(stockman at Bradshaw Station in 1985) interviewed 2016
Copy editing Andrea Cavegn
“I Idolized Stockmen in My Youth”Steve, what do you think of when you see these pictures of yourself from thirty years ago?
If we take, for example, a couple of the pictures of the gray horse—its name was Pope, by the way, I called it Pope Paul. In those days, whoever broke in a horse had the right to give it a name. Pope Paul—I must have heard that on the radio or something.
It looks very skinny.
Pope was in its first working year at the time. Any of those first-year workers—colts as we called thi—got poor quickly. They were unfit to take on the work the other horses could, not yet hardened to it. We called thi leg weary and I see that weariness in my own face as well.
You see that in your own face? That’s interesting, because, at the time, you were an old hand already, weren’t you?
I see the exhausting part of that particular undertaking. Shifting those cattle from Wambungie to Bradshaw was one of the hardest jobs ever during all those years.
You had to work without fences? Was that the reason?
No. We were used to that, but what happened with that mob of cattle was that all the watering points were drying up. When we had been out there earlier in the year, we had water in abundance. But on the way back we came upon terribly, terribly frugal watering points, where we had to cut the mob, two or three times to try to get thi all to drink. Also, there was no feed for thi, so they were restless during the night. The whole trip lasted some thirteen or fourteen days and was very, very difficult.
Are you thinking of the picture where you’re sitting on the horse with your head down and your shirt torn in the back? Is that where you think you look a bit weary?
Yes, and it brings back the miories of it all; the whole job there was very, very difficult. I can see that in the picture, I probably ripped the shirt galloping through the scrub.
How many shirts did you bring along for a two-week period? If you ripped a shirt you had to keep on wearing it, didn’t you?
Yes—ha!— but after ripping it, it was kind of air-conditioned, Håkan.
What are your feelings looking at the picture of you and Vicky together?
Well it brings back miories of some of the good times. It was an exciting time when we first met. I think events led us together. And then events later on conspired against us and we split up. We probably weren’t really suited for each other but at the time we where a good fit. . . . If you know what I mean.
You were nine years older than she?
Yes, I was.
Back in 1985, you told me that you had already worked at eight different stations from the time you were sixteen years old.
Yes, I spent some years in the Kimberleys and worked on some of the larger Barkly Tablelands properties such as Brunette and Rockhampton Downs. I also spent time in Dorisvale. I spent a year or two each at some of those places, and I think the time we’re talking about was the tail end of my work for Ian McBean [well-known Territory cattlian]. I had been with him for five years on and off.
Then you went back home, didn’t you?
Yes. At the time, my father was still alive, and we ended up buying a property in New South Wales. For ten years I got very involved in horse breaking and I had a farrier business, shoeing horses. I also did day-rate fencing, and later on when I met my second wife, Denise, we went back up north for a little while, and then we finally bought a property in Queensland, where we live now.
Were you brought up on a farm?
On and off. We moved around. When I was a child, my father was a school teacher and my mother too, before all the boys were born. I am one of four boys. We moved around quite a bit. I grew up in New South Wales. We lived in Bathurst and Armidale; I finished school in Young, in the central west. All of that time, I grew up in the country and spent quite a lot of time at my uncle’s place, who owned a small farm in the Taree district in New South Wales. As soon as I left school, I wanted to go to the bush.
What did you expect to find there? What was your dream?
I think it was something that just came to me out of the blue. When I first went up to the Northern Territory, I worked among men I had idolized as a kid, as a young teenager, and I wanted to be like thi.
You wanted to become a stockman?
Yes and that was what spurred me on to stay in the industry.
What were you expecting, and were your expectations met?
They were, yes, I certainly became one of thi. I may not have been the best ringer in a group of experienced people thrown together—especially the dark fellows who I really respected, even idolized—but I was a good organizer. And in later years, I became head stockman. I think a lot of those free-and-easy days ended when I became head stockman and the responsibility involved got heavier on my shoulders.
At the beginning of the book there’s the following quote by a station manager: “They come here for the cowboy romance but after months in the heat and the dust they give up. Some might stay for a couple of seasons.”
