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Murrie Drovers and Their Stories
By Herb Wharton
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 1994 Herbert Wharton
All rights reserved.
A black ball of fluff by the Gil-gi hole
Roy Mahar, like his mother and grandmother, like thousands of generations before them, was born near the Georgina River in far north-west Queensland. Like many Aborigines whose family and tribal life was interrupted by white land rights, Roy told me that all he knew of his father's history was that he had been reared by a white family around Burketown, in Queensland's Gulf country. Roy believes that is how he came to be called "Mahar".
Today, white Australians spend a fortune trying to trace their family history; before the coming of the Europeans, any Aborigine was able to find out about his family relationships simply by asking the elders. In a very short space of time he could be told everything about his ancestry, stretching back to the Dreamtime.
As I talked to Roy outside the Kalkadoon Tribal Council Musem at Mt Isa, he spoke of his lost tribal past. He told me how his grandmother, a tribal woman, had given birth to a fair-skinned baby who became his mother.
"See, there's a long story there," he said. "My mother Elizabeth took the name 'Malarvy', and some years ago I read a book about Campbell Miles, who's known as the discoverer of Mt Isa mine —"
He broke off here to say that there were many Aborigines who were around Mt Isa at that time who emphatically disputed the claim that Campbell Miles was the discoverer. Roy pointed beyond the mine to a rocky red hill. "That's the hill, I'm told, where copper was first discovered by a stockman from Yelvertoft Station, who then showed it to Miles." He paused. "Well," he said, taking up his story again, "Miles had a bloke working for him by the name of Malarvy, and from what I can gather he was my mother's father, although I doubt that he would have claimed me as his grandson. He went away. I heard about this when I was trying to trace a bit of my history and talking to some older people. Anyway, somehow my mother and father met and I was born on the 1st January 1931 on Headingly Station, in my grandmother's country."
And what had life to offer a youngster like Roy, I thought as we sat outside the Museum, watching cars, trucks and tourist buses whizzing past on the busy highway that links the eastern half of Australia to the red centre, the Kimberley and the West.
Roy pointed over the top of another red hill strewn with boulders and spinifex. The summer heat was already making a bluish haze like a mirage around it. "I worked on a station way out there," he said.
As I took in the scene around me, gazing towards the huge structure of the mines, my eyes rested on a thick plume of dirty, reddish brown smoke that funneled up from the high smokestack, then seemed to fall back towards the earth as though it was too heavy to rise. But it drifted off towards the southwest.
Roy continued his story. "I recall that in 1937 I went to school in Camooweal for a while, then my father went to Djarra with a drover and got a job there, so we moved. A little bit more schooling for me, then about 1939 my father got a job on Carandotta Station at a water-hole called Walkaby. His job was to see drovers through. We had no quarters, no huts or anything, only our own tent. We carried water from the river. No paddock for the horses, they were hobbled out and it was the job of us kids to get the horses each morning. Sometimes Dad would be gone for a few days, travelling with the drovers, hunting away the station cattle in case they became mixed with the travelling mob — or the boss drover decided to pick up a few bullocks for meat at the station's expense.
"While Dad was away us kids would have to check his dingo trap. We could do that all right and kill and scalp the dingo, if there was one trapped, but we couldn't reset the trap — its jaws were too strong for us to open up. So we had to get Mum to do that.
"They were pretty good times, I thought. Dad would catch plenty of fish and salt them, because when the river ran there was no way you could catch anything — the fish didn't seem to bite. We had plenty of rice, too, and sometimes goanna and other bush tucker.
"At Walkaby I remember one time the police came out to our camp looking for two Aboriginal men who had talked back to some white fella in Djarra. Alec and Val, they were called. Well, when the police arrived looking for these men, Alec and Val went bush in the Channel country. The policeman told Dad, 'You find them men, tell Alec we got his wife and kids at station, gonna send 'em Palm Island. Bring him in tomorrow or he won't see them again.' Well, the police left and Dad told those men what happened, so Alec went with Dad to see the police. Dad owned a sulky, that was how we got around. I never saw Alec again until 1953 — he and his family were sent to Palm Island. Just because he argued with a white fella! Val was single — he stayed lost until he got a job with a drover passing through. He went south, stayed there for years, but he escaped Palm Island.
