Angels Don't Go Droving
Angels Don't Go Droving is the story of Dick Leonard Scobie, one of the last Packhorse Drovers in Australia. A drover's life was hard. They spent months on each drove travelling stock routes, living out of what could be carried on the back of a horse and sleeping on the ground. The work too was hard physical labour and when the cattle were restless in strange country the drovers had little sleep. Only tough hard men survived. A few drovers were women and usually they were tougher than the men. Drovers were no angels. In the mid 1900s they were replaced by road trains.
For those people who may not know, a drover is an old English term for someone who moves a mob of animals, usually cattle or sheep, from one place to another. A drove should never be referred to as a drive. In Australia, when working cattle, there would normally be a team of seven drovers with mobs of twelve hundred to fifteen hundred head. They would also have about fifty horses, which together with the saddles and packs were known as a plant. Because of the hard work each horse would only be ridden one day in four. A boss drover would be responsible for the drove. He would secure the contract, employ the other drovers and take all the financial risks. Dick Scobie was one of these boss drovers.
Dick was born on 8 December 1917 and grew up on his father's cattle station, Ooroowilanie, on the Birdsville Track. Even with modern transport it is a remote location. In 1917 it was a journey of three days by horse buggy to the rail terminus at Marree. It then took another two days to reach Adelaide.
When Dick started out on his first drove he had too few horses in his plant, only about twenty-five instead of the fifty he needed, but he caught brumbies, wild horses, to build the numbers. Dick became famous as a drover, taking mobs from the Kimberly and the Northern Territory down to South Australia or across to Queensland. He survived many set-backs, and established his own cattle station, Hidden Valley, in Australia's Northern Territory. At first this was a small lease of two hundred and fifty square miles, but over the years he expanded the station to an area of fifteen hundred and seventy-eight square miles. He talked openly about stealing cattle from neighbouring stations. That was not unusual in the early days of the cattle industry and Dick was not alone in these endeavours. His neighbours were also stealing from him.
In 1968 Dick's life changed dramatically when he had a car accident, which made him a quadriplegic. After a lifetime roaming the Outback, he found being confined to a hospital bed unbearable and discharged himself to return to his cattle station, ignoring warnings from the doctors that to do so would cause his death within five years. Dick ran his cattle station from his wheelchair, which was strapped to the tray of a utility. All this came to an end in 1983 when circumstances forced him to sell Hidden Valley and move to Charters Towers, where he bought a Night Paddock, a mere 300 acres. The doctors' predictions of an early demise were wrong and Dick continued to run a small mob of cattle until his death in 2003, thirty-five years after he left hospital and just two days before his biography was launched. He was eighty-five years old.
The book was published by Central Queensland University Press on 31 October 2003, but is now out of print.
How did I come to write the story?
In 1998 I was researching an article about the Murranji Stock Route in the Northern Territory, but having difficulty finding an access track from the Buchannan Highway. I decided to ask directions from the next cattle station I came to. I reached a sign that pointed north with the words, Hidden Valley Stn. 15 km. That's no distance in the Australian Outback. I arrived at midday and was immediately invited to join the family for lunch. That's typical of Outback hospitality.
After I'd explained what I was doing, the owner said, 'Someone should write the story of the bloke who started this station.'
'Tell me a little about him.' When he finished I said, 'You're right. And now I know about him I guess that that someone is me.'
I made a note of Dick's phone number, completed my research trip and returned to Adelaide. When I contacted Charters Towers the phone was answered by Thelma, Dick's wife. I explained that I'd like to write Dick's story if he had no objection, and after a short consultation with Dick, Thelma invited me up to Charters Towers.
As a quadriplegic, Dick was confined to a wheelchair, but he had other medical problems as well. In addition his speech was very slurred and difficult to understand. I'd tape his words then return home and try to decipher what he'd said, but there were great gaps and I'd make another trip to Charters Towers. By the time I'd interpreted the complete account I'd travelled from Adelaide to Charters Towers six times. This was a round trip of six thousand kilometres each time, but I was determined to capture the complete story as it was a part of Australia's history.