Yes, people came and went, came and went. The ones that endured were the Aboriginal stockmen who didn’t stay on constantly, but always came back, particularly if they had connections to the country. They would come back for a lap—we called it a lap, a few months—and then they’d be off again. A lot of the young white fellows from down south would come for a couple of years or a year. When I went to Brunette—I was about seventeen—I riiber one of the old fellows saying, “You may not make is through this season,” but I did, I was a wiry sort of kid and determined, and I just went on from there. In those days the local pub was the iployment agency. You only had to go into the pub and you got a job. All you had to do was ask around. What are you doing nowadays?
In a lot of ways we are still struggling; we now live near a place called Spring Plains in Western Queensland. It’s marginal grazing country and we still suffer the effects from a large drought.
What do you mean by “marginal?”
It’s lighter-carrying country [runs potentially less stock per acre]. It’s one of the more rugged blocks in the area but it also has very good aspects, like a lot of mulga [a species of Acacia] which the cattle eat when there is no grass around, and that has helped us to make ends meet a bit. But we have been destocked for three years now. We’ve had a very severe drought in the district. We run a fencing contract business now, so we are involved in building fences in the region. My wife also breeds working border collies and she does some sheep trialing [competitions] with thi. So she has her own little business as well.
Is there something special that you riiber from the early days?
Yes, there are many miories. I had a special outlook on my life at the time. And when I met Denise and left the stockman’s life behind it felt like stepping off a treadmill. Those miories were hard to leave behind, but Denise helped me create new miories, miories of what we
were doing together at the time which kept me from constantly thinking back on all those years. And that was something I definitely needed. It’s hard to explain, but it’s tough to adjust to a different life when driving cattle and being out in the open all the time have been a constant for years and years, be it in good or in bad times. The years went so quickly, I thought I would live forever! But toward the end of it I realized that if I did not make an effort now to get something solid under my feet, for myself and my future family, I would never be able to pull through. There are a lot of men such as myself in that line of work who become alcoholics or have their bodies break down on thi. They’re no longer stockmen but they might hold station hand–type jobs if they’re lucky. A good part of thi just never broke free. Some of thi are quite happy as station hands after all those years in the north, but quite a lot of thi have grown bitter about the fact that they’ve never left “the life” behind and owned property of their own.
So it’s in a way thanks to your wife that you got yourself a new life?
Well, I mean not altogether, but she certainly triggered the process. She said to me once that when I would meet people who had been working in the northern cattle industry she kind of felt left out and had the feeling that I still belonged to all those years when all she wanted was start a new life, have new years to riiber. And we did, we’ve gone on having a busy life, we still have.
If we go back, what made you choose this lifestyle?
When I left school, I’d really no idea what I wanted to do. I bought a little motorbike and I rode that bike up to Darwin at the time when cyclone Tracy was building up. I had a job at a place called Delliere for a little while, but I was just a kid really. That’s where I saw all these good stockman for the first time and got me a job even if I didn’t know much about the business. I must have been about seventeen, I think, because when I rode through Queensland on that bike the local police took it away from me because I wasn’t old enough to hold a learner’s permit in Queensland. So I worked for a while at GMH Constructions in Brisbane until I got my motorbike back.
What did your parents say when you left?
Well, they were probably a bit worried when I just disappeared. We didn’t really keep in contact properly in those days. I riiber when I worked in the Kimberleys at a place called Myroodha the chief manager came out to the stock camp at one stage—you have to understand, there were no telephones, we never had any radio contact with the station at Myroodha, very rough conditions back in those days—and he had a message from my mother, which was kind of ibarrassing, since it was a bit of a desperate plea for me to contact her. The next time I went to town I did exactly that. At the time you met me, stock camps were a lot more organized. Back in the early days a lot of the stock camps consisted of just a tractor towing a big trailer with everybody—swags and tucker—on board and quite often we used packhorses to do campout musters. There was very little contact with the outside world.
Was she worried about you?
