1883 Cattle overlanded to the Kimberley

Droving Cattle - Overlanders. Image: State Library of Victoria

The northward expansion of Western Australia’s pastoral industry initially took place by sea, with sheep shipped to the De Grey River in the Pilbara in 1863. The first overland stock drives to the Pilbara occurred a few years later. In 1883, the Durack family began the first overland cattle drive from Queensland to the Kimberley, where they became the owners of Argyle Downs and other large stations.

Writing in 1917, “Breia” of the Western Mail deplored the fact that the history of Australia’s pastoral settlement had not attracted the attention it deserved. “From the days of Burke and Wills,” he wrote, “the men who can never be held by the shackles of civilisation have pushed out into the Never-Never, building up, by slow degrees, Australia’s vital stock of flocks and herds, and establishing ever wider and wider, the outposts of civilisation.”

His article tracks the development of the pastoral industry in Western Australia from the first settlement on the Swan River and into the early 20th century. He follows early development in the southwest but focuses particularly on the northward expansion of settlement.

By the early 1860s, pastoralists were landing stock, chiefly sheep, along the northwest coast. The port of Cossack (originally called Tientsin Bay) was an entry point to the Pilbara region and stations were established along the De Grey, Ashburton and Fortescue Rivers. An unsuccessful attempt was made to stock the country around Broome with sheep, but the coarse feed in the area proved unsuitable.

The early pastoralists didn’t have an easy time.  Newspaper journalist ‘Breia’ wrote: ‘Those who have seen thousands of sheep lost in a single day through floods, through weak shorn sheep experiencing a sudden frosty night of intense cold, through poison, or through rushing salt water, know what such losses mean.’

The mid-1860s first saw stock being driven overland to the northern stations. The route was pioneered by E. T. (Tim) Hooley.  Departing from Geraldton with four teamsters, two native guides and nearly 2000 sheep on 26 May 1865, he took three months to reach the Fortescue. Hooley subsequently bought land at Roebourne and was awarded the first pastoral lease on the Ashburton River.

The pioneers of the Kimberley in the early 1880s originally sought to raise sheep. However, the natural grasses grew up to six feet high in the wet season, and as the dry came on were of no use as feed for nibbling animals like sheep. The Durack and Emanuel families explored the Kimberley in 1881-2 and in 1883 started the first mob of cattle overland from Queensland. They lost half their stock and several men on the journey, which took two years and four months. However, other mobs followed and by 1917 there were 600,000 cattle in the Kimberley. A port was established at Wyndham to service the area.

‘Let it not be imagined that success came easily,’ Breia wrote, ‘for in Kimberley, as everywhere, many are called but few are chosen. And if the best and strongest of the pioneers do reap a reward, after fighting for 25 years in a tropical climate with fever, with floods 20 to 60 miles wide overwhelming the stock… and handling cattle on enormous areas with inadequate labour, rations, and equipment – well it is surely only as it should be.’

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