Life as a Drover



RON KERR – reminiscences of a working drover


Ron and Mavis. NLA

Ron and Mavis. NLA






I got married in Broken Hill in 1958 and saw our first child, John, born in 1959. My father-in-law was Rube Stephenson who was also a drover. He was offered a job walking 5500 sheep from Mount Wood, in the far northwest corner, north of Tibooburra, to Bourke.  Rube had trouble-finding ringers for this particular job. They didn’t like the idea of walking horses 370Km north, to take delivery of sheep, and walking them 425Km to Bourke, driving cantankerous sheep. As Broken Hill was getting drier by the day, finding horse feed would be a problem in a very short time, plus our son was now about 5 month’s old. So I said that I would take my plant along and help him with the sheep into Bourke. My wife, Mavis, could drive a truck, while my mother-in-law drove Rube’s truck. There weren’t any hiccups about the women moving the trucks along. Also my wife’s two brothers, Tiger and Ray, could handle the horses as they were around 20 year’s old. So we headed off walking the horses with about 50 head doing about 40Km per day. We arrived at Mount Wood two weeks later. Took delivery and turned S.E. heading for the Cut Line, Milparinka to Wanaaring. Striking the track we headed for Wanaarins as the only water was a stock route bore, one of these, when we arrived at Clifton bore, was boiling hot for two and a half miles along a bore trough. We had to divert our stock wide of the drain for three miles until the water was cool enough to drink. Skinner’s bore had been fenced in to hold stock – it was here I met Jeff Carter (the photographer) and he couldn’t get over that we had a baby of 5 months and he wasn’t concerned with the heat. When we arrived in Bourke John was six month’s old.


I wasn’t long in Bourke when I was offered a job droving 2500 sheep. The money was good plus, I was thinking of heading up over the border into Qld and this job would take me in that direction. It was to go to Kilcoweran some thirty miles NW of Hungerford. I didn’t need any help for 2500 sheep as Mavis could drive the truck along while I drove the sheep. It was me and ‘old sandsoap’, my working dog. When we delivered at Kilcoweran we heard that Mavis ‘s family had moved to Boorara, 30 km north of Hungerford. It was shearing time at Boorara plus a lot of this station was being cut up as closer settlements. This meant that ether would be work as Mavis’s family had the contract to muster sheep for shearing. So we stayed.


We were camped on the southern side of the station near a bore that had a drain that watered three paddocks and in one of these paddocks were a lot of brumbies, The boss asked if I could yard them as there were some station mares running with the  brumbies. He said if I got them back I could do what I wanted with the rest.


The horses came down off the hill country and went through a thick belt of timber to get to the water bore. It was here that we started to build a yard trap so when the horses came down for water, about 4.30 at night, we could trap them. We had to be careful because brumbies have a good sense of smell and you can’t be anywhere near them. We used to ride our horses down the track just so the brumbies could smell horses. There were about 20 to 25 horses at the bore when we trapped them. We built a yard to hold just as many as we needed. It was not point trapping more than you needed and seeing them starve. The first mob we trapped was about 22 head and of these there were 5 station mares. One looked like it had racing blood in it the rest were about 7 head of young horses, 2 or 3 year olds, and we drafted off the stallion and 4 old mares with yearling foals and then turned them loose. We contacted the homestead and said we had the 5 mares and Allan McGrath and Roy wood, the head stockman, came out with a truck to collect the station mares.


Tiger, my brother-in-law, and myself started handling the 7 head of young horses, all fillies. After a while we could lead them to our campsite, about a mile away, and break them in proper.


Where we were camped was one time a boundary rider’s place until the hut was burnt down. We were able to handle all the fillies at once and teach them to be handled. In a week we could ride them so we then tarted to think about trapping some more. So we arranged the trap yard again and the brumbies walked right on through. This time we trapped 19 head, four stallions and 15 colts.


These stallions and colts would be the ones that were kicked out of the main heard by a much stronger stallion that was holding the main breeding mares.


