Stumpy Fickling and Tania Cake – Killarney Station, Top End NT

Stumpy Fickling and Tania Cake - Killarney Station, Top End NT 1

“A good life so far”

Sometimes places, events and people’s lives combine in a unique way and this proved to be the case when Stumpy Fickling and Tania Cake met at Killarney Station. “I’m a Cloncurry person” Stumpy begins with characteristic gruffness, “from about 1961.” Growing up, he had the dubious privilege of being the youngest of four kids and because he was “the little short arse fella,” Stumpy was his name. “Now I’m the tallest in the family, so I don’t know what happened there,” and Stumpy is still his name. Shortly after he was born, Stumpy moved with his family to Robinson River (Mungoobada), an aboriginal community near Booroloola, in the N.T Gulf area. “I was down at the community most of the time … I could get into a lot of trouble. I had a “nanny” person looking after me and I was giving her a hand cuttin’ firewood … that’s when I cut a part of my finger off.”

On the other side of the country, Tania’s childhood was spent in and around Albany, South of Perth, W.A. on her families’ wheat and sheep farm at Mt Barker. Tania was the second of three girls. “I grew up with horses… I was always outside with Dad. He bred horses; some originally broken in as brumbies and caught off the coastal hills near Bornholm. They were my mates,” Tania explains. “I eventually had one of my own that Dad bred and in my early teens I rode my horse everywhere; even around town.”

Her family then shifted to the larger town of Albany, where Tania attended a bigger school. “I hated that,” she says forcefully. As soon as Tania finished at school, she left home and ventured to the small coastal town of Dunsborough, where she worked in a bakery. She then travelled to Perth, put herself through secretarial school and landed a job with Levi’s Strauss Australia Jean Company. “It was a fantastic job but after two years in the city I’d had enough of that!” The sense of adventure kicked in once more when she boarded a plane and flew to a very different job opportunity at the Darlot gold mine, three hours north of Kalgoorlie.

Boarding schools were a part of Stumpy’s formal education, first at St Phillips in Alice Springs and then All Souls boarding school in Charters Towers. “I was only there for two years when Dad said, “That’s enough education.” He pulled me out of school, stuck me in a saddle and we went droving for a fair few years … six happy years droving around the ‘Curry and Julia Creek, droving cattle for Augustus Downs, Iffley, Donors Hill, Kamilaroi and Dalgonally Stations. The longest trip was from Millungerah to Mt Howett. We had just over two thousand head that trip … took us sixteen weeks. I was the only one of us kids still drovin’ with Dad. Mum was the cook; the rest went their own way.”

Whether or not it was a good thing, at the time roadtrains were taking over from droving. Stumpy moved on and “became a towny for a while…joined the railway and like all young blokes, started playing rugby league.” He admits to being “reasonably good at the game, although the first ten minutes of my first game I got into a fight. At half time I had a couple of Panadol. “Here, that’ll fix you,” they said and I played the rest of the game. Then the First Aid mob said, “You’ve got a broken jaw mate … you’ll have to go to hospital.” Tania adds, “that’s your attitude to everything … full on, all or nothing … you’ll risk your life to draft a cow out of the pen!” and Stumpy grumbles, “Hey, you’re supposed to be sticking up for me here!” A few years later in the mid-eighties, Stumpy tried something different and shifted to the mining industry. However, the pull of the bush was strong and he returned to station work with Jeff Daniels, Brody and Co around Cloncurry.

Tania landed at her mining work adventure in wet weather. The young secretary, straight out of Perth, stepped into ankle deep mud, was directed onto a personnel carrier and realized, “I had no idea of where I was going, the job I was going to be doing, or even what a mine was. The guys told me later that when they saw me with my long hair and big earrings they reckoned, “We’ll give her two weeks!” She allows a smug little smile “I outlasted one of the foremen who left two years later”.

Initially Tania worked on the crusher, progressing to other areas including the ‘gold room’ where she operated machinery and supervised pouring the gold into gold bars. “When I started there was very little security … it was very blasé … gold nuggets would occasionally spill onto the floor in the processing plant and we’d collect them, putting them into our pockets to take to the gold room later on. Sometimes we forgot about them and they’d turn up in the washing machines back at camp! At times I drove loaders and for one year I drove dump trucks. I loved being outside with the guys; big tough fellas from all walks of like, and not really that tough.” Initially Tania was the only girl in a crew of thirteen guys. Six years later when she left there were fourteen female crew working on the mine site and security was a lot tighter. “Those years were some of the best years of my working life. It was great!”

