasn’t a skerrick to feed anything. We mothballed development work, as we didn’t know when the other end of the drought was coming. We cleaned out the dams while it was dry and moved out the garden fence and redesigned it so that was a bit of a focus too. Everyone became a bit more social during the drought as a way of getting through it. There were games nights at the tennis courts and we were bombarded with generosity. All the communities were beneficiaries of groceries, hay and gifts. You just have to graciously accept it and be prepared to pass on the kindness to someone else one day.