“… A big and generous heart”
In the mid 1990’s when Lyle and Helen met Tony O’Connor at Wernadinga Station in Qld’s Gulf country, there was an expectation, on hearing that name, that a conversation would be coated with a thick layer of Irish accent. It wasn’t. There was a hope that we would join with workers for an evening meal and be received with friendship by the cook. We were.
In April 2014, when Lyle and Helen visited Wernadinga, it was “cooks day off”. However, Tony cheerfully cooked a delicious evening meal for us. Turned out it would probably be the last time we’d be recipients of the Wernadinga cook’s hospitality. We and numerous station workers are grateful for such appreciated meals, cooked and served by Tony O’Connor, a man with a big and generous heart.
Tony was born in Melbourne, left school at fifteen and by age twenty had qualified as a cabinet maker/joiner. He’d always dreamed of venturing “North” and over the next few years travelled between Victoria and North Queensland, finding cabinet making jobs wherever he went.
During this time he married, and in 1982 he and his wife shifted to Mt Isa. It IS a long way from Mt Isa to Melbourne and Tony’s wife was keen to return home. Five to six years “down the track” the pull of the north resulted in Tony’s return to the tropics. He continued with cabinet making but by the mid ’90’s, working in an uninspiring assembly line/factory environment, he was ready for a change. At an employment office he discovered that the cook’s position was available at Wernadinga Station.
It was a major shift from the familiarity and skills of cabinet making to the world of cattle station cooking. Tony had done some cooking in hotels, owned/operated by his mother and stepfather. However, with overall limited experience, he applied for the job; only to be informed that the vacancy had been filled. Thankfully his disappointment was temporary and a short time later the job was up for grabs once more. This time he was successful.
Tony remains grateful to Alister McClymont, owner of Wernadinga. “Al was good to me. He’s one of the best. He’ll give you a go if you give it a go.” Together, Al’s goodness and Tony’s perseverance paid off. The Outback-change was complete and he grins, “I’ve been a cook ever since.”
After two years at Wernadinga, Tony headed for the Northern Territory, where he cooked at Mallapunyah Station, owned by the Darcy Family. “I learnt a lot about cooking at Mallapunyah,” he explains; “from June Darcy and her sister Anna.” Under their instruction, Tony acquired many essential know-hows of station cooking. “… learnt how to make a good gravy,” he chuckles.
As well as good gravy, Tony made lasting friendships with Darcy family members. “I was also very good friends with Norm Darcy… had a lot of time for him.”
One fine day Tony was busy preparing smoko, when he heard an urgent voice calling, “Cookie, cookie! Come out here… quick!” Tony came, … quick, carrying some smoko tucker as he came. Hurrying through the kitchen door to the outdoor area, there on the floor lay a BIG snake! (… is there any other kind?) Smoko tucker went flying into the air and Cookie made a hasty retreat. Alan Darcy’s laughter followed him as he scurried back into the kitchen.
Always ready for a joke, and up to one of his characteristic pranks, Alan had “planted” the snake. “Don’t worry Cookie,” he comforted the shaking Tony, “I already killed the snake!”
Cold comfort indeed.
Following Mallapunyah, Tony spent time cooking at the Heartbreak Hotel at Cape Crawford, NT and Elsey Station, Mataranka, NT. He was committed to the goal of becoming a successful station cook and at Elsey, Manager Max Gorringe’s wife Mabs, with a background in nursing and station cooking reinforced the need for “order and cleanliness in a station kitchen”. Keen to keep improving his skills, Tony was grateful for her instruction.
Geographically these two places of employment were well placed for Tony, who was able to indulge in his favourite sports of fishing and shooting.
To be sure now, the next destination for Cook O’Connor was Gallipoli Station, NT, one hundred kilometres from Camooweal. Tony stayed just under two years, spending most of that time cooking at “Number 36”, an outstation of Gallipoli. Gallipoli Station is run in conjunction with Alexandria Station; both situated on the vast plains country of the Barkly Tablelands and Tony soon discovered that “… there was no fishing or shooting at Gallipoli”. He knew of a place with guaranteed fishing and shooting satisfaction. “I came back here then; to Wernadinga for two more years.”
Kalala Station, near Daly Waters, NT and Saxby Downs Station, north of Richmond, central Queensland were next on Tony’s list of station working experiences. After that Tony had “had enough of cooking” and for a time did maintenance work for the McClymont family. However, Tony O’Connor’s value as THE COOK for Wernadinga was well recognised and in 2011 he was persuaded to return.
“Been here ever since” he states “and this is my last year.”
At Wernadinga, Tony is happily satisfied to have caught and cooked “quite a few barra”, and the lure of fishing(!), plus a climate that Tony enjoys were key factors in his plan for 2015… to shift to a favourite place near Cairns.
Reflecting on the many years of his life spent in station kitchens, he’s positive and concludes, “It’s been a good experience.” Tony’s primary commitment as a station cook has been to the workers who gather at the kitchen/dining room door; usually very early before sun up, and then again; after dark.
His final comment could well be the vision statement of the dedicated, successful and appreciated station cooks of Australia’s Outback.
It’s basic and brilliant.
“If you’ve spent all day working hard, you need a decent feed.”
Thank you, Tony O’Connor.
Article by Helen Kent
“Tony O’Connor, Wernadinga Station, Qld Gulf, 2014”
1) Tony O’Connor in the kitchen at Wernadinga Station
2) Tony O’Connor in the old kitchen at Wernadinga Station