He opens the small, red painted, metal box in which is housed his collection of memoirs from nearly three quarters of a century of life in the remote back blocks of Australia where he spent his time in the stock camps.
As he sifts through the dozens of notebooks and diaries, he looks back over a full life of hardships and triumphs. He turns the old pocket knife over and over in gnarled hands twisted with arthritis, and smells again the pungent aroma of burning flesh under the branding iron, cow dung and bulldust.
Born at William Creek in South Australia in 1902, the fifth child and second son of the Postmaster and Boarding House Proprietor, Charlie was a raw sixteen years old when he followed his older brother Fred to learn the stockman’s trade. Being the youngest child of parents who suffered the agony of losing their fourth child, a daughter, in infancy and with two older sisters, Charlie was spoiled, cocky and full of his own importance; traits he would carry with him throughout his life, tempered with an acquired toughness of mind and body necessary for survival in the harsh Australian bush.
Charlie was christened Charles Henry but preferred the more important- sounding handle, Chas, which it seems only he used, his friends and associates opting for the more common ‘Charlie’. He started his apprenticeship as a jackeroo ringer under the strict and watchful eye of Ernie Kempe, the esteemed Manager of Macumba Station some thirty miles from the small township of Oodnadatta. Macumba was one of the properties owned by the cattle king, Sidney Kidman, later known as Sir Sidney Kidman.
Ernie Kempe presided over three Kidman properties – Macumba, Hamilton and Eringa Stations and Charlie’s brother Fred was head stockman on Macumba when Charlie went there in 1919 to begin his training. Fred took his young brother aside and impressed on him that Ernie Kempe was a hard taskmaster and he must be diligent at all times and accept whatever job was handed out to him without complaint, and to do the job carefully and well.”If you can stay with Ernie for six months, you will stay with him and the Kidman firm for as long as you like.” Fred counselled.
Charlie was pretty green as are all jackaroos, but he had learned to ride so his confidence was running high. Well, he could ride a donkey which was almost a horse and he’d had some experience as a kid in the woolshed at Anna Creek Station, owned at the time by Hogarth and Warron and running some 100,000 sheep.
Ernie Kempe put much time and effort into the training of his young jackeroos and kept them under his eye until he was sure they were capable of working unsupervised. He had many a test up his sleeve for the unsuspecting jackeroos and often they were subjected to a bit of ridicule which they were expected to take in good spirits.
Just when Charlie was feeling he’d graduated and was heard skiting about riding a notorious horse that liked to throw its riders, Ernie struck. As Charlie spurred his mount to a trot as they passed the homestead gate, a shiny tin can landed with a clatter on the stones and the horse reared up in fear, Charlie was unceremoniously dumped into the bulldust and, to make matters worse, had to pick himself up and use shanks’ pony to find his mount which had bolted.
When Ernie was satisfied Charlie could stay on a horse, he sent him trackriding. With a black boy, a small plant of horses and a month’s provisions, he was told to go to the south side of the property and make a camp. From that camp he and the boy were to take daily treks on opposite sides of the camp (east and west) for a distance of about eight to ten miles and look for tracks of cattle heading off the property. Tracks found were to be followed, and the animals brought back where they belonged.
After a month, Charlie and the boy were to return to the homestead with their plant to report on the number of cattle they’d had to return to the fold, stock up with a further months tucker and do it all over again.
Trackriding is a lonely, boring job and after the second month’s stint, Charlie was fed to the back teeth with it. When told he was to keep at it he was heard to grumble about his misfortune at not getting a break. It was Ernie’s way that if he heard a grumble of discontent with a job assigned to his men, he kept them at it until they learned to stick with it or chuck in the job. Charlie was many months trackriding with brief respites when extra hands were needed for branding or mustering.
Charlie became quite an expert at tracking, and he learned the important lesson that when asked to do a boring or repetitive job to express clearly his liking for, if not his love of, that particular job.
By the time Charlie had seen out his first twelve months, brother Fred was promoted to Manager of Eringa Station, and six months later, he got the chance to try his hand at responsibility when he was sent to relieve Fred for six weeks while he went on holidays. When Fred returned to take up the reins, Charlie was left at Eringa and Fred entrusted him with a plant of fifty working horses to go to Stuart (now Alice Springs), several hundred miles to the north to meet drover Ted Lennon who was bringing a mob of one thousand bullocks down from Glenroy, in the Gulf, a droving feat of some fifteen hundred miles.
