Extract from Angels Don't Go Droving


The Pumper

In 1944 Rex Lowe asked Dick to bring a mob of cattle down from Tandyigee Station. Tandyigee is in the Northern Territory just to the south of Newcastle Waters. The town of Elliott is on the boundary at the north west corner of Tandyigee between Newcastle Waters and Tandyigee. Rex wanted the cattle at Dalhousie, part of his Mount Dare Station, which is in the far north of South Australia.

It would be a drove close to seven hundred and fifty miles (1,200 km). To add to the work the cattle hadn't been mustered and in those days fences were rare in the Northern Territory. The cattle would be scattered across several properties.

Dick had to use the North - South Stock Route that ran near to the Stuart Highway and passed close to Alice Springs. These are his words as he talks of an incident on that drove and the difficulties he encountered getting water for the cattle. I have added explanatory notes in a different font to clarify points that will not be familiar to some readers. A couple of such points concern the vocabulary. In Australia the men who work the cattle are called stockmen or ringers, never a cowboy. That's an insult. To collect the cattle together in a mob, they carry out a muster, not a round-up.

This is Dick's story;

'Stone the bleeding crows, Rex,' I said. 'By the time I get there it'll be late in the year and I'll still have to muster. It'll be too late. The wet'll be on.'

'Don't you worry about that. You come with me on the train and bring your men. We'll go to Alice Springs,' Rex said. 'I've got a motorcar there. We'll go up to Newcastle Waters in that and pick up a plant of horses I have. You can use them to muster, then to bring the mob down.'

'That'll do. That'll suit me,' I said.

Rex had bought the cattle off Jack Gill who used to own Tandyigee. That's where the horses came from too. Jack had been forced to leave the country in too much of a hurry to muster the cattle, that's why they were scattered so far. I think it was a permanent job. He'd had no choice.

I started to muster way up north on Elsey Station. Elsey is ninety miles (145km) north of Daly Waters, over one hundred and sixty miles (260 km) north of Elliott.

The cattle were hell west and crooked. They were all over, and did I have a job mustering them. It was army time then, with convoys going up day in and day out. Well I mustered right back through Dunmarra to Newcastle Waters itself, and that's a fairly big place too, over two thousand square miles. In the end I wound up with more than twelve hundred head.

I can't remember the exact count. I think it was around twelve hundred and twenty. Bullocks, bulls, cows and calves. I had everything, a real mixed mob.

I brought them together on Tandyigee and set off for Dalhousie. The stock route was down through Tennant Creek, Alice Springs, then along the railway to the South Australian border close to the old Overland Telegraph Repeater Station at Charlotte Waters. From there I cut south east across to Mount Dare and finally to Dalhousie.

Half way between Newcastle Waters and Tennant Creek the stock route passed through Helen Springs Station. The manager there claimed one of the horses Rex had given me was his, but I was sure he was lying. We argued about it, but he refused to back down and took the horse out of the plant. I kept silent and let him do it, then I moved on a few miles and camped the cattle.

During the night I went back and looked through the station horses. They were hobbled out. I found the horse the manager had taken, put a bridle on it and led it back to camp. The next morning I rode the horse. There was no way he could take it with me sitting on it. The manager never came near the mob again. He knew he was wrong all the time.

I had no more trouble as I moved south. We dipped the cattle at Muckaty Dip, that's on Muckaty Station, which was owned by Fred Ulyatt at the time. Then on to Banka Banka Station and Tennant Creek, the gold mining town. We had bores all the way, sub artesian bores with windmills on them. There were dips too, all along the stock routes, to get the cattle tick off them. The Kelly Dip was the next. From there we went on to Wycliffe Well, Barrow Creek, Ti Tree, Aileron and Alice Springs.

After Alice Springs the next drink for the cattle was at Deep Well, fifty miles south. With twelve hundred cattle, my horse plant, and all my men, seven plus myself, it was a big responsibility. It would be five days and five nights without water, maybe six. The men had a drink for themselves, but the cattle had nothing.

