Elkedra jackaroo: station life in the 1950s

Raised in the NSW town of Cowra, Des Nelson from a young age dreamed of coming to the Territory. He’d learnt about its “bigger wide open spaces, few people, freedom and excitement” in the pages of the monthly magazine Wild Life, edited by Crosbie Morrison. “The germ of an idea that I would eventually reside in the NT was being implanted in my mind,” he recalls. That idea bore fruit when at age 18 he applied for work on Elkedra Station. He’d been inspired by an account of it in the book With the Sun on my Back by J.K. Ewers, a birthday present that year from one of his sisters. After an eight day journey he arrived in Alice Springs where the Elkedra boss picked him up for the 500km drive north-east. The year was 1953.

 

When he left Cowra his boss warned, “I’ll give you six months, and you’ll be back”. To date, sixty years have passed, spent in the Territory. He’s only ever been back to Cowra for brief holidays. In 2013 he was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his service to conservation and the environment, particularly in central Australia. Here DES NELSON recalls his earliest experiences of the place to which he has devoted his life and his first real experiences with Aboriginal people, the local Alyawarra, living on Elkedra:-

 

The boss of Elkedra, John Henry Driver, was known as the Sandover Galah. Formerly he had been the N.T. Surveyor General and was the brother of a former N.T. Administrator, A.R. “Mick” Driver. John Driver loved to talk, and argue, hence his nick-name. Of the things he said to me on the drive, one admonition puzzled me. “Don’t get friendly with the Blacks.” Near my home town, Cowra, was Erambie, a small settlement of Aboriginal people with whom I had very little contact. They were just – there.

 

My presence on Elkedra brought the European population to eight. There was a group of about seventy Alyawarra, tribal Aboriginal people. Some were employed on the station. Two women, Myrtle and Jemima, worked in the house as maids, or ‘house girls’, in the terminology of the time.

 

Myrtle’s husband, King Billy, was the gardener.

 

They were a happy, healthy lot, among whom I noted a few little children who were lighter in colour than usual. The penny dropped. I now knew what the boss meant by, “Don’t get friendly with the Blacks”. I never did become “friendly” in a sexual manner, but I did establish happy relationships otherwise with those delightful and fascinating people. Later, I was to see the agony of a mother when her little ‘coloured’ child, Nangi, was taken away to become, I suppose, one of the ‘Stolen Generation’.

 

At first I had just brief contacts with the locals who worked around the house. At night, often there were concerts at the Aboriginal camp some distance from the homestead. Much of the music was indigenous – chanting, percussion, and the sound of a didgeridoo.

 

The didgeridoo was not a traditional part of Alyawarra culture but some men had visited the Top End of the N.T. and had experienced events featuring this instrument. They had brought the concept home and displaying ingenuity had manufactured a local example. As there were no suitable materials available (hollow tree branches or bamboo), the locals, having access to the station workshop, made a very usable didgeridoo from a one metre length of 50mm steel waterpipe with a reducing socket and a short piece of 25mm pipe as a mouth piece. I was taught to blow this instrument.

 

A part-Aboriginal man, a ‘half caste’, as many were termed then, named Jack Spratt, had lived almost all his life on Elkedra. He was the station head stockman and was an essential person in the management of Elkedra. He also owned a portable, wind-up gramophone. On some nights Jack would take this machine to the concerts and play his collection of records of country music; bush songs and hillbilly tunes. Slim Dusty, Wilf Carter, Buddy Williams and Reg Lindsay were among some of the artists featured. There was plenty of yodelling which the Aborigines loved and performed very well. As I was a fan of this style of music I would go along to do my share of singing and yodelling. It was at these singalongs that I became ‘friendly with the Blacks’.

