The Paroo River Region

The Paroo River is a network of waterholes, swamps and floodplains that flows, after the rains of summer, from near Quilpie in western Queensland, through to Wilcannia in western New South Wales.

“My work fairly commenced with the survey of Qulberry Creek; thence extending my measurements to the Paroo, I traversed it to its head. The wave of pastoral enterprise having set in upon Western Queensland, there was a large inflow of capital, principally from Victoria, for the taking up and stocking of a new country, which I was now surveying. The Upper Paroo had, however, been taken up by Mr Bullmore, so that being yet unoccupied, I had the experience of being the first to measure a long stretch of the wilderness that had not been trodden by man or beast. (Needless to say, Watson was not the first man to walk this area)

Paroo River from the air, Qld
Celebrate Rivers

After reaching the head of the Paroo I turned southward and passed through land that had been settled but abandoned and forfeited, which probably had been the means of saving many lives, from the fact that the stations had been formed upon the river with deep billabongs behind them, in places imagined to be above flood level. The flood of January 1874, which I had witnessed on the Langlos, had also proved a great eye-opener on the Paroo, where the water rose 6ft over the roofs of the abandoned stations; so that there would have been no escape for the inmates hemmed in by the billabongs. Upon the most elevated spots between the river and the billabongs, I could not reach the flood mark with a riding whip standing up in my stirrups.

Continuing my surveys southward I reached the Humeburn station a the junction of the Paroo River and the Beechel Creek. The station had recently passed into the hands of a Victorian investor who happened to reach the station just before the flood. Despite being built on high land the water made an unceremonious entrance into the homestead, compelling the proprietor, manager, stockman and cook to take refuge on the roof for three days.

I reached Humeburn in June 1874 after a protracted survey of the unoccupied country and appreciated the domesticity of pastoral occupation. The surrounding country, after its inundation was clothed with a luxuriant verdure and as the flood did no damage to the improvements the well-ordered arrangements had not been disturbed.

Beechel Creek being unsurveyed, I forthwith traversed it to its head and adjusted all the runs thereon. About twenty miles above Humeburn I came upon the station of Beechel, in the possession of Messrs Lyons and Playfair. Mr Lyons who accompanied me upon the survey of his country was from the colony of Victoria, a well educated young man about 30 years of age with a well informed and well-behaved mind. He had had some startling adventures with the blacks; on one occasion he was beset by a hostile and numerous tribe, but being well mounted he rode across the Warrego and reached Coongoola (Williams’s).

Passing out of the Turungllnnunbah Creek and plains I was gratified and surprised at the luxuriant pasturage and splendid country and the great future when water conservation should be availed of to nullify the occasional visitations of drought. Some few miles above the Beechel, a new station was being formed by Mr. Ridley Williams, one of the Coongoola family who was striking out for himself.

Completing the survey to the head of Beechel I returned to Beechel Station and after drawing plans for the work I resumed the survey of the Paroo River downward and I proceeded to mark out the backcountry.

I might observe here that I found there was a vast stretch of country, vacant Crown Land between the Paroo and the Bulloo. The ball was at my feet as there was nothing in the Pastoral Leases Act of 1863 to prohibit my acquiring a stretch of this country at the Crown rental and disposing of the same at a high premium, which was already being done by a class of speculators who were flourishing thereby. Upon full consideration, I would have nothing to do with it, as no man can serve two masters, and I had always had an antipathy to the land monopolist and had no ambition to join their ranks.”

Drovers Wives

“About seventeen miles below Claverton was the historic station of Coongoola, the first station on the Warrego formed by Messrs Williams and Sons as mentioned n Landsborough in the journal of his journey from the Gulf in 1863. Mr Williams, the senior, an old man-of-war’s-man, accompanied by five stalwart sons and three brave daughters, drove his cattle and horses into Queensland immediately after the discoveries of Burke and Wills, and, with sheer courage as well as indomitable perseverance, occupied the country whereon they prospered, surrounded by thousands of hostile savages, with whom they endeavoured to be friendly, but nearly forfeited their lives in consequence.

It happened on one occasion that the young Williamses, going out for a muster, never dreaming that their home would be in danger, had left only one man, together with a travellers; but as it happened to come on to rain they turned back, and on reaching the station were surprised to find it in a state of siege, surrounded by hundreds of blacks, creeping up through the grass, drawing their spears after them between their toes. The inmates of the dwelling, however, had barricaded it, and firing through the loopholes, kept their assailants at bay; but as their ammunition was nearly exhausted they would have been overcome and massacred had not the young men returned in the nick of time.