Five days and five nights, that a pretty tough job. It's hard, especially for the calves. When the cattle get thirsty like that you can't travel in the days. If it's a bit hot they'll just lie down on you and knock up. I used to wait until the night and whenever the cattle got up on their hooves I'd follow and go with them, keep them on the road. At the end they'd get so thirsty, if it was moonlight they'd run to the shade of trees and stand there. Every now and then we'd block the lead and they'd start to lie down. In a matter of half an hour there wouldn't be a beast standing.

Once the cattle had settled we'd make camp. Just one man would stay on watch. The cattle were so tired we didn't need extra men. We let the cattle set the pace. As soon as any of the bullocks stood up the others would follow and we'd hear them singing out. We'd be up, break camp and start the mob walking again.

We arrived at Deep Well with no problems. It was deep too, and there was no windmill.

The well was sixty feet deep with a pair of large pulleys in a frame above it. Two twenty gallon buckets hung from ropes over the pulleys and down under smaller pulleys at ground level. They were Imperial gallons, which are 4.546 litres. So the buckets were ninety litres each, that's ninety kilograms of water. The buckets were thick steel and heavy even without water and when full they would come to over one hundred kilograms each, more than two hundred and twenty pounds.

The cattle could drink too. So would you if you'd been five days without water. A thirsty bullock will drink thirty gallons of water in one go, and we had over twelve hundred head. That's a LOT of water to drag up.

With over twelve hundred cattle in the mob it really was a lot of water to pull, nearly two thousand bucketfuls, and comes to a total of over one hundred and sixty tons. (One ton Imperial equals one tonne in the System International units)

To use the well we tied the rope to a horse's tail and pulled the full bucket up sixty feet. Twenty gallons of water, plus the weight of the steel bucket. While one bucket is coming up full, the empty one is going down. Twelve hundred head of thirsty cattle and that's how we had to do it. We started first thing in the morning and finished just before sundown. All the cattle had had a drink by then.

The next stage was twenty-five miles to Maryvale. It was a simple straight forward trip of three days. Maryvale had a windmill on the well with two big twenty-five thousand gallon tanks to make life easy, and all the cattle had a good drink.

They needed it too, because now we're into a different how's your father. That stage is seventy-four miles to the Finke, with no water, and through the desert. Sandhills all the way. Not a drop of water. We had a mixed mob and they're the worst. We'd have to push them a bit, but even so it would be seven days, maybe six if we were lucky.

It's a tough job with just bullocks. With cows and calves it's twice the work. They hold you back.

We could get the horses a drink after two days by taking them across to the Hugh River at Alice Well. That's about twenty miles south from Maryvale, but the horses still had another four days without water. The cattle were not so lucky. We weren't allowed to take the mob off the stock route, so they went thirsty. The stock route followed the old Ghan Railway Line.

Six days after leaving Maryvale we reached the Finke.

I'd telephoned ahead from Maryvale to tell the pumper when I thought I'd arrive and how many cattle I had. He was employed by the government to pump water for the army and the railways, but he had to fill the tanks for drovers too. Our water was held in separate tanks with troughs, set well away from the railway.

So we'd come in at the end of the sixth day. The bullocks were thin and thirsty. The cows and the calves were in a bad way. The horses weren't much better and the men had been a day and a half without water, and that included me. I never had any different to the men. I pulled the plant up about half a mile back from the tanks so we could take the packs off before the horses got a drink. If we didn't they'd be that full they'd bust all the girths.

While the cook and the horse tailer were pulling the packs off I went on ahead to fill the trough. When I reached it, it was full of dead birds, with dried mud all cracked in the bottom. I thought, that hasn't had water in for a while. I turned on the tap, but no water came out. When I looked in the tank it was dry too, all dry dirt in the bottom. Not a drop of water.

I wasn't best pleased.

We'd been six days without a drink for the cattle and I was getting a bit hot under the collar. I tied my horse up and walked over to the pump shed, looking for the pumper I'm swearing like a trooper. I'm going to kill that pumper.

I'm mad as mad.

The pump shed was about fifty yards away. I was almost at it when round the corner came the pumper with an axe.

He's after me. He's going to cut me down. He's going to kill me.

I took off. I'm going flat chat back to camp, and I could run a bit too. Anyone would run with an axe behind him. The pumper could run as well, but I was too fast for him. I got back to camp, I'm well ahead of him when I get there, and grabbed my rifle, an old .22. When he sees me grab the rifle he drops the axe and takes off, away to buggery, back to the pump shed.

