The greatest drover the world has ever known was an unassuming Irish-born Australian with an even temper, incredible organisational skills and an unerring sense of direction. Nat ‘Bluey’ Buchanan was a bushman par excellence with a passion for new horizons. He single-handedly opened up more country than some of our most famous explorers.
In 1861, for example, Nat Buchanan and his business partner Edward Cornish were out exploring in Western Queensland. Having taken up land to create Bowen Downs Station, they decided to poke around much further to the west. Penetrating all the way to the Diamantina River they discovered the tracks of a camel train. The tracks were, it turned out, made by one of the most expensive expeditions in the history of white exploration: Burke and Wills on their way from the Cooper Creek Depot to the Gulf of Carpentaria. That Buchanan and Cornish came upon those famous men and their entourage, while ‘poking around’ out west, with just one tracker and some packhorses, is a good illustration of the difference between independent bushmen and government sponsored explorers.
Nat’s family originally settled in New England, New South Wales, south of Armidale, but after an abortive trip to the Californian goldfields with his brothers, he headed for Queensland and the vast frontier. His first real foray into the wilderness was from Rockhampton with William Landsborough in 1860. Within a year they had formed Bowen Downs station on the Thomson River, and Nat was installed as manager.
Nat met the attractive brunette Catherine Gordon when by chance he rode into her family’s campsite near Rockhampton. The young couple were married soon after, and Nat took his bride out to Bowen Downs in a buggy.
Married or not, Buchanan had no intention of living a settled life. After checking out much of Western Queensland he started exploring the Gulf around Burketown, looking for suitable pastoral country for his partners in Bowen Downs. By 1867 he had struck out on his own again, heading south for a year or two on a Bellingen River (NSW) selection. Catherine must have thought he’d grown roots, but his adventurous years were barely getting started.
Moving Catherine and their son Gordon north again, he managed Craven Station for a while, then took on his first big droving contracts. He was the first white man to cross the Barkly Tablelands in 1877, sparking an explosion of land speculation. Most lease contracts, moreover, stipulated that the run had be stocked within two years. The owners were crying out for cattle and men to drove them.
Now in his fifties, Nat led the largest cattle drive in history – 20 000 head from St George in Queensland to Glencoe in the Northern Territory. He made the record books again a few years later, delivering the first cattle to the East Kimberley. One of his most harrowing achievements was the blazing of the bleak Murranji Track, from near Daly Waters to Victoria River Downs.
Charlie Gaunt, (the subject of my new book, Whistler’s Bones) later wrote that Nat Buchanan had four characteristics that made him great: bushmanship, organisation, observation, and initiative. Yet it was his sense of direction that impressed Charlie and his contemporaries the most.
Charlie relates a story from when he and Nat travelled from Eva Downs Station to Powell Creek in the Northern Territory.
On the open downs with not a tree or bush in sight we got off our horses to have a short spell and a smoke. It was between Bundara and Monmona Creeks. After a smoke we got on our horses and resumed our journey. After a time I discovered I had left my knife (a splendid cattle knife) when we got off for a spell. I mentioned it to Nat. “That will be alright,” he said, “We’ll get it on our return journey.” I thought to myself “A forlorn hope.”
On our return trip back to! Eva Downs, although we did not follow our tracks, and just rode aimlessly along, when we reached the spot, Buchanan pulled up his horse and pointing to the ground said, “There is your knife.”
Charlie never forgot it.
Nat’s great grandson, Bobbie Buchanan, described him as a “confident, strong-willed and uniquely self-sufficient man of great integrity.” His organisational skills were legendary, and his ability to keep tough men on track and working together no less impressive.
Nat Buchanan’s rules on cattle drives were inviolate:
1) Travel at speed. This was a technique he referred to as, “giving the cattle the gooseberry,” or just “the old gooseberry.”
2) No alcohol in camp. In 1883 when he took over a drive to the Kimberley for W.H. Osmand and JA Panton, his first act was to tip out the demijohns of rum he found hidden in the drays. He was a teetotaller himself, and knew well the effect of grog in cattle camps.
3) Never let wild Aborigines into a camp, male or female.
4) No man should be left in camp alone.
On a drive through the Gulf in 1878, Nat was forced to head back to Normanton for provisions. He was away for some weeks, and the man he left in charge, Charles Bridson, relaxed these last two rules. Some very insistent Aborigines who knew a few words of pidgin talked their way into the camp. This error was compounded when Bridson rode off and left another man, Travers, alone in the camp.
Travers was making damper, dusted to the elbows in flour, when a steel hatchet that had been lying around the camp cleaved deep into the back of his skull. The event set off days of drama and revenge killings. Buchanan, on his return, was understandably incensed.
Nat’s plan now was to bring the family together on one of the largest cattle runs in history – Wave Hill Station – one of several leases Nat took up in partnership with his brother. Unfortunately the skills that made him a great drover and adventurer did not extend to management. Distance to markets and attacks on stock by the local Gurindji people were major problems.
Nat, by the way, was known for a generally conciliatory approach to Aboriginal people, and was spoken of fondly by Aboriginal workers in oral histories from the region. Cattle, fences and men were not welcomed by traditional owners, and conflict was a fact of the frontier, but Buchanan was never party to the “shoot on sight” mentality of some frontiersman.
Even at the age of seventy Nat was out exploring again, searching for a stock route from the Barkly Tableland to Western Australia. His health was poor by then, and in 1899 he retired to a small property near Walcha, New South Wales, with his beloved Catherine. He died two years later and his gravestone still stands in the Walcha cemetery, along with a plaque commemorating his life.
Written and Researched by Greg Barron.
This post appears in the book ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ by Greg Barron. You can get it at all good bookshops or at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones
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