The Durack Family - Part 2

Travel Hopefully

For thirty years this cattle empire generated a fluctuating but generally solid income. The Duracks rolled with the punches: cattle ticks, drought and flood. However, the biggest blow would come in the late 1920s - a crisis generated by a combination of factors. When the first whites arrived in the Kimberley, they had found a land rich with verdant grasses. But underneath, the soil was poor - deficient in nutrients and the grasses unable to sustain the assault of hundreds of thousands of introduced hoofed animals. Within thirty years the river frontages were eaten out and the country was beginning to suffer devastating erosion. Compounding the natural decline, beef prices were falling disastrously. By 1930 Australia was in the middle of the Great Depression - and MP Durack was deeply in debt. MP had long hoped his prodigiously talented children would escape the burden of the North, but found he needed them on the stations. His first child, Reg, had reached adulthood. Born in 1911, Reg had inherited MP's scholarly intellect and ambitions; however, Durack duty once again thwarted academic aspirations for the more pressing demands of life in the saddle. By the 1930s Reg was managing the family's most problematic property, Auvergne, having been told the family could no longer support his university studies. Then in 1933 MP's daughters Mary and Elizabeth put themselves in charge of Ivanhoe station.


Unlike their father, and despite their upbringing in Perth, MP's children felt gripped by the Kimberley. It was a visceral connection. Mary and Elizabeth came to understand it as their spirit country. For the young writer Mary, her first memories were of Ivanhoe, around 1916, and a Mirriwung woman named Dinah who carried the toddler around with her as she cleaned the house or waded in the billabongs. The now twenty-year-old Mary was ecstatic at the prospect of returning to the home nestled between a river teeming with fish and imposing red ridges. Instead of attending deutante balls, MP's vivacious daughters rolled up their sleeves to manage the 400,000 hectare property. They had no phone or radio. They cooked and organised the stores and the musters. They were paid 3 pounds a week between them, but added to their income with their illustrated stories and articles on station life which were regularly published in the West Australian and Western Mail. Station life fuelled Mary's writing and Elizabeth's art, and would enliven their creative work for the rest of their long lives.

Their father would occasionally visit as he travelled between the stations - and it was testament to the absolute trust he placed in the Aboriginal community that he would leave his daughters in their care. There were about sixty aboriginal people living in camps on the waterfront 30 metres from the main Ivanhoe homestead. Mary and Elizabeth lived alongside them. The Durack girls would often go walking with the accommodating Mirriwung women. They would head along the river tributary, scouring it for both tucker. Sometimes during the Wet the station community would be gone for days, walking to the waterfalls hidden in the hills to meet with the other communities to discuss business and perform ancient ceremonies. The sisters found they were welcome at all but the secret ceremonies and corroborees. Mary and Elizabeth wondered if the Mirriwung pitied them for being without their family. Whatever the reason, they treated the writer and artist as family - accepted them as sisters to the women and mothers to the children. The Wet season was a time for both traditional Aboriginal business and Christian festivity. At Christmas Mary and Elisabeth, like most Kimberley squatters, rustled up the expected fare for Christmas Day. Even in the intense heat paper chases, treasure hunts and races were the order of the day and under a corrugated iron roof a roasted Yuletide feast was devoured. But the power of the elements could always override ritual. Mary wrote of Ivanhoe festivities coming to an abrupt halt with the force of the Wet. 'Storm clouds darkened in the afternoon and under the rumble of thunder we heard the unmistakable roar of the river coming into blood. We hurried through the steaming heat to watch it swirling, brown and turgid, from bank to bank with its load of debris bound for Cambridge Gulf. The rest of Christmas Day was spent catching giant barramundi and watching the tumultuous river.

