People, Stories and Articles

David and Margie Daniell – McArthur River Station, Borrooloola, NT

“A snapshot…

of a good life, living in the bush”

For people who’ve visited the Kent Saddlery retail store since December of 2014, we hope you’ve noticed a canvas print on the wall in one of the alcoves. It’s a copy of an awesome photograph taken by Margie Daniell, of McArthur River Station, Cape Crawford, N.T. It captures a moment in time when David and Margie Daniell’s son Louie, has, in his turn, captured the attention of a mob of McArthur River weaners.

In 2014 at McArthur River Station Lyle and Helen managed to interrupt David and Margies’ busy work program long enough to record some of their life story. Margie is as open and exuberant as David is quiet and reserved. They do say that opposites attract, and in keeping with those differences they “opened up” to provide a snapshot of two lifetimes of experience on cattle stations in Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Entering David and Margie Daniell’s home at McArthur River Station is a visual and sensory experience; from the lush green and multicoloured garden to the line up of carved high top boots and woven saddle blankets on the front verandah. On the back verandah, home to a range of healthy pot plants, Margie draws attention to one of her favorite things. “See my little merry-go-round horse?”, she quizzes joyfully. “My sister got it for me when they were selling memorabilia after the Mt Isa Rodeo (venue) shifted from Kalkardoon Park. Inside, their love of collected objects from the great outdoors is evidenced by displays of feathers, seed pods and other things; the details of which only they could explain (if time permitted!). Margie handles an unusual looking seed. “You don’t know what this is, do you?” she asks, cheerfully. “I ask everybody that comes… found it in the horse trough. I should plant it, make sure I water it and see what comes up.”

The comment is indicative of the couples’ wholehearted enjoyment of their surroundings; an appreciation grown during twenty continuous years at McArthur River Station. They have been with the company thirty years, had been transferred back to “Eastern Creek ” between Collinsville and Mackay, Qld for 9 years and had previously spent a year at Mt Luce, Bowen, which was originally called Keeler Valley; a place which Slim Dusty sang about. The Daniells started at McArthur River in 1984. Thirty years on, David remembers, “In 1984 there was one branded cow in the whole mob. We mainly had those old Gulf shorthorn cattle.” Margie joins in, “There’s still a few come out of the woodwork, eh. There’s a little group of them up there in the hilly country around Lamont Pass… but there are less and less of them.” Margie responds to twenty years of life at McArthur River with a characteristic grin, “Well, it certainly doesn’t feel like that long… we’ve been busy the whole time… guess that’s why it’s gone so fast.

Further back, David and Margie began their separate lives in and around Mt Isa, Qld. Mostly on stations around there. When David was about five, his parents shifted to New Zealand; returning to the mining town when he was thirteen. After boarding school he joined Stanbroke, which he describes as… “the big company, good cattle, good stations”. He spent time at Rocklands Station, on the Qld/NT border, where drovers took cattle to the railhead at Dajarra. “Back then, bronco branding was an accepted practice; they used to breed the bronco horses at Rocklands … often a Percheron Clydesdale cross.” The couple also remember that the same breed of horses featured in the “Plonker” (heavy horse) races at Brunette Downs Station and Camooweal.

Margie’s childhood was spent on several stations on the Barkly Tablelands. “Dad was a boundary rider on Barkly Downs; he rode the boundries on horseback. He worked on Morstone and Barkly Downs and was at Rocklands for twenty-four years as head stockman; my mother was camp cook. My sister Hazel was born on Barkly Downs, as was my mother. Dad did all the breaking in down there… broke in hundreds of horses.” Margie’s Dad was Clargie Saltmere, a well-respected stockman and skillful horse rider. He loved campdrafting and was often the winner of multiple events at campdrafts, rodeos and gymkhanas in the Gulf area and the Barkly.

For the daughters of the boundary rider it was an isolated lifestyle, often spent on the outstation of Barkly Downs. The outstations, Yaringa and Bullicourt, had previously been separate selections and at Yaringa the girls’ formal education was by correspendence. Margie laughs, “Mum was the teacher … we were always trying to get out of school to run around in the bush.” It seems that the running around was mainly in bare feet and Margie remembers a painful incident at Morstone. “I put my foot in a camp oven hole when Mum was cooking,” she winces, “Cooked my foot! Had to spend some time in the Mt Isa hospital.”

