People, Stories and Articles

John and Leeanne Imeson – Barkly Downs, Camooweal QLD

“A good little spot”

Eighty kilometres south of Camooweal, Qld, and close to the Qld/NT border, lies Barkly Downs Station, a ten thousand square kilometre (just under a million hectares) stretch of amazing country; unique to the Barkly Tableland, which in turn stretches west from the station for some five hundred kilometres before merging into the Tanami Desert, west of the Stuart Highway. Approaching the station’s homestead complex, it is clearly identifiable; an oasis of trees and greenery surrounded by an expanse of Downs country.

The natural open plains country comprises about seventy-five percent of the country; range country taking up another fifteen percent and the remaining ten percent consisting of “Red country”, which grows turpentine and spinifex vegetation. Barkly Downs is also privileged to have some flood out country from the Buckley channels from Camooweal on the north-west side into neighbouring Austral Downs.

John Imeson, Manager of Barkly Downs, which is owned by the Acton Land and Cattle Company, describes Barkly Downs as one of the best properties he’s been on.

In 2014, the Imeson family… John, his wife Leeanne and their eleven year old daughter Erin, were into their seventh year at Barkly and still regard their coming to the station as “the best thing we’ve ever done”.

It’s a culmination of a “hands on lifestyle” for John and Leeanne and the account of both their childhoods bears that out.

From the outset of these accounts, there is no hesitation on Leeanne’s part. “Away you go!” she announces, looking to John.

“I’ll have to think now,” John responds. “Not real good at talking about myself; good at talking about other people! But!” He pauses, then launches into it. “Oh… well, I was born and bred in Casino… just over the border there in NSW… a bit like Tully, there in Nth Qld… wear your rubber boots out… always bloody wet!”

He continues, “We lived in town; Dad lived there all his life and he had country… sixteen hundred acres just outside town. Yeah, grew up there, working there. Left Casino then after Year 10… about seventeen I was and I went to Tocal College, in the lower Hunter for a couple of years. I ‘spose you’d say it was a bit of a wild time there.”

College life behind him, John got a job at a place just west of Corindi, NSW working for David Brownhall. “It was cold too… it was a COLD place! I was there about eighteen months and after that I went and drove headers for a season; up around Emerald there in central Qld. Then I stayed with Mum and Dad for twelve months… gave them a bit of a hand. Went to Stanbroke after that… 1986 at Kamilaroi, working for Peter McNeven… got a lot of respect for Pete.” Sadly, and especially for his son, Luke, and daughters, Clare and Joy; all involved in the cattle industry, Peter McNeven died in 2009. John’s respect for Peter is shared by many people in North and Western Queensland.

It’s clear that John enjoyed his time at Kamilaroi. This included out-of-work-hours involvement in the sport of Polocrosse.

“We played a lot, all over Queensland,” he enthuses. “Townsville, Cunnamulla, Blackall, all over! It’s a very social game … a team game. Its people you meet, the friends you make… a really nice atmosphere.” He is, however, quick to introduce a proviso. “Like everything, you’ve gotta do your work before you go anywhere. We’d leave on a Friday only after all the work was done. Play polocrosse all weekend and arrive back early on Monday in time to unload the horses, have breakfast and straight back to work. We were tired but we had a good time.”

Following two years at Kamilaroi, John worked for another couple of years at three smaller stations and also took time out for a leg reconstruction. For the last three months of 1990 he returned to Kamilaroi and then took on the role of head stockman at Rocklands Station, Camooweal, working with manager, John Cameron. It was the beginning of 1991, by which time Leeanne was well and truly “in the picture”.

Over to Leeanne… and she relates her childhood history with characteristic matter-of-factness. She was born in Hughenden, Qld, and grew up around Winton, Qld, where her Dad managed places. Six to seven years of Leeanne’s childhood were spent on Ingle Downs and she did school of the air and correspondence to Year Ten. She simply adds, “Mum always taught me.”

