Category: Drovers and dust

Nat Buchanan

Nat Buchanan

Portrait of Nathaniel Buchanan


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
Click here to view the sources for this story.

John Urquhart’s Grave

John Urquhart’s Grave


If you ever find yourself in Roper Bar, Northern Territory, drive down the caravan park, climb over the fence at the far end and walk into the bush a hundred metres or so. There you’ll find the grave of John Urquhart. I took this photo in July, when I was researching the new book.

John was a stockman from the Diamantina River and a self-taught veterinarian who saved countless cattle on the Durack drive and was a good mate of Charlie Gaunt. Mary Durack wrote in Kings in Grass Castles that John shot himself while delirious with fever but I haven’t found any other source to back that up.

In writing Whistler’s Bones I decided to leave the exact cause of his death up to the reader, though malaria and strong spirits undoubtedly played their part. You’ll find the story of John’s death in Chapter Twenty-three, as Charlie and the rest of the crew are marooned by floodwaters at McMinns Bluff, near Roper Bar.

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Whistler’s Bones: A Novel of the Australian Frontier by Greg Barron is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.


Lake Nash: A harrowing tale of drought and disaster

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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Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

Charles Fisher – Cattle King

Charles Fisher – Cattle King

Glencoe SLSA
Glencoe Station Homestead (Photo: State Library of South Australia)

Most Australians know the names of our biggest cattle kings, Sidney Kidman and John Cox. Charles Brown Fisher was in the same league, building an empire of land, men, cattle and sheep when things were much tougher.

Charles was born in 1818, in London. Feeling restricted by city life, as a young man he moved to Northamptonshire to work on his uncle’s farm, loving country life. When his parents and eight siblings decided to emigrate to Australia, the young Charles couldn’t get on the ship quick enough.

Settling with the family in Adelaide, Charles and his three brothers joined their father as stock agents and carriers, but that was never going to be enough for Charles. He was soon running sheep and cattle along the Little Para River, then stocked a large tract from what is now Parafield Airport to the meatworks at Gepps Cross.

After taking control of a swathe of properties, in 1856 the Fisher Brothers partnership sheared 115 000 sheep, and sent an unknown number of cattle to the slaughterhouse.

Charles’s mother, Elizabeth, died in 1857, and just two years later his brothers George and Hurtle were transporting three racehorses on a coastal steamer, Admella, when it struck rocks off Port Macdonnell. Hurtle and George paddled together in the water, clinging to debris, waiting for a rescue ship that came too late. George slipped beneath the cold waters while his brother watched helplessly on.

By then Charles was living mainly in St Kilda, Melbourne. He was a regular at Flemington Racecourse, his own horses winning regularly on the track. Around this time he wooed and married Agnes Louisa Peckham. They had just one child, also named Charles.

Meanwhile, Fisher was forging one of Australia’s biggest land empires.

He soon owned huge tracts of land across South Australia and Victoria, including some of the country’s most valuable racehorse studs. He had leases on sixteen Queensland Stations, and with new partner JC Lyon pressed on into the Northern Territory. Glencoe Station was the Territory’s first big cattle run, and Charles engaged the best in the business, Nat Buchanan, to drove 1200 cattle across from Aramac in Queensland. Later Nat would, on Charles’s orders, undertake the biggest cattle drive in world history, 20 000 head from St George in Southern Queensland to Glencoe. (NB: Charlie Gaunt was also on that drive)

Fisher’s ambition had no limits, and together with Lyon he obtained a lease on a huge area of land that became Victoria River Downs, at various times the biggest cattle station in the world. This was the jewel in the crown of Fisher’s holdings, then covering more than 40 000 square kilometres.

At the peak of his expansion Charles Fisher controlled more country than most European kings.

In the 1890s the empire fell apart. With beef sales in decline and general recession, the complicated financial structure Charles had built began to unravel. By 1895 he was declared bankrupt, though he was able to retain a residence and enough income to live on.

Charles’s beloved Agnes died aged 60, in November 1906. Charles lived on for another 18 months, passing away in his home on Albert Terrace, Glenelg. His grave still stands at the West Terrace Cemetery, Adelaide.