After she finished school, Margie worked in the bush. “I went droving with my sister Shirley and her husband, Nat McNamara. We used to take cattle down to Brighton Downs from Rockhampton Downs, and then take a mob of fats into Winton. Those days, drovers were everywhere. Often we’d have to stop the mob, wait, ‘cos “so and so” was up in the lead.”

David and Margie met at Rocklands and the rest is an interesting history. They were at Rocklands for a few years and were then transferred to Mungerebah, an outstation of Stanbroke and originally a part of Ardmore Station. While they were there, Margie taught their boys, Kenny and Chris, through School of the Air. She grins, “Everyone said, “you were brought up on School of the Air…, it’ll be a cinch for you to teach your kids.” There’s a pause. “Yeah, well … it was o…Kay.”

“Most of the time it was just the kids and I at home. David was out in the stock camp and away doing stuff. We had no power so I had to do all the washing by hand and…,” looking at David, “we had an old kerosene fridge, didn’t we?” “Yeah,” David responds, “… used to take it for a ride, upside down on the Toyota to shake it up and then it’d be right for a week or so.”

“Those horrible old kero fridges,” Margie laments, “I can still remember that smell! We upgraded to a gas deep freeze after that.”

But the country was beautiful down there and David talks about the country in a good season. “Fat cattle! So fat there’ll be a cow with a weaner and another calf on the ground… mud fat.”

David then mentions a down side which cattle producers in those areas continually contend with. “It’s a pity about the poison Gidgee …..coming out of winter it’ll roll the cattle if they eat it. Lots of camels down there too,” he adds. “Tear the fences down for miles; There were also lots of emus and goannas; beautiful huge, green perenties.” (Perenties are the biggest monitor lizard in Australia, reaching lengths of 2 metres or more.)

Following Mungerebah, the family was transferred to Waverley, Qld, a Stanbroke Brahman stud. Margie describes life there. “We lived on the outstation, Rosedale. It was ok, but not the bush, and again we had no power, again the kerosene fridge and handwashing; the isolation was worse than at Mungerebah.” Wanting the best educational opportunities for their kids, they decided to leave the company; relocating to Mt Isa.

“We just hated it,” Margie shares, “We ended up going out to Buckingham Downs, David as head stockman and I was camp cook.”

From Buckingham, the family shifted to Walhallow Station, Northern Territory, where Margie cooked for one of the two stock camps. With David and the workers often out bush, she and the aboriginal women and kids were the only ones either out at the camp or in at the station complex. “We used to camp out most of the year over at the old Creswell Station or one of the other bores. I had to make six loaves of bread in the camp oven every second day, as we had a pretty big stockcamp.” If the men were too busy Margie and the other wives in the camp would load all the kids in the truck and get a big load of firewood. “After the truck was loaded we’d look for sugarbag (bush honey found in the hollows of trees), and then we’d often go swimming in the waterholes… we had some interesting outings.” By this time, the couple had three sons with the addition of their youngest, Louie. The Daniell boys “negotiated” and together with the indigenous kids, spent as much time as they could out in the stock camp. Margie regrets that she didn’t have a good camera back then. “Our Louie always had his own fire in the stock camp at Walhallow when his brothers were at boarding school. Louie would invite us over to HIS fire sometimes… to have dinner with him.”

She pauses and brings the conversation forward in time. “He still loves camping, fishing, hunting. A few weeks back Louie and our head stockman, Ian Medwin floated a tinnie … six, seven kilometres downstream from here (the station complex). No motor… and David drove to pick them up. They took their time; fishing, videoing and enjoying the quiet.” She laughs contentedly, “They caught plenty of ‘barra.”

Louie and Ian had avoided a possible encounter with ‘salties’ (salt water crocodiles); which recently had been seen in fresh water streams in the area. “During the wet, the river is connected to the ocean,” Margie continues. “There are salties at the Eight Mile, about forty kilometres away and there are big tracks and a nest just down here,” she indicates the direction with a turn of her head. “Not long ago a big “freshie” (fresh water crocodile) bailed David up… wouldn’t let him across the creek… We don’t know for sure if Bessie Springs is croc free anymore, either.”

Returning to the couples’ time at Walhallow, where any self-respecting crocodile would never be found, the Daniell family have accumulated memories of moments and events, which in the retelling, are accompanied by a smile, a chuckle, or an out-loud laugh. “Like the old camp cook in the second stock camp who used to make bread,” Margie ventures, “It always had brown markings through it.” The discolouration remained a mystery, until it was realized that the old fella combined his bread making with a habit of chewing tobacco!?

