Paul Vandeleur

Paul Vandeleur was born at Innisfail, Queensland on 11 May 1933. He grew up in Innisfail and in 1953 he set out for Katherine in the Northern Territory to establish an extensive cattle property. This is the story of his life as a pioneering cattle property owner:

“After I left school I did 12 months on the family sugar farm at Mena Creek which is just outside Innisfail and subsequently I went to the Northern Territory when I was 19 years of age. I think my Dad was interested in going to a place where there was no tax and taxes were minimal in the Northern Territory in 1953. There was an opportunity for him to go into partnership with a person called Jim Edwards, who’d previously managed places in the Gulf country of Queensland. These blocks came up for selection, the resumption blocks of the Victoria River Downs, of which there were three and the consensus was that returned soldiers would have a preference if they had sufficient skills and the right backing to be able to secure one of these blocks.

“My Dad was introduced to Edwards (a returned soldier) by a friend of his in Innisfail and they went before the Land Commissioner in Darwin in 1952 and Edwards was successful in drawing the block. So they formed a partnership between Edwards, Campbell and my Dad. In early 1953 it looked as though someone would need to go up there and look after my Dad’s interests so that fell to me and my brother Mick. So we went up to the Northern Territory in early 1953. Edwards embarked on a programme of securing enough horses to be able to run a property in the Northern Territory. He put together about 600 horses, 500 of those were unbroken and he assembled a crew of ringers and embarked on the trip from Strathmore in the Gulf to Camfield in the middle of the wet season of 1953 which was a pretty adventurous task to say the least. They had to swim flooded creeks, rivers to get there and that was a story in itself. Charlie Campbell which was the third partner, he had a Blitz truck and my brother and I went out from Innisfail by Blitz truck to Mount Isa where we picked up a tractor. It was my responsibility to drive that tractor from there to Elliott, which was a distance of nearly 1000 miles. As I went across the Barkley Tableland, I thought three months will be long enough for me in the Northern Territory having been brought up on the coast of Queensland where it was nice and green and it was pretty dry during 1953 in the Northern Territory. But as it turned out, it was 45 years.

“When we got there, Edwards had already arrived with the horses and he sent those on to Camfield Station and a chap called Jim Nelson was in charge. He went on with the horses to Camfield and looked after them until things got organised. During that time, Edwards had bought Mataranka Station from a fellow called Les Macfarlane, the idea being that he wanted somewhere to have a base because Camfield was a totally unimproved block with nothing on it, except a lot of cattle. So he established himself at Mataranka Station and I went on to Mataranka from Elliott, leaving the tractor there and it was later on brought up by a transport. I stayed at Mataranka till the end of the year. I started to be a jackeroo. I knew absolutely nothing about the cattle industry and Jim Edwards was a very competent bloke. He had his faults but I learned a lot from him. Edwards had full control of the cheque book and he spent a helluva lot of money. He later on bought the butcher shop in Katherine, because he reckoned he had to have a cash flow, which probably wasn’t a bad idea. He also bought another property on the Victoria River on the northern side of the Victoria River called Buffalo Springs. The reason for the purchase of that was to be able to secure breeders to put on to the Camfield block because it was part of the condition that you had to have breeders on the block before you were able to brand cattle. I stayed at Mataranka till the end of that year and my brother, Mick, was at Camfield, with Jim Nelson, looking after the stock camp and repairing some fences so they could keep the horses secured.

“Camfield was a block of 1050 square miles. Mataranka was about the same, somewhere about 1000 square miles of country. But they were totally different types of country. Camfield was rolling downs, open country, undulating, basalt country, Mitchell and Flinders grass, whereas Mataranka was open forest country and a lot less productive, fairly limited carrying capacity whereas Camfield was recognised as probably one of the better blocks in that area. Camfield was a 50 year lease and Mataranka probably had another 25 years to run before the lease would expire and who knows what might have happened after that time.