Charlie had a black boy called George as his offsider, and they arrived in Stuart without mishap. However, they had a two week wait. Lennon was late arriving with the bullocks so they set up camp on the banks of the dry bed of the Todd River. They got caught in a big flood that happened when there was considerable rain in Central Australia and the Todd River became a raging torrent, breaking its banks and spreading far and wide.
Charlie and George managed to save the horses and most of their gear except for one pack saddle. The horses had been hobbled with bullock hide straps which, when wet, stretched and fell off. They lost fifty pair of hobbles which had to be replaced from the Wallis & Co Store. When Ted Lennon arrived with the bullocks, Charlie and George joined the drover and returned to Eringa while Ted Lennon continued on a further one hundred miles to deliver his mob to Macumba.
In 1923 Charlie got promoted to Head Stockman at Eringa and when Fred went off to manage Anna Creek Station, Charlie took over the management of Eringa. In the drought of 1925/27 the station was closed down and Charlie shifted the cattle back to Macumba, one hundred miles to the south. He then went back to Eringa to pick up a plant of horses being hand fed hay, and embarked on a horse mustering job from Eringa, through Hamilton and Macumba, Oodnadatta and Edwards Creek.
At Edwards Creek, Archie McLean and Ernie Kempe were there to choose the best horses, some of which were sent to India and others sold in the Adelaide horse sales. Those chosen for India went over for remounts and artillary horses. All up, Charlie and his team arrived at Edwards Creek with close to nine hundred head of horses after completing one of the longest horse musters known at the time. He was aided by a plant of sixty horses, a part-aboriginal cook and ten aboriginal stockmen and he covered some one hundred and sixty miles.
Charlie had earned his stripes and the respect of his employers and was chosen to manage Durrie Station in Queensland, becoming the youngest of Kidman’s managers at the age of 26. There happened to be a fetching governess on the neighbouring Morney Station who caught Charlie’s eye. He wooed her and married her in Brisbane in 1931, and parted company with the Kidman Cattle Company. He took his new wife, Jess, back to his old stamping grounds in South Australia, having secured a job managing a property for the Stock & Station Agents, Goldsborough Mort & Co. Ltd.
South Australia was suffering in a drought that drove many property owners to ruin. Many walked off their properties as they were heavily indebted to the Stock & Station Agents who were not prepared to support them any longer. Three such properties were Mt. Dare, Dalhousie Springs and Federal. Charlie was appointed to manage them as one and live at Mt. Dare.
It was Mt. Dare that changed Jess from a “refined lady of poor means” into a feisty and strong lady, determined to survive the ravages and trials of life in the bush. She learnt to get around her new husband’s penchant for control, his constant nitpicking and carping. She learnt to listen and heed advice from the aborigine women; advice which they offered shyly and, uncannily, at times when she needed it most. She learnt that because Charlie always knew best, it was not wise to let him know she placed any credence on the wise counsel of her aboriginal friends.
When the drought broke and the Stock and Station Agents sold Mt Dare, Charlie and Jess moved to Lambina Station which job came to an end when a flood washed away the homestead. Charlie, Jess, their two kids and three boring contractors survived the flood perched in a tree for 18 or so hours.
The flood put paid to Charlie’s job at Lambina and, after taking up positions at a couple of other properties in the area which turned out quite unsuitable, the family (now increased by two) rented a cottage in Oodnadatta where Charlie took a job with SA Railways as a ganger, a sort of stop-gap job to provide an income whilst he kept a close eye out for the opportunity to get back to the stockman’s life he loved.
Charlie placed the pocket knife back in the metal box and leaned back against the cushions. Weariness was his constant companion as he struggled against the pain of breathlessness and aching bones that had dogged his 89th year of life. Only the memories remained clear in his mind to play out like a never ending movie of a long life in the bush.
As his life ebbed away, Charlie quietly let go. Now he’s easy at last and free of the pain and struggles of living.