Mt Leonard Station, Far South West Qld, Henning and Lorraine Kath

“For the love of Motor Car Hill!”

Henning “Chook” Kath and wife Lorraine were more enthusiastic and animated than usual during our visit in July of 2009. They had a full stock camp, and Chook was gaining confidence flying the company plane, referred to by Lorraine as “his other wife… the one that doesn’t talk back!” The Kaths, have spent more years at Mt Leonard persevering droughts than enjoying good seasons. It was a treat to hear them using phrases like “Its buzzing!” and “Its happening!” with extra big smiles on their faces! Chook has hard evidence to suggest that they’ve definitely been on Mt Leonard during the worst drought known in aboriginal and white men history. “One old local aboriginal who was buried in 1960 had never seen or heard of ‘Pieracoola’ waterhole dry. In December 2002, the headstockman is the only human who saw the bottom of that hole.”

Chook finds that “having a plane licence is so good! A bore run on the ground often involves driving all day, and the plane improves the efficiency in the overall running of the station. When I first started flying over the station I realized that …. Gees, this is a big mongrel place!”

Chook grew up on a fruit and small crops farm near Gympie, Qld. His parents had migrated from Germany in 1960, and there were 12 kids in the family. “We only went to town for school … in a way it was very isolated, and tough. I did 10 to 12 years of unpaid adult work at home,” He pauses… “that’s Ok.”

“I got away at 18, and in 1989, my first paid job was here, at Mt Leonard. I was pretty green… no experience with horses, and very limited with cattle. There were 8 of us in the stock camp, and it was virtually all horse work. Bikes were just coming in, but there were no bikes for me for the first 2 years, I wasn’t even allowed in the front of the ute!”

Following 18 months at Mt Leonard, Chook shifted to Gregory Downs Station (Qld Gulf), for a season; it was a time when the young man let loose! “It was really good; I had a ball! I went flat! …hammer and tongs … at everything! Day time, work time, off work … I guess I made a bit of a name for myself up there!”

Loyalty and integrity then led him back to the family farm where he “stayed 18 months longer than I could stand really; my mind and thoughts were always back out here. A family friend told my Dad, “Once he’s crossed the Cooper, he won’t come back, that boy!” Chook then worked around Taroom and Theodore gaining “a lot of good experience and cleaning up my act a lot.” He also did a season at Innamincka, regretting that he didn’t get to the Kimberley and the Northern Territory when he was younger.

Lorraine was also born and raised around Gympie. “When I was 4 to 5 years of age, I remember going to work in the bean patch with Mum. Gympie is ‘mountain goat country’ and I hated it at the time but when I think about it now, it was good. As I got a bit older I earned my own money and was able to buy the things I wanted for myself. We worked on a local farm, and that’s where I met Henning. I wanted to get into the child care industry, so when I left school at 18, I went to Emerald and did a TAFE course in governessing. My first job was at Cooladdi, an hour out of Charleville.

Chook and Lorraine wanted jobs where they could be close to each other, and in 1997 Chook became headstockman at Mt Leonard. Lorraine somewhat reluctantly “started my cooking career there; and it hasn’t stopped!” She says that she “hates it with a passion”, however we can vouch for Lorraine’s excellent culinary skills. In October ’97, the headstockman and the cook were engaged, and married in January 1998. Their honeymoon at the Gold Coast was cut short and the dedicated Mr and Mrs Kath returned to caretake at Arrabury, a Mt Leonard outstation. In June, they returned once more to the Kath family farm for 6 months, but Lorraine explains “I’d crossed that darned Cooper too,” and employment opportunities at Monkira Station settled them there for a further 3 years.

Daughters Cassandra (10 in 2009), and Leah (8 in 2009), were both born during that time, and in 2002 the family completed the full circle, returning to Mt Leonard. Seven and a half years later, they’re still there, with three kiddies – son Jacob, ‘Boy’, born in 2006.

