Elkedra jackeroo meets masters of improvisation

The station homestead in 1952. This photograph appeared in Walkabout, May 1, 1952, in a feature about Elkedra by J.K. Ewers.

 

By DES NELSON OAM

 

See the earlier parts of this series:

 

Elkedra jackeroo: station life in the 1950s

Elkedra jackeroo: blackfella, whitefella business

 

 

When I was 18 and a newly arrived jackeroo on Elkedra Station in 1953,  a man who taught me many things that were to be most useful to me in later life was Frank Driver, the station mechanic. Frank was brother of the boss, John Driver. He was a quietly spoken man, rather different from John who often spoke with a raised voice. Frank had been a mechanic in the army in World War II. He named himself the ‘Ginger beer’, a pseudonym for ‘Engineer’. More than fifty years since meeting Frank I appreciate that he was one of the most expert in his field of work that I have ever known. He was responsible for the operation and maintenance of the station’s fleet of vehicles, stationary engines, windmills, the workshop and the homestead’s 110 volt power plant.

 

I had an aptitude for things mechanical so enjoyed working with, and learning from Frank. It was he who taught me to drive, including the practice of double declutching to make smooth gear changes in the unsynchronised gear boxes installed in older vehicles on the station. He was very methodical, always knowing where every tool was. One day, as I was approaching the large station workshop I heard Frank speaking. Not wishing to intrude on a conversation I quietly entered the shed via a rear door. I saw that Frank had laid a string of tools out on a long bench. He was walking along, slowly, talking to the tools.

 

I thought, “He’s reviewing his troops!”

 

I made my presence seen from a more visible angle, making some noise to announce my arrival. I realised that while Frank had his tools, he would never be lonely.

 

Frank used a length of 12mm diameter wooden dowel as a stethoscope. Placing one end of the stick against his ear, he would probe a running engine with the other end. With this procedure he could determine the health of various mechanical innards – valves, tappets, gudgeons, bearings and so on. There could hardly have been another station on which the machinery ran so efficiently as was the case on Elkedra.

 

Another very important duty performed by Frank, a non-mechanical one, was the making of bread. When the yeast had caused the dough to rise, he would punch it down with great vigour. His bread was excellent.

 

I believe that one reason why Frank was such a good mechanic was his patience. I had particular reason to appreciate this quality on one occasion.

 

On one of the weekly bore inspections it was found that a bore had stopped pumping and the water level in the big tank there was getting low. It was decided that it was necessary to pull the pump rods and foot-valve plunger, so off I went with Frank to camp out on the job.

 

Early the next morning the job started. It was fairly simple, but laborious. Block and tackle and wire rope were set in place and having been clamped to stop them dropping into the bore the rods were disconnected from the mill. The rods were extracted by means of the ute towing the steel cable which lifted them out of the bore. The next rod would be clamped and the upper one was unscrewed and laid on the ground. On the end of the twentieth rod was the pump plunger. Sure enough the leather pump buckets, or large washers, were worn out. New buckets had been soaking in a billycan of water in anticipation. Their centres had to be carefully opened out with a knife so that they could be fitted neatly on to the plunger. Then came the reversal of procedure until all the rods were back down the bore column. It was by then, mid afternoon.

 

It was decided to employ the stationary engine to pump plenty of water into the tank before reconnecting the mill. The arms of a pump jack had to be clamped to the rods. The clamp was slightly too large and a curved steel washer was used to enable a tight fit against the pump rod. I was given this washer and told to hold it in place while the clamp was tightened. The washer slipped from my fingers and fell inside the bore column. It’s hard to describe how I felt as I listened to that wretched washer rattling and echoing its way into the depths of the bore until, plop! It hit the water. When I was game enough to look at Frank he was sitting on a concrete block with his eyes closed. I waited.

 

Frank sighed, and said, “They’ll all have to come out again”.

 

So we pulled out the rods and carefully removed the washer which would have jammed the works. Then back down went the rods, all done before dark. Rag was stuffed into the top of the bore column to prevent another accident while the pump jack was connected. At last the engine was started and the bore pumped away merrily.

 

Frank didn’t scold me, nor did he ever speak of the incident in the future.

 

For many years I was to be involved with a lot of bush work. I travelled widely in the N.T. and into outback areas of adjoining states. I was grateful for the training given to me by Frank Driver, master mechanic.

 

The station carpenter was a gruff and grizzled old man, Mr McCracken. Inevitably he was known as “Mac”, or if he wasn’t present, “Old Mac”. Sometimes I had to be his offsider, and as was the case with Frank, he taught me a great deal of his trade. As with many of these people who roamed around the bush he spoke nothing about himself but he did boast about his son, who, Mac claimed, had invented mobile starting gates for horse pacing races.