Written and researched by Greg Barron (Sources available here)

Greg Barron’s first book of true Australian stories, Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History, is available in all good bookstores and online from


James “Jimmy” Darcy

James “Jimmy” Darcy

Fred Burnett
Fred Tuckett, the Halls Creek Postmaster (Photo courtesy National Library of Australia)

The year was 1917, and it had been a long day in the saddle for Walter and Thomas Darcy. They drew first turn at the night watch, keeping the cattle contained on the river flats, while the rest of the crew slept.

A rider came in from Wyndham with terrible news. Walter and Thomas’s brother Jimmy, also a stockman, had fallen from his horse on Ruby Plains Station and had been taken to Hall’s Creek on a cart with severe internal injuries. 

The brothers wasted no time in going to Jimmy’s aid. Making sure the cattle were in safe hands they mounted fresh horses and rode for 140 miles before stopping at Turkey Creek for remounts. By the time they reached Hall’s Creek they had covered 250 miles without rest. The last 110 miles they smashed in just 15 hours. 

Finally, arriving at Hall’s Creek, they found that, with no hospital in the town, Jimmy was in the care of the Postmaster, Fred Tuckett. After a visit with their brother the boys were troubled. Jimmy’s lower abdomen was swollen and red, and he was barely conscious. There was no doctor for a thousand miles and the situation seemed hopeless. 

‘He looks like he’s dying Mister,’ they pleaded with the postmaster, ‘you have to save him …’ 

‘I’ve sent a telegram to Perth. They’ll send someone on the steamer.’ 

The brothers groaned. ‘That’ll be weeks. Jimmy could die by then. He needs surgery.’ 

Another telegram was sent to Perth. This time to a man who had instructed Fred in first aid a few years earlier. Was it possible that a surgeon in Perth could help with the patient via telegram? This novel idea bore fruit, and a back-and-forth diagnosis of a ruptured bladder, complicated by infection, was made. The pressure had to be released, and only Fred could do the job! 

While the brothers waited anxiously outside, the postmaster made an incision with a razor blade, then painstakingly stitched the wound back up, with a drain in place. The rudimentary operation helped at first, but over the following days there was little improvement. The Perth surgeon decided, via telegram, that a major operation was needed. 

By this time major newspapers across the country were reporting the story, and Dr Holland was making his way up the vast Western Australian coast by boat, still much too far away for the operation to wait. 

Again Mr Tuckett sterilised his razor, and with the wires running hot, completed a difficult operation that was basically successful. Australians all across the country, welcoming the respite from war news, breathed a sigh of relief. 

It would have been nice if Jimmy made a full recovery, but unfortunately his condition was complicated by the malaria he had been suffering from for months. Again he deteriorated until his life hung by a thread. 

Yet Dr Holland had by then arrived in Derby, and a team of experienced bushmen were standing by with a Model T Ford to carry him to Halls Creek. 

model t
The Model T Ford that carried Dr Holland (Photo courtesy National Library of Australia)

Walter and Thomas Darcy urged their desperately ill brother to hold on, that help was on the way. But the wild Kimberley landscape was not kind to motor vehicles. The Model T limped closer, plagued by engine trouble and flat tyres. 

Jimmy Darcy died the day before Dr Holland arrived. His grieving brothers laid him to rest in the Hall’s Creek cemetery. 

The events of those weeks affected Holland so deeply that he became a founding member of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which would go on to save thousands of lives, many with similar injuries to Jimmy Darcy. 

Written and researched by Greg Barron. Sources here.

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

Tom Kilfoyle

Tom Kilfoyle

Tom Kilfoyle
Tom Kilfoyle (Photo: Durack Homestead Museum)

Tom Kilfoyle, a cousin of the pioneering Durack family, was Charlie Gaunt’s boss for much of the 1883-6 overland drive from the Channel Country in Queensland to Rosewood Station in the Kimberleys. Tom was born in County Clare, Ireland in 1842 but became a highly skilled bushman. Interestingly, he later married Catherine Byrne, a close relative of Joe Byrne from Ned Kelly’s gang.

Charlie Gaunt described Tom Kilfoyle as:

“a splendid bushman, stockman and of strict integrity: almost puritanically so; bluff, quick of temper but with the heart and simplicity of a child.”

Tom died in Port Darwin in 1908, leaving behind Catherine and his son Jack, who successfully ran Rosewood Station, becoming an important figure in Western Australian pastoral history.

Written and researched by Greg Barron

Whistler’s Bones by Greg Barron, the story of Charlie Gaunt, is out now. You can find out more about it here,  purchase a paperback copy here, or buy the ebook version here.

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