So now I'm after him. The rifle's only a single shot and I'm trying to get a bullet in while I'm running, but it not easy. I finally manage it just as he goes round the corner of the pump shed and I put a shot through the tin, right where he was.

I've got him, I thought.

I walked round the corner, the rifle reloaded and cocked, but the pumper wasn't there. Not a sign of him. He must be in the pump shed, I thought. I went across and began to search. I looked under and behind everything, but I couldn't see him anywhere.

While I was searching I heard one of the quads start up. A quad's a small motorised inspection trolley the gangers used to travel out to the jobs on the tracks. I rushed from the pump shed to see the pumper about one hundred yards away heading for Finke town. I raced back to my horse, dropped the rifle and set off after him.

But I couldn't blow wind up to him, he's too fast for me.

The pumper crossed the River Finke. I'm after him, but my horse was knocked up and I was falling behind. When the quad reached the southern bank it slowed down. It's a steep climb about a quarter of a mile long.

Now I'm gaining on him. I'm getting up. I'm getting up. I'm about fifty yards behind when he hits the top and picked up speed again. Well, he had that much speed on the bloody quad he lifts a wheel and I thought, it's off, I've got the bugger. But it dropped back on and he's away. Jesus did he go.

I gave up the chase. I'd never have caught him even with a fresh horse and the one I was riding had been four days without a drink. I went back for the rifle and set off for the town. Finke town was about three miles away. I went first to the police station because I thought the pumper would have gone straight there.

I was going to shoot the bastard. I jumped off my horse, threw the reins over the rails and went for the door. I'm real mad now and the door's locked, it wouldn't open. He's in there all right, I thought. Did that blow me up? So now I'm madder than mad. Crash. I hit the door with my shoulder and knocked it clean off its hinges, wallop, right along side the policeman.

'What's wrong?' he asked.

'Never mind what's wrong. You know what's wrong. You've got that bloody pumper and there'll be a bloody lot wrong in a minute if you don't hand him over.

'I haven't got any pumper.'

'Don't you tell me lies,' I said. 'This is where he'd come. You've got him all right.'

'No I haven't. He's not here,' he said. 'What happened?'

I told him the story. 'Those tanks are empty. All dry. I've a mob of twelve hundred cattle, all perishing, and my horse plant. They've had no water for six days. Then there're the men, they've not had a drink for a day and a half. That mongrel hasn't filled the tanks so I'm going to kill him.'

'There'll have to be something done about that,' the policeman said.

'Yes, there will be something done about that,' I said. 'You hand him over and I'll show you what will be done.'

'He's not here. Definitely he's not here. He'll be over at the railway station.'

So I left my horse and set off, running for the railway station. The policeman after me.

When I reached the station I raced into the office. The station master was sitting at his desk. 'Where's that bloody pumper?' I demanded. 'I want him.'

The station master looked up and scratched his head for a while. 'Well, I don't rightly know… But if he keeps going at the speed he went past here, he'll be in Oodnadatta by now.'

Oodnadatta is one hundred and sixty miles to the south.

The station master wanted to know what had happened so I told him the story.

'The ganger's here with his quad. We'll go after him and bring him back,' the station master said. 'Now, when we bring him back, don't you do anything to him. We'll handle him. We'll get the water for you.'

'You'll want to get it,' I said. 'And if you're not back sharpish I'll empty that big square overhead tank you've got for the engines. I'll turn it out on the ground and water the bullocks there.'

I would have been within my rights to do that too.

The station master, the policeman and the ganger set off down the line. I got my horse and waited.

They caught up with the pumper about ten miles south and brought him back, straight down to the pumping shed. I followed after them. Long before I reached it I could hear the roar of an engine. At the top of the tank I could see the outlet of the six inch pipe leading from the pump shed with the bullocks' water. It was running full stream.

When you bring a mob to water you can't let them all in, there are too may cattle. They'd trample the trough as they pushed in to reach the water. You have to hold them about half a mile out, on the up-wind side, otherwise they'd smell the water and gallop straight over the top of the trough. Then you cut out about two hundred and bring them in. If the trough's not long enough, it would only be one hundred at a time. After they'd had a drink you hunt them out and bring in another two hundred. So it was a while before all the mob had had a turn at the water.