“When there was a big muster on, the two stock camps would combine and the workers would eat together. The other stock camp would always be trying to get OUR bread!,” Margie laughs out loud.

“One other time,” she continues, “someone came charging into the camp, yelling, “Buffalo, buffalo!… a wounded buffalo!!” David grabbed his gun and jumped in the Toyota. So then all the kids in the camp jumped in the back of the truck too and they were off … chasing that buffalo. The women and I were standing there, listening to the truck roaring along, going through fences, with the kids all cooeeing in the back! We heard gun shots and yeah, David finally killed the buffalo, after going through so many fences. He jumped out to look for the old wounds on that buffalo and couldn’t find any.” David questioned the fella who’d been yelling, “Buffalo, buffalo… wounded buffalo!” The accused defended himself vigorously. “I never said wounded!,” he retorted, “I never said “WOUNDED”… I said “HAUNTED!”

“I never said “Wounded”… I said “Haunted”,” Margie repeats, chuckling.

One haunted buffalo would haunt no more.

The indigenous kids were always in the camp at Walhallow and as they and David and Margie’s boys played together they all learned a variety of bush skills. Margie selects something from the collection of interest items on the table. “This is Louie’s spinifex wax,” she explains. “When spinifex burns, it melts right down and this stuff collects at the base of the plant. It’s like a glue… strong. The aborigines mended their spears and axe heads with it.”

Multiple memories arose from their close association with the indigenous people at Walhallow, and David recalls “…one time when we were bringing a big mob of cattle into the receiving yard. There was a lot of dust… the cattle were coming through a lane and up to the receiving yard gate. They were baulking… just wouldn’t go in.” David asked, “What’s up? What’s wrong up at the lead?” Impatient, he went to investigate. “Here’s a kid sitting on the top of the gate cap, just looking down at the cattle … holding up the whole mob!” In hindsight, an amusing incident.

No worries, and characteristically, David expresses his respect for the indigenous stockmen who worked at Walhallow and came mainly from nearby Borroloola. “Some clever people there,” he says quietly.

Underpinning the Daniells’ ongoing commitment and dedication to station life is their mutual love of horses, and horse work. At McArthur River, they appreciate being able to work the cattle with horses. As much as Margie was happy and willing to sacrifice her passion for horse riding while the boys were young, she’s now very happy and willing to admit that “… as soon as Louie went off to boarding school, I bought a horse!”

They are convinced about the effectiveness of working cattle with horses and dogs. Human, equine and canine skills combine to handle the cattle at the station. The dogs are used extensively to train the weaners and Margie speaks on their behalf. “They love it!”

David’s vast experience with horses has involved breaking in colts (young horses) in preparation for stock work, and while some accounts place the joke on him, David, unashamed, records those times himself.

“I was breaking in some horses down there at Mudgerebah ” he recalls, “… riding colts out in the horse paddock.” The boys were in the school room with Margie, with a view through the windows to where David was riding. “The kids were on the radio talking to their teacher when the horse started bucking. It bucked me off into a tree… all that gidgee… stunted trees and bushes you know, and those boys are looking out the window yelling a running commentary into the school radio. “…and Dad just got thrown off his horse!”” The entertaining escapade was being broadcast to places far and wide! Margie laughs, full-on. “The kids were not that worried … but they took off out of the school room anyway.”

Another amusing anecdote from their time at Mudgerabah springs to mind and David recalls, “There used to be this vet; Bob Chester was his name. He had big old mutton chops. He used to play rugby for Australia years and years and years ago. He was a lovely old man … used to do all the TB testing for Stanbroke. Anyway one evening, we were having supper and the kids were playing under the house. I think somebody else was there with us too; a pilot or someone else and maybe the old boreman?

Anyway you could hear “Thump thump thump” … the boys had miniature cattle stations built under the house … they always played under there. Then, they started fighting, and then the swear words started to come out! And they’re into it under the house … we could hear, “… get off my @#!#$ road, you #$&@ !,” and upstairs we’re tapping the floor with our feet and trying to talk louder and cough louder to drown out the noise of the fighting and swearing!”

Margie laughs, hopefully, “I don’t think that ol’ fella would’ve heard anything anyway, would he?”