Tania then went back home for a year or so to help her Dad. He’d lived and worked up North and had instilled in his daughter a desire to do the same. “I just wanted to go there and experience the whole thing,” and in the year 2000, she travelled straight from Albany to Killarney Station where she began a gardening job. In the early 90’s Stumpy travelled to Western Australia where he met John & Mary Quintana and started work with them at Waterloo Stn in the Territory. “I learned to rope and handle cattle a little different than the way I was used to. Most of the time we worked out of the coolers and bronco yards … used a few portable panels now and then. John would muster with a plane and we’d coacher muster; still had to ride up and down the Baines River on horseback. There were a lot of late nights and pretty hard riding and drinking around Waterloo in those days. This was the start of John’s exporting years; quite enjoyable years and I learned a fair bit from John around this time.” Stumpy then moved on to Lissadell Station, South of Kununurra, W.A where EG Green owned Lissadell and several other stations adjacent to the Great Northern Highway. Stumpy worked as head stockman at Lissadell for nearly three years alongside Grigo Ferguson who also managed neighbouring stations, Mabel Downs and Texas Downs. On the three stations, the nearby Purrululu National Park and the Bungle Bungle Range form dramatic natural borders.

Following Lissadell, Stumpy packed up and moved to Katherine, N.T, continuing to find mining and other employment until the 2000 Katherine Show. At that event he bumped into Kerry Pickering, a mate from Waterloo days. Kerry was the manager at Killarney Station, owned at the time by Brian Oxenford and a job as a maintenance man / bore runner was available at the station. Stumpy’s connection to Killarney had begun and it included more than the job. “It was around this time I first met Tania; she was the gardener” Stumpy recalls, and then, jokingly “Maybe it was the isolation, the starry nights, or the fresh country air? Tania’s non retaliatory response ensures that her reputation as a sweet natured woman is preserved.

In 2001 a reconnection occurred when Stumpy’s former boss, John Quintana purchased Killarney. John asked Stumpy and Tania to run Carbeen Park, a feedlot and export depot forty kilometers out of Katherine, staffed by Vinny and Tassie Cabillo. Stumpy and Tania describe the four to five years at Carbeen Park as “a huge opportunity where we learned more about the cattle export industry. It was a lot of hard work and full on … we were busy all the time; a lot of cattle going through those days.” John Quintana finished dealing directly with the export side of things in 2005 and Stumpy and Tania took on the haymaking at Carbeen Park, which was a “learning experience.” Carbeen Park supplied hay to Killarney and Waterloo Station, which at the time was also owned by John and his company, Wallco Pastoral Company Pty Ltd. As a trial Stumpy made hay on one of Killarney’s open plains, though he’d much rather have been chasing cattle.

They returned to manage Killarney during 2006; and while they were happy to be back at the station, events led them to a decision to leave Wallco at the end of 2007, “shifting to our own little piece of the Territory, a place to call home, just outside Katherine.” Stumpy returned to truck driving, Tania to secretarial work. Her voice sounds a little wistful “It was good; eight til four thirty, weekends off, public holidays …”

At the beginning of 2009, the couple were approached by Wallco’s new directors to return to Killarney to manage the station again. “That’s when we learned that John had left the company,” Stumpy explains. “We were back for a third stint.” Subsequent to 2009, Killarney Station employed Filipino families and cowboys and Stumpy and Tania enjoyed working with this enthusiastic group of people who willingly crossed oceans for employment. “We’ll always appreciate them and remember their friendship and contribution to station life. They were very good, very loyal and made our job a lot easier.” One valuable Filipino couple, Henville and Christine Barroz have remained at the station and reliable key people, Ron Mills, bore runner / bore mechanic and Barry Martin, machinery operator / grader driver provide skills and expertise to keep the station operational. The couple remain positive and philosophical about their time at Killarney. “We’ve been lucky enough to employ some wonderful people over the years; some are like us and return for a second or third term. Our time on Killarney has been spotted with the weird, the wonderful and the tragic; which seems to be the norm in the Territory.”

Stumpy’s eyes light up when the conversation turns inevitably to “the old ways”. He remembers, with a good measure of nostalgia, the horse tailers whose job it was to bring the horses along as the stockmen worked the cattle. “They’d be up long before daylight to catch the horses for the day’s muster. One old horse tailer wouldn’t ever let me get my own horse out of the mob.” It’s not surprising that these memories, coupled with an appreciation of traditional Yankee roping methods leads to a Stumpy-like declaration, “I do not like motorbikes!”

The combination of time, places, events and people have brought Stumpy and Tania to a particular and significant place in the Northern Territory. “We’ve always liked Killarney,” they confirm and the station has provided a foundation on which their working lives and personal relationships have been built. They joke that “there’s something in the water,” and are content that Killarney Station has given them “a good life so far”. They consider it a privilege to have been involved in even a small part of Killarney and Birrimba Stations’ history.