When cattle are perishing like that mob, you can't just let them onto water to drink their fill. They'd drink too much and it could kill them. You let them have half a drink then hunt them out. I stopped them drinking too much by only partly filling the trough.

So we start to get the cattle a drink. It's getting towards sundown, but we're doing all right and hunting them away when they've had half a drink. Then it got dark. When it's dark it's hard to see how they're going. We battled on till midnight and in the end they'd all had a little drink, so we took them away to where there was some good green feed, about half a mile off, and turned them out. They'd be right. We'd get them in the morning.

In the morning we picked up the leaders a bit further out. We got the lot, but there were thirty dead ones. They'd drunk too much water.

Was I furious.

I took the mob on, through New Crown and Old Crown Stations and down to Mount Dare and Dalhousie where I delivered them to Rex Lowe. I told him he had thirty short because of the pumper.

From there I went down to Oodnadatta and caught a train back to Marree. The horses belonged to Rex Lowe so I had to leave them with him. From Marree I hitched a ride on the mail to Ooroowilanie.

Getting the Bullocks a Feed.

The bullocks were the prime responsibilities of a drover. The horses came after them, then finally the stockmen. A drover would do anything to get a good feed for his bullocks, particularly after a lean patch. In 1945 Dick took out his first lease on Hidden Valley Station in the Northern Territory. He was on the way.

Although he now had a station of his own, he had to keep droving to earn money. By the time a drover had finished a long trip, paid hismen and returned to his base, he had little left. When he'd taken up Hidden Valley, Dick had had twenty-six pounds in his pocket, his horse plant and an old ex-army truck.

Here he tells how he delivered another mob to Dalhousie.

In 1946 I brought another mob of twelve hundred and fifty down the same way. Again they were for Rex Lowe, but this time they were all bullocks, from Elsey. I brought them down through Mataranka, Daly Waters, Newcastle Waters, Helen Springs and dipped them at Muckaty. On passed Tennant Creek and Alice. After that I had the fifty miles dry stage to Deep Well then on to Maryvale.

Now I had the seventy-four miles dry stage to Finke. I wondered what would happen. It was too late to worry, so I rang ahead and told the pumper I was coming, when I'd be there, and that I had twelve hundred head. I didn't tell him who I was, but the bush telegraph would have taken care of that.

When I reached the Finke I pulled the horse plant up a bit back from the tanks. While the cook and horse tailer were taking the packs off I went across to check the tanks. I could hear the engine and the pump while I was still about one hundred yards away. When I reached the shed around the corner came the pumper with a big grin hooked over his ears.

He was a different bloke to the year before and he said, 'The tanks are full. The troughs are full. If you want any more I'll keep pumping.' He pointed to the bullet hole in the side of the shed. 'I don't want any of that caper.'

Later the policeman came up. 'How are you?'

'Oh, all right. How's that bloody pumper?'

The policeman grinned. 'He took off after you left. We haven't seen him since.'

I stayed at the Finke for another day to give the bullocks a chance to have a decent drink and a bit of a feed. After dinner on the second day I set off along the northern bank of the Finke. After a few miles I ran into a new fence across a stock route. It's illegal to put a fence across a stock route, but it had a gate, so I pushed the bullocks through. They spread out and were getting a good feed when a truck rolled up. It was old, just a tray, no bonnet or cab, with the driver sitting at the front. The driver leapt off while he was still about one hundred yards away from me and started having a go.

'What's wrong with you, mate? Did you have a bad night?' I asked.

'You're in my paddock. You're eating my feed.'

'This isn't your paddock. This is the stock route.'

'You get your bullocks out of here straight away. I've got sheep here,' he said.

'I don't care if you've got giraffes here, I'm still letting my bullocks have a feed. And I'm going to camp just up there,' I said.

The argument lasted over an hour. By then the bullocks had finished eating so I brought the lead round and put them on the other side of the fence. The station owner was sore, but I didn't care. The bullocks had had a good feed.

