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.
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.