 

Like many people who had spent a lot of time alone in the bush, Mac often talked to himself.  At times I nearly burst trying not to laugh at things he would say, quite oblivious of my presence. He had three pairs of spectacles, one each for close, medium, and long distance vision. Searching for the right pair could result in fumbling, grumbling and swearing. However his expertise was such that he could take a board, saw it in half and challenge, “Put a square on that!”

 

You would find his cut was an accurate right angle, done by eye – or by feel. If he felt he needed a square he might use the corner of a cigarette packet. When he had to cut a circle he used string as a compass, a pencil tied to one end and to the other, a nail for a centre point. Working with minimal equipment he was a proficient craftsman.

 

To illustrate: A shallow bore was drilled near the homestead. We had a small pump jack and engine to use on the bore but the engine lacked a flywheel. Old Mac came to the rescue. He selected thick boards which he fastened together in three layers. He bored, sawed, rasped and sanded until he had a 50cm disc. When this was fitted to the engine spindle it showed neither wobble nor vibration.

 

One of the Aboriginal ladies presented a young corella to Old Mac. He built a cage for the bird and set about trying to teach it to talk. This became another source of great amusement to me. No matter how he tried, the only response to the lessons was a warbling whistle. Lessons went like this:

 

“Hullo Cocky!” Whistle (several times), then, “HULLO COCKY”. Whistle. “TALK! Yer bastard!” Whistle. “You useless dopey bunch of feathers!” Whistle. “Shut up!” Whistle.

 

One day, in frustration, Old Mac held the bird towards me and said, “You have a try!”

 

Cocky settled on my shoulder and produced a watery dropping which trickled down the front of my shirt. Old Mac thought this was extremely funny. He laughed until tears streamed down his face. His laughter ceased in a fit of coughing. Thereafter, when I came near Mac’s quarters, he would point at me and say to his pet, “Poop on him cocky!” and burst into laughter. Cocky would whistle.

 

Unfortunately a dispute arose about the disappearance of some whiskey. Old Mac left in disgust and it was late in 1955 before I saw him again, in Alice Springs. By then I was employed in the Animal Industry Branch of N.T. Administration. Mac asked me where he should go to get a permit to take a corella to Adelaide. I pointed him in the right direction. I forgot to ask him if cocky could talk yet!

 

The head stockman, Jack Spratt was an important man. He told me he had been taken to the station, from up Newcastle Waters way when he was four years old. While others, such as myself, came and went, Jack stayed. He was part Aboriginal, being referred to in the terminology of the time, as a half-caste. You would say that Jack was of ample proportions. He had a prodigious appetite and suffered often from indigestion.  For this he always carried a tin of De Witts Antacid powder which he called his “Guts-ache powder”.

 

Although an intelligent man, Jack was illiterate but said he thought reading was a waste of time. He told me, “I’ve seen fellows with their heads stuck into books when they should be out looking after cattle”.

 

He chewed tobacco. If he wanted to show displeasure he would turn his head away and spit out a stream of tobacco stained saliva. It was most impressive.

 

Jack was at home in the bush. He was a good camp cook. In spite of his bulk he was a good horseman. He was creative with his hands. From green hide he could make ropes, and hobbles. He made a pair of swag straps for me from a sheet of leather. He could butcher a bullock carcass very neatly.

 

Jack was respected for his abilities. He took his job seriously. The boss depended on him a lot. No-one knew the layout of the station any more than did Jack. If he thought it necessary to assert his authority in the stock camp he would raise his voice but usually he was quietly spoken. He was capable of using what you would call ‘strong language’ if he felt the need but if ladies were within earshot his speech was very polite. There was a place out bush named Piss Ants camp. One morning the stock camp mob was preparing to go to that place. Mrs Driver came by and asked Jack where he was going.

 

“We’re off to Ants camp”, was his reply.

I discovered that Jack was very nervous during the nights in the bush. I believe he was scared of malign spirits but I’m sure he would never admit to this.

Jack had an asset which made him very popular with the Aborigines, and me. It was a portable, wind-up gramophone and a collection of 78rpm records of country music songs. There were concerts with the audience joining in with singing and yodelling, including

me at times. The gramophone was never taken out in the stock camp. I suppose, like books, it may have been too much of a distraction.

Jack was caught between two cultures. He was a survivor and a stoic. He remains impressed on my memory.

