24 Hours in 1960's Stockcamp - Barkly Tablelands - Part I

Tuesday, Jul 24, 2012 at 10:13

Bob Y. - Qld

The following is taken from memories of my first 18 months on Rockhampton Downs, on the Barkly Tablelands NT, in 1964-5. Life on stations back then was vastly different to what goes on these days, poor refrigeration, no phones, no TV, no emails, no iPods. but it was a good way of life, albeit someone hard at times.

Read on, I hope you enjoy it. After all, it's all true.....

The road to No.20 Bore runs dead straight ahead of the truck, through rolling downs country, covered in silver/gold coloured Mitchell Grass, and occasional pinkish patches of Flinders Grass, all softened by the pale July afternoon light. Not a tree can be seen in any direction, though to the west, a long, dark smudge on the horizon, shows where the swamp country is. A vast area of bluebush, verbine, gutta-percha and coolibah trees, that runs up into Eva Downs, Anthony Lagoon, and east into Brunette Downs.

The truck, an ageing green J6 Bedford, the Camp Truck, is equipped with everything that is needed for an extended stay away from the station. Though some of the passengers on the vehicle might suggest a bit more food would vastly improve things. A water tank, about 500 gallons capacity, sits just behind the cab, with a tucker box, made of pine planks with some steel framing, is positioned on the driver’s side. Behind the tank is a 44 gal drum of standard petrol, numerous boxes and containers, a couple of shearer’s stretchers and a pile of firewood, collected on the last red ridge they passed.


Spread over the top of the above items are firstly, about 14 or 15 swags, of all shapes, hues and sizes, that provide somewhere soft for about the same number of saddles, bridles and associated saddlery. Then over the top of all this “stuff”, are the members of the stock camp. The half dozen “whitefellars” are perched on the water tank, or thereabouts, copping the full effect of the cool July wind. The Aboriginal ‘stock boys” are in a lesser position perhaps, but down out of the wind, and on the more comfortable swags.

In the cab, the head stockman sits in the passenger seat, while the driver, an 18 yr old youth, is in command of the truck for the first time, he is designated cook for the week. Having only arrived on the station a month ago from NSW, he is excited to be driving the truck, but somewhat daunted about cooking for the week. Not to mention those 4am starts!
On the back, one of the tank sitter’s, suggests that the windmill ahead of them looks like a dandelion flower. The others agree, as the truck is still over 8 miles from the bore. Only a mile or so ahead of them, on the left hand side of the road, is what appears to be a mob of horses, the horse tailers are hobbling out before dark.

The driver is directed to pull up at the horses, and the stock boys jump down and begin unloading their swags, saddles and cooking gear. Some of the wood is unloaded also, and one of the white fellars gives a hand to finish unloading. The horse tailers are moving quietly amongst the plant, hobbling each horse with the hobbles that are tied to each horse’s neck strap. With few exceptions, the horses stand quietly, and reluctantly accept their turn. Finally, the horse tailers catch 2 of the night horses, and lead them back to their camp. One of the boys hastily bangs a star picket into the soft blacksoil, just away from their camp, and the night horses will spend the night there, tied up and hobbled, and ready for the horse tailers to ride out well before breakfast, to unhobble and bring the plant back to camp.

The truck then moves on, maybe 30 yards, and the head stockman and the jackeroos set up their camp. This is done quickly, from weeks of practice, but there’s little to do, other than unload swags and saddles, and get a fire going. The truck is turned around, to keep the tucker box cum kitchen out of the wind, and a piece of corrugated iron is set up as a firebreak, with a couple of star pickets. Nothing too flash, as they’ll be gone from this camp in the morning.

A greyish plume of dust coming along the way they’ve just come, materializes into a station wagon, and the Missus, her kids and the governess arrive. The ‘Roos are pleased to see them, if not to chat up the Govy, or joke with the kids, but the Missus has brought out some fresh bread, butter and some mail. The bread was fresh when it left Mt Isa about 4 days ago, but it’ll be a pleasant change from “Straight-Eight” damper that is their usual fare.

The Missus soon departs with her passengers, as the sun is falling quickly now, and she’d like to be home before dark. The SE wind begins to increase a little, and the jackets are being sourced from the cab of the truck. At times the interior of this old lorry looks like a bloody wardrobe. Not to mention all the other stuff that gets stored in there.

With the arrival of some mail, those lucky enough to score a letter or two, sit on their swags, or up against the dual wheels of the truck, out of the wind, and catch up on news from home. One of the senior ‘roos, he’d rather be called a ringer, and would never refer to himself as a ‘roo, has been persevering with some ‘roo hide lace, making a 16-strand round plait object, that he got from a USA leathercraft book, bought from RM Williams. A burst of profanity accompanies the realisation that he’s missed one strand, and will have to undo his past 10 minutes work. As it continues to get cooler, with the wind picking up, most of them gravitate to the fire, where they good naturedly tease the cook about his culinary skills, or lack thereof.

