By PETER LATZ
(at left in the photo, with TV personality Costa Georgiadis)
Mount Riddock Station, 100 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs was one of the first cattle properties in Central Australia. In 1959 I was headed there for a job as a ringer. Two men had started the station as a joint venture; one was Ben Webb and the other, Louis Schaber. They had both come to the centre to search for gold on the Arltunga fields, but eventually found they could make a better living by supplying the miners with meat.
One of the Webb sons, Kil, later told me of some of the hardships that his family had to go through in the early days. At the beginning of their venture, food supplies from the southern settled areas were only available about every 12 months. While the white settlers were away on their run, often for considerable periods, these supplies were secured in a locked log hut. At one stage they returned from the run, to find that local Aborigines had broken into the store. What supplies they had not taken had been either burnt, or otherwise thoroughly spoilt. This meant that the only food the settlers had to eat for the next six months or so, was meat, meat and more meat!
Mrs Jane Webb went to Oodnadatta for the birth of her first son Quinton, but her prolonged labour resulted in Quinton suffering a slight mental disability. Although the four Webb children received little formal education, they were well-versed in bush crafts. It was not considered unusual for mother and daughter to single-handedly kill and cut up a cow for meat, while the men were away on the run.
By the time I arrived on the scene the Webb family were sole owners of both Mt Riddock and Huckitta Stations. At this time, in 1959, the stock camp was staffed by the boss, Bennet Webb, the head stockman Tom Cleary, the cook Richard Carruth, and four of us ringers. Tom was the only local; his white father abandoned him at childbirth, and his Aboriginal mother subsequently brought him up. I was very privileged to work under Tom, as he is one of the most capable stockmen I have ever known.
At that time he was a superb horseman, to the extent that when he got onto a horse, he and the horse appeared to become one unit. We often witnessed him carrying out a difficult cutting out exercise (like separating bullocks from the general herd) after his specially trained horse had spat out the bit from its mouth. During this exercise the horse seemed to be relying on Tom’s body movements, and perhaps a certain amount of telepathy, to carry out his rider’s intentions. Tom could also use his combination of superb tracking abilities and an intimate knowledge of cattle behaviour to find recalcitrant stock.
Being a cowboy is not all it’s made out to be. Most of the time you’re doing the same old thing. The hours are long, the pay is poor and many weeks are spent with no contact with any other human beings. I stuck it out for a year or so, and then gave it up to become a general dogsbody back at the homestead. One of my jobs was checking the many widely separated bores (or stock water sources) on the station, and I used this opportunity to continue hunting kangaroos. On my return to the homestead I would hand my two or three kills to the local Aborigines, and this made me a very popular young fellow.
I remember doing a bore run with Quinton on one occasion, and I had bagged several kangaroos before we stopped for lunch. I immediately proceeded to cook one of the kangaroo tails in the traditional Aboriginal way. Quinton was most amused.
“You’re not going to eat that rubbish blackfellow tucker, are you?” he questioned.
Needless to say, as soon as he smelt the mouth-watering aroma of the cooked meat, he changed his mind, and soon joined me in demolishing the tail.
“I’d forgotten how tasty they are!” he mused.
Sadly, Aboriginal teenagers from Alice Springs murdered Quinton in 1978, when he refused to supply petrol for their stolen vehicle.
The three Webb brothers appeared to get on well with the local Aborigines, the traditional owners of the land that the Webbs were leasing from the NT Government. These three brothers, like me, had grown up with Aboriginal nannies and playmates and they spoke fluent Aranda. It’s true that Bennet, the most flamboyant of the three, bragged about how he had to “break in several cheeky blackfellows” by either dragging them behind his horse or dunking their heads in the horse trough “till the bubbles stopped coming up”. But he was prone to exaggeration and would have probably done the same to us if we got too cheeky (at least in the early days).
The only reason I had got a job in the stock-camp, was due to a recent change in the conditions of employment of Aboriginal labour. The law now demanded that Aboriginal employees were to be paid the basic wage, the same amount that I was receiving at that time. Before this time Bennet had a stock camp made up of a dozen Aboriginal staff. He could not afford to pay this many people the basic wage, especially as just half of us, whether white or coloured, could carry out the same job and, what’s more, do it better.
Bennet, and other station owners in the region, had at this time come to the realisation that white stockmen were generally more efficient workers than their Aboriginal equivalents. There is no doubt that in the early days, pastoralists could not have managed without Aboriginal labour. The Aborigines they employed were excellent trackers, and because of this they could find every cow on the place – especially as they knew practically every inch of the country that the cows were living on.
Nevertheless, traditional early Australians had had no experience of pastoralism; they were hunter gatherers first and foremost. If they were tracking a bullock, and they came across the fresh tracks of a nice fat goanna, getting that goanna automatically became the first priority. (Especially when the stockman’s diet was mostly composed of nutritionally poor salt-beef and damper. Of course you had to hide this goanna from the white boss, as he would quickly steal it off you if you didn’t.)
Black stockman also were slack at looking after their saddles and other gear, which usually meant that their horses soon got large sores on their backs, etc, etc. Probably the worst problem was that Aboriginal stockmen were notorious at being unreliable, often taking off just when you needed them most. White men never seemed to come to terms with the idea that Aboriginal law took priority over everything else. The truth was that if you did not drop everything to attend an important ceremony at the required time you could be severely punished, even to the point of death.
It was the people of mixed blood who generally made the best stockmen and bushmen. They can have the best of both worlds – at least in the outback situation – namely the hunter and gatherer skills of the native people mixed with the pastoralist skills of the newcomers. Roy Schaber, the mixed descent son of the former part owner of the station, was a fine case in point. Unlike Tom Cleary, who was a superb horseman, Roy had developed skills in other directions.
