Australian Drover – Definition:

A drover is an experienced stockman who walks livestock, usually cattle or sheep but sometimes horses over long distances.

Ready for the day’s ride. Northern Territory. Photo from South Australian Library collection.

Many 4WD tracks were originally stock routes.

The four wheel drive tracks so many of us enjoy were first pioneered by drovers on horseback. The most well-known Australian stock routes include the Canning Stock Route, The Birdsville and Strzelecki Tracks, The Plenty Highway and the Murranji Track.

Biggest Movements of stock

– Tom Brinkworth

In 2013 South Australian pastoralist Tom Brinkworth, bought 18,000 head of cattle for a reported $7 million from several properties in Queensland’s Gulf Country. The cattle were trucked to Winton and Longreach and then walked the Brinkworth property near Hay in New South Wales. The cattle were split into mobs, travelling a few days apart for the 2000-kilometre journey south. While the Brinkworth cattle had the luxury of using a truck to pick up the stragglers and any cattle in poor condition, the trip was otherwise a mirror of of the pioneer drovers.

– Nat Buchanan

Nat Buchanan was one of Australia’s best. His droving trip in 1881 along what is now the Savannah Way is believed to be the largest in Australia’s history. In mobs of 2000, similar to Brinkworth’s modern day journey, Buchanan was responsible for the movement 20,000 head of cattle from southern Queensland to Glencoe Station, north of Katherine. This trip of more than a distance of 3200 kilometres was just one of many droving records Buchanan still holds.

Nathaniel Buchanan. Photo from Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Buchanan’s early days

Nathaniel (Nat) Buchanan, was born in Ireland in 1826. Arriving in Sydney he made his way to the New England district. Ten years later Nat and his brothers joined the Californian Goldrush. They chased their golden dream until the last of their finances. Working for heir passage home to Australia, insolvency forced them surrender the property they had bought and worked before leaving for America.

Near disaster for the experienced bushman

Nat took to droving between New South Wales and the Victorian goldfields. With William Landsborough, Nat set out from Rockhampton to look for grazing land in 1859. West of the Fitzroy and Belyando Rivers they became stranded and were eating boiled greenhide hobblestraps before a relief party found them.

Bowen Downs Station

In 1863, Nat was sent as first manager and partner to pioneer Bowen Downs station. He married Catherine Gordon and took his bride to the primitive station property. She was then the only white woman in the district. His reputation as a bushman was already established and his sense of direction and locality unrivaled, however continued drought forced Nat to walk off the property in 1867 abandoning his share.

Pioneering the stock routes

As an experienced explorer and drover Nat was contracted to take 1200 cattle from Aramac in Queensland to the Adelaide River with no predefined route and no settlement for a thousand miles (1609 km). On this journey he had three drays and seven white men. While making damper, the cook was decapitated by hostile natives, who then took off with camp supplies. Nat headed to Katherine and returned just in time with food for the men. The delays allowed the calves to survive and the mob increased during the journey. It was this trip that set the scene for the movement of the biggest herd in history.

Creek crossing with cattle. State Library of South Australia photographic collection.

Stock route to Glencoe Station

Nat retraced his steps to Glencoe with 20,000 cattle for Charles Fisher in 1881. He organized the move in ten separate parties, each with about seven men. Once more there were threats of native attack, hazards and delays of flood and dry seasons, crocodiles and fever. As the boss drover, Nat rode between the mobs, sometimes strung out across a distance of 80 kilometres.

Glencoe Station 1883. State Library of South Australia

The Murranji Track

Nat Buchanan, accompanied by his son Gordon and Sam Croker, both also experienced bush men and drovers pioneered the Murranji stock route in 1886. This stock route soon gained a formidable reputation. The bush was dense and cattle easily lost. Waterholes and creeks held water only intermittently and attacks by local Aboriginal people on both stock and men was common. The route was soon used by gold seekers flocking to the Kimberley fields.

Wave Hill Station

Nat and the Gordon brothers (his brothers-in-law) took up Wave Hill on the Victoria River in 1883. One of the first stations established west of the Telegraph Line, it was rich but remote cattle country. Their nearest neighbour was two hundred miles (321 km) away. Nat’s fortune was still unmade, and the East Kimberley country was harsh and fickle. Poor seasons followed good and in 1894 Nat surrendered Wave Hill to his brother.

The final stock route for Buchanan

Buchanan’s final trip was to take a mob of 100 horses from Queensland along the feared Murranji Track to their final destination in the Kimberley. Although the Murranji stock route’s intermittent water supply claimed the lives of many diggers, Buchanan made the journey successfully – at age 74.

Photo of frontispiece Packhorse and Waterhole by Gordon Buchanan

An Australian Legend

Nat became a legend well before his death, for his feats of droving, his bushcraft and especially his powers of observation and location. He had an unerring sense of direction. In 1899 age and infirmity forced him to settle on a small farm of 25 acres near Tamworth. His explorations brought him few acquisitions. Although, as claimed by the Bulletin, 9 July 1881, he perhaps helped to settle more new country than any other man in Australia, he died with almost none in his possession.

Nat left little in the way of diaries and photos, but his son Gordon who accompanied him on many of his droving trips wrote about Nat Buchanan’s droving experiences in the book Packhorse and Waterhole. Packhorse and Waterhole is a great yarn and a wealth of information but sometimes light on detail such as dates and places. Nat Buchanan’s great granddaughter Bobbie Buchanan has used her grandfather’s manuscript and other family archives to craft a definitive biography In The Tracks of Old Bluey.

Jo’s notes.

It is difficult to find photos and pictures of the 1880s. The photos I have used are general and may not relate directly to Nat Buchanan.

Maps used to research this blog. Gulf Country, Tanami Road, Plenty Highway

Books used to research this blog. In The Tracks of Old Bluey, Packhorse and Waterhole, Murranji Track