For MP's children and even for some station workers, the 1930s were a golden decade. Despite Aboriginal people receiving no wages, no education and no proper medical facilities, at least the whole community could live on the station; they had food and could maintain a hold on what remained of their traditions. Importantly, in the case of the Duracks, these white fella bosses were all right. Here the benevolently paternalistic working relationship was working as well as it could. In contrast to his father, Reginald enjoyed managing the family's most remote property a few hundred kilometres from his sisters. Something of a Renaissance man, Reg was a Latin and Greek scholar and a hands-on pastoralist who enjoyed the continual challenges the Kimberley threw at him. Unlike his unorthodox sisters with their capacity for mischief, Reg brought a certain gravitas to his own life and those around him. When he mustered the cattle or drove them to the Wyndham abattoir, a battered book of poetry or a well-thumbed Greek history text was inevitably part of his swag. He could built houses or mend the yard fences while reciting ancient Greek verse. An effective manager, Reg had given up his studies to work on the family stations and had grown to love the life and the breathtaking country. He believed his generation, Patsy's grandchildren, should sustain the pastoral tradition. As the responsible eldest son he embraced the dynastic legacy that had so troubled his father. MP had spent his adult life trying to adapt to a land he found alien and to Patsy's ambitions. He wanted to leave a heritage more sustainable than the one Patsy had left him. But with the Depression, erosion, isolation and no oil or gold, he was not able to let go of the durack land. Until the economic tide turned, an unenthusiastic MP was forced to allow Reg to assume control.

With Reg settled in the Kimberley, MP and his wife Bess decided that at the very least their eldest son had to marry a city girl. They feared their heir would lose the civilising effects of urban life. The possibility that Reg, whose only company now was the station workers, would form sexual relationships with Aboriginal women must have preyed on their minds. Reg's parents set about finding what they regarded as a more suitable wife for their eldest boy - and they didn't have to look far. According to family legend, in 1943 when Reg (then a man in his thirties) was visiting his family in Perth, his mother told him that when he returned to the Kimberley he would have to be married. As he didn't know anyone in the city, his mother suggested the girl next door. He replied simply, 'She'll do.' And she did. The twenty-eight-old daughter of a Presbyterian minister, Enid was charmed by this Catholic pastoralist who could recount intricate details of ancient Athenian history and manage a remote cattle station. six weeks later the couple was married. Enid had little idea what sort of man she was marrying, or what sort of life she was about to enter. But she never regretted her decision. Enid Durack, now in her late eighties, laughs as she remembers the first few days of married life: 'We were married on the Tuesday, at the end of that week we'd left in a truck. I'd never sat in a truck before. It was really a bit of a shock, a culture shock, but it didn't matter ... because it was with Reg. It took us twenty-eight days to get there. I said, 'Reg, that was our honeymoon, twenty-eight days of camping out under the stars.' And he'd just say, "Oh, not many people get a twenty-eight day honeymoon." He loved it all the way ... it was his life. It certainly wasn't mine then. And when I got there, home was just a big shed. I couldn't believe it ... I'd look at this place and think, 'that's my home, my first home." It was pretty terrible.'

Enid's new home was the very basic Auvergne homestead, with its dirt floor and rusting iron roof. It was far removed from the quiet gentility of Perth, with its elaborate Italianate mansions and wide tree-lined streets. Enid realised her much enjoyed weekend tennis games were now a thing of the past (although her husband did attempt to build her a court). She stared despondently at the red-mud, fast-flowing streams and absorbed Auvergne's unforgiving splendour. Now Saturdays would be spent in the same way as every other day: the men mustering cattle, the women baking bread, cooking and sewing. As she digested her new surroundings Enid wondered how she would ever love this life. She never did quite love it - but she adored her eccentric, bookish husband and determined never to complain about this untamed vastness she had been brought to. Enid married her decidedly unromantic prince as the sun began to set on the Durack empire. For close to seventy  years the family had battled the natural and economic elements. MP's children believed that after the Depression, and particularly after world War II, the Duracks had some prospect of making their land self-sustaining and successful - communications were improving and the North was ready to start a new era. Their father, however, was moving in the opposite direction. for him the time had come to move on. MP wouldn't listen to his children's protestations. He reminded his recalcitrant offspring of his motto: 'Travel hopefully'.

