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Joan: 'the prettiest girl in the mountains'

The story that follows was submitted to the Elyne Mitchell Women's Writing Award in 2009. Written by Joan Sinclair, nee Boardman, it describes in vivid detail her first droving trip in 1942 to Pretty Plain and its hut, at the age of 7 with her father Ernie Boardman. 

In Joan's words 'It was at Pretty Plain that I had my higher education'.

Explainatory Notes:

Night Hawk - a drover who stays with the mob to keep them quiet

Harry, Darkie and Tiger - stockmen of Khancoban Station

Her horse: Tatters, the taffy mare. (taffy is toffee coloured).

Drag - to be the last rider behind the mob in the dust

Running M brand - Khancoban Station was owned by the Mitchell family from 1875 to 1922 when on the death of JF Mitchell the property was left to his nephew Capt Colin Chisholm.

Everards Flat grave - From Joan, the grave was only marked by a wooden cross, no head or footstones.

Oldfields grave - Oldfields hut at the foot of Mt Murray.

The  Long Spur - a very steep ascent of 600 meters in 2.5 kilometres

Condamine bells - Condamine, a small town in Queensland, claims its fame for the invention of the Condamine bell.

Going to the Top

A male voice on the verandah that was supposed to be a whisper, but was clearly heard to say "what time is it now Ernie, then the striking of a match and Dads answer 20 to 2 Alex. My sister, Betty rolled over sharply in the big bed we shared and I heard her mutter 'Oh God he is worse than a striking clock'.

Yes, the old Drover Alex Guiner was as stirrie as the mob of young cattle that were in our small clover paddock. My brother Roy was riding Night Hawk that is to stay with cattle all night, you can sing, talk, swear, just so long as you let them know something familiar is there,  that way they are not as likely to spook and rush and break fences.

The main mobs of cattle had gone to 'The Tops' about 5 or 6 weeks ago.  These young ones it had been decided would be sent up late because the spring had come in very dry, so Colonel Chisholm, owner and Terry Green Manager, of Khancoban Station thought these young ones would be better 'Up Top'.

So, about 10 days ago they had been mustered, drenched, drafted and only the best kept to make the mob.  Half a dozen or so 'old quite cows' were put in with them to 'camp'. Each day they were driven somewhere on the place or out on the road to educate them to Men, Dogs & Horses, as Khancoban cattle could be very touchy.  Dad and Archie McCallum Head Stockman, had not wanted them to go at this time as the moon was almost full when cattle are prone most to spook.  Hence Roys night ride when Dad and Archie lost the argument.

Yesterday, the cattle had been brought the 3 miles or so, from the small Woolshed Paddock on the Station up to home, so an early start could be made.  (Alex, made sure of that!) Alex  was only used to flat country and mostly looked after sheep for Andrew Scott, so he was quite nervous about 'all this mountain bush'.   Also, some stockman had been heard to mutter 'bloody sheepherders, what trouble the boss likes to get'. Harry Freyer had been sent up with the packhorses a day or two ago,  he was to clear anything that may have fallen across the track on the way.   The horses were packed with tucker for the men, salt for the cattle and feed for the horses. Each horse was tied by his lead rein to the tail of the horse in front, so Harry only had to lead one and the rest would follow¦usually.

Everyone had turned in early to get good nights sleep (we hoped); hence my sisters remark when Alex started his time enquires from about 11pm.  By the time Alex' s last 'Hows the time Ernie' got a 'its 20 to 4 Alex' Mum in her quiet way got up, and went to the kitchen to light the big wood stove, start breakfast and cut lunches for everyone.  Cakes and scones for smoko in the saddlebags, and lunch tucker went onto the packhorse that we took with us to carry the horse rugs and dog tucker.

Horses were caught, saddled, the blokes gathered around with reins and stockwhips over their arms, big hats, warm woolly coats, rolled their smokes while they listened to the last word from the 'Boss Drover' as he filled his pipe.

