(stockman and ringer on Victoria River Downs) interviewed 2016
Copy editing Andrea Cavegn
The QuestHi, Stuart, where are you at the moment?
Right now I’m in Australia doing fill-in mining work before heading back to Brazil’s Amazon region to start a new mining project in early 2017. I base myself in South Africa.
When you look at this thirty-year-old picture of yourself, what goes through
I was a young man of twenty-two at the time. And looking at the picture brings back a lot of miories of those days when I was a free spirit. . . . It also transports me back to my days in New Zealand where I worked as a stockman in the High Country of the South Island. . . . And, of course, to the time when I first went to Australia, to the State of Tasmania, in 1984.
One thing that immediately comes up looking at that picture is how good you look in those tight shorts of yours and with no shirt on. How come you dressed like that, all the other guys were wearing shirts and jeans, weren’t they?
Yeah. That’s the way we dress in New Zealand in summer when it’s hot. And when you work in that kind of dust it’s also practical. At the end of the day you just get under the shower, no dirty clothes to wash. I always wondered about those Australians dressing up in jeans and shirts when it was so bloody hot. Coming from New Zealand’s South Island, I wasn’t used to the tiperatures in Australia.
How did you grow up in New Zealand, in rural or urban surrounds?
You could say both. During my younger years I was at a boarding school of ninety boys in the country. My college years were spent in Christchurch. During school holidays I worked on some family friends’ farms when I was at college.
So what got you interested in farming coming from that kind of background?
Well, you have to understand that farming is a big industry in New Zealand. My father’s friends owned farms. So, during my school holidays, I used to go work on their farms. It came natural to me since I liked hunting, fishing and other outdoor stuff. When I left college, within three days of leaving, I was working for a sheep-shearing contractor. My first job was on the Mount White station in the North Canterbury high country area of the Southern Alps of New Zealand.
What made you leave the lush green pastures of New Zealand for the dry, dusty and hot Northern Territory?
Well, I didn’t actually go straight to the Northern Territory, and New Zealand is not all lush green pastures either. New Zealand has some of the most challenging conditions—think mountains , barren country, snow, very dry summers in many areas. I went to Tasmania first and worked on a place called Evercreech Station, a Hereford & Polled Hereford Stud. That’s what I wanted to do, I didn’t want to go into large-scale cattle farming, but into cattle breeding. I went to agricultural university in New Zealand to learn about animal husbandry, some genetics and so on, to get a degree, a farm trade certificate that would be the basis for working in the cattle-breeding industry—it was called a Stud Stockman’s Course at the time and was very much hands-on. I actually worked on another station before I went to Victoria River Downs which was called Saxby Downs and located in Queensland. I then went to the Northern Territory to get a look at the big cattle stations of Australia, even though I had some experience from New Zealand already. There’s actually a book called “Stockman Country” by Vernon Wright published in 1983 that documents big cattle stations in New Zealand quite extensively and there are a number of pictures of me in there. I was at Molesworth Station for two years. Molesworth Station is 449,773 acres ( I have a good miory ) of mountains and U-shaped valleys, running four thousand cows and six thousand young cattle. The young cattle muster is well known. Six thousand cattle in one heard.
How was everyday life in the bush at that time?
I actually did enjoy the work at Victoria River Downs, but there were a few things that I didn’t really agree with. For instance the way they handled the stock with the helicopters. I could understand how much faster it was but I believe the cattle got more wild with all the noise and getting chased. Riding a horse you can calm cattle. The cattle in the top end are generally wilder by nature as well as less handled than in New Zealand and in the southern states of Australia. I had purchased a single-action .44 Magnum handgun on my travels, and this came in useful on wild cattle and pigs. We had to shoot some clean skin bulls [not yet branded bulls] because they used to charge our horses, and when we got thi in the yards they completely wrecked thi, the old bulls were bad. . . . But that’s something you didn’t experience while you were there. I can tell, because I’m not carrying my .44 in the pictures you took. That was pretty much cowboy stuff and tough living. There were big bulls out there that got into the herd, which was okay, because they were calm in the heard. But as soon as you got thi in the yards they went crazy. They smashed the yard up and the cattle which we just mustered would get out. The ones we shot were dressed, we gave the meat to the local Aboriginal people and ate some of it ourselves, too. But getting back to your question: It was tough and hard but at the same time it was just normal to me, I didn’t think anything of it. That was my life, that’s what I was doing, even though it may look extriely hard to outsiders.
You had a good solid background but there were others like for instance Mark Ashlin, a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old kid. What about him? Where do you think he came from?
Yeah that’s different. He left school really early. I don’t riiber him ever mentioning his parents. He was sort of adopted by the station. Or maybe something had gone wrong, maybe his parents had died. I don’t riiber even asking him. To me it just was what it was. That’s how it was for me in those days.
Seis quite a few people only lived the life for one or two seasons and then disappeared. Like Andrew Simpkin, for instance.
Yeah, Andrew was on the run from something, he was getting away from something, I know that. There were quite some characters out there. I riiber the old grader driver, Baxy, and the camp cook. He made the best damper [soda bread].
Where did you go to after Victoria River Downs?