"Well, after a while we moved to Rockwood, an outstation on Carandotta — there was a boundary rider's but there. And from there my Dad moved into Mt Isa, to give my younger sister some education, leaving my older brother George and me on Carandotta. George was now working in the mustering camp. The head stockman, Jubilee Page, was another well-known Aborigine. My first job was that of gate-boy for the manager. I rode around with him in his car and opened gates. At night I had a room all to myself in the blacksmith's shop, a long way from the house. It had no door. At meal times I walked up to the kitchen, where I was handed tucker on a rusty old tin plate. My chair was the woodheap, my table the ground, but it was my first job and I stayed at it for about a year.
"Then one day Dad arrived from Mt Isa. He had heard that me and George had been placed under the Act, which meant roughly — plenty work, no pay, no rights — the government owned us."
Roy was talking about the Aboriginal Act. If an Aborigine was placed under the Act, it meant that they were totally controlled by the government's local agent. They had to work where they were told, and they had no choice of the sort of work they did or where they lived. No human rights.
"Well, Dad soon sorted that out somehow," Roy told me. "He got my brother and me all the back pay coming to us and took us both to the Isa with him. That was my first cheque. As we drove into town, Dad said to me: 'A bit more schooling won't hurt you.' So I went back to school in Mt Isa.
"At the beginning of 1946 I finally left school and went straight out to work at a place called Carlton Hills Station — out there." Roy pointed across the spinifex-covered hills towards the north. "I was ringing there for a while until I went on my first droving trip with a mob of cattle from Walgra, on the Georgina River, to Werner Station. I got a job on Werner and stayed there for a time, doing everything from mustering to milking. It was a pretty good job really."
"What about wages?" I asked.
"Well, when my brother and the other young Aboriginal fellas were working in the mustering camp on Rocklands, they was all getting thirty bob a week. I was pretty well liked, see, and I was getting five pounds a week, so I was doing all right. But after a while on Werner I became restless. I wanted to travel around a bit, see the country, so I pulled out."
And wander around on horseback was what Roy did: over the next few years he worked on stations, broke in horses, and his droving trips took him from the sprawling unfenced pastures of Victoria River Downs through the dreaded Murrinji scrub across the Barkly Tableland and down into the Channel country of south-west Queensland, where Coopers Creek sometimes floods sixty miles wide, right into the busy trucking yards at Quilpie.
These yearly droving trips were controlled by the huge pastoral companies, which owned vast tracts of land across the north, where the cattle were bred a long way from the southern markets. Many of the companies had fattening properties in the Channel country, for here, after the flooding rains, were the lushest natural grazing pastures in the world. Every year, the drovers brought thousands of young steers to graze, then after fattening they were taken to the railheads at Quilpie, Winton, Bourke or Broken Hill, and down the Birdsville Track to Maree in South Australia.
Roy told me about one trip he made in 1947 when he was sixteen. "Me and my brother George, William Barton and Danny Daley worked for a drover called Henry Morris. We mustered his horses at Urandangi — he had about seventy of them. It was real hot weather and we took those plant horses to Morstone Station, owned by the Vesty mob. There we picked up one hundred station horses we had to take to Helen Springs. Well, we had to hobble our seventy plant horses at night — that was okay, but we also had to watch the hundred station horses day and night. I remember one day on dinner camp, we was all relaxing as the horses fed around us, when all of a sudden the station horses took off. Flat-out they went. We blocked up most of them, but about forty were still going, making for home. Morris and my brother went after the galloping horses. They got them all right, and came back to the camp about twelve o'clock that night.
"After we delivered the horses we had twelve hundred head of cattle to take back to Morstone. My brother was cooking — I recall that was the first time I seen these packhorse drovers' cooks. They cooked enough corn meat and damper to last three days, because there was no wood, only cow-dung fires. Coming off watch at night it was sometimes cold and there was no bloody warmth at all from them cow-dung fires. Well, we delivered the cattle at Morstone.
"Then I got a job for a while on Avon Downs. There were two camps, Avon Downs and Wave Hill. From what I could gather they hadn't mustered that country for years. It was full of big old clean-skins, thousands of them. There may have been six or seven white stockmen and about forty Aboriginal stockmen in the two camps. It was all bronco work, branding them clean-skins. One Aboriginal stockman I recall from there was a bloke called Tommy Dodd. One day I watched him saddle up a mare and get on her, and didn't she buck! But she had no chance of throwing him. I heard later there were people who would've backed Tommy Dodd to ride any horse in Australia out in the bush — he was a great horseman. I think they took about 3000 cattle back to Wave Hill after the muster. Peter Pedrill was head stockman on Avon. The tucker was all right and they were a pretty good mob of men to work with.
