Jon and Michelle Cobb – Durham Downs Station, Channel Country, South West QLD

Jon and Michelle Cobb - Durham Downs Station, Channel Country, South West QLD 1

“It’s excellent you know”

Jon and Michelle Cobb, their four sons, Keegan, George, Joel and William are dinki-di, true blue, fair dinkum Channel Country Aussies, in spite of Michelle’s unmistakable “Pommie accent. Jon is as quiet as Michelle is exuberant; their respective life stories full of inevitable contrasts.

The family shifted to Durham Downs at the end of 2007, when Cobby, as Jon is known, took up the manager’s position. A journey had begun at the station in the 1990’s when he worked there with mustering contractor, Rusty Ferguson. Cobby was an Adelaide boy, who for a few years had lived with his parents in Zambia, Africa. The family returned to Australia when Jon was ten and following holidays at friends’ farms he decided early that he wanted a career on the land. “That’s about it,” Jon says, “That’s what started it.” During work experience from Agricultural College in 1984, Jon worked on “Lambina” near Oodnadatta, (with contract musterers Neville Dahl and Darryl Hunter). He met the travelling manager of S.Kidman Company who suggested, “when you’re ready for a job, give us a call”. He gave them a call and was sent to Innamincka, a breeding and bullock station, similar to Durham Downs. Cobby admits that, “looking back, I was brand new really … didn’t know much at all. (Grant McSporran was manager and Teddy Northeast, headstockman.) I s’pose you’d call it ‘old style’; there was no weaning or cradling, all bronco panels, horses and a horse tailer and hobbling horses out every night. I stayed for six years; the last three I ended up being head stockman.” Cobby continues, “For a year or two at Innamincka Rusty Ferguson was giving us a hand and we ended up pretty good mates. He was going contract mustering on Durham and I was ready for a change of scenery so we came here at the start of first round. We’d muster, cut out, bronco the calves, draft, then tail out the fats ‘til the trucks came. Fergie, (John Ferguson, the manager of Durham Downs) would crack us off then and hunt us to town.”

There was always work available so Jon went yard building with Lawrence Richards, Fergies son-in-law. “I was hanging around Durham for a fair bit and one day Fergie called out, “Oi, come down to the office”. Cobby thought he was in trouble. “There’s a head stockman’s job coming up at Glengyle if you’re interested.” I said, “When can I go?” He replied, “Go today!” So, “Righto,” away I went. Peewee Clark was manager there at that time”.

In 1994 there was a big shift in S.Kidman Co.. Graham Morton was moved from Karmona, Durham’s outstation, to manage Innamincka Station and Jon Cobb stepped up to take his place.

Cobby was allocated three men and a cook and until the year 2000 he managed at Karmona and ran the camp at Durham. A scene was being set in which two people would meet and fall in love.

Before Michelle Reay pulled up in the dark in June 1999 at Woomanooka, another outstation of Durham Downs, she’d travelled a long way. She was born in Crewe, a town between Birmingham and Manchester. It was a dairy farming village and Michelle would “hang out in the fields. I started with horses as a young girl … didn’t have my own horses but was always trying to link up with people so I could learn to ride. Any riding I could get was a winner!”

Michelle studied Sports Science at Liverpool University, travelling to the US of A for holiday camps where she taught swimming, lifesaving and horse riding. She also had a yearning to travel to Australia. Her great-grandmother had migrated to the land of opportunity and Michelle remembers that “every year I’d get a little birthday card from Great Gran in Australia. There was always this great grandmother thing going on as we were growing up.” Michelle was four and a half and “when we were Christmas shopping in Manchester in a huge store … you know like Harrods … manic, crazy, masses of levels and I got lost! They took me to this big office thing and asked me where I come from. I said, “I’m from Australia!” My Mum heard the announcement, “There’s a little girl lost; its Michelle from Australia.” She knew straight away it was me! Really bizarre, Yeah, … so here I am!”