After school Leeanne took on day work, and with her sister Wendy, was employed at Cressie Station, with John Logan. When Leeanne’s parents left Ingle Downs, Leeanne (and Wendy??) also left Cressie to help their Dad and Mum get started in a fencing contracting business.

Versatile and capable, Leeanne went from there to twelve months of work in the shearing sheds. Proving her ability as an all-rounder, she describes the work as “… pressing normally, and crutching, when they were crutching”. She then returned to help her Dad and Mum with contracting, and in 1990, shifted to Kamilaroi.

John and Leeanne had met in 1989 playing “a very social game… a team game… in a really nice atmosphere!” John’s enthusiasm concerning “The people you meet… the friends you make” takes on a whole new meaning! Could he really have meant “the person I met… the friend I made?”

He teases, “Leeanne wouldn’t leave me alone, chased me all over the field,” and Leeanne smiles calmly.

They both transferred to Rocklands in 1991 and were married by the end of the year. John seems to have instant recall to memories of Leeanne on horseback and pointedly recalls that coming up to the wedding, “Leeanne tried to kill me, she did! I was pulling down this mad Braham cow and she ran over me with a horse!” Leeanne ignores the story, smiles once more and continues. “We were three years at Rocklands; John Cameron was a very good manager. We transferred to Tanbar then, John as overseer and I was head stockman.”

In response to comment that she was probably one of the first female head stockmen of that time, Leeanne remembers that Joanne Hamilton at Strathfield Station was a fellow worker in that role.

The couple worked at a number of stations from that time, including another stint back at Rocklands. In 1996 they started with AAC (The Australian Agricultural Company) at Gregory Downs (Planet Downs) in Qld’s Gulf, transferring to Wrotham Park, also Qld Gulf, and then to Clonagh, just outside of Cloncurry, Qld, where John was employed as manager.

They loved the two years at Clonagh and remember Gregory Downs and Wrotham Park as “great spots”. Another eighteen months was put in at Glentana, Springsure, Qld where Erin was born in 2003. It’s Leeanne’s turn to tease. “Better not miss her out,” she comments affectionately.

Dalgonally, at Julia Creek and Avon Downs, on the Barkly Tablelands, completed twelve years of employment with AA. “We learned a lot during those years,” Leeanne concludes and the couple describe AA as a “great company”.

“Now,” Leeanne cheerfully announces, “here we are, here!”

They began work at Barkly Downs at the beginning of 2008. They’d been cautioned, “it’s a big job, a big job” and their response was, “Well, we’ll either sink or swim”. Literally speaking, there was no opportunity to “sink or swim” as they were plunged directly into a big drought year… “a horrible year, wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” John says.

From the start, John and Leeanne found that their employers, Graeme and Evan Acton were “easy to talk to and great people to work for. They were one hundred and ten percent passionate about cattle and horses and we enjoyed working for them.”

Tragically in 2014 Graeme Acton died of injuries sustained in a fall from his horse at the Clarke Creek Autumn Classic Campdraft, in central Qld.

In 2014, the Imesons continue to appreciate and value the Acton family and the fact that their employers are completely “at home” sitting in the dust beside the yards eating lunch with the Imesons and the workers.

During 2008, as the drought worsened there was talk. “It might flood, ya know!”

In January 2009, in keeping with the anomaly of Australia’s weather events, “it poured and poured”. The Imesons soon discovered that essentially, the homestead area was a big basin which soon became a lake with a metre or more of water running right through the compound. In the aftermath of the flood, Barkly Downs was transformed. “It was a fabulous sight,” John recalls. “The wildlife and the birds that came! University people visited… I don’t know how you count ducks, but they were counting them and conducting a study of all the different species of birds that were here.” Statistically, he adds, the 2009 flood on Barkly Downs was part of a “once every 60–80 year event”.

What a contrast it was to the conditions a year before. “2008 was a tough year,” John says quietly.