“When I first saw Camfield I thought – this is terrible. It was like gibber plains. No grass at all, it was in the middle of a drought, ‘52/’53 was probably one of the worst years they had there for years. But there were cattle everywhere. The place was black with cattle. I don’t know what they were living on. Of course, waters were limited. They were mainly along the river, the Victoria River and the Camfield River. It was all open gibber country, undulating plains with a series of rocky outcrops on the hills but you could see that it had a lot of potential. If you had the rain and grass it was a different story – when it was in good shape, it was absolutely beautiful country. You could look out over the hills and see this beautiful green grass, and just enough trees. On Camfield there were quite a number bloodwood and nut wood, Coolabah, just the right amount of shade for cattle and basically open country.

“In the first year, Victoria River Downs station and Wave Hill which was owned by Vestey organisation used to muster that part of the country which was resumed, which was Camfield on an ad hoc basis. They’d just go in there and pick up whatever cattle they could, have one muster and go home. So Victoria River Downs had many years to clean the place up and they were encouraged to do so by the Lands Branch but I don’t think that they ever thought that it would be resumed. When it was taken up by Edwards and the partnership, they got serious about trying to clean it so they initiated a very large stock camp between Victoria River Downs station and Vesteys. I think at the time there could have been 600 or 700 horses there and probably the best part of 50 men trying to get whatever cattle they could.

“When we arrived they were positioned at Wyalong bore on the boundary between Wave Hill and Camfield, and they had a huge number of cattle, basically all clean skin cattle. They said that they believed that they were theirs or the progeny of their cattle. But they couldn’t actually prove it because they couldn’t mother the cattle. So Edwards turned up and started laying down the law and he grabbed a .303 rifle and he said “You’re not taking these cattle anywhere. These are our cattle. If you don’t leave, we’ll do something about it.” Edwards was a big man and had been through the war. In fact he was the character in A Town Like Alice and he commanded a bit of respect. They turned on their heels and left the cattle behind and we never had any trouble after that. But we still had to have branded cattle on the place so that we could actually claim them under the rules of the game. So we didn’t have a lot of trouble with Victoria River Downs or Wave Hill after that.

“There was no improvements there at all – no yards, and you had to have yards to brand cattle. So the next job was then to build yards and fences and get things organised. But Edwards didn’t stay long as his family wanted to leave so he called it quits and my Dad was forced to buy him out. So in 1955, the partnership was dissolved. So M.A. Vandeleur, my Dad, finished up with the whole thing and I was responsible to look after the whole lot, which was pretty rough, but I managed to get to know some people that pointed me in the right direction. One of those fellows was Wayson Byers and I had Wayson as my back stop for about four years. By the way, whilst Edwards was still there, he insisted that I should go to Katherine and learn the butchering trade so for three years after I got there, I was in the butcher shop with a chap called Jack Grimmett who was a master butcher and a very good one and I learned as much as there was to know about the butchering business. I used to operate from there.

“I used to go to Camfield on regular occasions and also out to Buffalo Springs and try and look after the whole show. After a couple of years my Dad gave me sole responsibility, taking over from my brother Mick. So I was put in charge and I think that Mick was pretty disappointed about all that. The butcher shop in Katherine was a good business, we used to sell a lot of meat to Darwin and south. When I first went there, I think we were doing about six bullocks a week and pigs and lamb which we used to get up from Western Australia. By the time I left I think we were killing about 17 or 18 bullocks a week, which was a pretty fair business. It certainly helped to develop Camfield because money was pretty tight in those days. I could see that if I didn’t go to Camfield and be there on a permanent basis, it would never get developed. So about at the end of 1956, early 1957, I went out there permanently.

