In the first few days of January 1969 a shy, well brought-up, naive 21 year-old middle-class English boy left the UK and flew to Australia via Thailand, Malayasia and Singapore eventually arriving in Darwin where he promptly answered an advertisement for the position of Jackaroo at Victoria River Downs cattle station 250 miles due south. Forty plus years on and living in the UK, I thought I should record my memories of the time I spent in the Northern Territory learning exactly what lay behind that seemingly innocuous word ‘Jackaroo’!
I was met off the ’plane at the VRD airstrip by the Ringer, a stockily built half-caste Aboriginal in a battered Akubra, and shown to my place in the bunkhouse. This was a single story aluminium sheeting clad building with individual rooms off a long central corridor with the ablutions at the far end, no glass in the windows but shutters and wire mesh fly screens. The Ringer then showed me to the mess at the end of the cookhouse and introduced me to the rest of the team with whom I would be working. I never knew the Ringer’s name, he was always just ‘the Ringer’; he was a quiet man with a friendly disposition and that distinctive Aboriginal way of speaking English. The team I was to work with was lead by Lewis, with Donny and Wayne as the other two members.
Lewis was a real Territorian, in his late 50’s about 5’7” well built, strong as a bull. He had thinning ginger hair under his bush hat, a blue singlet with holes allowing sprigs of chest hairs to poke through, tattered jeans, elastic sided boots and a broad grin which flashed gold teeth. I don’t think Lewis could read or write but his knowledge of cattle, horses and the bush was encyclopaedic; I also remember that he said he had only ever been to Darwin once in his life and that was as a youngster. I had great respect for Lewis and I think it must have been quite a shock for him to have to take this totally alien Pom under his charge. One particular piece of his bush wisdom has always stuck with me. I was feeling a little under the weather on one occasion and Lewis was concerned since I was off my tucker, “if a man don’t eat he don’t shit and if he don’t shit he dies”. Not a diagnosis with which one can argue really – not shitting leads to death!
Donny was much closer in age to me, probably 26 or 27 and became a good buddy. He was well educated, slim and wiry in build, medium height with fair complexion and balding on top. He once mentioned he had been a keen competition cyclist in his native Melbourne: that was all I ever knew about him. Early on in my time at VRD I was advised by Lewis never to ask about a man’s background or his reasons for being in the Top End. When we were not away from the homestead for the night, Donny and I sometimes went for walks in the evening along the airstrip, stamping our feet and waving flashlights to scare away the snakes. The last member of the team was Wayne – tall, dark hair under a tatty Cattleman’s hat, khaki shirt and shorts and heavy workboots. He was the same age as me, but although a good mate we had little in common.
On a couple of occasions I went with the Ringer to visit the Aboriginal camp about 4 miles east along the Victoria River , since several of the stockmen lived there with their families. It was quite illegal and probably an imprisonable offence to supply liquor to the Aboriginals, but on one pre-arranged visit I took with me a quart of rum in a distinctive clear-glass bottle with a wavy surface pattern of rings from top to bottom, known as ‘crinkly rum’. After some delicate negotiations probably involving turning down the offers of various ‘extras’ as diplomatically as possible, the rum was duly exchanged for a didgeridoo. It was made in the traditional way by dropping red hot stones down the centre of an iron-wood branch to hollow it out and with gum to form the mouthpiece. It was then painted white, without patterning, for about half the length down from the top. This is a traditional didge, made by the Aboriginals for their corroboree and utterly unlike the mass-produced over-priced bamboo tat tourists purchase at The Rocks in Sydney nowadays. Later on, when I finally left VRD and went down to Adelaide, I was asked by someone on the Greyhound bus why I was carrying a road post with my luggage! This didge came home to the UK with me and now sits in the corner of my office as I type.