The boy’s education was very important to David and Margie. “My Dad never went to school and he was fine,” Margie reflects, “and all our kids wanted to quit at some stage, but we made them stay. They all went to Grade 12.” Margie talks candidly about an ongoing situation faced by many families living in remote areas. “There was a bit of help from the government but boarding school is expensive, so I worked all the time.” Margie spent a lot of years cooking, either full time in the stock camp or transporting home-cooked meals out to the camp, which she laughingly refers to as “Meals on Wheels”. “The boys taught themselves a lot… out in the stock camp.”

As is the case with many young people born and raised in a station environment, it seems that stock work was in the Daniell boys’ blood. “When they came home from Charters Towers on school holidays they went straight out to the stock camp. I hardly ever used to see them,” Margie “complains”.

“They grew up with it,” David adds. “All very capable. We often reckon that the best ringers we know are Kenny, Chris and Louie.” Margie chips in, “They know all the little nooks and crannies (of stock work)… the unspoken rules. “One …” she begins, “Don’t ride in front of someone else; Two … Don’t turn tail on the herd; Three … when you’re driving cattle along, always go back to the same spot.”

She then considers what she’s just said and grins, “We didn’t teach the kids as rough as we were taught. When we taught our boys we were a bit more subtle. In the old days, one time Nat McNamara, my brother-in-law, grabbed me by the shirt, and yelled at me, “The gate opens THIS way,” and he pushed the gate and me! If you’re coming THIS way, you push the gate THAT way and if you’re going THAT way, you push the gate THIS way!!”

“Things like that,” Margie reiterates. “We remembered it …we SURE remembered it!”

The couple’s pride in their sons is transparent and Margie describes Chris, who in 2014, was managing Myroodah Station, West Kimberley, with his wife Pam and their two young sons. “Chris is one of those people who if he does something, it’s gotta be done just right.” She considers for a moment. “Actually, Kenny and Louie are the same… which is good, I think it comes from the teacher and pupil both loving what they do!”

For the visitor to McArthur River Station, the station complex is a luxuriant environment; the area between the main house and the kitchen/dining area shaded and dwarfed by several enormous African Mahogany trees. An escarpment adjacent to the homestead reflects the morning and evening sunlight in glorious hues of tan and orange, merging to pinks and purples as day and night approaches. A short walk away, Bessie Springs, a deep waterhole, fed by a magnificent waterfall, similarly reflects the changes of light and the seasons. During a good Wet, the roaring falls are fed by water accumulated from a gorge up high on the Abner Range and the dramatic scenery is a photographer’s delight.

“This is where I really got into taking photos,” Margie enthuses. “There’s so much… it’s beautiful, rough looking country… lots of little springs and waterholes out the back there.” In addition to the joy of “shooting” the landscape with her camera, she passionately photographs the cattle, the dogs, the wildlife and station life. Takes her camera in her pocket mustering.

In 2013, Margie was invited to exhibit some of her photography at the annual Brunette Races, at Brunette Downs Station, NT. She regarded the exhibition as a way of showing the hundreds of tourists who attend the event “… what it’s really like. It’s a good life, living in the bush. That’s why I like taking the photos.”

David and Margie Daniell’s enthusiasm for what might be regarded as more traditional methods of stock work is tempered with the reality that things have changed in the industry. “It’s all about time (constraints),” David reflects, “Essentially, instead of a stock camp shifting a mob of cattle, a truck and one truck driver can do the same.” The couple discuss this and other current issues in the light of their accumulated years of experience in the industry. They voice concern that often without notice, outside influences and regulations can negatively impact the industry. “It’s devastating for people involved in agriculture and livestock production”, David concludes.

The Daniells have experienced many changes in the industry during their decades of experience. They care about the land, flora, fauna and the livestock and are adamant that the majority of agriculturalists and pastoralists are quietly dedicated and committed to holistic action which benefits life in rural Australia.

David Daniell sums it up with a mirror reflection statement. “Most bush people don’t like blowing their own horn,” he comments quietly.

Enough said.

Article written by Helen Kent.
“David and Margie Daniell, McArthur River Station, Borroloola, NT, 2014”

Image captions:

1) L-R Margie and David Daniell

2) Saddle rail at stock camp

3) Yarding up at McArthur River

4) Crossing Kilgour River

5) Dogs blocking holding weaners

6) Wet season at Bessie Springs

7) Wet season at Bessie Springs