Henry Zehr







Adventures with a flying squatter

The late 1950’s



Charters Towers

I am sitting in a very comfortable chair in a bouncing twin engine Piper Apache as it detaches itself from terra firma and seems to propel itself into the blue yonder. Destination: a court house in Charters Towers some 2000 km from Brisbane.

As an employee of a firm of chartered accountants in Brisbane I am the secretary and public officer of a grazing company which operates a large cattle station in the Charters Towers region. A large number of cattle were stolen and the crown is suing some individuals. It appears that the authorities are reluctant to charge anyone with stealing cattle as jurors in country towns don’t like to convict locals for such misdemeanours.  Instead, the charge is “illegal use of cattle” which can be decided without a jury. All I have to do in court is to swear that I did not give these thieves “permission to use” these beasts - that only takes about ten minutes.

The courthouse in the “Towers” is one of the two Heritage listed buildings the other being the Stock Exchange Arcade. In the 1860’s this was the second biggest town in Queensland after Brisbane due to a gold rush which petered out 40 years later, but not before it produced 200 tonnes of gold.

 To get to Charters Towers by public transport and then return to Brisbane would take the best part of a week, so, why not fly with the grazier in his plane? All it takes is to arrange for some insurance to cover me and my young family and give me a chance to see some distant parts of Queensland. My boss is not interested in spending a week on such a mundane task and he is leaving all the accounting and tax clients to me. He has other businesses to look after.

My court appearance is over and the thieves get fined 20 pounds a head (of cattle) and we are on the way to the station property which is only half an hour’s flight from Charters Towers. When we get to the property – just before nightfall – there is a slight problem. Cattle are all over the landing strip. What we have to do is to fly low and try to scare them off, it takes quite a few runs to make them leave the strip, which becomes quite dramatic, as it is getting rather dark. All is well and we reach the big sprawling Queenslander, with verandas right around it and an open entry from the inside. There are no doors. After dinner we sit on the veranda, demolish some beers and admire the absolutely noiseless surrounding and as a bonus, we see quite a lot of satellites crisscrossing the sky.

I have to come to terms with the size of these properties. When I saw a rates notice I saw that it had a number - 640 – but of what? 640 acres? – No, that would be quite small, take another look at the notice – how about square miles. That’s it - and that translates to 409.000 acres (166.000 hectares). That becomes 16.6 km square.

It also represents an area of 4 x 4 kilometres and that would cover Chapel Hill plus a bit of Kenmore.That area has about 20.000 cattle, mostly Short-horns with some Herefords, (Indian Zebus, Brahmans and the various cross-breeds, were not introduced yet). This herd is managed by 5 station hands and a manager. The manager gives every new station hand a cigarette lighter and prohibits the use of matches which are more likely to cause a bushfire. All the employees are “kept”, meaning that they have board and lodging provided in kind, which is valued at 2 pounds 5 shillings ($4.50) for tax purposes. 

 I am not very knowledgeable about matters relating to farming and I have to ask a lot of questions to understand some of the mysteries: like – why do the cattle seem to stick together in threes and why do some cattle have scars on their bodies. The answer to the first question is this: a calf usually stays with her mother for eight months after which it is weaned off her mother. That usually requires human intervention and with the large mob of cattle and rather small number of station hands, the weaning just does not take place at the right time and the calf keeps growing, becomes a mother herself and hence we have this threesome. Not ideal animal husbandry, but as the system generates enough profit to keep the management in corn flakes and allows them to acquire a holiday shack on the Gold Coast – why worry. The scars are a result of dingo attacks. Again, a more intensive management could have prevented that. I am surprised to hear how observant the station hands are as they report movements of people in and around the property to their manager.

In my professional function I try to obtain information on cattle numbers at the end of each financial year, Because of the size of the property they do not “take stock” of cattle numbers each financial year. What they do instead is have a “bang tail muster” every five years and from that actual figure  a percentage , of death and natural increase is calculated for each year. The only precise figures are the 5 yearly musters and selling and purchasing figures from documents supplied by stock and station agents.

 Most of the land in Queensland is Crown land, only a very small portion is freehold land. My client’s land was held under a so called a 30 year “Developmental Lease”. The Government imposed conditions on lessees, who were obliged to make structural improvements of a certain value. The improvements would include fencing, yards, sheds and other structures, which would be independently valued at the end of the lease period. Improvements during the 30 years should have increased the carrying capacity to allow the property to be split at least three ways. The original lessee would then have an option to bid for one portion and the incoming lessees would pay for the improvements to the outgoing tenant.

Long service leave is an old tradition which is peculiar to Australia and New Zealand, goes back to colonial days and is often forgotten by graziers and their financial advisors, but many managers are aware of these provisions of the law. They frequently give a large part of their lifetime to the station owners for a fairly small reward. (Managers rarely received 50% more than the ordinary workers.) Regardless of awards or other agreements an employee was entitled to 13 weeks for every year if he worked for ten years or more. I heard of a grazier, who, very generously gave his manager a television set when he retired after 20 years, only to be reminded by the retiree that he was owed 260 weeks’ pay. Shock, horror: and he did not even return the TV set. (Conditions and laws are totally different now.)

On the way back to Brisbane we stopped at another station property near Clermont, which was then famous for feral goats. We were having a nice luncheon with the local Manager, who practically needed a bike to get from one side of the homestead to another, when all of a sudden a steady sound of rain started to hit the roof. The property was located on a strip of black soil and if the rain persisted we would not be able to lift the plane off the ground and we may have been stuck there for days. We just put the knife and fork down, ran to the aeroplane and took off.

The squatter/pilot, very generously allowed me to steer the plane on the way home. What was not so generous was the fact that he took the steering off the automatic pilot and the plane became a ballerina. Well, that was just to put me in my place and showing me that he knew how to tame this mechanical beast.

 Oh – and the first tall building we saw on approaching Brizzie was Torbrek -  a residential high rise building in that then country town which sported only two other high-rise buildings.

I do like nature and camping – and yes –

Give me land lots of land and the starry sky above – don’t fence me in

 But -

 I also agree with a song sung by Bob Hope:-

Don’t bury me in this prairie, take me where the ceement grows