Today when we head to the outback — oh, for the opportunity to be heading into that dry red neverland — we do so in air conditioned comfort, riding on soft and compliant suspensions, insulated from the heat and the flies, able to carry tonnes of supplies and comforts, towing along a comfortable inner spring mattress, stainless steel kitchen, electricity and gas, and a ready supply of fresh drinking water.
It’s a far cry from the reality of the world for drovers, bushmen and trackers, of even 80 or 90 years ago, when every journey along those barely marked tracks was to take your own destiny into your hands.
If you have read my article in this issue on Banka Banka station in the Northern Territory, you’ll have seen the mention of Harry Readford. I couldn’t help but mention his great droving feat of delivering a herd of a thousand head of cattle across what were genuinely trackless desert wastes. Even if they were stolen cattle it was an impressive enough achievement to have a jury of his peers acquit him of any guilt.
Readford (also spelt Redford) was one of many small landholders in Queensland who found it difficult to find labour at the time of the gold rushes around Gympie in 1870, who therefore sold their labour to other larger nearby properties that were under the same pressures. Finding plenty of cattle without brands (‘clean skins’) and with few people about, Harry and four others rounded up a thousand head into cattle yards hidden in timbered country and in April set out for Adelaide.
It was fortunate that the season was good, with plenty of feed, but a prominent white bull which they couldn’t shake followed. When they reached Wallelderdine Station near today’s famous ‘Dig Tree’ they sold the bull, as they figured it to be too notable, and continued down to Blanchwater Station near Lake Blanche, nearly 3000km from where they’d begun. The manager offered them £5000 for the mob, which they took and rode on to Adelaide, where they had a big time with cash in their pockets. However, when the missing cattle were revealed it was easy to track the herd; the white bull was a give-away and several of the gang were soon rounded up. When Readford was caught two years later he and the rest of the gang were found not guilty by juries who were more impressed by the droving skills revealed than the loss of the cattle.
That droving trail is today pretty much the Thomson Development Road running south-west from Longreach, Queensland, and the Strzelecki Track in South Australia.
Today Harry Readford’s great cattle drives are marked by a 240km cattle drive over two weeks from Longreach to Aramac to Barcaldine in Queensland, using the same track that Readford took in 1870. You get to actually drive the cattle, over pure outback Queensland plains guided by enthusiastic locals, sleep on the ground, wash in muddy dams or with wet wipes, and feed from fresh cooked local produce, just as real drovers did it. It'd have to be one of the great Aussie adventures. Bookings are essential and strictly limited and sell out each year. Horse, saddle and all food is provided. The Drive hasn’t been held since 2014 because of the drought but it looks good for a great time in 2021 after recent rains.
An even greater achievement was that of the Durack brothers, who pushed a mob of 7000 cattle out of their property on the Cooper in south-west Queensland, starting in June 1883. They took their cattle up through Boulia to Burketown, on the Gulf, then all the way across the Northern Territory to the Ord. It took them two years and three months, cost them over half their cattle and they had to endure alkaline waterholes, floods, river crossings, rivers, malaria, crocodile attacks in coastal streams, Aboriginal attacks, several different cattle disease outbreaks and the deaths of several of the droving team. But they arrived just in time to be on hand to provide meat for the Halls Creek gold rush in 1886. Read Mary Durack’s Kings in Grass Castles for this great story.
Of course, no discussion of droving greatness would be complete without mention of Nat Buchanan. ‘Bluey’, as he was widely known, was born in Ireland in 1826 but emigrated with his soldier father. He was very much a loner, and might turn up on a horse, or a camel, carrying a green parasol to protect him from the sun, but nobody ever doubted that he knew his way around the outback.
His greatest droving achievements include taking 1200 head from Aramac, in central Queensland, to Glencoe Station near modern-day Darwin in 1878, across a landscape without tracks or settlement for 1600km. It was a trip he was to repeat in 1880 with 20,000 head, forging a path for a number of droving teams — including the Duracks — who were to follow him. On each trip he struggled with hostile Aboriginals, crocodiles, dry waterholes and disease. In 1892 he took a mob of bullocks from his Wave Hill Station on the Victoria River in northern WA across past Derby and then south through Yarrie to Beringara in central WA.
According to the Bulletin magazine in 1881, Nat Buchanan opened up more land in Australia for settlement than any other man. Despite his efforts he died almost penniless.
Of course, some stock routes were the product of surveyors and engineers. The Canning, in the far north of Western Australia, running from Halls Creek to Wiluna, is such a track. It is named after Alfred Canning, the surveyor who laid it out and then returned with a team of workers to dig and equip the 51 wells along its 1300km of tough sand hill country in 1908.
There are many more great tales of these men who forged trails through the Australian Outback: of Lance Skuthorpe and Charlie Phillott’s journey from Wave Hill Station in north-western NT to Burrandilla Station near Charleville, Queensland with 6000 head in 1902-03; of Bill Gwydir who defied drought and sand storms so severe that they were carrying not grains of sand but pebbles as large as your thumbnail, on the southern edge of the Simpson Desert, to drove 700 bullocks from Abminga, in northern SA, over sand hills and past dry waterholes to Mungerannie Station in 1943. And there were so many more.
These men opened the way for subsequent tracks that we often follow in our air conditioned four-wheel drives. In fact, most of those tracks out there came from these men, who navigated by the waterholes and the stars with only their bush skills and their tenacity to get them to their destinations.
I wonder what they would think of a modern camper trailer.