2009, People, Stories and Articles

Sheilagh Savage – Camfield Station, NT

Boss Drover’s Daughter

Sheilagh is Jimmy’s partner, and the daughter of Matt Savage, the hero of the book “Boss Drover” written by Keith Willey. Sheilagh has a copy of the book, and as we sit at the table we look at some of the photos. There’s one of the family, with a vibrant young Sheilagh smiling out at us. There’s one of her Dad’s riding camel, and a humorous picture of a camel sucking milk out of a goat! She pauses at a photo of some “Montejinni boys” and comments, “nearly all of them gone now.”

This unpretentious woman has lived her whole life in the bush – “I’m a lot happier out in the bush – Jimmy is too; so we’ve got a lot of things in common that way.”

A big chunk of Sheilagh’s life was spent droving with her father and mother in the Kimberleys, Alice Springs, and Channel Country of Queensland, using camels and horses. Sheilagh was born under a Bean tree at Rabbit lat. About two days after her birth, they had to move on because of water, and they made their way back to Birrindudu and Montejinni.

Her mother was an Aboriginal lady from Montejinni, and Sheilagh remembers her parents with love and respect. “They got on very well together all those years. My father thought a lot of my mother. He was a pretty strict father too, as far as his family was concerned. Very protective. He brought us up pretty well, and I was well looked after. He really looked after his family.”

Sheilagh, the oldest of three girls (one older sister passed away at the age of seven at Montejinni), was a real bush kid, and remembers a time when she was six or seven. The Manager of Sturt Creek visited their dinner camp one day in his motor car. “ …. and I’m down in the creek, playing in the water, and my Dad calls out “Come here, come and have a look!” and I did go up to him, and I’m looking at it (the motor car), and Dad says “Come on, we’ll take you for a ride!” and he grabbed me! Look! I kicked, and I bit, and I just would not go near that car! It was that frightening you know … a thing like that moving along with a strange noise!”

Early on her father worked on a lot of Vesty’s cattle stations, and “he sort of wanted a break, so off he went to the Tanami desert, with camels, to do some prospecting and get rich quick! As he said later he wouldn’t know how to find gold, and he just wandered around in the desert!” However, this seems to have been the beginning of Matt Savage’s distinctive use of camels in his droving trips.

Following a time during the war, in which Matt Savage looked after Lewis Creek Station near Gordon Downs, he decided to leave and go droving. “Off he went to Alice Springs and that’s how he started off. He got a mob of horses; he was selling horses, mainly draft horses, ‘cos they wanted them over in the Kimberleys. He’d get them and bring them across – during the Winter. He did about four trips all told. We did all this with the camels to and from the Kimberleys. We took the camels for carrying the packs – for water and that. We all went, and Mum was the main cook. And we rode the camels, not like you see some people walking along and leading them. Wave Hill Station was as far East as we could go; to avoid the Iron Wood poisoning. Then Dad gave all that away and I had to go to school.”

When Sheilagh was nine years old, her father wanted her to have education, so the family moved to Alice Springs and she was enrolled at boarding school. Sheilagh recalls that “…everything was so strange. I was a complete bushie – I didn’t know any kids and I couldn’t speak (English) very well at all. You know, I’d always been with the aboriginal kids. They taught me a lot by taking me walkabouts. You know, I could track as good as them; what each track was, and bush tucker … I still do; I know a lot of bush stories even now. I know that sort of thing.”

“At boarding school everything was a bit frightening for a start. I remember one night … the works yard was right next to the convent. I was upstairs with the chicken pox, no one around … and I’m scared! I’m peeping through the window, and I could see the crane, you know the head tip part, going up and down, and I’m frightened! What sort of monster is that, what sort of devil is that?!”

Her parents worked around the Alice Springs area at Alcoota Station, and others. Her Dad took her out of school for one year when she was fourteen to join in a droving trip, and it’s one of Sheilagh’s best memories. “It was a long trip into Queensland from Alice Springs to the Channel country. It was a good season, and we lived off the land. There was plenty of fish, and wild turkey … things like that. I just loved that trip to Queensland, and when we got to Queensland there were rabbits, …. and we loved eating rabbits!!”

After she left school “I went and helped Dad for about three years, and then you know, how you start growing up … you’re looking for a boyfriend, or they’d find you … time for getting married! Yeah!”

Matt Savage passed away in 1972, aged 82 years, and Sheilagh’s Mum died in 1976. Sheilagh lived in Alice Springs most of the time, and left there in 1979. She spent 22 years at Kalkarinji Community 150 kms south west of Top Springs, on the Buchanan Highway, and is very aware of the issues faced by indigenous people today, knowing there’s no simple solution.

Jimmy and Sheilagh still spend weeks away from the station complex when Jimmy is grading station tracks and roads. It’s much easier these days with generators, and caravans, and Jimmy talks about the days when water and fuel was carried in 44 gallon drums, and the staple diet was potatoes, onions and a hunk of meat, usually salted, which you rolled in your swag to keep it a bit cool. These were some of the hard parts of living in the bush.

Image caption:

1) Sheilagh Savage