"I came back to the Isa, and next year I was doing nothing, so I got a ride with the Vesty's road boss — McIntosh, he was called. We were sure to meet up with some drover coming in short-handed — you could always find a job then. The road boss left me at Anthony's Lagoon. I stayed there the night, and next day I had my first ride in an aeroplane, a real little one, from there to Brunette Downs. I wasn't very sure about accepting that plane ride — a bit frightened, ya know. Well, the manager at Brunette Downs told me a drover had passed by that day, so after supper he took me down to the camp. From there I got a job droving from Brunette Downs to Morstone with Charlie McKenzie. He had his wife with him — they had a packhorse plant and she done the cooking and helped with the cattle. (In fact, I think she wore the trousers in that camp.) We had about 1,300 cattle and it was a pretty good trip. After that I kept droving and working in mustering camps until 1949, when I went down south into the Channel country."
In 1949, Roy told me, he went on his first big droving trip working for Walter Cowan from Rocklands station, near Camooweal, to Tanbar on Coopers Creek.
"We had 1,250 head of cattle. That was a pretty good trip — it lasted about three months. From Tanbar we went back to Caddapan and took a mob of fat cattle to the trucking yards at Quilpie. That lasted about five weeks, then we came straight back to Waverney Station, not far from Tanbar, and took delivery of 1,300 mixed store cattle and headed back to Quilpie again. They were a pretty bad mob, rushing almost every night. It was a terrible trip, a real experience for me. I was only eighteen at the time.
"I still remember one young night horse on that trip. He was a good horse, but if you were riding around on him on night watch and the cattle just began to move, just jumping to their feet, not rushing off camp — it was eerie, you'd hear that horse's heart beating loud and feel its vibration with your legs. That young horse must have been a nervous wreck. If there'd been a rush he would've wanted to take off the other way — that's the truth. They had to take him off night watch. Those were probably the worst cattle I have been with. They were real bad at the finish."
Roy paused. "Ya heard of a place called Orange Tank?" he asked me. "They were cutting timber there."
I nodded. "Well," he went on, "we had a bad rush there the last night on the road. Five head of cattle were killed — they had their shoulders almost torn off in the rush. So we was really pleased to reach the trucking yard next day and get them away. That was getting close to the end of the year, so we headed back to Tanbar to move another mob of fat bullocks to Quilpie. We took delivery at Gilpeppee outstation, then headed off across the channels. But there'd been a lot of storms further upstream, and when we'd got almost across the channels the waters came flooding down. We couldn't go on, so we camped for a few days, hoping the water would drop. But it rose even higher. Walter decided we couldn't meet the trucking date, so we turned back — only to discover that all the channels behind us had flooded. Then, fearing that we could be trapped in them channels for months, we let the cattle go.
"Walter showed us how to make a boat out of three horse packs, a piece of wood and our calico tarpaulin. Me being the only one who could swim, each channel we came to I'd swim across with a piece of string held in my teeth, onto which were tied all the surcingles, girth straps and bridle reins. Then the others would load up the canvas boat and I'd pull it across. Then, as we didn't have enough straps for the others to pull the boat back for the next load, I'd swim back so that the others could pull back the boat — on and on it went, until we had all the gear and men across ... after which I'd have to swim back and get the fifty or so horses across. I don't know how many channels I swam all told, but there was a bloody lot of them!
"Well, we were in those channels for ten days or more, until finally we came to the last one. There was an old bronco yard there which provided plenty of wire, so that channel was easy to cross. I only had to swim across once, pull over the boat, then the others would pull it back using the wire. Then I swam the horses over for the last time and drove them up onto the bank. We were back to where we had taken delivery of the cattle what seemed like ages before ... and there, camped at the gate of the bullock paddock, were all the cattle we had let go over a week before and miles away! I called out to Walter and he caught a horse and counted them back into the paddock.
We had been going non-stop droving for over six months. Alas, sad news awaited me when I returned home — I learnt that my father had died several months before. My people had sent me three telegrams asking me to return home, because when Dad knew the end was near he kept asking for me. But I never received any telegram. It was a big disappointment for me. But there is one thing I am grateful for. When Dad kept asking for me, my mate went up and pretended to be me as he sat with him. Yes, for that I am forever grateful.
"Another thing I'd like to mention here — Walter Cowan was a good bloke to work for and a great drover, yet you never hear of him being wrote about much. On that droving trip in 1949 he was supposed to be in his thirty-first year of droving from Rocklands to Tanbar. That alone must be some sort of record."
Excerpted from Cattle Camp by Herb Wharton. Copyright © 1994 Herbert Wharton. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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