Fairly soon after my arrival my horsemanship was put to the test since this would be my means of transport for the foreseeable future. I had answered in the affirmative in my job application that I could ride, and quite truthfully so. But my idea of riding was just a little different to what happened next; at home, dressed in jodhpurs, riding boots and a black hat I was used to trotting along on nice, quiet, comfortable English ponies along country lanes at a steady even pace. On my second day at VRD I was introduced to the horse-breaker at the yards. He had already been told I could ride, so he selected a Brumby which he assured me he had taken at least three days to break-in and was one of the quietest he had ever known. He gripped the beast’s head just long enough for me to get on. Then he let go, the whole world just exploded and we set off at full chat for the airstrip. The Australian saddle is very different to the English one, having long stirrup straps and a high horn at the front which I held in a vice-like grip, having long abandoned the reins. As we careered wildly up the airstrip approaching the lift-off speed of a Cessna the inevitable happened and I flew through the air with the greatest of ease landing with a thump amongst the spinifex. In addition to being battered, bruised and completely humiliated, I caused Lewis a serious rethink of my roles and responsibilities within the team, since obviously four legged transport was not an option – it would have to be four wheel drive for me from henceforth.
I was issued with a Toyota Land Cruiser ute in dark blue: I only mention the colour, because every other one I ever saw was sandy brown. It had a Lee Enfield .303 in a rack across the back window, a box of ammo in the glove box and instructions to shoot dingoes, snakes and river crocs – I don’t remember ever taking the Lee Enfield out of the rack. My duties were to provide logistical support to the team and to take out the heavy equipment to wherever we were working on fencing or other repairs and maintenance all across the property, sometimes 20 or 30 miles away from the homestead. I would be detailed to collect the victuals and supplies of fresh water from time to time if we were out in camp overnight.
The Northern Territory, normally referred to in conversation as the ‘Top End’, has two seasons; the ‘dry’ from April to October, when the ‘wet’ sets in until the following April and tropical storms flood huge areas of the land making travel on dirt roads impossible. So all jobs such as fencing or moving stock are carried out during the ‘dry’, characterised by very hot sun during the day with temperatures dropping rapidly to near freezing as soon as the sun has gone down. On making camp we set a fire, cooked a hearty meal washed down with copious amounts of sweet black tea. We ate pretty well, mostly steak, eggs, salads and the most wonderful fresh bread I had ever tasted. After supper and a bit of chat around the fire, we would roll out our swags, being careful to shake them thoroughly in case a snake had decided to bed down in there first. Of the top ten most venomous snakes in the world, Australia is home to nine – the inland Taipan also known as the Fierce snake is the biggest growing to 9 feet in length and is the most venomous of all, closely followed in the Top End by the much more common Brown snake and the Mulga, neither of which make for cuddly bed fellows. A snake bite in the outback is inevitably fatal. I should explain the Australian swag is a canvas bedding roll within which is a sleeping bag, although in times past one would have slept in a blue blanket. The swag is accessed by a flap which can be pulled over the head and is very effective in keeping out the cold. Anyone working in the outback uses a swag, and tents tend to be the preserve of tourists. During the day the swag is rolled up around a change of clothes and any personal effects and secured by two canvas straps to form arm loops which can be carried like a rucksack.
Speaking of the wonderfully fresh and tasty bread, the following incident sticks clearly in my mind. I went to collect supplies for the camp at dawn one morning and met Cookie with his shirt off, kneading the dough by rolling it up and down his sweaty chest! I never touched the bread again. Cookie was an interesting person: a tough Top Ender in his sixties, he was a thick set man with a badly broken nose pushed sideways across his face. He had been a travelling circus boxer in the 1930’s and was now a ‘punchie’. He was kindly and good humoured and apart from the dough kneading incident, he fed us very well. Another member of the homestead team I recall was Mervyn who ran the store at which one could buy personal supplies such as soap, toothpaste and so on, clothing, boots and quite a range of luxuries such as chocolate and grog. Mervyn also performed duties as the Station Administrator and paid the wages. His wife – I forget her name – was the nurse. She was a tall, thin, blonde lady and a very pleasant and caring person.