Chook sees Mt Leonard and the outback as “a magnificent place to raise children,” and he and the children all participate in local gymkhanas and rodeos. The Betoota race course is situated at the entrance to Mt Leonard, and Lorraine is Secretary of the Betoota Social Club. Her camera is always ready, and she loves watching Henning and Cassandra compete … “they are both so competitive!” Chook sheepishly agrees … “Yes, I am a bit embarrassed about it!” Leah is more laid back, happy to trot along, and Jacob seems very likely to follow his Dad’s adrenaline riding style! Jacob recently entered in a local events’ poddy ride and his Dad let the 4 year old tough it out on his own in the arena! Jacob proudly told his Mum, “I saw the fence coming and I jumped off!”

In 2008, we met Chook and the stockcamp at Planet Downs, an outstation of Mt Leonard, which consists of demountable quarters and an old shed dwelling. Lorraine, the governess, Miss Pam, and the kids, brought the evening meal. The name ‘Planet Downs’ is indicative of the landscape … bare and moon like, and Chook and Lorraine pointed out a feature of the distant hills which is aptly named “Motor Car Hill”. It was early morning, the weather was blustery and very cold, and Chook had a badly crushed finger. They were preparing to head out to work cattle in the nearby yards, and huddled in the freezing atmosphere, we expressed concern for Chook, and the prospect of the work ahead. He maintains that he was being cynical, but we recall his broad grin and the comment “Why would you want to be anywhere else?!”

Chook continues: “The country has its ups and downs, and has a strong way of dictating the type of people who live in it. There’s no room for pretence – you can’t bluff and bullshit your way through – people see through that. If I had to leave, it’s the people I’d miss as much as the country. This is home now, and I don’t know what it is … it gets into your blood, this country. I feel comfortable … I’ve got a good handle on it now. I pinch myself sometimes; I never forget where I started in the industry. In those early years; I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d get to where I am now… I didn’t plan it that way … it sort of half fell in my lap, really.”

With the experiences he had as a youngster, Chook gains “enormous satisfaction from passing on knowledge, and training the young ones. I want to pass on as much as I can … not that I know everything, but I want them to leave here in better shape than when they came … with more knowledge about stock work, and feeling more confident and better about themselves.”

The program at Mt Leonard concentrates on fattening (mainly spayed heifers), and the area includes some 400 to 600 square miles of flood out country on the edge of the Diamantina and Cooper Creek. Chook maintains that “some of the outside stony and sandhill country is under rated and its better than its given credit for. There are creeks that run out of the hills and flood out onto the edge and into the sand hills. Its unfortunate that the seasons are so unreliable – the last 7 years of drought have meant that Mt Leonard has not been able to run at its full capacity, or reach its potential as an excellent breeding and fattening place.”

The Arrabury Pastoral Company owners, and Henning and Lorraine, have a vision for the future, as well as a keen interest in preserving and recording the history of the country, and the people. Members of the Lindsay family, who sold Arrabury Pastoral Company to the Daly Family, visit regularly, and past employees and indigenous people have contributed with stories and photos. Chook purposely leaves old gate posts, and bronco panels and says “Its so good to listen to old fellas and women who had an involvement with this country in the early years. Nulla is another historical outstation which the couple appreciate. The only dwelling is a tin hut and Chook comments; “Its got so much charm.” Lorraine adds, “I love that place … I’m not sure I’d camp there but yeah, I love it; I have a lot of fun with the camera at Nulla.”

As children often do, Cassandra had recently taken hold of a conversation in which her parents were discussing investment opportunities. “We’re not moving are we, Mum?” was the immediate question, “…cos I’m never leaving Mt Leonard, NOT EVER!”With that she stomped out of the room; little sister Leah following close behind, retorting “and I’m not leaving either!” The girls passionate connection with their Mt Leonard home absorbed from childhood experiences, is reinforced with their parents’ love for the country, and the people. This part of the Channel Country is dramatically unique; its harsh nature revealed during the recent drought. Chook remains cheerful, “The weather is not always good cool weather like this … in fact, the majority of the time its quite disgusting!”

In spite of some heartbreaking consequences of the last 7 years, Lorraine’s comment about that bitterly cold morning at Planet Downs reflects the Kath’s attitude of perseverance; no matter what. It is … for the love of Motor Car Hill!