“Betty Barnard, a nursing sister came to Katherine Hospital in late ’56 or early ’57 and we got to know each other and I thought to myself – I’m going to build a reasonable place out at Camfield. Normally, before those times, people only built corrugated iron and fibro and what have you. And I thought – well I’m not going to live in a tin shed for the rest of my life so we decided we’d build a brick place. It was pretty foreign to everyone else in the district, but I could see there was no reason why we couldn’t do it. It’s just that it had never been done before. I had acquaintance with a couple of Italian blokes that were in Katherine. One was a plasterer and the other bloke was just a good handyman, so we got the okay to use the insulation out of the Bovril Meat works in Katherine which was left in mothballs after World War 2. We used the pumice stone insulation to make the bricks, and these bricks were 18 inches by 6” x 6” and they floated on water. They were quite light so we didn’t have a problem of carting them from Katherine to Camfield which was about 400 kms. So we made all the bricks in Katherine and took them out there to a position on good hard ground and that’s where the homestead was situated. It was a big job but when I think back on it, it wasn’t all that unreasonable. My Dad thought it was a bit rich, building brick out in the middle of nowhere. It took many years to finish the job. We started at the end of ’56, early ’57 and we didn’t actually get to live in it until about 1960. We were married in April ’58 and Betty stayed at the butcher shop, for about two years. We moved out there when it was partially completed. It looked actually like a bombed out jolly ruins, sitting on the top of the hill with nothing else around it. Anyway, we persevered and by about 1961, ’62 it was all completed.

“For Betty it was a bit of a shock to the system I suppose but as has been the case, repeatedly over time, people from the city generally handle it better than people from the bush. They settle down pretty well. She was the only white woman there for a number of years, which was not unusual I suppose. Mind you, we never had many aboriginals there. We used to get our aboriginal stockmen and labour from Katherine or wherever we could. Camfield was in between Victoria River and Wave Hill, which had two aboriginal camps but on Camfield, there was none. So we had a lot of trouble with labour and that’s the reason why I used the likes of Wayson Byers who did work on a contract basis. This is the chap that showed me the ropes. I gave him the position as head stockman on the basis of so much a head to brand and so much a head to turn off and he was responsible for getting in his own labour which sort of made my job a lot easier. I just went ahead then and got the contractors to do fencing and yard building which was a lot easier to supervise. That went on for a number of years. In fact it went on right until the end. I thought – why should I do it when I’ve got competent blokes that are able to do it and put them on contract. As long as they were well supervised, it was much better and much more profitable.

“Our first child Ann was born in 1960 so Betty went out there with a young baby early in 1960 and I suppose that was pretty tough. We had communication by radio. We had a base in Wyndham where we used to send our telegrams through and we’d take 48 hours to get one back from, go to Wyndham through Adelaide up to Darwin and back again. It took 48 hours to get a reply. We didn’t have any air strip at that stage. We used to go into Montejinni which was about 60 miles away. It wouldn’t have been until about 1964, round about 1963, ’64 when we put our own strip in and that made things a helluva lot better. We used to get visits then from the Flying Doctor on a regular basis. So it was tough. No fresh fruit or vegetables prior to having the air strip.”

“For the first 12 months when Betty went out to Camfield, we had no electricity. We had a 7.4 cubic foot kerosene refrigerator, hurricane lamps, and pressure lamps and we eventually got a second-hand Armstrong Sidley lighting plant which was automatic start and stop. We had everything wired up for electricity but it was a while before we put it on. The water situation was pretty grim. We had a rainwater tank and we used to pump water from the Camfield Creek. We had the covenants on the property that were very stringent. We had to put in eight bores, eighty miles of internal fencing and the boundaries fenced, a homestead, a drafting yard that would handle 1000 head of cattle and men’s accommodation, all within eight years. So time was a big factor and we had to try and get on with it. We bought a Southern Cross No. 2 boring plant which was a “mud puncher” they called them. I was on the boring plant with a chap there for several months, trying to get water close to the homestead and we were only getting an inch a day. It took forever.

“Boring sites were selected where it was most convenient. We had three goes between the homestead and where the present men’s quarters are now and none of those were successful. So we pumped out of the Camfield Creek for quite a number of years. It wasn’t till 1964 or ’65 we got our first successful bore at the homestead and that was selected by a water diviner called Harry Maculla. He marked the spot and they put a hole down there and finished up getting water in sandstone and it was a very good supply. I think it’s still maintained today and they get somewhere close to 2000 gallons an hour. Prior to that we used to pump out of the creek with an old Southern Cross YB4 horse power engine and a 4 inch by 4 inch draw, plunger pump and it was pumping probably the best part of 600-800 metres across a couple of gullies and up to a tank on a stand alongside the homestead.

