Mention the outback in our household before the turn of the century and there would have been a few fleeting mental images based on television programs or magazine photos and little more. It just wasn’t part of our family’s lexicon or our world. But a surprise visit from some old friends was to have a curious, long-term impact on our lives.
Phil and Lyn had run one of the first 4WD adventure holiday businesses in South Australia in the mid-1980s. They had started that business because of a discovered love of the outback. As we headed out in our Mitsubishi Pajero on the night of their visit for a reunion dinner at a local restaurant, Phil commented, “Hey, do you ever take this thing out for some serious offroad work?”
“No,” I replied, “we bought this to tow our boat.”
“But these are a really good offroader. You’d love it out there.”
“No, not really interested,” I dismissed his suggestion, and we dropped the subject as we moved onto reminiscing old times.
But a few months later when my wife, Jan, once again brought up the subject of her family connection to an outback cattle property, this oft-discussed topic married itself to our friends’ comments.
That outback property had been a constant theme of discussion in Jan’s family since I’d first met her. Apparently, some great uncles had owned the station, called Banka Banka, in the Northern Territory, and Jan’s mother had lived the first years of her life there until her sister was to be born, in 1932. Due to some unexpected medical complications Jan’s mother’s parents had travelled away to Sydney for the birth and never returned. Banka Banka was later sold, in 1941, reportedly because there were no males in the family to inherit the running of the station. As the view in those days dictated, women were not deemed able to run such a property.
Banka Banka, viewed through those early childhood memories, was seen as some sort of Shangri-La magical kingdom, a vast empire sweeping across the wilds of an untamed land. Jan had often expressed a desire to see it, so when she again raised the subject of this distant, lost realm, I said, “Well, let’s go then. If you want to see this place so much, and it’s still out there, we’ll go and see it.”
It all seemed as simple and as quick as that. Within days we’d plotted out our course and a rough schedule.
TO BANKA BANKA
On 29 October 2005 we headed out, our Pajero freshly cleaned — at the insistence of Jan despite my protests that it was about to get absolutely filthy — and loaded to the gunwales with all our gear. This was before the days of camper trailers for us and accommodation was going to be in a three-man tent I’d bought to take our kids camping on weekends.
We stuck with our schedule to our friends’ place in Adelaide and the next day headed north with them into Wilpena Pound, and the magic began. The season had brought plenty of rain, so there was grass and fresh green everywhere where there was usually red dirt. We saw places that had only ever lived on the edge of our imagination: the Flinders, Lake Eyre, Oodnadatta, Coober Pedy, the Painted Desert, the Simpson Desert, and after our friends had to leave us and head home, Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon, Alice Springs, all the time working our way north following in the footsteps of that great explorer John McDouall Stuart (1858, 1859 and 1861–62) and the wonderful technology of the Overland Telegraph (completed 1872). We spent my birthday in Tennant Creek, and began to see the first signs of family connections: Ambrose Street (named for one of Jan’s great uncles) and tourist signs mentioning Ambrose investments in early gold mines.
But our destination lay further north, at Banka Banka, along with tales of a character called Tom Nugent and a gang of Robin Hood-like ne’r do wells known as the Ragged Thirteen. A hundred kilometres on from the blistering heat of mid-November Tennant Creek (it was so hot that we lay naked on top of our air bed at midnight, sweat running off us, with the fly off the top of our tent to let heat out and cool air in), on our left, there it was, a sign: “Banka Banka Station, S. Kidman & Co Ltd, caravaners and campers welcome.”
We swung in the gate and took it in. We had only the vaguest notion of what to expect but found a ready welcome, despite the late out-of-season arrival. The tourist attractions of an evening slideshow and the opportunity to see the cattle station working had closed down because of the season — we remained the only visitors all day — but we didn’t care.
We drove the 1.6km down a rough track to Cudjenbra Waterhole, the steady year-round water supply that justified the existence of this lonely outpost, with its pink granite cliffs and overhanging eucalypts, the water glass-smooth and jet black with tannin. We climbed to the top of the hill behind the old mud brick homestead and watched the first storms of the tropical wet starting to sweep across the plains around us. We had an ice cream and then a couple of cold beers from the fridge in the old homestead.
We breathed the air and felt the heat of the tropical world that had animated the life of some of Australia’s great outback characters. Our journey, which would ultimately notch up 11,500km and bring us to camper trailers and a life spent enjoying the outback, had been more than worth it. It would serve to change our life in more ways than we could begin to imagine at the time.
TOM NUGENT AND THE RAGGED THIRTEEN
Tom Nugent — Jan’s great great uncle — was one of the core interests of our trip, though at the time we knew little of him. Today there are numerous references to him on the internet, and the more we find the more intrigued we are by this very significant character in the early settlement of northern Australia.
Tom, who throughout much of his life also used the surname Holmes, was born in the NSW Hunter Valley, at Stanhope, in about 1848. In 1870 Nugent, then about 22, set out for the real outback. He claimed to have driven stock from Elderslie Station to the Northern Territory. He turns up as a horse breaker at Gracemere, near Rockhampton in 1874, and in 1879 was employed to establish a newly purchased cattle property at Lake Nash, on the Barkly Tableland, about a hundred kilometres south of Camooweal, today the second largest land holding in the nation.