Twenty years later in 1999, a petite blonde backpacker landed in Sydney, worked there for a bit, and then made her way to Townsville. “I ended up getting a door knocking job … dropped off in the suburbs at night when people were preparing dinner! … kids crying, and I’m wandering around, hearing the music from “The Bill” from the TV’s in the houses and thinking “Ooh, the Bill”; being reminded of England and “Ooh, I hate this job!” I didn’t come to Australia to pee off the Australians.”

An advert at a backpackers hostel for the Visit Oz website prompted Michelle’s next step. “They guaranteed three months work if you had farm experience. I was wanting a bit more long term employment so I thought, “that’ll do”. A bit of training was involved. They showed you a bit … how to do a Cobb & Co, that’s your fencing, tick! You can start and reverse a tractor?, tick! Bit of a joke really. I’d started a chainsaw once; … “can wield a chainsaw!” Tick! Then it was, “where are you willing to go and I said, “I’ll go anywhere; I don’t care.” Righto, she’ll go anywhere, tick … middle of the desert!

Johnny Mac (John McNamara contract musterer) rang up … There were three of us girls going ‘mustering’ and he did this phone interview. I’m telling him “Yeah, I can ride a horse;” “Can you ride a motorbike?” I hesitated. He asks “How much riding on a bike HAVE you done?” and I said, “I learnt yesterday!” “Mac, his wife Jill, and kids Jack and Tess picked us up in Charleville, … what an hilarious name. Someone else was going to Goondiwindi … that cracked me up as well! I mean, in England there’s no funny names like that!”

They drove West from Charleville and Michelle noticed there were no houses. After Quilpie she began to think, “Woah, where am I going? …like there was nothing! I thought “It’s ok, I’m only going out there for three months, … no worries, I can do that!” Eventually, they pulled up at Woomanooka. In the dark Michelle could just see the outline of a building “… like a hostel, or dormitory or something. “So which room am I in?” I asked. Johnny Mac just looked at me and he’s probably thinking “What have I done? … what room am I in! …next question? “where’s the power point for my hairdryer?!” Michelle laughs “Naa, it wasn’t like that, but when I asked “which room am I in?”, he was just like, “Wherever you want; basically, wherever you wanna be!” and I was like “oooh, seriously? … the wildlife?” He lent me a swag; I didn’t know what a swag was … I thought it was one of those sticks with the little you- know-thing tied on the end!”

The scene was set. Cobby and his men were working at Woomanooka in conjunction with Johnny Mac and his team of five “contract musterers,” Michelle grins, “Mac, Slippery (Cheyne Williams) and Steven were the only contract musterers. The rest of us were ring-ins. Mac had us all radioed up … he had to … we’d have been nightmares for him otherwise. If we didn’t have the two way radio we’d all be in the wrong spot … they’d be trying to push the mob and we’d be blocking them! Disaster! When I was on a bike I tried to stick as close as I could to Mac. I couldn’t understand his arm signals … didn’t know if he was angry with me, or what. I was much better on a horse … he worked that out pretty quick.”

Somewhere between June and September of 1999, Jon Cobb and Michelle Reay were introduced. There’s a bit of deliberation about the actual time and place, then Michelle is definite. “I met you when we were tyre-changing … Yeah, I still remember that … there must’ve been something in that.”

A couple of days later, during the muster, Cobby checked on the “contract musterers” and took pity on “the poor little English girls on the tail of the mob.” He asked would they like a drink from his water bottle? “Yeah,” Michelle retorts. “It looks like a proper civilized water bottle, and then he pours the water and its like, “Aagh, what IS that?! It was proper muddy water that was … and I thought, “Is this a joke? … is this safe?” … it certainly wasn’t love at first sight.” She ponders a moment, “Actually,” she grins, “I was trying to hook you up as a dancing partner for one of the other girls for the Noccundra races. I called you over and started talking to you then and I dunno, I must’ve liked you and I was finding out interesting things about you. I liked you then and it was like I wanted to say to this other girl, “Here, you have my dancing partner and I’ll have this one! … Ah, those were the days dear?” Cobby smiles, keeping his thoughts to himself.