When I arrived on the station, in October 1953, I met a young ringer by name of Bob Gartery. Bob was an expert horseman who had followed the rodeo circuit. He was a pick-up man, a job requiring much expertise. The pick-up man had to ride out and gather a rider from a bucking horse or bull when required. Bob came from Moree, N.S.W. and was a real bushman. He had said of the Elkedra horse plant, “There’s nothing here I can’t ride – easily”.

 

However, he was warned about a rogue gelding named Westwind: “If you ride Westwind, never go out on your own”.

 

Westwind had a reputation of seeming to be docile but would suddenly buck and pig root. Bob was so sure of his ability that he laughed off the admonition. I suppose that he regarded it as a challenge as one day he rode off alone into the bush on Westwind. When Bob had not returned by mid afternoon, it was decided to conduct a search. He was found crawling on hands and knees along a track. There was no sight of Westwind. He was found much later with Bob’s saddle hanging under his belly. Bob had been thrown, landing on a dead stick protruding from the ground. This had pierced his chest and gone through his back. I don’t recall whether Bob had removed the stick or if it had been removed by Billy Beasley, the Aboriginal man who found him and drove him to the homestead in the station blitz wagon.

 

The transceiver was used to contact the Royal Flying Doctor service in Alice Springs.  A doctor radioed details of how Bob should be treated. He was put into a warm bath, then dressings were applied to the punctures which looked as if made by a bullet. The stick had passed through and exited between ribs. Subsequent examination showed no internal damage. The day after the accident a plane arrived to take Bob to hospital in Alice Springs. He recovered rapidly. I can’t recall him returning to Elkedra but if he did it would have been only for a short period.

Some years in the future, Bob became a work colleague of mine. He became a stock inspector with the Animal Industry Branch of the N.T. Administration in which I was employed in the fields of botany and ecology. I came to appreciate the above average reports submitted by stock inspector Gartery. Later he transferred to Lands Branch of Administration where he was equally proficient as a pastoral inspector.

Bob married and moved to Queensland. I lost track of him except to learn later that sadly, he had passed away unexpectedly.

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6 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. Pauline Riley
    Posted July 5, 2017 at 11:39 pm

    Des, I really enjoyed your early recollections of time in NT. Having spent several years there I found it very interesting. I was fortunate in meeting with your sister Judith when I was in Canberra but often wonder where Margaret who was in my class is these days

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  2. Peter Nelson
    Posted September 17, 2014 at 2:18 pm

    Great stories Des. I’m keen to read more of your early life in the Territory.
    I’m a cousin of yours from the SA side.
    Are you aware that mention is made of an Alec Nelson being “a highly respected horseman” in a book entitled “CURTIN’S COWBOYS – AUSTRALIA’S SECRET BUSH COMMANDOS”?
    The book is by Richard and Helen Walker and is about the North Australia Observer Unit (NAOU) that existed in Northern Australia from 1942-45. It appears that Alec was one of a handful of SGT-Farriers.
    Here’s a quote: “There were a lot of people who thought they were horsemen but they weren’t in the class of these men, who were just naturals … they were at one with the horse when it moved.”
    I’m no horseman Des. Are you?

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  3. Shirley Woodbrook
    Posted May 25, 2014 at 8:22 pm

    Thank you for the wonderful memories of my father, Frank Driver, who had five children. I am one of three still alive. He only had one son who passed away in 1956.

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  4. Dotson
    Posted March 3, 2014 at 11:22 am

    Reminds me of the story of a workman who dropped a large wrench into the bore (well). They worked for several days to retrieve it. The boss handed the wrench to the workman and said, “your fired, get off”. The workman took the wrench and dropped it back into the well and said: “Guess I won’t be needin that anymore.”
    I grew up in the 50s on a Cotton Ranch in southern Arizona, a town about thirty miles away, Casa Grande, I think was much like Alice Springs.
    I have worked on windmills pulling the rods and pipes in F120+ heat. It is very hard work.
    Good Read.

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  5. Russell Guy
    Posted March 2, 2014 at 10:39 am

    Frank Driver’s patience ought to be bottled.

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  6. Posted March 1, 2014 at 10:55 am

    The Driver brothers of Elkedra Station in the 1950s had another brother who was prominent in Northern Territory affairs for a time.
    This was Arthur Driver, who was appointed the Administrator of the NT on (interestingly) July 1, 1946.
    He was serving in this role when the NT Legislative Council was established in late 1947; and consequently served as the first President of that body.
    Arthur Driver resigned as Administrator in 1951, thereafter going to Italy for many years as the Chief Australian Migration Officer.
    While there in Rome he got to know an Australian Jesuit priest working at the Vatican, who originally had come from Cowra, NSW.
    The priest was Father Peter Nelson, my father’s eldest sibling.

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