MP had hoped to sale the properties in 1938 to an American Zionist group who wanted to buy a Jewish homeland for 75,000 families. (This plan was thwarted by the Curtin government). Now, in 1950, as he neared his eighty-fifth year, MP told his children he had finally secured a buyer for the leasehold titles. The younger Duracks argued fervently against the sale, but their father wouldn't be persuaded. Everything bar a small section was sold. The sale brought little financial security to the family. His exasperated daughter Mary described it as her father's 'final act of folly'. Mary believed her father's decision to sell up was the product of exhaustion. He was the only one left of his company - his partners had died. He had survived two world wars and numerous depressions. And he would rather leave his children a tidy sum of money than a problematic parcel of land. He told his children that if running the place hadn't killed him, then selling it certainly wouldn't. But three weeks later MP Durack died. On the day of his death the old Ivanhoe homestead burnt to the ground. The Durack dynastic dreaming was in ashes. MP was a pragmatist with no sense of timing. He and his father Patsy had regarded the land as a piece of real estate; an investment to be sold when the time and the price were right. But no sale price could ever match the years of work and effort by several generations. Like his father, MP was ultimately defeated by a land ill-equipped for grand pastoral ambitions. Despite wanting to provide security for his children, MP left them with substantial debts. By the time death duties and the stations' owings were paid, there was little left for MP's widow, Bess. The most enduring riches MP was to leave were cultural. For a man who dreamed of becoming a scholar rather than a farmer, it's not surprising that he hoarded letters, diaries, invoices and receipts - not just from his own life, but also from his father's. The dynastic chronicler, Mary, managed to salvage these, providing the central source material for her best-selling books, Kings in Grass Castles and sons in the Saddle. In these epic tales Mary tells the family's pioneering history. The books contain rich detail and celebrate her family's endeavours. Mary was uneasy with history as it had also brought devastation to indigenous communities, but she could never bring herself to write a truly impartial assessment of the dynastic legacy. 

The Durack pastoral heritage didn't completely disappear with MP's death. The third generation, his children, already had the East Kimberley in their blood. The founder's impossible dream rose from the ashes - smaller in scale, but undiminished in passion and determination - through Patsy's grandson Reg. When MP first old the family he was selling the leasehold, Reg dug in his heels. All six children had shares in the Durack properties and Reg wouldn't relinquish his. He tried to persuade MP to give him a slice of Argyle, the Durack's most resource-rich station. MP refused, believing it would jeopardise the sale of the rest of the land. Ultimately the octogenarian father and recalcitrant son took to the saddle and rode for days before reaching the dusty outskirts of Auvergne station, well into the Northern Territory. Here they agreed to section off a substantial block for the determined Reg, who was grateful for the opportunity to stay and build his own castle. This slice of land was the most isolated and difficult country under Durack management, considered so poor that buyers didn't regard it as an asset. But Reg knew the land better than these blow-ins. After all, he had spent his adult life working Auvergne, making the station as profitable as it could be. The landscape was crisscrossed with stony ridges where no grass could grow, but in between there were stretches of rich black soil growing some of the better Mitchell and Flinders cattle grasses.

The designated land was Reg's only resource. The new station had no homestead, no communications, no sound roads and, most importantly, no cattle. Reg and Enid would be starting with nothing. The odds against them were enormous but Reg, unheeding the family history, was buoyant. He was not only a stockman, he was a builder, a vet to his animals and a doctor to his children. And he had the good fortune to marry Enid, a steadfast woman who, despite the dangers this life posed to her children and its limitations, never dreamed of doing anything else but following her husband even further into the unknown. They were to live many hundreds of kilometres from the nearest outback town. The closest station was a day's ride away and the family's only regular companions were the small community of station workers. Their new home was called Kildurk, in honour of the two families on the original overland trek, the Duracks and the Kilfoyles. Before moving to the station, Enid insisted they were to have at least an airstrip and a Flying Doctor radio service. In her heart of hearts she was terrified of this isolation, but she duly packed their belongings and gritted her teeth. In 1950 while most Australians keenly embraced the postwar boom with its technological advantages and consumerist ethos, Reg, Enid and their young family crammed a short-wheelbase Land rover and a small trailer with pots and pans, rugs and books - all their worldly goods. Their young children were excited; it was a new adventure with their hero-like parents. And so the little party headed off across the vast expanse of red dirt.

Their new home was set up by a billabong. Built by Reg, the dwelling was a galvanised iron hut with a mud floor and a tent extension that would flat in the breeze. The oven was outside and each day Enid would stand at the stove cooking, an umbrella over her head to shield her from either burning sun or torrential rain. The children played with the Aboriginal children, had games of hide-and-seek in the erosion channels and swam in the billabong. During the heat of the day, the children would read or listen to the crackling 'Kindergarten of the air', the dust flying up around them as they bopped exuberantly to the songs. As the children danced, their parents discussed their first serious problem: drought. The dryness was apparent as soon as they arrived, and it continued. for two years the Wet season didn't reach Kildurk. Billabongs dried up and animals died. As the drought took hold, Reg had to ride further out on the property to fetch water for his family. This muddy water would be placed in ten-gallon drums by the house. In the cool of the evening Enid would throw in ashes or Condy's crystals to clear the water. In the morning the clearest one would be boiled. It tasted appalling, but at least they could drink it. Water also had to be fetched for the cattle and horses. some cattle died and many horses, unable to find their usual grasses, ate young, green but toxic pea flow4rs - the resulting liver damage sent them mad and necessitated a merciful bullet.