A crossroad had been reached. At that time, Jon had already received some significant news. Stuart Nunn, from S.Kidmans’ head office had visited, bringing a letter which, on a busy cattle station day, Cobby placed on the side board. “You’d better read that mate,” Stuart Nunn urged. It was a letter offering Jon the manager’s job at Glengyle and he was very keen to accept. Michelle now had every reason to remain “out in the desert.” She travelled to Fiji, renewed her visa and returned to Glengyle “to work for free for twelve months … didn’t get paid.” For Michelle it was never a sacrifice. “It wasn’t a job, it was fun … riding horses all day, It’s what I always wanted to do.”

The couple settled quickly and easily into life at Glengyle. The town of Bedourie and a friendly community was just forty-five kilometres up the road with Birdsville a little further on. At Durham, the nearest town is Thargomindah about two hundred and fifty kilometres away. Jon was managing Glengyle’s people and cattle in familiar surroundings and he became involved in the local council. Michelle spear headed sports activities in the town, including touch footy and indoor cricket. She was employed by an allied health group based in Longreach and organised and coached a softball team which competed at Mt Isa and Townsville. Michelle sighs “Just loved the kids in town.”

During their eight years at Glengyle, sons Keegan and George and Joel were born, and William came along after they shifted back to Durham Downs in 2008. There’s no shortage of energy or activity when they’re all together and Michelle cheerfully admits “We’re our own community here.”

Cobby loved returning to Durham Downs. “It’s made a massive difference, knowing the place, but I’m still learning the country.” There’d been eight to nine years of drought when Jon and Michelle arrived, however Durham is productive country and Fergie had held onto thousands of fat bullocks which needed to be shifted and / or sold. At the end of 2009, the drought broke properly. The floods came down and it didn’t stop raining ’til March of 2011 … challenging work for a manager.

A huge flock of cockies flies overhead, drowning out the conversation with incessant screeching. The cloud of white feathers moves on down the river and the noise gradually abates. Jon Cobb is passionate about this part of the country. He looks towards flood markers nearby, pointing out the record flood heights. “A couple of times you get that real clear

… you know, when the flood is real slow and there’s a lot of feed in the river. Water comes down here clear; blue like the ocean. Beautiful. You get up in the morning and it’s just shining … can’t look at it, it’s that bright! Then you get that real muddy water sometimes … it don’t look so good.”

He indicates an area close to the station homestead verandah and he wears his heart for Durham Downs right there on his sleeve. “We’ve had a few Christmases when it’s all water there. We’ve got a boat tied up to that tree there … it’s excellent, you know.”

Cobby is a relatively young manager; however the old days and the old ways have been a real part of his training within the Kidman culture “We were all taught the same way, from the year dot”, he grins. Bronco branding was the norm and “there were horses everywhere … we spent a lot of time looking for horses.” A couple of times a year Cobby gathers the workers at the station and they learn a bit about bronco branding. He still enjoys it and is keen to expose the young ones to some of the “old ways.” He laughs, “There was more excitement back then … it seems like you promote yourself out of doing what you like doing.”

There’s a saying, “Home is where the heart is” and for Jon and Michelle Cobb and their sons, Durham Downs is home. From his youth, Jon’s life has been connected to the Channels, and for Michelle, the sparky little British backpacker, her heart’s connection to Jon, their sons and the Channel Country began with six simple words “I’ll go anywhere, I don’t care”.

Image caption:

1) Michelle & Cobby with (L-R) Keegan, George & Joel, (Front) William.

2) Durham breeders

3) Durham Downs in flood.

4) Cobby and Durham Downs workers bronco branding