Photo: Boxed cattle at Boardman' s 1950' s, Archie McCallum on left, Ernie Boardman in centre

The job of 'Boss Drover' could vary a lot, in the distance of only a few miles and degree of difficulty of the terrain.  Colonel Chisholm owned the Station and the cattle, but had enough sense to know he was no mountain cattleman, and just liked to See them Off, and it was a long standing joke among the stockmen that Terry the Manager, always had 'Bookwork' to do as they reached the top of Bradneys Gap, and by the  lunch spell at the foot of the long Spur Archie 'Head Stockman', had  to go back because of 'Mrs McCallum (as he always called her) would need help'.  We always wondered what for, because Mrs McCallum was one very capable lady and Archie was very well looked after.

So it was Dad who said OK Boys lets move them out.  Ill go lead, Darkie and Tiger on each flank, Terry and Archie, drag.   My little mate on the Taffy pony is the one to send if you need anything¦ Thats me!  Keep them tight till we get to the Sliprails.  Don' t push them, Don' t Rush them, lets go!  My job was to let the dogs off, put the chains into packbags, and then wait.

That lovely funny orange kind of light that comes between daylight and sunup had covered the mountains, and the Valley below had clumps of fog hanging here and there also colored by this as well.  It was a magic time and the Jackass started to laugh, I wondered if at us.  Dad waited at the gate as Tiger and Darkie brought the cattle out, he rode off in the lead and it looked like the cattle just followed, but his good Border Collie dogs had a lot to do with that.  They were bred and trained to bring the cattle to him and so, as Tiger and his little tan dog took one flank,  Darkie with some kind of grey cross bred hound took charge of the other.  Terry had no dog, he only had a little Terrier named 'Muffincat' better not mentioned at times like this and Archies kelpie 'Bo'.

So, the cattle did as the men wanted. I came out last with the packhorse and waved to Mum, Betty and Roy.  My other two brothers and sister, were away at the War, which must have been a terrible time for Mum. But I was young and going 'Bush' and felt so fortunate, so lucky; call it what you will to be living in my magic world of dogs, horses and those lovely red and white cattle with the Big running M  burnt onto their hide.

As the tailers moved through the sliprails and the lead turned up on to the cattle track, wisps of breath from men and horses came up into the air like something dancing.  The old cows were now leading out, and the hard steep climb began.  This part was tough on the dogs as they had to work on the side of that steep ridge and in the bush as well.  Dad led the cattle on with the other men pushing them along with the crack of a stockwhip or a shout or the odd swear word.  When the leaders reached the top of Bradneys Gap and started that sharp, short fall down into Khancoban Creek, we all felt better,  they had had the rush taken out of them.

The cattle filed down and drank from the lovely clear cold water of the Creek and then moved on to Everards Flat.  Dad ringed the lead on the clearing and as the tailers came in, the welcome yell of ˜Smoko rang out.  Everyone and everything was glad of a spell.  Terry announced he would have to leave ¦the bookwork wont go away.  Everards Flat, was a lovely clearing with the remains of a bush hut, a big plum tree and a grave.  I dont know, but guess someone named Everard once lived there.  The grave had a lot of theories, a baby, a dog, or only a Chinaman,  dont know why a Chinaman would have mattered less. Different ones were going to dig it up, but no one was ever really game.  There is also a grave at Oldfields ¦the Chinaman and the dog also got a start there as well.

As the mob was moved off again and the old cows led out behind Dad, things seemed pretty good. The track was wide now and not steep.  Lovely trees flanked our journey, with such colour in their bark.  The waterfalls on the left crashing down over the rocks and flashes of royal blue and red as the Mountain  Laurie parrots shot by.  Not that the stockmen worried about this, all they wanted was ¦cattle straight ahead.  By this time even poor old Alex was at last not worried about the damn time.  Time and distance went by and soon Dad called me, 'go ahead Mate, take Tiger with you and get well off the track and boil up.  So I found Tiger and told him we had to make lunch camp.  We hurried ahead and as we passed Dad yelled, 'for Christ' s sake Tiger don' t walk anywhere.'   A man on foot was more likely than anything else to frighten the cattle.  You could keep your horse with you and walk, but not alone.  So, Tiger and I rushed off to get some wood and take down the big black billycan from the front of the Pack and off to the creek and back with the water.  I had an old Havelock tobacco tin in my coat pocket with some charcoal soaked in diesel oil.  I let Tiger try to light the fire first and when it was a smoking mess, and we had had a row when I said Fan it Tiger, fan it with your hat I got a curt reply 'No damn fear, not with my good hat'   Tiger' s hat was another standing joke of the camp, it was in the days when Reg Williams only had a little shop in Adelaide and you could send an order from the catalogue to 5 Percy St, Prospect, which Tiger had done and in 3 weeks or a month had received his pride and joy.  It never had a dent in it and apart from the fact it was far too large, he wore it constantly, (some said to bed) and informed one and all that it cost 30 bob.  I snuck my charcoal tin out and soon had a good fire on the go, with the Billy on and the big tin of food Mum had sent out in the packbag.  Tiger was to eat now so he could mount up and watch the cattle while the other blokes had their lunch. As Dad rode up he said with a wink to me good fire Tiger and Darkie said Yeah must have fanned it with his hat poor old Tiger just rode away.