The cattle the family were watering weren't even theirs. for two years the couple had to watch s the new owners of Auvergne station would muster and take the cattle off Kildurk. When rain finally fell after two years Reg could at last restock the land with his own cattle and begin to make some money from beef. His life was now far removed from the cattle-baron glory days his father and grandfather had enjoyed during those brief gold-rich years. The drought had forced the family to move 35 kilometres further into the property to what became known as Reg's Acropolis. Standing on a rocky outcrop, the new castle was built over the top of fresh clean bore water. This was a great improvement and for time Reg felt like a king in his (tin, not grass) castle. New possibilities beckoned once more. The soil surrounding the house was too poor to grow any fresh vegetables or fruit. The Duracks and the station workers lived on a monotonous diet of bread and beef. Twice a year, a plane would being tonnes of flour, bushells tea, jams, pickles, canned vegetables and fruit. Within weeks the luxuries would run out and only the bread and beef would remain. At Christmas they might kill a bush turkey for dinner. One Christmas a pig arrived by plane, an exotic treat for the Yuletide dinner table.

At times this isolation was life-threatening. When cyclones ripped through the region, the family could only hang on and hope the house would hold together - there was never any chance they would be airlifted out. When one cyclone threatened the family they all sheltered in Reg's study, The smallest children placed in the mailbags for warmth. This little room, filled with his precious books, was usually out of bounds to his brood. As the winds battered the house, six-year-old Anne, impervious to any danger from the cyclone, asked excitedly if they were now always allowed to come into Daddy's study? She was disappointed that once the storm had passed, her father's inner sanctum was once more firmly out of bounds. The family had a radio system, but it didn't always bring help. Anne once suffered a terrible fever which raged for some days. She was dehydrated and extremely weak. But this was the Wet - for days the flying doctor couldn't reach the station, and Anne lay sweating. Finally the doctor refused to fly in, saying that the child was so gravely ill she probably wouldn't survive the trip. He asked if Reg could find something in his medicine bag to at least halt the dehydration. Reg looked up his old medical books and rummaged to the bottom of his medicine kit. Eventually he found some obscure medication. Anne survived and recovered. Even crises like these never made the family think about moving to Perth and the security of city life. Reg was wedded to this land. It was his inheritance and perhaps he felt his harsh life was predestined. Anne remembers that the only persistent problem facing the family was water - either too much or too little. Great-grandfather Patsy had tried so desperately to escape the twin curses of drought and flood, but the family never escaped them.

The spartan isolation of Kildurk compelled Reg's children, this fourth generation of station Duracks, to find delight in the minutiae of life. Like the generation before them, they felt a sense of belonging to this country. There was excitement about storms, thunder and lightning, about the little bugs that flew inside the home, the praying mantises, the grasshoppers, the moths, the exotic birds. One year they kept baby crocodiles. They would search barren and tough landscape looking for a few precious flowers. When a hibiscus or wild hop was found, the children would be absorbed by its vibrant colour and subtle perfume. The children went on long walks and swims with the station children and women. Even as a mature woman, childhood memories can flood into Anne's mind. She vividly recalls the walks and stories and can, without thinking, drop into the voice and speech pattern of an Amanbidji woman:

'We'd go on walks with the women, with all these exotic ideas about coming home with pigeons and yams and potato and making a stew. I remember sitting with the women and telling stories. We'd sit to tell the stories and they'd have this piece of carefully worked-over dirt, lovely soft dirt, and they'd tell the story in the dirt. They'd draw a story like a; little map to go with what they were telling us and then it would go for the next story ... irreplaceable. Aboriginal art. And they used to make little animal tracks and tell us "this one little wallapi come up to have a drink, you know that little wallapi, and this one snake and a big fella guana ..." and they'd keep drawing patterns in the dirt. And we'd be laughing, perfectly comfortable with each other. And of course that terrible regret that we didn't hold onto it, that we didn't appreciate that for what it was. There was an interaction there that we didn't appreciate was not forever.'