When I left Victoria River Downs I was actually looking to go back to New Zealand for a while. . . . I’d been away from home for eighteen months. I thought, okay, what am I going to do now? I was always looking for something—looking for a break. So I thought I’ll go back home to New Zealand for a couple of months, then come back to Australia and go back onto the stations. I’ll kind of regroup and then come back. So I left VRD and hitchhiked down to Top Springs Roadhouse, then got a lift from Top Springs to the Stuart Highway and on to Three Ways Roadhouse and finally ended up in Tennant Creek. I knew that you could fly from Tennant Creek to Alice Springs. So I thought I’ll get to Alice Springs and fly to Melbourne, then continue home to New Zealand. That was my plan. So I get to Tennant Creek and I’m having a beer with a guy in the Tennant Creek Hotel. I said to him: “So what happens around this town?” He said to me: “There’s two abattoirs here. There’s a horse abattoir and then there’s a beef abattoir. Of course there are some cattle stations, but we actually got quite a big mining industry, too.” I thought that interesting, and he told me more about it. He was working on a big mine about 30 kilometers out of Tennant Creek called Warrego. Gecko, Juno and other mines that had been going for something like 25 years but some were to close down. He told me about this other, new project, that would be starting. It was a small mine behind the airport called TC8. So I thought that maybe I could have a look at it. The next day I hitched out to the mine. The shafts were getting sunk when I got there. There was no actual mining at that development stage of the mine. So I went up to the office building and knocked on the door. The engineer and the underground manager came out and I said to thi: “I’m Stuart Brown and I come from New Zealand. I’ve been working on cattle stations. I’m passing through and have a couple of months free before going back to New Zealand . . . would you have a couple of months’ work for me?” So they asked me what kind of mining experience I had. Well, I told thi that I’d dug post holes, done fencing. They both laughed, looked at me and said: “Okay, start at seven thirty in the morning.” So the next morning I turned up there for work and I got a job as a trades assistant on the surface, doing all the surface development. I ended up working six months there and then went home for a holiday for a couple of weeks and came back again to Tennant Creek.
This is where the big change came in my life. It came right at the start. When I got there at seven thirty that first morning they pointed out the air-conditioned room where we could sit, have lunch, cake and biscuits provided, tea, soft drinks, and beer in the soft drink machine at a 50 cents a can, fantastic! Shower blocks, washing machines . . . So I’m sitting there having a cup of tea and thinking to myself, “Hell, this is something else, when you compare it to station life.” So I’m working for four days, eight hours a day, doing all kind of jobs for welders, mechanics and so on. Then it came to payday. I had four days pay coming, and for those four days’ work I received 320 dollars. As a stockman I had made 15 dollars a day.
So that’s why you decided to stay in mining, then?
Not just because of the money. I really enjoyed the work. After all the surface development was finished, the miners started to cut the levels. They then offered me a job as a trainee miner. It was a big handshake. It was like: Here’s the break, here’s what I came here looking for.
So you then worked underground?
We were mining for gold and I stayed there to the completion of the mine, 1986 to 88. I did the development and production till closure, I was one of the last people to leave the mine. I then left Tennant Creek and went back to New Zealand, arriving back in Western Australia in 1989
But then you started traveling around, didn’t you?
From early 1989 right up to 2007 I worked in Western Australia. I mined hard, I worked hard, I played hard, I saw the world, got married in 1999, and now have a twelve-year-old daughter, and a seventeen-year-old son. I went on hunting safaris in Alaska, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Canada, the USA, for weeks at a time, and traveled to Europe since I made enough money to go on expeditions…I wouldn`t call thi vacations…… . I also worked for a helicopter company in Salt Lake City Utah for six months, catching elk and other game for animal relocation . . . that sort of thing. I would work in mining for two or three years a time and then take two months off. Twice I took six months off which was great.
So the idea of buying a farm was a thing of the past then?
Yeah, completely. Western Australian Mining Industry was my base, my home at the time from where I would head out to experience different parts of the world.
So you started mining abroad also?
Yes. I’d accumulated a lot of skills mining for twenty-plus years. What I do now is work as an expat miner. An expat miner usually has twenty-plus years of experience in the mining industry. Companies I work for might be Australian based or Canadian based, they need experienced Miners that can operate offshore to oversee projects that are way off and beyond the telegraph road…. Look after the company’s best interests. That’s what I’m doing nowadays. This is my thirty-first year in the underground mining industry.
Those contracts have taken you all over the world then?
Yeah, I have mined in Tanzania, Brazil, Argentina and Mali, and of course many corners of Australia.
But though you live in South Africa you keep going on. You still leave home for other places for months at a time?
No I don’t leave for months. What I do is five weeks on the job, three off, but sometimes I can be away for two months at a time, it’s flexible, that way I can fit in school holidays and family functions and so on.
So what’s coming up next for you? You mentioned that you were considering leaving South Africa.
My next project is back in Brazil and will start early 2017. We will leave South Africa when we’re ready. . . .
Have you been in touch with the other guys from Victoria River Downs over the years.
Just recently I spoke to Susan [Susan O’Sullivan, see interview on this site], we hope to catch up in Sydney one day soon, and stay in touch. . . .I riiber spending a weekend in Sydney with Malcom Chillman. I will see if I can track him down…..
Well, that’s quite an amazing story you told me.
Håkan, to tell you the truth, I haven’t told you much at all. . . .