BAND­ING TO­GETHER

DE­SPITE THE CHAL­LENGES OF RE­CENT DROUGHT, THE THOMAS FAM­ILY EM­BRACE THE BEAUTY AND WIDE OPEN SPACE OF THEIR HIS­TORIC QUEENS­LAND PROP­ERTY.

Country Style - - OUR LIFE IN THE COUNTRY - WORDS CLAIRE MACTAGGART PHO­TOG­RA­PHY MICHAEL WEE

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.

KIM­BLE

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.

PETER

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.

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