“Lighting plant, we upgraded, – the “Armstrong Sidley” came along first and probably had at the end of its useful life before I got it. We put up with it for another couple of years and we bought another one and we graded up from say about an eight horse power 5 kva to a 10 kva and subsequently we put in two big plants. For the last probably four or five years, we had continuous 240 volt power.

‘There were few wallabies on the river, no kangaroos. I think it was too stony for kangaroos. A lot of bustards, the plain turkeys, no emus or anything like that. Plenty of birdlife, corellas, cockatoos, and black cockatoos. In the right season, there were millions of budgerigars and flock pigeons. There was good fishing in the Victoria River. There was no trouble getting a good barramundi anytime you wanted it. So it wasn’t all that bad.

“In the early years, we were building fences and we had this tractor that we brought out Queensland. You’d be out there with a team of about four or five blokes. We didn’t have much access to good timber for fencing in those days. It was pretty difficult so you relied on steel pickets, but in those days, they were pretty expensive. So we built the first bullock paddock, it was all timber posts and two barbs and a plain wire and the posts that you got were either blood wood or Coolabah. You’d start out early in the morning with two or three blokes. I’d go ahead and drill the holes with the tractor, other blokes would clean them out and put the posts in and whatever you had to do and the stock camp of course was run as I said basically by contractors, so they did their own thing. We didn’t have any “entertainment”. We played cards, books were a bit light on. You couldn’t get newspapers or anything like that. No I mean it was, get up early, work all day and go to bed.

“The big problem on the property was the cook. The cook was the main person in my view on a station. If you didn’t have a good cook, you had plenty of trouble. They were pretty hard to get so when you had a good one, you had to look after them. But they never stayed very long. They either were there because they were recovering from a bender or they were running away from a wife or something. We did our own thing. We lived separately from the men and there was always trouble in the camp with cooks and fellows going, and saying – tucker’s not good enough, or something’s wrong. Mechanic was the other person that was very essential and they were hard to get and we were always trying to pinch the bloke from next door. If he had a reputation, you’d offer him a few more dollars or give him a few more cans of beer or something to keep him on the place. They were the problems we had to put up with.

“In the early stages, we used to get our supplies up from Thomas Browns in Brisbane, by boat to Darwin and you’d go and pick up a six month supply from Darwin. By the time the flour, was six months old there were weevils in it and when you went to make the bread you could pick the stuff like strings, but you had to get rid of it. When suppliers brought in drum flour, that was all right. In the later years, when the roads improved, we’d go into Katherine probably once a month and pick up a supply of stuff. But in the early stages it was six to nine months supply so if you didn’t get it on the boat, you went without it.

“It was mainly all tinned stuff, dry vegetables, dew crisp dry vegetables in 4 gallon drums, tin fruit and dried fruit. It was a pretty staple diet, beef, more beef. And when we had plenty of water there, we had a garden and we used to grow very good vegetables and good citrus.

“We built the cattle yards which we thought was in probably the best possible spot with the prevailing winds. But at night time, when there was hardly any wind at all, it would just come over like cloud. You had to be there to understand what it was all about, this cattle dust from the yard if you’ve got 1500 to 2000 head of cattle in the yard and it just sort of hangs over the top like a blanket and if there’s no wind, it just settles down so you’re forever cleaning. You might have washing on the line and you get a bit of a wind storm and you have to take it off and do it again. We did have some dust storms, in the early part, when I think about the Alice Springs district, they had seven year drought and you’d sometimes get the dust coming up from the Centre and you couldn’t see in front of you. It was just unbelievable, but it didn’t happen very often up where we were, just local dust from the cattle yard.