Each stockman, being armed with a revolver, and a good pouch of cartridges, the assailants precipitately raised the siege, and there was an exciting pursuit wherein the assailants obtained such practical experience of the prowess of their intended victims that it obviated any further attempt on their part to exterminate them. Shortly after this adventure the Williams family, finding themselves master of the situation, allowed the blacks to come into the station and make themselves useful. Upon one occasion they despatched a blackfellow on horseback to some outlying part of their run, but instead of performing his errand, he tied his horse up to a tree and went away hunting; whereupon the Williamses, having found the horse, interviewed him, and making him understand by the sun how long he had left the horse tied up, they tied the blackfellow to a tree for a similar period; whereby the nomads obtained a moral lesson upon the value of obedience, which was expected from them in return for food and clothes.

The Williams family, all working together, prospered through a succession of good seasons, during which their cattle increased. The sisters proved true heroines, accomplishing all their domestic responsibilities with such success that Coongoola obtained a reputation as being a stronghold of family devotedness. The Misses Williams were conspicuous in anticipating all their brothers requirements in the arduous working of stock, and the erection of stockyards and other improvements, whilst the brothers were most deservedly appreciated as excellent neighbours among whom brother pioneers found a ready welcome; and not a few deserving young adventurers had found such remunerative occupation among them as to obtain a good start to life. In those far off days – which may be called the good old times of the Warrego district – it was customary when an assistant had thrown his zeal into the development of the station to remember him a certain number of calves with a separate brand. These would depasture on the run, and in a few years accumulate at such a rate as to form a substantial inheritance in a few years.

About forty miles below Coongoola is the town of Cunnamulla, the nucleus whereof had been a public house, store, blacksmith’s shop, and watchhouses. To the pioneer outward bound as well as to the pastoralist of the Far West travelling upon a business to the metropolis it was ever a welcome rendezvous. South of Coongoola, down the Warrego, the dominions of James Tyson extended even over the border of New South Wales.”

source: George Chale Watson – Building the Commonwealth

The Drover’s Wife

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The archetypal Bushman celebrated by the Bulletin, and writers such as Lawson, Paterson, Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy, and a host of others, was, of course male. Women are frequently absent, or at best are marginal figures, in ballads and stories of bush life which deal with the nomadic life of the swagmen looking for work, of drovers driving their cattle across hundreds or thousands of miles of sparsely settled country, of incidents which take place in the shearing shed, the pub or the bush camp. When they do appear, it is often in the role of the wife who is left behind while her husband goes off working, and it is this aspect of women’s lives in the bush which Lawson focuses on in his famous tale “The Drover’s Wife”.

While undertaking his surveys my great-grandfather, George Chale Watson met some of the indomitable women who pioneered outback Queensland. Mrs Bignell is just one of these.

“From Cunnamulla I proceeded further east and affected the survey of Noorama and Widgeegoara Creek where stations had been formed by Mr Edward Brown, the Messrs Howie and Mr John Bignell, the latter in Widgeegoara Creek. He was married to the eldest Miss Williams of Coongoola, one of the first white women who entered the Warrego District and certainly one of the bravest. Some years previous to 1874, when just married and residing on the Upper Bulloo at Tintinchilla station, of which her husband was the manager, upon one occasion a blackfellow stealthily crept into the dwelling and was in the act of tomahawking here when she flew out the opposite door, which fortunately happened to be open, and reached within sight of the stockyard, where Mr Bignell and his men were working. The pursuer, unable to catch her, ran off to roam about until the native police terminated his career.

Upon reaching Mr. Bignell’s station on the Widgeegoara I found Mrs Bignell upholding the traditions of pioneering, for she was living in an improvised shelter of a few sheets of corrugated iron. However, she found means, even in those primitive conditions to extend the traditional hospitality of Coongoola.

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The whole of the Widgeegoara and Noorama country was like a luxuriant wheat field, covered with Mitchell grass. The Widgeegoara and Noorama creeks are actually billabongs which run out of the Warrego on to an immense southern plain which runs along the boundary of Queensland and New South Wales, extending from the Condemine waters to Grey’s Range on the west of the Bulloo River. It is only in a very high flood like that of 1874 that the Warrego overflows into the Widgeegoara and Noorama so that until dams were made and wells sunk the waterholes would remain for years unfilled. A few hundred yards of the canal cut out of the Warrego into the head of the Widgeegoara billabong would obviate this serious drawback. In fact the billabongs which break away from the Warrego, Paroo and Bulloo might be utilised by the extension of canals to irrigate the immense Southern plain referred to.”

Source: G. C. Watson Building the Commonwealth