 

At the request of some of the men I taught them how to print their ‘white feller’ names in capital letters. They in turn taught me some rudiments of their language. Some had regular names, like Barney, Peter, Nelson, and for the women, Myrtle, Jemima and so forth. Other titles were nick-names such as Quartpot, Saltbush and King Billy. They had their own terms for the white people. The boss had a habit of holding one arm crooked, the forearm at right angles to the upper arm. This earned him the title of Armugga, literally ‘The Arm’.  The station mechanic was Frank Driver, brother to the boss. Frank was considered to have a long neck so was described as Arinji, ‘The Neck’. Sometimes he was referred to as Arinji oroongadaba, or ‘Neck like a wild turkey’s’. I was eventually assigned a skin name, Ngwarryay, sometimes shortened to Moray. It was by this name that I was known when conversing with the Aborigines.

 

Many could already ‘read’ in a fashion. They could recognise what flavours were in jam tins with similar coloured labels, by the printed names which were recognised as symbols, rather than words.  I explained the sounds of various letters. Some time later when I was driving the station truck out to the stock camp I came to a fork in the track. A long stick was stuck into the ground at the junction of the paths. When I got out, to look I found a line had been made to indicate which track I should follow. Also scratched into the ground was BETR.  I realised that this was a signature left by one of my pupils, Peter.

 

Peter was obviously catching on. It was not bad for a man considered by some to be a bit of a myall, or wild man.

 

My early days on the station were very busy. I learned to drive and to ride a horse. I learned how to operate the engine which pumped water and ran the power generator. I was shown how to maintain the big array of batteries which produced electric current for the homestead. I learned to operate the transceiver and to send and receive radio messages and to help the two Driver boys with school of the air lessons.

 

There were many odd jobs to be done and I would work with Frank the mechanic and Old Mac the carpenter. I had brought my .22 calibre Lithgow repeating rifle with me. When I demonstrated my proficiency with this (I beat all comers at shooting competitions) I was taken out in the back of a ute to shoot kangaroos and the occasional bush turkey or emu to augment rations for the Aborigines. They appreciated this very much.

 

I was given a brand new swag when bush work began for me in December 1953. I went out on the run with Frank the mechanic to work on the bores. Windmill maintenance was done and engine pumping done if water in a tank had got too low.

 

Stock work began in 1954. I would drive the 1942 ex-army three tonne Chevrolet truck with water, swags and tucker aboard while the Aboriginal stockmen would follow with the horse plant. This meant that I was alone with these tribal men. They were very good to me. They introduced me to an assortment of bush tuckers. Some of the best plant foods were Conkerberries, the oddly named Bush Banana (tasting nothing like a banana), and Dogwood beans.

 

Conkerberries were gathered from a small spiny bush (Carissa lanceolata). They resembled currants. Bush Bananas are the green fruits of a slender vine (Marsdenia australis) which climbs up trees and shrubs. The fruits have a delicious taste rather like green beans. The flowers are sweet and can also be eaten. Dogwood beans are the pods of a desert dwelling small Acacia (Acacia sericophylla). The young pods were opened to reveal small, green, soft seeds which were tasty while being eaten but left a slightly bitter after taste.

 

Prominent on the menu was meats. The most common from the bush was kangaroo. To prepare the feast a large fire would be made. When this had burned to ash and cinders an excavation was made in the site. The dead roo would then be laid on its back in the hole which was then back filled with hot soil and ash. The roo’s legs, from which the feet  had been removed, protruded from the ground. It would be some hours, usually, before the animal was dug out and dissected. Results from this procedure ranged from medium to rare, but at least, hot. Sometimes some roo meat would be cooked in a frying pan. The tail made the best camp oven stew you could ever taste. Emu legs, looking like giant drum sticks were sometimes boiled in a four gallon (18 l) bucket which contained fluid in which salt beef had been cooked. I ate emu on my nineteenth birthday in 1954 when on the job out bush.  I also sampled bush tuckers provided by insects.

 

From the canopies of Bloodwood trees (Corymbia opaca) bloodwood apples were harvested. These are large galls which contain the grub of a Cossid insect (Cystococcus pomiformis). The galls are knobby, round woody objects about 5cm diameter. If collected at the right stage the galls would be broken open. The bulky white grub was eaten raw. The inner wall of the gall was eaten. It had a pleasant nutty taste.