All of the 15 young colts were as much as two of us could handle so we drafted off the 4 stallions and turned them into the bush again/ As we wouldn’t need the trap yard for some time we started handling the colts in the trap, mainly teaching them to be tied up, lead etc and then bag them down at the same time. Three weeks later with 22 head of brumbies broken to saddle, tied up and nobbled, we could walk up and lead them. It couldn’t have happened at a better time as Alan McGrath came out to the camp to see if I was interested in taking 1000 head of cows into Bourke sale yards. I said I’d take the job but I have to get two more men. Tiger said he would do the horse tailing and Mavis would drive the truck and do the cooking. I wanted two more men leaving myself and two men with the cattle.


Allan said he would ring the agent in Cunnamulla and then fly the men to the station at station cost. I was to take delivery in two days. The day of delivery Mavis, Tiger and myself started getting things ready so we could be at the homestead 20 miles away. We were used to moving at short notice plus the station had a good supply of food, horse shoes, rope etc. we were at the station homestead within 24 hours – ready for the two men and 1000 head of cattle. Allan brought the two men down and I said to Tiger that he should get two horses for these fellows – and we can see how they sit on a saddle. Tiger grinned and said “How quite a horse?” I said he’d better make it real quiet. I said he and the two men could then bring all the horses down, but don’t let them near any of those brumby colts – and to show them how to take the hobbles off and how to put them on.


The station stock camp arrived just on dark and yarded up the cattle. Roy Ward came to our camp just on dark asking what time I wanted to start off with the herd? I said as soon as it’s light enough in the morning to make the count. I wanted to be on the other side of the first fence, seven mile away, to camp the first night but I didn’t know if the two recruits had ever watched cattle before.


Next morning Tiger had the horses on camp at daylight. We all caught horses and saddled up. Shaun and Bob, the two new fellows, got their horses saddled up after a few directions from Tiger then the three of us headed down to the cattle yards while Tiger helped Mavis pack up the gear.


Soon Allan McGrath and Roy Ward arrived at the yard, just on daybreak. We started the count from one big yard to another. I had ten small stones in my shirt pocket and every time we counted to 100 I put a stone in the other side pocket. Shaun and Bob were behind the mob, just close enough to keep the cattle stringing through the gate. When we counted 1000 head at a glance I could see there was at least another 100 and when 1100 came I moved one stone back to the other pocket – which made the count 1123 cows. Two cows had calved in the yard. Shaun and Bob, confused, were shaking their heads. The boss said, that’ll do and that he’d see us in Bourke.


So we opened the gate and set sail for Bourke. I told Mavis she’d better only go about 4 miles because what I had seen of the cattle there could be more calves born between camps – we could put them on the truck until they could manage to walk with us.


Mavis pulled up about 4 miles in a patch of low mulga trees, which offered good shade, and these cattle were scrub eaters, and loved eating young mulga.


The two new men worked a wing each while I brought up the tail. This gave me an idea how they worked. I could see the cattle pulling down mulga limbs down like it was going out of style.


When we came to the dinner camp Mavis was waiting. I said to Tiger we’d ride one of the brumby colts after dinner since there were no cows on the tail that was trying to go back to the station. Riding back across the tail I saw two cows that were going to calf at the dinner camp. I rode around and told Mavis to hold up on dinner until we started moving them off camp. I told Tiger to stack up some of the gear on the tail of the truck, as we would have two calves joining us later.


I said we’d put one of the new chums on the horses and follow the cattle behind and Tiger could go behind the cattle because once we put the calves on the truck the cows are going to want to return to the dinner camp, in search of her calf.


This turned out to be the worse that I thought possible. We had a total of 9 calves born at the dinner camp. We had to push the mob up level with the truck and as Shaun and Bob were quite good on horses, Tiger and myself started grabbing calves one at a time, putting them across to Shaun and Bob so they could put them in the truck.


Tiger and I would watch the cows who were bellowing for their calves. After getting all the newborn calves on the truck we pushed the mob up tight to move off dinner camp.


As the cattle had filled up on the mulga trees we pushed them toward the night camp. With Tiger and myself working the tail, not giving the cows time to come back. We had 3 miles to go to night camp. Plus we had a fence to go through and water on the other side of that fence. A couple of cows made a dash to go back but we managed to get a horse up onto them in time. At this stage they were bellowing their heads off in protest. When we got them through the gate Mavis had the camp about 200 yards up the fence. When the cows heard the calves singing out away they went – straight for the camp. Shaun kept an eye on the mob while Tiger and I went to the camp to unload the calves. The calves were still wobbly on their feet. Mavis had to keep baby John in the caravan but once the cows worked out where their calves were they started to head back to the mob. The other thing in our four at this time was that there were small water bores along the way between the main bores.


