Miranda Downs, Qld Gulf – John and Susan Stafford

“Seen a lot of country, met a lot of people.”

“Miranda Downs in Queensland’s Gulf has been John and Susan Stafford’s home for the last six years – a very different place from any of the others in their repertoire of cattle station experiences.

John has accumulated 34 years of cattle handling expertise with Stanbroke Pastoral Company, beginning in 1976 when, fresh out of Maitland Agricultural College, he applied for a position at Peak Vale Station, Clermont, Qld. Born and raised on a sheep, cattle and grain property at Bingara, near Moree, NSW, the young John Stafford was focused on pursuing a career in the industry.

In 1978, John transferred to Stanbroke Station, Dajarra, Qld, and in 1980 he shifted to Augustus Downs in Queensland’s Gulf. It was here that he met Susan Diamond, who was into her second year as a governess.

Susan, born in Rockhampton, and a Mt Isa girl from the age of 12 months, had always wanted to be a nurse, and to be in the bush. After she finished school, she took on a short term relief job as a governess at Lake Nash Station, and enjoyed it. She then began a nursing cadetship, and was loving it, when her parents moved, circumstances changed, and she accepted an opportunity to be a home help at Yelvertoft Station, Qld. The governess career path seemed to be set, and in 1979 she began governessing at Augustus Downs. Susan explained that “at the beginning of the next year, John turned up!” One of her early memories of John centres around a mince meal, cooked by a relief cook, an old fella, who, in a kitchen with no gauze on the windows, also didn’t believe in putting lids on saucepans. As they began eating, “John kept nudging me and I was thinking, “Who does he think he is?” I then realized he was pointing to the dead flies he was removing from the mince onto the side of his plate! It was awful!”

John and Susan were married at the beginning of June, 1981, and a week into their marriage, shifted to Bulloo Downs (Far SW Qld). Their relocation coincide with the break of a huge drought. Susan had to fly from Thargomindah to “Bulloo” because it was so wet, and was allowed to take “only the essentials”. She grabbed some linen, photos, a couple of pots, and knowing that John would be camping away from the main station, she included some books, for company. Challenged with the question. “Do you consider those to be essential items?” she bravely responded, “I do, actually!” John was required immediately out at the stock camp, and he was gone for four weeks, home for one night, and then out again for another four weeks. “It rained all the time, and it was freezing cold!” Out at camp, the workers, and all their gear were continually soaked, and back at the station Susan struggled with a kerosene heater (wedding present) which she couldn’t regulate, and a temperamental and unreliable hot water system. “There was no phone, I couldn’t get to town because of the flooding. It was pretty lonely; luckily I had my dog…. He was a good mate. Susan jokes, … “anyway, John was probably glad to get out; when we were first married, I couldn’t cook!” “It was an interesting six months”.

Stanbroke Station, Qld where they spent three years, John taking up the Head Stockman’s job. The shift coincided with the B TECH era, and the advent of the increased use of motorbikes and choppers for mustering. John, and others like him were familiar with methods of stock handling steeped in skills using horses and “manpower”. The changes required a shift in thinking and planning so that an equitable balance, using combinations of horses, motorbikes, and choppers could be achieved.

From 1985 til 1988, the Staffords were employed at Alroy Downs on the Barkly Tablelands, NT, and Fort Constantine, Old Hidden Valley and McAllister Station in the Qld Gulf. During this time, two beautiful baby girls, Kelsey (1984), and Rachael (1987), were born. Kelsey was a “surprise” – Susan was camp cooking at the time, and thought she had a virus. She says she felt quite vulnerable, a long way from the homestead, without a phone, and no radio.

Another beautiful surprise, baby Jenelle, was born in 1991. John and Susan continued to move around, and in 1989 they tried something different; working in feedlots in NSW, returning to Stanbroke Co. in 1990 at “Minnies” (an outstation of Strathmore Station, Qld). John took up management positions at Peak Vale Station, Clermont, Qld in 1992, and then and Nappa Merrie Station in Far South West Qld in 1995.

In 1997, the Barkly beckoned, and they returned to Alroy Downs for seven years, and Susan remembers the satisfaction of….”seven years in the same place!’’ It was the first time Susan was able to establish friendships with other women, and Jenelle was enrolled with Mt Isa school of the air, right through the primary years. Even now, the Staffords appreciate the strong social network of the Barkly, with the annual Brunette races, and the regular Women’s Days at the Barkly Roadhouse. Since moving to Miranda Downs, Susan has missed only one Barkly Women’s weekend, and with a smile adds, “John thinks it’s a good idea for me to go. He wouldn’t be able to put up with me if I didn’t.”

The move to Miranda Downs in June/July of 2004 was the beginning of another longer period of time spent in the one spot. John and Susan have thoroughly enjoyed moving round – at the same time, they’re “happy to get to a place and stay”. Moving around made it hard for their girls to establish and maintain friendships, and for Susan it was even harder sending them away for secondary education. “You think you’re prepared, but when it happens it’s just terrible.” Life without the social networking of primary school events and activities was a big adjustment for Susan. “It was like, “what’s left in life?!””

Miranda Downs country is certainly a contrast to the country of the Barkly and the Channels. John explains…. “There’s some beautiful country – especially on the river. And there’s good water. “Miranda” has phenomenal carrying rates, but its difficult country to muster.” John and Susan appreciate the great climate, and the prolific fishing spots remain a well guarded secret.

“We haven’t done a great lot of things” John reflects… “We’ve seen a lot of country, and met a lot of people.” From a Kent Saddlery perspective this comment speaks heaps about the couples versatility – their ability to adjust to wherever they’ve been placed at any time, and their interest in, and commitment to the people in the local community, and the workers in their care. John has a record number of workers who come back for a second round, some for much longer. With laconic humour, John adds, “If they do their job, they’re right!”

Although keeping up with the many changes in the industry has resulted in a necessary shift of methodology, John has always maintained a keen interest in bronco branding. “You don’t see much of it in this country”, but in keeping with his continuing passion to keep the skills of broncoing alive, John was the organising person for a bronco branding event at the Centenary celebrations of the Brunette Races. They first experienced bronco branding when they were at “Nappa Merrie”, and attended an event at Cameron Corner (where Qld, NSW and SA meet). Real brands were used, with a Sire on the side (mock brands are used in current competitions). Around 5pm, and with 10 cartons of beer to ‘spur them on’; competitors were given the order, “Go at it!” “There was a huge cloud of dust; you could only just see horses, ropes, people running, cattle bellowing,… Just chaos! How nobody got hurt in the middle of it, nobody knows, but the dust settled, and they were all still standing.”

The couple appreciate Stanbroke Pastoral Co. “They’ve looked after us well, with good conditions, holidays and schooling for our three kids. Personally, we’ve had our ups and downs, and if you sit down and think about it, we love the lifestyle out here…. To walk out of an evening…. It’s just beautiful.”