 

A small black native bee made colonies in hollow tree trunks. When they were seen in flight they were watched to see where they settled. One day I observed a man who had located a Bloodwood tree to which the little sting-less bees were going. He flicked his fingers along the tree trunk until a certain sound indicated a hollow. With a tomahawk he chopped open the area to reveal the bee hive, known as ‘Sugar Bag’. The honey provided was delicious, and beeswax was also eaten.

 

The third food provided by insects that I experienced came from Honey-pot ants (Camponotus inflatus). They inhabited the mulga scrub areas. The fairly large ants seen on the ground were identified by three faint golden stripes across the abdomen. The entrance to their nests was rather obscure, but when excavated, revealed a large chamber in which were a myriad of specially adapted ants used as food stores, clinging to the roof of the chamber. They had been filled with nectar-like fluid so that their abdomens were swollen to the size of a small grape. These abdomens were bitten from the rest of the insect and eaten. The taste was sweet and slightly acidic.

 

While camped at a bore, a big flock of galahs arrived. I was told that they were good tucker. I shot twenty or more of the birds which were cooked in hot earth. Contrary to popular legend, the birds were quite tasty, resembling the taste of pigeon.

 

Much of the usual fare on the stock camp was beef, fresh or salted, and damper made in a camp oven. I enjoyed making dampers. Everyone said that I made the best dampers they had ever tasted. I had a secret. I mixed powdered milk and a little sugar into the flour. Sometimes we would have a brownie, a camp oven cake. Other flour based foods were Johnny cakes on the coals, or puftaloons in the frying pan. Some other things that were carried in the tucker line out bush apart from flour were potatoes, onions, tea, coffee, sugar, tins of jam, raisins and rice. It was interesting to note that the Aborigines liked all flavours of jam, except marmalade. I shared their dislike for this flavour as did all personnel at the homestead. When enough tins of marmalade accumulated they were sent back to Glen Ewin in South Australia in exchange for a carton of mixed jams which always included two tins of marmalade!

 

I saw the legendary tracking ability of the Aborigine. The specialists in this were worthy of a degree in white society. There were some who were great experts. They would be chosen to do their task above those who were not so proficient. I realised how this paralleled white society. For instance, some people may have a natural aptitude for mathematics, while others (thinking of myself) are mediocre at sums. Some of the people spoke very good English; some almost none, or very little.

 

Pidgin, now called Kriol, was common. I got used to that quickly and enjoyed conversing in this easy style. However, there were some early difficulties, such as when the stockmen were trying to get a mob of cattle through a gateway. Elkedra cattle were notoriously wild and were spooked by the gate, refusing to go through. At the time I was some distance away salting beef on the back of the truck. Peter rode up in a hurry and requested, “Ngwarryay, gibbit bli!”

 

“What?” I asked.

 

“Bli—longa tool box!”

 

I presented a screwdriver.

 

“No more screw dribe—bli!”

 

I picked up a file.

 

“No more pile—bli!”

 

I almost heard Peter mutter, “Bloody stupid jaggaroo!”

 

I picked up a pair of pliers. At last –

 

“Yu-i, that him—bli!”

 

Peter rode off to cut a section of the wire fence to let the cattle through.

 

The station kept (or tried to), a record of all the people who lived there. A new man and his wife arrived. We already had a man named Nelson. The newcomer gave his name as “Big Nelson”. That name was recorded. When asked the name of his wife he answered, “Saucer”. On being asked if this was correct he answered, “Yu-i, that him, Saucer”. Saucer was duly registered. Later we realised the lady was “Suzy”. It was quickly ascertained that a man, “Toe-nail” was Donald, while “Jagaloo” was a young man, “Jackie Lowe”.

 

I was taught how to find my way in trackless bush. This was mainly done by being constantly alert of your position, being aware of the sun and its traverse, and by looking backwards along the route you had been travelling. To find their way in dense scrub the Aborigines would track themselves back the way they had come. I found that if I walked into thick bush I found it easy to drag a stick to make a mark to follow when time came to return.