My role as back-up transport and gofer continued during the muster. My enduring memories are the noise, the excitement and the choking red dust which I can still taste forty years on. In addition to the stockmen working the cattle from horseback, that year saw one of the first occasions on which a helicopter was used in Australia for mustering. It was a most impressive performance by the Texan pilot, putting the skids of the small two-seater helicopter right onto the backs of the animals to move them on towards the yards. He could cut out a bunch from the mob just like a stockman and his heeler. At the end of the muster, the beasts due for market were loaded into the cattle truck. VRD had its own road train, a rigid 6 wheeler International Harvester cab-over-engine tractor unit and 2 trailers. It had a 5 speed main gearbox and a 3 speed joey, and to use the ratios effectively frequently one had to change both boxes simultaneously. This involved a complicated manoeuvre half-standing, wedging the steering wheel with the right thigh whilst double-declutching and moving the levers through the gears with both hands – and at the same time doing 50 mph in a 3 unit road train with 140 beasts on board. The driver was another Wayne, an affable easy-going Territorian in his mid-twenties. He and I got on well, and he took me along as second driver on one of his trips to Wyndham. The Buchanan Highway in those days was a deeply rutted track, full of holes and sandy washouts which meandered through the bulwaddy and over dry river beds for two days and nights of bumping, grinding, gear changing misery! I can’t remember stopping to water or feed the cattle but I think there were water troughs along the sides of the trailers fed by a bowser on the top. Every now and then we did stop and inspect the cattle, using an electric prod to try to get any that were lying down to stand, to prevent the risk of being crushed by the others.
Following on from the cow muster, the contract bull-catchers came to VRD to round up the Brahmans. They were the tough men of the cattle industry. There were four of them in two Toyota 4wd utes which had the tops cut off at the level of the bonnet and reinforced with steel bars all round upon which hung old mattresses for protection. A reinforced Land Cruiser is just about an even match for two tons of resentful Brahman bull but it is still a very dangerous job and there were often casualties.
There were other visiting trades who came to VRD, such as the electrician. We had our own workshop and smithy to service and make our own machinery, but the electrician handled the more specialised work around the Station. In the dry he and his wife lead an itinerant life visiting many stations around the Top End, in an uncovered 10 ton flatbed Toyota truck loaded down with spares. I remember him looking rather like I always imagined Ned Kelly with a full black beard and a tall bush-hat. Every six weeks or so the Policeman came out from Katherine to conduct business from a small office on the side of the store. I went to see him on one of his visits to ask for a motorcycle licence which he duly issued, and then as an after-thought asked me whether I had ever ridden a motorcycle and suggested I should get some practice before I rode in town!
After some weeks at the start of the dry, the team was augmented by another jackaroo, a sophisticated Sydneysider about 35 years of age, called Ian. He and I became mates, not so much because we had a lot in common but he had his own transport, a Holden ute, and that meant weekend trips to the pub. I can’t recall the exact location of the pub but it was a 70 mile trip down the track towards Top Springs and was only worth doing if we remained overnight, drinking ice cold beer and sleeping in our swag on the veranda. I do remember being joined on one night on the veranda by a 6 foot carpet snake (python) but it didn’t stay long – the beer obviously wasn’t to his liking!
