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Lake Nash: A harrowing tale of drought and disaster

View of Lake Nash Northern Territory in better times ca. 1925 SLQ
View of Lake Nash in better times, circa 1925. (Photo: John Oxley Library)

In 1889 Charlie Gaunt was working on Lake Nash Station, near the NT/Queensland border first breaking horses and then as a stockman.

Lake Nash Station was, at the time Charlie arrived there, under the ownership of John Costello. John’s pride and joy, Valley of Springs Station had, by this stage, been abandoned.

John Costello’s son Martin was managing Lake Nash. Back in Goulburn in his teens Martin had felt himself called to Holy Orders, but quit after a few months. Life on a cattle station must have appealed, and his father had plans for Martin to eventually take over as owner. He was, according to Charlie:

About twenty-five years of age, a splendid type of an Irish Australian, a chip off the old block; only lacking experience; a thoroughbred and a perfect gentleman.

When the horse-breaking was done Charlie signed on as stockman, but things on the station were dire. The 1889 wet season had been light, and in 1890 the rain didn’t come at all. This was Charlie’s story of a mad dash to a big waterhole in the Rankin River, attempting to save the remaining cattle.

In Charlie’s own words:

The drought hung like a great funeral shroud over a vast extent of country. Roxburgh and Carrandotta, having the only permanent water, held out. Headingly Station, adjoining Lake Nash, lost eighteen thousand head in four days. Lake Nash assumed the spectacle of a huge burying ground for stock, a mass of liquid mud with hundreds of cattle packing that oozy slime, bogged, dead and dying, with others roaming around the banks bellowing and maddened by thirst.

Costello decided that they had to try something – gathering up the strongest cattle and trying for the nearest permanent water – the Big Hole on the Rankin River, eighty miles away. They sent a dray and horses on ahead, and mustered every animal they could find and set off.

The heat at that time, January, was unbearable, and the dry storms made it worse with the hot winds. We had great difficulty getting the mob away from that charnel house and lake of liquid mud, but once they got going they strung up the river almost without any urging. The day wore on and night came and still those perishing cattle moved slowly along.

After a day and a night of travelling, they reached Austral Downs station, which had been abandoned to the drought. With just twenty miles to go now Charlie rode across to check the station tanks and found enough water to keep the horses going.

At least the horses had drunk their fill as they followed the thirst-maddened cattle down the left branch of the Rankin River. The sun was getting higher, however, and the heat intensifying.

The big body of the cattle kept following that spirit “Further Still.” The only sound they made was a low moaning. As evening came I rode up on the side to see how the lead was getting along, accompanied by Mick Scanlon. We rode a full six miles before we reached it. All along the line we noticed cattle dropping and dying but yet that line piled up the empty spaces. Great strong bullocks formed the lead and you dared not go near them. They were thoroughly thirst-maddened.

It was now dark and we rode close to the lead, when a demented bullock charged my horse, knocking it down and throwing me out of the saddle. We were amongst the infuriated animals and didn’t know it, the night being inky black.

I jumped up and shinnied up a tree close by and yelled to Mick to save himself, telling him I was alright, and that I’d stay in the tree fork till daylight. Mick soon got out of that maddened line of cattle and I saw him no more that night. All night long those thirst crazed cattle passed under that tree and I, sitting in the fork, hardly able to keep awake, waited for the dawn.

When, at last, daylight came, I got out of the tree and walked over to my horse. He was lying dead with a great wound behind the shoulder having bled to death. Removing the saddle and bridle I threw them on my back and started to walk up the river. After walking about four miles, dodging cattle, at last I struck the Big Hole and the camp. I was, like those stricken cattle – perishing for a drink. I had had no water since the day before at midday.

What a tragic scene was being enacted around that waterhole! Maddened cattle, some blind with thirst, moaning and walking through the water, being too far gone to drink. Up the bank they went and wandered out on the downs. After the drought broke we found that some of them had wandered six miles out from the river before dying.

The tail-enders drifted in and these represented the last of the living. Our men were now all in camp and we gladly sat down to a hot breakfast. Camped on a high bank overlooking the water we were in full view of that theatre. Only about five hundred head were left out of four thousand and were the remnant of a herd of fifteen thousand. The Big Hole where the cattle were, was on Avon Downs country, and John Affleck, manager of Avon, charged young Costello £100 per month for the right to use the water and surrounding country. It was a most unneighbourly and cowardly action to a now ruined brother stockman, but John Affleck was, a hard, hungry and mean Scotsman and he well knew that Costello had to accede to his terms. It was especially mean on account of the country being idle and not used by the Avon Downs people.

We, spectators of that terrible drama of crazed cattle wandering around the banks of that waterhole, piling into it, and gorging themselves. In some cases animals staggering out on the banks and lying down to die overgorged, the water flowing out of their nostrils as they drew their last breath.

On the bank nearest the camp some horses were standing and amongst them was a magnificent chestnut horse young Costello had brought from Goulburn. This animal was the young fellow’s pride. A maddened bullock, staggering along the creek saw the horse, made a desperate charge at it and tipped the entrails out of him. Martin Costello said, “Oh, my God, my horse.”

And the tears slowly coursed down his face. The long pent up agony that the young fellow had gone and was going through was at last broken by this incident. Fate had dealt him a cruel blow. He got up, walked behind the dray, sat down, and with his head resting on his arms and knees he had the dejected attitude of a heartbroken man. Every man around the breakfast table felt the position keenly and there was a lump in everyone’s throat. I know there was one in mine.

In the beginning of March; the arch fiend “Drought” was killed by one of the heaviest wet seasons known for years and we collected the remnants (five hundred head of cattle) of the Lake Nash herd and went back to reform the station.

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