It took us about 4 weeks longer getting to Bourke because of the calving. We headed into Bourke sale yards with 1520 cows and calves! That’s around 400 calves born on the road.


I asked Shaun and Bob what they were going to do as I was going back to Boorara. They said they had no intention of riding back that way again.


At the sale of the Boorara cows and calves one of the agents mentioned that there was a road train going to Crawarro, about 50km over the Qld border for a load of cattle. I asked if the road train could take my horses, as it was less than 50km from Boorara. He came out to the cattle yards next morning saying if the horses were ready to load at 6 o’clock that night he’d get them to Ciawarra. We had them locked in the yard so we set off to Hungerford to camp the night, collected the horses at Ciawarra and walked them to Boorara.


Arriving at Boorara we found the shearing was complicated with only one stock camp working. Mavis’s family had moved up to Quilpie. I decided to trap some more horses as there was a buyer wanting horses for dog meat. There was an old stockyard s I started patching it up. Tiger went on to Quilpie with the mail truck and I trapped about 25 horses but they were some of the worst looking brumbies you ever did see.


Two days after I trapped these horses the buyer turned up to see if had any horses. His truck held 25 head so I sold him the lot.


As my plant horses were spelling on good feed they were in good condition.


I said to Mavis, let’s pack up and head north to Quilpie as it is on the end of the railway line and the big station on the cooper’s Creek would be starting to muster fat cattle that would need to go from Quilpie to Brisbane.


So with my horses, and Mavis driving the truck and caravan we set off. I drove the horses 256 km doing approximately 30km per day but in no hurry on the first leg to Thargomindah, Toompine, Quilpie, 12 days walking the horses with good feed and water all the way.


After making enquiries at the stock agent of what movements of cattle were available he said the big station on Cooper’s Creek was due to start in a month. However there were some new blokes starting up at Kyabra so he gave me some names: Budge O’Connor, Ray Steel, John Gater and Bill Crouthers. I said, this John Gater bloke – does he come from White Cliffs, western NSW? He said, yes he does, do you know him? I said, I do. He said the operators name was Rube something. I said, that’s my father-in-law.!


The next day we set sail for Eromanga as I had itchy feet to be moving. We heard that Mavis’s family were working for Budge O’Connor on a new block called Monkeycoda, between Eromanga and Kyara, about 20 miles off Eromanga – one easy day for the horses. We arrived next day. Rube Stephenson told me John Gator was getting ready for shearing and as yet had no horses and would have to muster with a landrover. John’s block was Kyabra with the great big water hole where the Tullys and Jardine discovered waterway back in the pioneering days.


I drove the truck over to Kyabra next day leaving Mavis with her family. I hadn’t seen John Gater for 3 or 4 years when his family owned Quester Park, just north of White Cliff, the little opal town that only had a pub and half a dozen houses.


I asked John if he needed any mustering to which he said, do I ever! Two blokes turned up but they’re only ringers so I’ve had to do most of the mustering in a landrover.


said when did you want me to start? He said the shearers would be happy for the day after tomorrow. I said, right! John said there was good horse feed around the homestead and all the water they can drink and Mavis would be good company for his wife, Beth.


Warren, I’ve only covered a mere 10 years and still in Qld – there is another 40 years in the NT. Mavis and I came to Borooola with 3 kids when the white population was 10 people – we increased this to 15 – a third of the white population with 200 blacks camped over the McArthur river that divides the town roads. The town was virtually wiped out by Cyclone Kathy in 1984.


We arrived with thee children and Mavis had to take them back into Qld twice while the other two were born. All the kids started school of the air in Alice Springs.


I am on the downhill of 70 and was born 20 August 1936 at Gunnedah, NSW.


I have three sons and two daughters. One son is in north Qld, and other is 200km south of Borrloola and the second eldest son, Ronald, same working name as me, is in the Kimberley’s of WA. He has just been featured in a book by Lizzie Spender called Wild Horse Diaries. In my above writing Ronald hadn’t even been born! He is now 43 years old. All my sons were capable ringers before they left school. Even the two girls, Debbie and Roslyn, both married with children. Roslyn is president of our local rodeo for the past three years.