Soon Lunch was over and everything started moving again. Archie took his leave so I rode in his place.  Its a long, long climb up the Long Spur, but was all over in a few hours when we came out on Broadway. It was a real picture with a dozen different wild flowers in bloom.  The cattle were allowed to spread out a bit and soon we heard the lovely sound of the Bells and knew that Harry was on his way from the Hut.  Harry had the train of Packhorses that he had taken up a couple of days ago.  Now they only had the packsaddles with empty bags well strapped down and the big Condamine bells around the horses necks.  When the horses were on the 'home' side of the mob they had the headstalls pulled off, setting them free.  They would be back at our sliprails before dark and as you could hear the Bells from home, all my brother Roy had to do was go up and let them in.  It saved leading horses back down the mountain and also avoided feeding them on up on the top.  Harry was a happy bloke on leave from the Army.  He was to return to his unit the next week and sadly, as it happened, he was never to return to the mountains he loved.  About 10 months later the Colonel received the 'feared telegram' to say Harry had been killed on Active Duty.

Dad called 'OK, come on lets keep '˜em dodging along'   anxious now to finish up.  Over the ridge and the big warm friendly log hut was there in front of us, with smoke from Harrys fire climbing up into the air, Harry had put a couple of lumps of big dark Red Rock Salt out in the holding paddock, some of  Goldie Whiteheads cattle had smelt it and came over from their Pugalistic lease.  The young cattle would not get much of a go at the salt until the old horny cows had had their fill, they would just bully them away but its good to have settled down cattle about.  

Back to the Hut, horses into yard with big nose bags and rugs on, dogs tied up and fed, then, we could sit.  The men drank Rum and talked, I went down to the creek and watched two big eagle hawks fight over something, while another one circled high in the sky on his big majestic wings and the old black and white Jay birds always looking on hoping for food.

As dark settled in and we all had a hearty hot meal, barking dogs announced the arrival of Sam Thomas the old dingo trapper riding in.  We always love to see Sam and his two big, big dogs, he always had an amusing tale to tell.

So, the last job was done and the other stockmen would go home tomorrow while I would kid Dad into letting me stay with him.  In the morning, I knew he would say Oh, no mate, there will be hell to play when we get home, your mother wants you for school. (I did Blackfriers Correspondence)  Then I'd sulk a bit and walk off as if to get my horse and then he would sing out,  'Get those dogs a drink Mate',  'don't let ours of the hook until the others have left' - this was what I was waiting to hear.   So, suddenly tomorrow was today, Sam went off down the Toolong Plain, his to packhorses jogging by his knee and the big dogs 'Smoka' and 'Spring' playing like pups happy to be on their way.  Then the others set off for home, Darkie did venture to say 'anything to tell Mrs Boardman, Ernie?'   I stood close to Dad' s leg and put my hand up into his. He said 'oh, what the hell' and yelled louder 'Yeah, tell her we will see her in the Spring', we both laughed, knowing the laughter would be on the other side of our face when we did get home.

But for now I was left with my lovely taffy pony and our great Border Collies to care for and the beautiful Hereford cattle to ride amongst up there on 'the Top with the best mate I ever had' - my Dad.

 joan sinclair boxed cattle