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Git Home!

Up Front

Weewondilla and a special report.

By C.J. Hadley

The trip to Australia in late March was courtesy of my brother Bob. My sister Audrey lives Down Under and had gathered the clans from three continents to celebrate the beautiful South Pacific and Bob’s 60th birthday.

Audrey booked three large condos on North Stradbroke Island off the Queensland Coast and stocked them with food. Then 18 descendants of Hadleys (some might say “too many”) assembled for a week on the beach. Seeing my brother and sister and their families together was a rare and lovely treat.

I wouldn’t have missed that vacation for a free trip to Gstaad with Tommy Lee Jones but there was something else I didn’t want to miss–the bush–so I took a detour to Longreach and the Stockmen’s Hall of Fame. After 32 hours of travel from Reno, I escaped the last plane in Longreach to 115 degrees and excessive humidity. “It’s moister than usual, mate!” a young Aussie chirped.

At the Hall, I learned about the droving days, bush squatters, bullockies (teamsters), and notes left on bleached bones out on the track. One was written in pencil on a horse’s skull and said, “A quiet nag who did no kicking, ridden to death by Tom McMicking.”

Aboriginal drovers helped the new bushmen to find reliable sources of water. When wood ran out dry cattle dung was used to boil the billy for tea. Bullockies took arduous journeys across the outback. Some food would go rotten “but as long as the weevils were healthy, the flour was considered still usable.” Goods and supplies from Sydney often didn’t arrive for almost a year.

Shearers traveled hundreds of kilometers between sheep stations, which started when the Australian colonies passed laws creating pastoral leaseholds. Individuals could lease Crown lands for up to 99 years to raise livestock. They paid rent for it, much like a grazing lease on public lands in the American West, only for longer–and more reasonable–periods of time.

I practically staggered around the spectacular Hall then moved into a motel and was about to pass out from fatigue when I got a call from a local tour operator (who heard an American journalist was in town).

“We’d like you to go to a whip cracking show in Ilfracombe,” a man said.

“Where’s that?” I whimpered.

“About 40K south. You’ll like it. They’ll be working ducks with Queensland heelers and border collies, you’ll get a free dinner at the Wellstone Hotel. We’ll send you a cab.”

They did. I did. And it was perfect. The star of the show, Andrew Hitson, owned the Wellstone and a sheep station on the edge of town. The hotel had a history. No ceiling space was unhatted. “When the drovers used to come through here with the big mobs they’d want a drink,” said the whip cracker. “If they didn’t have money, they paid with their hats.” Hitson claimed that one mob was 435,000 head, which means lots of hats and drovers.

On the second day, the tour group took me to Winton, 70 miles north. We passed emu, kangaroo, parrots, tumbleweed, and lots of green grass. “This is unusual, mate,” said the bus driver. “It’s been wet here lately.”

It was the end of summer, the sky bright, dotted with cotton balls. Winton’s wide main street was shaded by “eucalypts” but it was even hotter than Longreach. While the latter had the Hall of Fame, Winton claimed the Waltzing Matilda Museum and sculptures of the jolly swagman and bush poet Banjo Paterson, who wrote “Waltzing Matilda” and “The Man from Snowy River.”

That afternoon, Hamish Webb, age 17, took me out to his family’s “Weewondilla,” thanks to Brian Marshall in New South Wales and Allan Savory in Albuquerque. (See page 38.)

With a station as big as Weewondilla, the best way to muster, to check for problems, to search for dingos, to find family members who get stuck in the mud, is by plane. As Graham musters sheep from the air, Boyd gently pushes them by dirt bike on the ground.There are no herders at Weewondilla; no lambing sheds. But there are 15,000-25,000 merinos scattered across the station. Ewes lamb in the bush. The sun shines hard. There are numerous bores dotted about the place, plus pipelines and artesian springs, some so hot that when a thirsty dog jumped in it scalded the beast and singed his hair. Boyd raced it to another cold spring several miles away to cool him off. “He’ll be right,” he said, although you could tell he was worried. “He’ll just be out of commission a few days.”

* * *

In the center of this issue you will find “The West 2000,” a special resource handbook written by investigative reporter Tim Findley. Included are facts on ranching, farming, logging, mining and recreation. You won’t like some of these facts but we need your help to spread the message. This is a “must have” document for local politicians, enviros, academics, libraries, and anyone who cares about the rural West. Buy 10 or more for a buck apiece and get the word out.

“The West has no champions capable of standing off the gang alone,” said Findley. “We MUST make ourselves understood, at least as much as the organized cadre of urban and suburban well-doers who misunderstand us all.”

Findley’s right. And we don’t have much time left. Come summer, before the candidates are named, we should gather for a mother of all barbecues and let them know that we also have a voice and that it’s time they listened. Do we have the support? Sponsors? A place? Do we have the courage?


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