“At the end of the beef slump in 1973 ’74, we probably had about 30,000 cattle on the property. It was recommended that we should put no more than 20 on it, but you couldn’t get rid of the damn things and you couldn’t even give them away, so we were carrying in excess of 30,000. In fact when we sold it, we got to the guaranteed 22,000 but we actually physically counted about 28,000 and there still plenty more. So it was a very good property but it was unsustainable on those levels and unfortunately we were there when the seasons were pretty crook. In the 25 years I was there, we only had four green Christmases. You generally got the rain between November and March and we were always waiting for the rain. We went probably for 13 months at one stretch and never got any rain at all and then we had 11 inches in two days and it washed fences and roads away and made a helluva mess. We had cattle bogged all over the black soil and so it’s either a feast or a famine I suppose.

“Keeping boundaries intact was a big problem. On the northern side, there was pretty hard red country, and the run off was very severe and the water used to come down and knock the flood gates every wet season so it was a continuous thing. You had to just go along whenever you could to put these flood gates up. Flood gates are meant to break when the water comes and you just tie them loosely and you might have sheets of tin hanging on them so as they will break and you’ve got to go back and put them up. For some unknown reason, cattle seem to move in a particular direction and mine always used to go to the north-east and I never got to them from the other side, so I had to be pretty spot on with trying to keep the boundaries up. And we did, it was a big expense really.

“In 1955, we sent a mob into Katherine and sold them to a fellow called Gus Tripp, who was an American who’d just started up a live trade to the Philippines and we were paid 5 ¼ pence a pound for those, averaging about ₤12 a head and I suppose the next several years, probably next three years they either went on hoof to either Katherine or to Queensland or they were sold on the road, on the stock route at say number 7 bore which was just on the edge of the Barkley Tableland at so much a head. And then after that, it was wherever you could. We bought a truck in 1956, I think it was, a cattle truck and tried bringing them in from Camfield to the butcher shop, journey of about 300 miles or thereabouts and it used to take about 30 hours and by the time you got them in there they were nearly pulverised because the roads were so bad. But I mean we persisted with that for a while, but it didn’t work out because the roads were shocking really.

“Everyone has a problem with dingoes. We used to bait our own carcasses after we killed them, the remains of the carcass. We used strychnine and we kept them down fairly well. But we did have a remarkable number of calves that were marked by dingoes. You’d see them coming through the yards so I suppose our losses were a lot more than we actually anticipated. They had a government dogger, a fellow that was going around and he’d bait his own beasts, or whatever he had and he’d get paid by so much a scalp. I don’t know if it was very effective at all, until the later part of time when they used to do it by aerial baiting, and that kept the dogs at bay.

“Betty would be able to tell you about what life was like for the kids but I think it was pretty rough actually. Betty did the teaching for the first three or four years and then we tried governesses under her supervision and it worked out pretty well. We had some good governesses and some not so good and our kids were on School of the Air through Katherine actually. Our girls were the first ones, the inaugural students on Katherine School of the Air and then they went away quite young. Ann might have been 10 when she went to Adelaide and Patricia was about eight, she was pretty small and I don’t think she liked it very much at all. But I think they enjoyed the bush life really.”

At the time Paul was there, Katherine had a number of interesting personalities whom he describes:

“When I went to Katherine first, I think the white population was about 350, maybe 400 whites and there were some characters there you wouldn’t meet anywhere else. Bat Kirby was an Irishman who married into the O’Shea family, first name, “Tim”. He was in the pub business. He had the both pubs in Katherine at one time. He had the Kirby’s Hotel and the Commercial Hotel. Bat was a really good bloke, great publican. I think he was a teetollar. He put up with all these mad drunks. He used to look after their money, and hand it out to them, like a bank. They’d come in with a big cheque after the mustering season and say – here you are Bat, here’s mine, look after it, give it to me when I need it. Honest as the day is long, he was, really nice bloke.

“There were other people like Tom Kennedy, he was the other publican. Tom and his wife Gwen; people like Dinny Smythe who was the sergeant of police. He was an Irishman and mad as a meat axe. I think he liked a drop himself but he’d go down and pinch blokes for not performing to the rules of the game. For example, if you went into the bar without a shirt on, you’d finish up in the lock-up. Plenty of great people there I suppose, I just can’t think of at the moment.