Well, she was worried, and we also had a lot of family trauma and tragedies eventually. You probably didn’t know it then, but I was the only riaining son in the end and I didn’t know at the time how much my family had to go through while I was away, I only realized this later.
What did you leave behind when you went your own way?
All I left behind were childhood miories. I left school the same as Denise, my wife. We both left school—though we didn’t know each other then—before we were sixteen. I riiber my father said to me—because I did quite well at school, but I didn’t want to go on any further—“Well, if you get good marks you can leave,” and so we made a bit of a pact, and I did get pretty good marks, so off I went.
You weren’t really running from something, you were trying to find something new, something of your own?
Right, I really had no idea what that would be. When I left school I picked fruit for a little while to earn enough money to buy that little motorbike. That was a good experience, I met people who were itinerant workers, and very happy to be that. Back in those days, there were quite a lot of Italians in the fruit-picking industry. Aboriginal people and Italians, so that was really my first work experience. You had to work really hard for your money.
Wherefrom did you set off?
When I left school I lived in Young, in the central west of New South Wales. How long did the ride up north take
? Ha! A lot longer than a straight ride. Like I said, I got waylaid in Brisbane for about five to six months. First of all, I rode to Walgett—I had met a girl called Sue Dennis, and I rode via Walgett, where she was from—and I got caught up in some deep floods there, when the river flowed over the levee, and I stayed with her family for a little while. I didn’t know that Sue’s parents were Aboriginal, she was pretty much the same color as I, so when I got there I found out. And then somebody backed their car over my bike and bent the mud guard and did some more damage to it, so I was there for a little while.
Was that an accident?
Yes, somebody was a bit drunk and they backed their car into my motorbike and knocked it down into the street. From there I went to Brisbane. After Brisbane I rode to Innisvale in northern Queensland and stayed with my mother’s auntie Ede and then headed north again.
And rode all the way up to Darwin?
Yes. I do riiber that my auntie Ede was amazed at the fact that I only had one pair of pretty badly torn jeans with me, and she stitched thi up for me after she did the washing one day.
What if your son Robert would have upped and left at the age of sixteen? Would you have allowed it?
Things have changed—the younger generation now—there are still kids who love the bush, don’t worry about that, and there are kids who go out and do that sort of thing. Robert grew up with a bit of a different background than me. Vicki raised Robert in Alice Springs right through his childhood. After our time together, she married a fellow who was a painting contractor but work became scarce in Alice Springs so they moved to Adelaide, and there Robert went straight to university. He did well in school. He just had different dreams, obviously. Also, nowadays, young people such as my daughter Katie see the ongoing struggle of folks in the countryside and it certainly isn’t attractive for thi to seek out a life there. I think that’s the case with quite a lot of the landholders’ children. But, like I said, I think there are those that you just can’t stop, that have bush built in their psyche. You can’t stop thi, which is a good thing for the industry.
Do you miss those days sometimes?
Do I long to go back?
Well, maybe not go back but look at thi with a bit of nostalgia?
I do, I have been doing a bit of writing in the last two years, and some of those adventures will shine through in that writing, some of the stories that I am working on. I’m also working on a novel, and I hope to finish it in maybe six months from now. I noticed while writing that I can easily draw on quite a lot of those experiences to pepper things up a bit.
Fantastic, how did you get into writing?
I don’t really know. I always could write a good letter, but nothing more. But my daughter wants to become a journalist, she loves to write, she’s quite creative and she really knows her way around a phrase. My father wrote quite a lot of poetry, too, and one of my brothers, I think it ́s just something we all really enjoy doing. And, of course, I never did any writing all those years, but now that I’ve started I’m getting more fluent as I go along.
So, my last question would have been, “What’s next?”, but apparently what ’s next seis to be writing.
Oh yes, it certainly is. We’re still basically working, trying to make a living, and I write in the nighttime. I sometimes write when I’m away fencing, putting it all together. About two or three years ago, my daughter gave me a school computer and showed me a little bit of what you can do with it, and though I‘m not very quick at typing I’m getting better and getting the hang of it. I’ve got a short story that I entered in a competition called the Hope Prize, and I’m working on another short story at the moment.