One of the ‘roos is slow to go to the fire, as he’s been carefully cleaning the knuckles on his left hand, with Dettol and water. One of the quieter working horses had, out of character, “dropped his head” (bucked), a few days ago, and the roo’s left hand had been dragged across the dee’s on the pommel. He’s been regularly washing the wound, and keeping it clean, but the stiffness in the joints warns him that he’s in for a bout of “Barcoo Rot”. After cleaning the wounds, he liberally sprinkles BFI powder over them, and wraps his hand, with his last clean bandage. The Missus said she’d send out more dressings, with the next lot of rations.

Menu for tonight is rump steak, spuds, onions and 2 tins of peas. This rump is the last of their fresh meat, and tomorrow the diet will be corned beef. The rump is a bit “off” so the head stockman cuts all the fat off, and trims the dried exterior, before showing the cook how to cut each slice, across the grain. “And not too thick either” he warns the cook. The veges are already simmering, and the tins of peas have had the tops opened, and are sitting on some coals at the edge of the fire. The top of a Bedourie camp oven is used to fry the steak, and the cooked pieces are put into a saucepan to keep warm, while the veges are cooked. The smell of the steak cooking has all of them hungry now, and some of them are planning to have “fresh” bread and butter with their meal. The cook reckons he’ll have a slice after tea, with jam, as dessert.

The cook decides tea is ready, and there’s a rattle of cutlery, and enamel plates as the hungry group get ready to eat. Bread is roughly sliced, and buttered, plate’s piles high, and there’s little comment for a few minutes as they all knock the edge off their appetites. Then the comments start: “this is pretty good, Cookie, you can cook all the time”, “not bad for an apprentice, just need more practice” or “this steak is tops, he‘s been a good killer.” The meal is eaten quickly, pannikins are refilled with tea, usually black and sweet, and a couple of the younger blokes line up for bread and jam, as a token desert.

The sun has long gone, and the brief twilight gives way rapidly, to night, so someone lights the carbide lamp, as they get ready to wash up after tea. The lamp gives out a good, bright light, though the smell of escaping gas is a bit “off.” The lamp resembles a galvanized dipper, like Grandma might have used in her laundry, with a 2-piece cylinder placed inside the dipper. Coming out of the top of the cylinder is a copper pipe, about 1/4” dia by 8” long. Screwed into the top of this pipe is a small brass and ceramic burner. To operate, the cylinder is removed, the lower part of the cylinder sleeves inside the upper section, and it is, after cleaning, partly filled with pieces of calcium carbide, and inserted back into the upper section. This is returned to the dipper, and filled with water, to just cover the cylinder. After a few seconds the rank smell of acetylene gas is very obvious, and a match applied to the burner provides the blue-ish white light.

Washing up is done quickly, everyone doing their own plate and utensils, and they settle back at the fire, where the conversation moves across a variety of topics. Rough, scruffy and untidy they may look, but most of these lads have been well educated, to Leaving Certificate standards, are avid readers, of either novels or magazines, and many write regularly to parents, friends, family and even a girl or two. The rapid ringing of a horse bell, and almost frantic whinnying, suggests that one of the plant has lost its mate, and needs to find him. There is a brief, but light hearted debate on which horse is lost, a bit of laughter, then the subject reverts to the recent tour of Australia by the Beatles. Once this is exhausted, the head stockman runs over a few items for the next day’s work, and one of the ‘roos is diplomatically told to stop “building a house” on old “Antbed”, and maybe ride “Nugget” tomorrow. The “house-builder” cops a bit from his mates as well, in support of the head stockman’s directive. Talk begins to wane, and they all drift away, to roll out their swags.

The rustle of grass, the thump of swags being dropped and the rattle as pannikins are filled with water for some dental hygiene, are almost the last sounds from the camp, before they are all in their swags. The Boys camp has been silent for some time, except for the odd snoring, and the clink of a hobble chain, as one of the night horses shuffles into a more comfortable position. The ‘roos camp is quiet too, except for the head stockman warning one ‘roo not to read too long, otherwise the carbide lamp won’t work in the morning. He gets the hint, quickly finishes his latest edition of Hoofs & Horns, and removes the lamp out of the dipper, and all is dark.

The wind blows steadily, occasionally gusting strongly, and the corrugated iron wind break gives a tinny rattle. There is no moon, yet the stars are so bright, they seem to light up the grass. The fire flickers as the wind sneaks around the iron break, and the supplejack night log, placed on the fire by the young cook, is rapidly becoming a trail of fluffy white ash. There is a muffled call from the direction of the “house-builder’s” swag, perhaps “Nugget” has thrown him already! Then all is quiet.

If you want to find out what happens in the morning, you'd better bring a jacket. It's going to be bloody cold.....

Seen it all, Done it all.
Can't remember most of it.

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