The Webb brothers had purchased one of the first road-trains in the centre, to transport their cattle to the railhead in the Alice. Beside the prime mover, this vehicle had two fifty-foot trailers, and all up contained forty-two tyres and one hundred and eight grease nipples. I got to know every one of these grease nipples because it was my job to apply grease to them after every trip to town. Roy was given the job of driving this monster, with me as his untrained assistant.
At this time the region was suffering the beginning of a severe drought, and one day we ended up with the task of getting a load of undernourished and weak cattle into the railhead. The road we were travelling on was being repaired, and because it was late at night, Roy missed a badly labelled detour around a sandy creek. Before he could stop we ploughed into the creek and became hopelessly bogged.
Being young and enthusiastic I immediately started the hopeless job of trying to dig us out of our predicament.
“Never mind that,” said Roy, “light a fire and we’ll boil the billy and have a cup of tea.”
I found it very hard to obey his instructions, as I was aware of the need to get the poor old cattle – several of which were in a bad state – into town and off the truck as soon as possible. So we sat there, drinking our cup of tea, while I listened impatiently to Roy discussing some matter totally irrelevant to our present situation. I was about to start digging again when Roy suddenly said, “If they’re working on the road there must be a grader around somewhere” and then took of into the darkness. Not long after Roy reappeared with a powerful grader, which quickly proceeded to tow us out of our predicament!
I learnt a very important lesson that night, one every good bushman takes for granted. When in trouble, whatever you do, don’t panic, instead sit down and boil the billy (or some equivalent) and let the back of your brain solve your problem. This makes a lot of sense because – as any head-doctor will tell you – your conscious mind only uses a small part of your brain, and often gets in the way of problem solving. The truth is that a lot of an experienced white bushman’s skills have been picked up, often way in the past, from the original occupants of this continent. Skills that have been learned from a long period of trial and error in a place on this planet very different from that where our ancestors came from.
After I had been on Mt Riddock for several years, Bennet’s wife Rhonda came to live on the station. To help her with the housework she recruited two local teenage Aboriginal girls as housemaids. They were ensconced in the room next to mine – where we were only separated by a thin two-metre high partition. This meant that I could hear every thing that was going on next door, and could have relatively easily climbed over the partition to join them.
Normally the girls went home at night, but for some reason this night they had stayed over. They had just come back from having a shower, and I couldn’t help but overhear them chatting away in Aranda about the new clothes they were trying on. These beautiful girls, at the prime of their life, well knew that I could hear and understand every word they were saying and it soon became obvious that they were putting on a dialogue to attract my attention.
It went something like this: “It’s too hot, can’t be bothered wearing any clothes. Giggle, giggle. What do you think of my breasts? Nice aren’t they, big but firm. Giggle, giggle. And my bottom – not too big is it?” And so on, and so forth. Luckily I was still more-or-less a good little missionary boy who was courting the white governess, or I would have climbed over the partition in a flash – and probably got into all sorts of trouble.
The last Mt Riddock adventure I will relate is not a very pleasant one. The Webb brothers employed two old white pensioners to look after two separate important cattle water-points in exchange for supplying them with basic rations. One of these pensioners, Colin Hope, was an alcoholic veteran of the Boer war, who was happy to pass his last years well away from the temptations of alcohol. Jack Saxby, however, puzzled me.
He was not an alcoholic yet he was proud of the fact that he hadn’t visited town for many years, but would not give me a reason for his distaste for ‘civilised’ society. I found out later that he was a New Zealander who had come to the Territory from Queensland as a young fellow, and as my Aboriginal informant told me, at that time “he was a proper flash cowboy”. Apparently he was all dressed up in black with lots of shiny stars on his hat and belt and a proper flash leather holster for his latest-model rifle.
One of my jobs, while checking the many water points on the station, was to take rations out to these two gentlemen. As I was often the only person they saw for weeks at a time, I had to have a cup of tea with them and pass the time of day. Colin would regale me with long stories of his former days of glory as a mounted warrior, but Jack would rarely talk about his past.
When I turned up at his hut one day, a week after I had seen him last, I was regaled by a horrible smell. An acrid but somewhat sweet smell that I will remember it for the rest of my days. When I went into his shack I soon found the cause. Poor old Saxby had probably had a heart attack, and had then fallen into his open cooking-fire. His middle had been burnt away to his backbone but the rest of him was swollen and putrid. Not a nice way to die!
It was only many years later that I found out why Saxby was reluctant to visit Alice Springs. He was one of the people involved in the Coniston Massacre, and almost certainly had shot one or more people of the Warlpiri tribe. At that time Warlpiri people often visited The Alice, and Saxby was almost certainly afraid of being recognised by one of the survivors of the massacre. Was his horrible death a just reward for his former sins? God only knows.
The Eastern Aranda and Anmatjera people in this area were different to the Western Aranda that I grew up with at Hermannsburg. They were lovely people – and lucky – for two reasons: firstly their traditional spiritual life had not been diluted by missionaries, and secondly they were far enough from Alice Springs to not have been tempted by alcohol and the other disadvantages of white ‘civilisation’. It’s true that they were ruled over by white dictators, but they were generally benevolent dictators, probably the best of all situations for Aborigines to be in, in Central Australia at that time. I was to miss these people when I left Mt Riddock, after three life-changing years.
Earlier in this series: Tomcat and Turpentine Bush: adventures in the Tanami
More next week.
Being a cowboy: not all it’s made out to be
By PETER LATZ