From then until 1885 there are numerous mentions of Nugent: as head stockman on Carandotta station on the Georgina River, in relation to Brunette Downs station, as a carrier on Benarobin station at Renner Springs about the middle of 1885, and as a close friend of Harry Readford (also spelt Redford), one of the greatest of outback drovers and, like Nugent, something of a rogue. Readford, who was partly reflected in author Ralph Boldrewood’s Captain Starlight character in the novel Robbery Under Arms, had, in 1870, stolen over a thousand head of cattle from his employers at Bowen Downs and drove them overland down to Adelaide, forging a path that is today known as the Strzelecki Track through some of the harshest desert country in the nation. Although he was finally caught in Sydney in 1872, he was acquitted in Roma, Qld by a jury that was simply stunned by the achievement.
Readford went on to further skirmishes with the law over horse and cattle stealing but was so widely regarded for his skills and bushmanship that he was never out of work until his death by drowning in 1901. The connection here with Tom Nugent is that he was and remained a close personal friend, and it is rumoured that Nugent was one of those involved in that 1870 theft from Bowen Downs.
From all of this we can assume that Nugent was confident and capable, an excellent horseman with great bush skills, and one who didn’t mind a little dalliance on the far side of the law. The outback, especially northern Queensland and the Territory, were seen by many as not just places for adventure but also a suitable environment for those with a taste for duffing (stealing) a few cleanskins (unbranded cattle) and happy to keep on the move one step ahead of the police. Nugent had a reputation for steely nerve when faced with anything from a cattle stampede to a rum-crazed thug with a loaded gun.
In fact it was Readford who is believed to have accompanied Nugent north in 1885 before splitting off to head to a nearby station and Nugent said he had a hankering to steer for the new gold rush at Halls Creek in WA. The exact details of all this are a little blurred by rumour and legend and an almost endless list of men who claimed to have been members of the Ragged Thirteen, especially in the first few decades of the twentieth century when most of the genuine Thirteen were long gone.
The gang formed up at Abraham’s Billabong, on the Roper River, near the Bitter Springs on Elsey Station. Nugent met up with a group of ten well armed horsemen heading north. An uneasy standoff devolved into hearty greetings when a couple of the horsemen realised they knew Nugent and the group decided to join forces.
There are several stories regarding the gang’s decision to head to a nearby bush pub for a few rums. One is that an argument and subsequent brawl broke out over a gambling issue, another is that a young horseman named Jimmy Woodford — at the time unconnected with the gang — recognised a horse stolen from him shortly before. The man claiming to be the owner, ‘Maori Jack’ Reid, prevented the recovery of the horse by shooting it, so the group grabbed him and hung him upside down from a nearby tree.
With Woodford and Jim Carmody, Reid’s brother in law, joining up, the gang was now thirteen and would remain so. They offered to buy some meat from a freshly killed beast hanging at the rear of the shanty but the proprietor, Matt Kirwan, refused, saying it was all allocated to others. The gang returned after some heavy drinking at the river later that night and cut off all the meat they wanted, handing the rest out to other travellers around the shanty. When Kirwan discovered the situation he demanded the meat all be returned. The gang refused, as they’d already eaten much of it and given the rest away, so Kirwan, a renowned pugilist, challenged them to put up their best fighter and he’d take them on in a bare knuckle fight, the loser to pay for the meat. Ex-sailor Hugh Campbell took up the challenge and finished by actually breaking Kirwan’s arm.
Police officer Alfred Searcy and his sidekick, an Irishman named O’Donohue, who were to become the Thirteen’s dogged enemies, claimed later to have then arrested the gang by surprising them, removing the braces, belts and buttons from their pants to prevent them running away and marched them into custody. However, it appears more likely that the pair had actually done that to just a few of the group at an earlier time and they ended up being released for lack of evidence.
After electing Nugent as their leader the gang headed north-west, many of them with their Indigenous partners, a group of Aboriginal stock boys to look after the plant and equipment and at least 40 horses.
At Katherine they cleaned out Jim Cashman’s store, dodging a shootout with Searcy and O’Donohue then losing the police in the scrub and flooded waterways along the river. They shot up a bush pub at the Victoria River Depot when they found the owner selling watered-down whisky and after travelling south to Victoria River Downs station, Nugent diverted the manager’s attention while the rest of the gang cleaned out the storehouse and helped themselves to several horses as well.
That almost was the undoing of the gang as Searcy and O’Donohue pursued them to the WA border and almost rounded them up, only being beaten off by a wild attack from gang member Sandy Myrtle, who at nearly 20 stone (127kg) was a force to be reckoned with.
