Leg­endary lives

Work­ing in some of the most chal­leng­ing places on earth, Aus­tralia’s first stock­men and women were fa­mous for their adventures. Times have changed, but the awe and ad­mi­ra­tion such ex­ploits de­mand have not


DRIVE through out­back Aus­tralia – par­tic­u­larly in the NT – and you see vast, un­for­giv­ing, land­scapes stretch­ing off into the dis­tance. From the com­fort of your air-con­di­tioned car they look in­tim­i­dat­ing, but you speed on, safe in the knowl­edge the next servo is up the high­way, along with a fridge full of cold drinks and some­one to trade a friendly ‘G’day’ with.

Wind the clock back 200, 100 or even 50 years and it’s a dif­fer­ent story. Those end­less tracts of land were just that, with noth­ing but the odd homestead here and there. And that’s the land­scape faced by one of Aus­tralia’s most iconic fig­ures – the stock­man.

Re­source­ful­ness and re­silience were – and still are – the or­der of the day for the men and women who ran cat­tle in some of the most iso­lated places in the world. And the NT is right up there, chal­leng­ing in­trud­ers with its sear­ing heat and un­tamed ter­rain.

Those game enough to tackle such ad­ver­si­ties back in the day be­came le­gends, and sev­eral such Ter­ri­tory char­ac­ters fea­ture in a new book by Evan McHugh.

The Stock­men cel­e­brates their tales of sur­vival and en­durance, and leaves read­ers won­der­ing how they sur­vived.

But sur­vive they did – both men and women. Al­though their sto­ries aren’t so well­known, sev­eral women ran stock and be­came as good as, if not bet­ter than, the men, writes McHugh.

Fear­less fe­males

Take Kather­ine (Cate/Kitty) Buchanan, wife of leg­endary pas­toral­ist and ex­plorer Nat Buchanan.

He was fa­mous for stock­ing the Ter­ri­tory’s Glen­coe Sta­tion in 1878, drov­ing 1200 cat- tle from Ara­mac in Queens­land to the Ade­laide River.

She was praised for trav­el­ling with Nat to re­mote places and set­ting up home as the only white woman in the dis­trict. But be­fore her mar­riage Kitty was in­dis­pens­able to her fa­ther as she helped with cat­tle on the sta­tion he ran.

Her son Gor­don re­mem­bered: “John Gor­don, my grand­fa­ther, used to say long ago that ‘my boy Kitty is the most in­tel­li­gent worker on Mihi Creek and my right-hand man’.”

Much more is known about the woman credited for be­ing the first fe­male boss drover in the coun­try. In 1926 Edna Zi­gen­bine was born 1000km west of Bris­bane into a drov­ing fam­ily. McHugh ex­plains how each of her seven sib­lings was born in a dif­fer­ent place – the youngest un­der a tree – as the fam­ily roamed across the out­back.

As soon as they were old enough the chil­dren worked in the sad­dle and, at the ten­der age of 23, Edna helped her fa­ther and brothers take a mob of bul­locks from Bed­ford Downs along the Ter­ri­tory’s no­to­ri­ous Mur­ranji Track – known as the Death or Sui­cide Track – through to New­cas­tle Waters and across the Queens­land bor­der. Such a jour­ney had thwarted many a more ex­pe­ri­enced drover than Edna.

Still aged just 23 she and a younger brother drove a mob east through El­liott and across the Barkly Table­land with a team of just five as her fa­ther was taken ill and one drover pulled out.

At Lake Nash near the Queens­land bor­der another drover quit, leav­ing four of them to drove all day and di­vide the night watch. Six­teen hun­dred head were safely loaded at Da­jarra, and the fol­low­ing sea­son Edna was

given another mob to drove from Banka Banka Sta­tion, 100km north of Ten­nant Creek – proof of her prow­ess.

A heart­break­ing busi­ness

Not all drov­ing ex­pe­ri­ences were so suc­cess­ful. The Stock­men tells plenty of tales of mis­ery as cir­cum­stances be­yond a drover’s con­trol yanked the bot­tom out of his world.

One such event was the drought that gripped the out­back in 1894, not re­leas­ing it un­til 1903.

McHugh re­ports that thou­sands and thou­sands of an­i­mals died as the wa­ter holes dried up, and the sit­u­a­tion at Lake Nash, 600km east of Ten­nant Creek and 20km from the bor­der with Queens­land, was dire.

Ev­ery day wet sea­son clouds gath­ered, but no rain fell. As the only way to move cat­tle at that time was by foot, many per­ished as the lake dried up.

Lake Nash stock­man CE Gaunt wrote at the time: “The lake as­sumed the spec­ta­cle of a huge bury­ing ground for stock, a mass of liq­uid mud with hun­dreds of cat­tle packed in that oozy slime, bogged, dead and dy­ing, with oth­ers roam­ing around the banks bel­low­ing and mad­dened by thirst.”

The sta­tion had 15,000 head of cat­tle and the stock­men de­cided to take 4000 of the strong­est up 120km of dried river chan­nels to where there was still wa­ter at Big Hole on the Ranken River at Avon Downs Sta­tion.

Af­ter walk­ing all day and all night the mob passed the aban­doned Aus­tral Downs homestead and the an­i­mals at the back be­gan to drop and die.

With the last few kilo­me­tres to go, thirst-mad­dened bul­locks be­came a se­ri­ous dan­ger, charg­ing the stock­men and gor­ing the horse of CE Gaunt.

He spent the night in a tree as the dy­ing beasts strag­gled past. In the morn­ing he car­ried his sad­dle the re­main­ing six kilo­me­tres to Big Hole. The scene he found there was just as dis­tress­ing as the one they’d left be­hind at Lake Nash.

“Mad­dened cat­tle, some blind with thirst, moan and walk through the wa­ter, be­ing too far gone to drink. Up the bank they went and wan­dered out on the downs. Af­ter the drought broke we found that some of them had wan­dered six miles out from the river be­fore dy­ing.”

Other cat­tle drank them­selves to death as they gorged on the wa­ter. Only 500 of the orig­i­nal 4000 beasts sur­vived.

The good times

But droughts break and sta­tions need re­stock­ing when feed is plen­ti­ful. McHugh tells the tale of how another lengthy drought in the Lake Nash area fi­nally ended in 2009, and all of a sud­den the sta­tion needed 6000 breeder heifers. Get­ting them the 1300km from cen­tral Queens­land posed quite a chal­lenge. Truck­ing was out of the ques­tion, so drov­ing it was.

There were few drovers left on the scene, but Bill Prow was still in busi­ness. He led the trip, which took three mobs of 2000 head three months. Many wel­comed the ex­er­cise as keep­ing alive skills and a way of life that is of­ten thought to have dis­ap­peared, writes McHugh. But with such tales woven into the ta­pes­try of this coun­try’s past, the stock­man will re­main an Aus­tralian icon for­ever.

The Stock­men by Evan McHugh, Vik­ing, $49.99, avail­able now.

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