 

The man previously mentioned, Nelson, was a person of note. He was a tall, muscular, handsome young man who spoke very good English. His mechanical ability was impressive. The vehicles mostly used around the run were 1942 Chevrolet ex-army machines, a three tonne truck and a blitz wagon. They’d had hard lives. Nelson could keep them operational. Once when the truck refused to start, I watched, and learned while Nelson went through procedures to solve the problem. After various methods failed Nelson said to me, “It must be the carby”.

 

He removed the carburettor from the engine, then dismantled it completely. He laid all the bits, some quite tiny, on a square of cloth. Sure enough, there were dusty particles, and water in some parts. These were cleaned and jets were cleared by blowing through them or by using very fine wire (which Nelson found, somewhere!). Then came re-assembly and refitting to the engine which was hand cranked to get fuel into the carburettor. The starter was tried and “The Elkedra Bomb” was in action again, thanks to an illiterate but very intelligent Aborigine.

 

NEXT: Droving along the Elkedra and Sandover stock routes.

 

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9 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Posted April 24, 2018 at 2:38 pm

    The Driver name was perpetuated on the footy field in Alice in the 70s. Richard Jabaldjarri Driver from Warrabri was our gun full forward during the 1972 season for Feds.
    Tall and rangy, a great overhead mark and a deadly accurate boot, Richard was a leading CAFL goalkicker that year. On the Friday night before the preliminary final, Richard got into an altercation with the constabulary in Todd Street and spent the night in the lock up.
    Next morning on release he did a runner back to Ali Curung.
    We were tipped off by the footy-loving constabulary so with captain Ave Millard and Fizzer we screamed up the highway to track him down. Search at Ali Curung was fruitless.
    Informed Richard was “out bush’\”. We lost the prelim to Souths by less than a goal next day. Gun full forward tragically missed.

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  2. Ian Sharp
    Posted April 24, 2018 at 12:55 pm

    Another great read from the Alice Springs News Online. Takes us back to a different world.

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  3. Bernie Tomlin
    Posted April 24, 2018 at 9:26 am

    Marj and Jeanne, I worked in the area in 1952-53 and knew Jack Spratt and Jim Wilson (worked with them) on Elkedra and Murray Downs.

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  4. Beryl Simpson Davis
    Posted August 11, 2017 at 3:53 pm

    Hi Jeanie, I remember you from St. Mary’s Children’s Village and I still have the letter you wrote to me from St. Albans (many years ago).
    I hope you are well and happy.
    I often think of the time I spent in Alice Springs and would love to hear from anyone from that time, if you would like to get in touch.
    Elaine and I are still great friends and both live in Melbourne now.

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  5. Marj I Winter
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 8:32 am

    Hi, I have the book “With The Sun On My Back”. It was given to my grandma by the author. I just noticed there is a comment on this page by Jack Spratt’s eldest daughter.
    Jack Spratt was my great Uncle Jim Wilson’s second-in-command at the branding camp on Elkedra.
    Jim Wilson worked on Murray Downs and was my grandmother’s younger brother.
    I am doing my ancestry and would dearly love to be contacted by anybody who remembers him or worked with him or has any stories or photos they may like to share with me.
    Am so excited to see all the above comments.

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  6. Jeanne Spratt Cook
    Posted December 16, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    I have just finish reading the article on Elkedra Station and you metion Jack Spratt. I am his eldest daughter. I was born in 1954 at Elkedra.

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  7. Shelley Steedman
    Posted March 27, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    I would love to discuss this book as my husband’s auntie was mentioned in the book and has many stories about life on a station there.

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  8. Dotson
    Posted February 6, 2014 at 10:31 am

    Good read.

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  9. Terry
    Posted February 5, 2014 at 2:15 am

    What a wonderful tale. Thanks Des. If these ever make it into a book it would be a guaranteed best seller in my opinion. Please Keep them coming, Erwin.

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