The gang finally arrived at Halls Creek but it was as the gold field was beginning to fade. They found just enough gold to keep themselves going but stayed financially liquid by duffing and slaughtering Durack family cattle and selling the meat to the other miners. After abandoning one claim — which allowed a group of Chinese to grab it — the gang became incensed when the new owners found a large amount of huge nuggets a little deeper in the mine. Figuring that gold was really theirs they organised a raid to seize the nuggets from their hiding place beneath the altar in a joss house.
Faced with pursuit by a large number of furious Chinese the gang divided the gold and split up, some going south to the new fields around Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie, others to cattle work in Queensland and the Territory and one to buy a long-dreamed-of pub. Nugent took his share and went back to the Territory where he knew of a block of land north of Tennant Creek and used his gold to set up a cattle station he called Banka Banka with a herd of herefords. In keeping with his first love he also turned the station into a breeding place for some of the best horses ever to come out of the Territory.
At one time Nugent was listed as the ‘owner’ of Renner Springs (unstocked) and Buchanan Downs stations, the latter with a young Aboriginal by the name of George — who was likely fathered by Tom — as the manager.
Tom Nugent died of dropsy (oedema) in 1911, aged just 63, and his grave is at the Tennant Creek Telegraph Station.
While the Ragged Thirteen might be seen as simply petty criminals, they were reputed to be great company around a campfire, able to discuss just about any topic. They loved bush poetry, especially Henry Kendall, and were even known to write a bit themselves. As stated, much of the above detail may be open to argument, though the broad picture seems to hold true.
The Ragged Thirteen fits perfectly into that Australian love of those who, like the swaggie in Waltzing Matilda, prefer a more ‘democratic’ view of ‘excess property’, of a simple belief in a more equal sharing of the fat of the land. They, most especially in the case of Tom Nugent, lived up to that image that Australians like to hold, of a steely resolve in the face of adversity, of a disrespect for snobbery and the unforgiving nature of the law, of mateship, irreverence and a sense of fun.
BANKA BANKA AFTER TOM NUGENT
When Tom Nugent died he left Banka Banka to his sister Mary. It was then run by her three sons, Arthur, Patrick (Paddy) and James Ambrose and for a brief period with her daughter Dorothy and husband Russell McNamara, Jan’s maternal grandparents.
The Ambroses continued the station much as Tom had run it, with a love of fine horses and a reputation for breeding the best, as well as fine beef cattle, though it appears to have been in a constant state of near financial collapse, with portions of land sold off at times to pay debts and regular appeals for extensions of loans with financial institutions.
Arthur died in 1926 and James in 1935. Paddy continued in ownership but, faced with declining health, decided to sell it off in 1941. The purchaser was the Ward family, paying 17,000 pounds ($34,000), including its two bores and 6000 head of cattle, the money coming from a good gold strike of 11,100 ounces at the Tennant Creek diggings. It wasn’t the first time it had been placed on the market; only, no buyer being had been found for it before, when the asking price was as much as 25,000 pounds.
Paddy was the most active of the brothers, being amongst the first in the area to fly and on a number of occasions using aircraft to scout for new pastures and possible mineral wealth. With his brothers, he was one of the first to peg out a claim on the goldfield at Tennant Creek in 1925 (The Great Northern Mine), with James Ambrose moving off to establish The Shamrock Mine shortly after when the Great Northern proved to be a poor payer.
It appears that most of the station owners in the area had interests in the early mines at Tennant Creek and these to a large degree contributed to the financial wellbeing of the local pastoral industry.
BANKA BANKA: WHAT IS IT?
Banka Banka is said by writer Ernestine Hill to be a Warumungu name meaning many bees. It has varied greatly in size over the years and can carry up to 14,000 head of beef cattle, depending on the season. It was the first station in the Northern Territory to use road transport to ship out its cattle and has been through several hands since the days of Tom Nugent and the Ambrose brothers.
It is situated just off the actual old Overland Telegraph line (though the nearest transmitting station was 100km away at Tennant Creek) and during World War II it became an important staging post for the transport of troops and supplies to Darwin from the south, though by all accounts it was seen as a dry, inhospitable and unpleasant stop.
What had once been a track along the Overland Telegraph line for maintenance work, mostly during World War II, has developed into today’s Stuart Highway. In the 1920s it was depicted as ‘indescribably bad’, and crossed by numerous deep creek gullies. Driving along it at the time enabled a passage of about 30km per day. Today the Stuart Highway is a great road.
In the 1920s the property became a registered store and a post office and it was one of the way-point landing posts on the initial survey route for Qantas’ transcontinental flight path — this caused a panic amongst the local Aboriginal inhabitants, who referred to the plane variously “as ‘debil debil’ or ‘big hawk’” according to newspaper reports.
For many years it was one of the most remote properties in the Northern Territory. Cattle had to be drove to Oodnadatta, about 1350km south, and then travel by train to markets in Adelaide.
STAYING AT BANKA BANKA
Price $10 per person, children cheaper
Bookings Not required
Fires In made fireplaces with permission
Nearest shops 77 km to Three Ways Roadhouse
Amenities Toilets, showers
Other Laundry, dump point, animals, memorabilia, fire-pit, walking track