Life on the station was generally slow and the routines didn't change. In the Dry season there was mustering and droving the cattle to the abattoir. The meat was then shipped and sold around the country. during the Wet, saddles would be mended, yards fixed, toys made for the children from bits of used material, and many books read. Then the property was totally inaccessible except by place. Enid would sew and teach. Every other day she and the indigenous Amanbidji women would make thirty-two loaves of bread and other days copious quantities of soap. Reg's children, David, Anne, John, Ruth and Doug, all helped on the station. They would get up early to milk the cows, bed them in the yard at night, muster cattle, fix and build yards. Like their father, the children were scholarly. Reg and Enid soon decided that their eldest son, David, would be unlikely to work on the land (he was to go on to be a Rhodes scholar and medical researcher). It was their second son, John, who Reg hoped would continue the Durack pastoral tradition. John enjoyed the quiet, simple pleasures of station life, mustering the stock, the slow drive on horseback to the meatworks. The children were Enid's main source of companionship during the day and she had no wish to part with them. The now poor Duracks couldn't afford preparatory boarding schools, so Enid herself was their teacher. She set up the first school in the region, not only for her five children but also for the Amanbidji offspring. As Enid describes it: 'I was doing our children by correspondence and there were three Aboriginal girls who would watch. so we invited them in. Reg cut an oval in three tea chests so their legs could fit underneath, they were the desks ... and the chairs were four-gallon kerosene and petrol drums.  

'One day we got a visit from the welfare department who asked if I could teach all the children in the camp. At one time there were sixteen: four Duracks and twelve Aboriginal. They loved it. I had a piano so we'd do lots of signing and a bit of country dancing. Reg put a shower down a tree, you'd fill it up and pull the chain. So the children would come up from the camp, have a shower and put on school clothes they left each evening at the shed school. Reg made a blackboard ant there was a small amount of chalk.' Enid says she 'hated' teaching. But despite her feelings and the limitations of their resources, Enid must have been an effective teacher - her children would all in time become city professionals. Enid reflected the pervasive attitudes of the time, and as such never expected such high achievements from her Aboriginal students. For most of these children, this was the only education they were to receive. But attendance rates were impressive (sometimes 100 per cent over a year), and the children enjoyed their basic introduction to white people's education. Enid never felt entirely comfortable with the Aboriginal station workers. Sometimes when Reg was away she would hear sounds echoing in the night air and imagine intruders were breaking into the store. Her husband was completely at ease among the black workers and had a "brotherhood" affinity with two Amanbidji men, Bingle and ginger. For Reg's children, this was Home - and the indigenous community was part of their extended family. The workers were given food and shelter on the property. Reg also set up a rudimentary banking system in the store. According to John Durack, station workers were paid a 'more than nominal' weekly wage, which was safeguarded in the store until the money was needed. Anne and John both remember the storeroom wages book into which workers would place their thumbprints. When money was wanted Reg and the station worker would add up how many thumbprints were in the book and therefore the mount of money owing. during the Wet season, when station workers left Kildurk for tribal business, they would often use this money to buy food and clothes from neighbouring stations. Once a year these wages were topped up for the August race day.

The fourth-generation Duracks believe they lived in harmony with the Aboriginal people and the land. Says Anne: 'There was no restriction of access, there was no feeling that there wasn't free movement for either us or for them. In fact they moved more freely than we did, with a lot more confidence, because they knew where they were doing and what was happening. But we did share the billabongs, the fishing, the fun.' But this paternalistic relationship reliant upon poorly paid Aboriginal labour was about to collapse. It was inevitable. Around the country, Aboriginal people were talking of their human rights - the right to own land, to be paid prop3r wage, and to enjoy the same citizenship privileges as other Australians. An era had passed, and Australians no longer considered it acceptable for a small white elite to own vast tracts of land relying on the slave-like labour of dispossessed indigenous communities. The Durack station workers hadn't been involved in the 1946 Kimberley stockmen's strike but now they felt the ripple of unrest from Wave Hill station, a few hundred kilometres from Kildurk. In 1966 Vincent Lingiari led his Gurindji tribe and other groups off Wave Hill cattle station, owned by the British Vesty group of companies. The treatment of workers there was notorious. One former station worker recalled: 'We lived in tin humpies you had to crawl in and out on your knees. There was no running water. The food was bad - just flour, tea, sugar and bits of beef like the head or feet of a bullock.' The Wave Hill strike for better wages and living conditions quickly transformed into the beginnings of the Aboriginal land rights movement.

Australia -  Dynasties - The Durack Family - Part 3

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