“Dr Ken Moo was the resident medical officer in Katherine Hospital. He was there during the ’57 flood and he and Betty and his wife, Vona were our very good friends. In fact we used to stay with them when we came into Katherine. Poor old Ken, he died of cancer, very young in life.

“Cowboy Collins was one of the blokes that gave me a fair bit of knowledge about how to run things in the Northern Territory. He was a bit of a rogue too. He did very well. We bought the butcher shop off Ted Collins. Cowboy was a real legend in Katherine. Everything he did, he did spot on. He built the butcher’s shop out of brick, you know. He ran ice works. He saw everything was done right. He said to me – if you want to do something, you’d better do it right, the first the investment is the best one.

“Poppy Secrett, the first cab driver was from an established family in the Northern Territory. Stan Secrett was a builder and he was a supervisor with a construction company in Darwin, but responsible for a lot of the early buildings in Darwin. They later on came down to Katherine and bought the taxi business there. She had a family of three girls, I think it was and two boys. Poppy was a nice person actually and very friendly. When things went a bit bad and the girls had sort of left home, we employed her at Camfield as a cook. She was out there for 12 months.

“Burt Nixon was a chap that we had a lot of dealings with. Burt was an Englishman that came out pre-war and he settled on the Katherine River and he was like an old English farmer. He grew everything. He had citrus, he had chooks, he had cattle, he had goats, you name it, he had it. He was the first bloke to make hay and try and do the thing right but he wanted to do everything himself and I suppose for that reason, he never really got very far because he thought he was the only one that could do it right and he lived in Katherine nearly all his life. We used to buy very good cattle off him. He was probably one of the only ones that I knew of that tried to improve the herds during those early years, even though I think he probably selected the wrong animal for that type of country but at least he had a go.”

In 1964 Paul made a submission to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works persuading them to locate the Top Springs to Wave Hill Road in its present position, under considerable opposition.

“I think it was 1964, no it might have been before that, ’63 or ’64. They had what they called the beef roads program and it had been going on in Queensland and other states and got to the Northern Territory and they were looking sort of west of the Stuart Highway to go to WA or to get access to markets in Queensland a lot easier so they were going to upgrade the road from Elliott to Wave Hill and on to Halls Creek and the big companies were not particularly interested in Katherine and north. Their main market was Queensland so they wanted the most direct route. To be sensible about it I suppose they looked at putting a road through from Wave Hill in the most direct route which would have been through a lot of red desert country which was easy road-making country and they could have accessed the bitumen I suppose the way they had anticipated to go about 50 kilometres shorter than the one I thought was reasonable because of my location.

“They brought the Standing Committee on Public Works to Darwin and those that were interested were invited to give evidence. Of course the big companies’ chaps had the first crack of the whip and they’d more or less convinced the committee that their proposal was probably the better way to go and I was objecting to it. I thought if we let these guys get away with it, we’re gonna be sort of murdered here. We’d be 50 miles of the jolly beaten track. So I gave evidence in Darwin, as did, I think Sid Hawkes gave evidence. So anyway, as a consequence of my evidence they decided that they’d give the small blokes a bit of a go and locate it where it was more accessible to the majority of pastoralists. And I suppose at considerably more cost, but anyway, we did the job.”Paul reflects on his time at Camfield:

“We made a lot of changes in the time we were at Camfield. When we went there, there was no bores, other than three stock route bores, one of which was useless. So the main things that I was responsible for was to put down 22 bores with good facilities, either windmills or pump jacks or mono pumps, turkey nest tanks, troughs, subdivision of paddocks, very modern homestead complex and staff facilities, three first class drafting yards with loading ramp and reticulated water close to 180 miles of boundary and internal fencing, graded fence lines, fire breaks.

“My time at Camfield was very enjoyable. I mean it was hard work but you could see that you’d left a bit of a legacy.”

(Paul Vandeleur was interviewed in April 2006).

Paul Vandeleur died in June 2011.