Life on any cattle station is a juggling of work and recreation, of family and station activities, and John and Leeanne continue to plan and respond as appropriately as possible.

From the work aspect, John is adamant that “you’re only as good as your people,” and add, “if you’ve got the right people working with you, you’re right.”

Barkly Downs has no outstation and no assistant manager. There are two head stockmen and Leeanne is one. She runs the weaner camp and John’s appreciation of his wife is clear. “Leeanne, being a hands on person, makes my life and job a lot easier. A good head stockman makes a big difference.” Simultaneously humorous and dead serious, he adds, “With Leeanne I’m right. If she were a stay at home… high heels, makeup and jewellery… I’d be in trouble, big time.”

From a Lyle and Helen perspective, Leeanne works harder and with greater stamina than many “strong” young people half her age. She is vitally instrumental in processing one hundred thousand cattle each year. “It’s not just drafting heifers off steers,” she explains. “It’s the weaners (thirty thousand a year), fat cattle, standards, Brahams, Black cattle, culls and meat works cattle.” Eighty percent of meat works fat cattle go through the round yards, where during the mustering season, Leeanne spends many a long, hot and dusty day.

Leeanne’s sister Wendy and her husband Ashley have spent nearly two years at the station, and their combined skills and experience make a big difference. John is grateful. “Ashley is a great backstop… he can do anything.” 2014’s head stockman Chris Bateman and his Irish girlfriend Dawn Alcorn are also valuable employees who, over the years, “keep returning”.

Barkly Downs employs on average around twenty to twenty-five workers and John is encouraged that “most years they are good young people. Some come with a romantic idea of station life and don’t last. If workers come back for the second year, that’s when there’s benefits all round.” John outlines his and Leeanne’s clear cut, genuine interest in the welfare of the young people who come to Barkly. “We have to let them know that it’s a real working place, not a boarding school and we aim to be fair and maintain good morale. It’s good when you know they are working WITH you, not so much for you.”

John and Leeanne believe Barkly is conveniently placed one hundred and fifty kilometres from Mt Isa; an hour and a half, two hours away. There is opportunity for workers to go to four or five campdrafts a year, and every second week they have a day off. In an emergency, the station plane and pilot are available for a quick flight to Mt Isa.

Erin Imeson has spent the majority of her eleven years at Barkly Downs and has, in no uncertain terms, declared that she “never wants to leave!” She shares that she “loves the size of Barkly Downs, …the adventure of it all. I get to go mustering; there’s something different happening every day.”

Enrolled with Distance Education (Mt Isa) and progressing through her primary years with the assistance of a home tutor, the idea of going away to school for secondary education is daunting. She is documented as stating, quite vehemently, “I’m not going past Camooweal!”

John and Leeanne are confident that while Erin is characteristically a bit reserved at first, she likes interacting and will enjoy reaching for wider horizons and new experiences. They’re also proud that she “wants to have a go at polocrosse”. John’s love of the game remains and he enthusiastically explains that, “early in 2014, we had a few games here at the station, just for fun.”

Meanwhile, Erin enjoys the company of everyone at Barkly, including “heaps of poddys” and her friend, two year old “Bella”, an inquisitive and lively goat. Leeanne laughs, “we went to a nearby station to look at a dog and came home with a goat.”

John and Leeanne Imeson are clearly content. They don’t crave a busy social life, … “we’re not party goers; we don’t want a big flash house, ‘cos the only time we’re there is night time”.

John sums it up, “that’s about us… there’s not a lot more to tell, we work, we sleep, we work.”

A characteristic, iconic conviction surfaces one more time. “It’s a good little spot.”

Article by Helen Kent
“John and Leeanne Imeson, Barkly Downs, Camooweal QLD, 2014”

Image captions:

1) John and Leeanne Imeson with Erin.

2) Barkly Downs Station Complex

3) Mustering, Barkly Downs

4) Sunset, Barkly Downs

5) Erin on Annie

6) Barkly Cattle on Dinner Camp