Following the muster I was assigned another role. The Station Manager had planted an experimental plot of about 200 acres of sorghum grass for feeding as a supplement to young stock. Sorghum is extremely poisonous to cattle until it is harvested and thoroughly dried, but withstands the harsh climate of the dry and is quite nutritious for cattle. My responsibility was to control the irrigation and to maintain fences and gates to the plot so no beasts could get onto the crop whilst it was growing. The plot was situated about 5 miles to the west of the homestead along the Victoria River. The pump and irrigation sprayer were mounted on a trailer chassis constructed for the purpose by the workshop. It had a fairly substantial engine to drive the pump and a system of hoses which clipped together to draw the water from the river. The trailer had to be towed into position with the Land Cruiser and lengths of hose were then coupled up with the filter end placed in the river to draw the water. Every 2 hours or so, day and night, the whole thing had to be moved a hundred yards along so that each section received the right amount of water; too little and the growing sorghum would have dried up in the sun and too much would wash away the soil. It required some measure of judgement and not a little effort to keep moving the plant along the section on a regular basis. In the day it was heavy work under the hot sun and at night it required a degree of caution owing to the wildlife! Sorghum grows to six feet, giving shade from the dense leaves but with plenty of space between the plants at ground level where small mammals make their homes – and so the Brown snakes choose to make it their home as well. At the other end, the Victoria River was a nice place for freshwater crocs to hang out. Albeit not like the 30 footers found on the Gulf, they were still of sufficient size and number that it was worthwhile for croc hunters to come to VRD from time to time to bag a few skins. So at night one had to hitch up the pump trailer with torch in hand, stamping furiously to frighten the snakes away, move the plant along then add in the required lengths of heavy reinforced hose and go down to the river to check the pick-up was in a nice deep pool so there was no risk of drawing air and the ensuing cavitation damaging the pump – all the while pretending to oneself that the glint of two closely set eyes just off the bank where not those of a croc! I think one of the few occasions throughout my time at Victoria River Downs that the Station Manager spoke to me was on one night after a few weeks of this heavy and rather onerous work I fell asleep in the ute, missed a couple of pump moves and managing to wash away about 20 acres of Sorghum. I can’t recall exactly what was said but I remember the words ‘fckn Pom’ were sprinkled liberally into the conversation.
On another occasion when I heard this sobriquet it was under quite different circumstances, and ones with hindsight which were potentially a lot more serious although I don’t think I realised it at the time. I fancied a weekend away and when the Ringer mentioned that he had bought a Land Rover – sight unseen – from an ad in the Darwin paper, I volunteered to go up and fetch it for him if he paid for my flight. When I arrived at the address, I was given the keys to a 1949 series IIa canvas-top Land Rover which was a complete wreck. It took jump leads and a lot of persuasion to wheeze into life and I was warned by the owner that it had a water leak, although only a small one he hastened to assure me and the throttle stuck open occasionally. I filled it with petrol and drove towards Katherine. I took a short break there, refilled the tank and set off down the Victoria Highway for 40 miles to the turning onto the Buntine Highway and off the bitumen.
By mid afternoon I still had quite a way to go to VRD and I had to stop to answer the call of nature. Of course this time I couldn’t get the old girl to start up again. Seeing from the map that I was only about 3 miles from a property, I decided to walk it. My welcome however, was rather unexpected. I knocked politely at the door, opened the flyscreen and saw the family sat down to a meal. I explained my predicament and in my best English accent very respectfully asked if I could use the radio telephone to inform the Ringer at VRD of the location of the stricken Land Rover and for someone to come and tow me in. The response took me a little by surprise “you a fckn Pom? Get off my property, I hate fckn Poms”. Yes, well, so sorry to trouble, humble humble . . . One of the stockmen I bumped into on the way out took pity on me, drove me back to the Land Rover and managed to get me going again. On recounting the details of my trip back at VRD I was soundly admonished for having walked in the midday sun and told that I should have stayed with the vehicle until someone came along, or I might have ‘done a perish’ – a not infrequent occurrence to those inexperienced in travelling in the Northern Territory.
In those days most jackaroos and casual station hands were on seasonal contracts so at the end of the dry the time came for me to move on. I got a lift to Katherine on the Stuart Highway with Ian and from there hitched to Alice Springs in a truck driven flat out all day and night by a Scotsman with a large esky full of cold beers on the engine cover between us. Its said that one can never lose the way in the bush – just follow the line of tinnies ’til you get there . . . . . .
Nigel Shuttleworth 2011
In 1969 a shy, well brought-up, naive 21 year-old middle class English boy left the UK and flew to
Darwin; and promptly answered an advertisement for the position of ‘jackaroo’ at Victoria River Downs