I took them on and delivered them to Mount Dare without any more incidents.

Three Parts of the Breeding.

Dick continues, explaining how good feed can transform bullocks.

Those Elsey bullocks were more like kangaroo dogs than bullocks. All long legged and hollowed bellied with their brisket three feet clear of the ground. Real mean mongrels to look at. When I was a young fellow, old timers used to tell me that three parts of the breeding went down a bullock's neck. It was what they ate that made them good or not.

In 1947 I had another twelve hundred and fifty bullocks to take down the same route. When I reached Mount Dare, Rex Lowe told me to take them over to the same waterhole where I'd let the previous mob go the year before.

I took my crew over to the waterhole and hunted the cattle away so I could put the new mob on it. When I took the new mob over, I found one bullock we'd missed lying under the shade of a tree. He was a mountain, at least twelve hundred pounds if he was an ounce. After looking at the mongrels we'd brought down he was beautiful.

I hunted him out and he was that fat his brisket was nearly on the ground. I looked again and he was one of the mongrels I'd brought down the year before. Now he was on decent feed he'd proved the old timers were right. Three parts of the breeding goes down their throat.

Appendicitis on the Road.

If a packhorse drover, or one of his stockmen, was taken ill while on the road medical help was usually far way, especially in the early years with just horses. Dick had one close call on a trip to Mount Dare with twelve hundred Elsey bullocks in 1947.

This is how he remembers it.

We were about sixty miles north of Alice Springs and I was feeling crook. I had no idea what was wrong. One morning I woke up with a terrible pain in my guts and it got worse as the day passed. The next morning when I went to climb on my horse I had no feeling in one foot and pain in my guts was crippling. I couldn't climb on. I still had no idea what the trouble was, but I knew I had to get to a doctor quickly.

By now I had a small truck which I used as a cook's wagon. I set off, driving slowly because of the pains, and wondering if I was going to make it. After a while the pain became so bad I couldn't carry on. I pulled over and waited at the side of the road.

A semi-trailer driver stopped and asked what was wrong. When I explained the driver told me to climb in and we set off to Alice Springs. The driver was forcing the semi along as fast as it would go, about seventy miles per hour, and took me straight to Alice Springs hospital.

I was diagnosed with peritonitis. They had to operate immediately so I was put in a bed and given a jab and was becoming drowsy. I was also a little deaf and touchy about it.

The doctor said, 'You say the words after me… One.'

'Two,' I said.

'No. You say the same number after me.'

He carried on with me repeating the number, but he was getting fainter.


I said, 'Nine.'

'No. Say nine,' the doctor said.

'What's up? Can't you hear me? Nine you silly bugger,' I shouted.

At that I started to climb out of bed, but the nurses were trying to hold me back. I can't remember anything about it, but the nurses told me later this is what happened. I pushed them away and a policeman, who happened to be in the ward, came across to help them. Finally they got me with my arms strapped to the steel bed-frame. I was unconscious all this time.

When the doctor came round to visit me after the operation he said, 'I got the appendix out, but it burst in my hand. A few minutes longer and you would have been dead.'

I was worried about my cattle. I knew the crew would take them on, but they'd be past Alice Springs and I wanted to be with them before they reached the long dry stage south of Maryvale.

After a couple of days I felt better. 'I have to go,' I said. 'I have to catch up with my cattle.'

'You can't go yet,' the doctor said.

The doctor left the ward and I climbed out of bed, dressed and moved to the reception where I waited for him to return from his rounds.

'What are you doing here? he asked.

'I'm waiting to tell you I'm going.'

He wasn't happy, but he couldn't stop me leaving. 'Don't do any lifting or anything like that,' he said.

'I'm going by motorcar,' I said. One of my men had brought the truck down and parked it at the hospital.

The doctor still tried to persuade me to stay, but finally gave up and said, 'That's up to you, but be careful not to do anything physical.' I set off on my own in the truck and that first afternoon I bogged it and had to dig it out. So much for not doing anything physical. The first day I reached Deep Well and passed Maryvale. Finally I caught up with the bullocks at Finke. By then they were past the long dry stage. I could have stayed in hospital, but I didn't know what was happening to them.

© Jim Ditchfield 2003

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