Drovers Dream

The first stock routes were determined by the availability of water and feed as the pioneers moved inland with their sheep in search of land. As soon as areas became settled, the stock routes changed from a flow of stock inland to populate the new farms to a coast-bound one of sheep on foot headed for sale, or more usually the wool clip going out by dray and bullock team. In October 1836 John Hepburn and others set out from a station on the Murrumbidgee to take stock to Port Phillip Bay, and Hepburn found that both sides of the river were lined with squatters. It took them three days to get from Gundagai to the Murray River, and they swam the stock across, and then took the track made by the Surveyor-General, Thomas Mitchell, to Port Phillip Bay. Two years later Hepburn took 1,650 sheep, with ten convicts to help, from southern New South Wales to Melbourne. At the Murray he overtook another overlander, who had taken eight days to get his sheep across the river. The early drovers found autumn the best time of the year to move, and the Riverina became a popular holding place for cattle and sheep from further inland. The mobs would be moved in autumn, then held and fed in the lush Riverina pastures and sold over the whole year to provide a steady supply. The Birdsville track became a popular overlanding route in the 1880s when the railway being built to Oodnadatta reached Hergott Springs (or Marree, as it is now known). In fact, in 1980 when the old narrow gauge Central Australian Railway from Marree to Alice Springs was closed, the line to Marree from Port Augusta was retained for a while partly because of the cattle traffic still coming down the Birdsville by lorry (although it has now long since closed completely).

Overlanding has always been hard work, constant vigilance being essential to prevent stampedes when the cattle become unruly from a combination of heat, dust and flies. The earliest drives were often through virgin or barely explored territory. The first droving north­ward from Sydney took place in 1840 when sheep were overlanded to the Darling Downs in Queensland. In 1842 Joliffe and Hunter took 20,000 sheep to Wide Bay through unexplored country. The, in the 1860s, Frank and Alexander Jardine took a mob to Cape York, at times passing through almost impenetrable forest, at one stage making five miles in four days, and being under daily attack from natives. In 1879 Nat Buchan delivered cattle to Glencoe and Wave Hill in the Northern Territory and the Ord River in Western Australia after overlanding from Queensland. In 1881 Warby and Smith drove 6,000 cattle over 3,000 miles from Queensland to the Northern Territory; it took eighteen months and in the Gulf country the stock was attacked by crocodiles. It did not get easier with time: in 1911 one mob of 5,000 sheep was being moved from Lucknow in Queensland to Avon Downs in the Northern Territory. At one point before they reached the Diamantina River the drovers had to negotiate thirty-five miles of waterless country. On the fourth day of this stage a small clump of trees came into view. The sheep bolted for the shade. As they piled on one another and the pressure of weight increased the sheep underneath suffocated. Of the entire mob, only 200 survived.

Drovers were not usually the kind of people to keep a record of their lives or feats, but one who did was Alexander Buchanan. With seven others, he set out from Sydney to take sheep overland to South Australia as a speculation. Buchanan kept a detailed diary of the trip, and it provides a wonderful record of early overlanding. They set out from Sydney on 11 July 1839. After five days, one of the drovers (an ex-convict) had run away and a man had to be on guard all night to watch for bushrangers. The country was well populated by mounted police, mainly to hunt down those bushrangers. Six miles from Goulburn they passed a chain gang of 200 men making a new road. After riding through Yass they had to make their way along an unformed track, the road going no farther. Each day began early as the horses had to be rounded up; they were hobbled each night to prevent their taking long steps, but even so they could stray for two miles in search of feed. On 26 July the men were up at daybreak but it took until nine o’clock for them to find all the saddle horses. The drays set out an hour earlier. After Yass the journey became even slower as the cart-horses had to be let out to feed in the middle of the day, the stop being made wherever there was grazing, there being no longer any commercial stables to provide feed. At Howe’s property on the Murrumbidgee (the same property from which John Hepburn had set out for Port Phillip Bay three years earlier) the young entre­preneurs collected their 4,023 sheep for the journey to South Australia.

Eventually, with other sheep they had contracted to drive for another owner, the party had 13,000 animals on the trail. There was no time to stop and look after new-born lambs; on 21 September Buchanan recorded that he still had about 600 ewes ready to lamb, and that the lambs were killed as soon as they dropped.

As they passed beyond the last white-inhabited station, life became hard. The men were growing weaker from all their exertions, and the ground was bad - there were many large holes and a horse’s legs could go down to its knees in them.

download-amazon-link amazon paperback