2011, People, Stories and Articles

Johnnie Rankin (JR), Alexandria Station, NT

“I was always here”

Johnnie Rankin, affectionately known as “JR”, is “Alexandria born and bred”. “Well,” he chuckles, “born somewhere along the road between here and Mt Isa… a 49 model and still going strong!” He points to a house close by… “I was always here…right in this house, right here.” His Dad managed Gallipoli Station; and was also a bore man/mechanic, and his Mum cooked in the station kitchen. JR had two sisters and five brothers… “We all grew up around here.” He attended Camooweal school for four years, and left school at 14 years of age… “They got rid of us then.” With a distinctive gleam in his eye he is quick to inform that, “in 1965 I started working here, straight to stock camp! We camped out all the time, from the beginning of the year til Christmas. We weren’t allowed near the Station. I went to Mt Isa Rodeo now and again; had a few goes in there, and that was it. I wasn’t all that interested.

There were lots of wood stoves here then, and over the Wet we used to go cutting wood. “With chain saws?” we ask. JR’s eyes widen… “AXE! It was good fun, we were young fellas then. Eight foot long –Wild Honey and all that – heap it all up and a couple of old boys come out with a couple of trucks and we’d load it on for them.” JR continues his story… it sounds like poetry, “I was jackeroo for five years… they took me out of that… put me on the grader for a year, bore truck for a year, tried me out as I go along. I said, “I don’t care.” In 1974, they put me on the trucks, and I stayed. Dad died at Government Bore, 1970. I wasn’t here. Must’ve been away driving trucks.”

Time went by, and JR fell for the Head Stockman’s daughter, Coral Draper. Subsequently, their children, “all five of them went to school down here at Alexandria school.”

When JR was at school in Camooweal he’d “watch the trucks flying past and I said, “I’m going to get one of them!”” He was told, “You go ringing first! Wait ’til you’re a bit older, we’ll give you a fair go.” One of the first trucks JR drove was a Leyland Hippo “…38 mph top speed… it was like drivin’ an old army tank!” Today, and then, his job was “carting cattle from one place to another, following the stock camp around – a life of work, and no time to get bored.” JR has worked for five different managers, and has taken cattle to and from all the NAPCO Cattle Stations and beyond – “some long trips alright”. Some places are “too civilized for me. I like it up here, I like the open country. They’ve (NAPCO) been good to me. It’s a good job, it’s not too bad, I like it now.” Sometimes the truck has been bogged, and in Barkly Downs soil that means sitting for two or three days til it dries out. Regarding the traditional role of a cattle truck driver – climbing up on top of the trailers, JR is stoic. “I get up there now and again… it’s getting harder now, I’m not getting any younger; I let the young fellas do it. If I fall off, I mightn’t get back up, and there’d be no one else to drive it then.”

JR has vivid memories. When he first started, there were “twenty men in the stock camp, the bullock tailers, the musterers… we broke in our own bronco horses. I learned a lot. Everything was done and made “out bush”… green hide ropes, neck straps, hobbles… everything. We used to ride horses everywhere just about, or go with the bullock tailers.”

JR spent many childhood days with members of the Aboriginal community… “Hunting, fishing, going walkabout.” They would all go fishing for Yellow Belly at Lawn Creek. “There’s a big round rock in the middle of it, like an umbrella it is. You get up on top of the rock, jump off it and you dive underneath, and you know how the fish stay in the cold places? – you get under there and put your Singer round this fish or something like that, and you throw the fish up and give it to your mate up on top.”

Meeting JR, who has spent a lifetime in one place, is a rare privilege. His eyes widen, light up, and he affirms that, “It’s been good; I’ve had my fun and time and everything, and as long as they keep me on, I’ll keep going while I’m still walking ’til I can’t walk anymore.”

Meanwhile JR will continue to contribute to the mealtime banter in the “Alex” kitchen, and out and about the Station – “I stir them up to keep them all happy, let them know you’re still around. Out in the Stock Camp, they’re happy to see me turn up! I go and get amongst them and give a bit of cheek… then I dump them and leave them.”

There’s no doubt, from JR’s wide eyed look, and his beaming smile, that he’ll keep coming back.

Image captions:

1) The Leyland Hippo

2) Loading cattle at Alexandria Station yards