Tales of the Bullockies
by Jean Schmaal
Published in 'Scope' lift-out magazine August 1977
Australia owes much to bullock teams and the bullockies who drove them -- once almost anything which had to travel any distance had to be moved by bullock dray or wagon.
Often wool going to a coastal port for shipment to England, or groceries and supplies being taken to a distant station spent months on the journey.
In some parts of Australia inland river navigation altered the situation.
Murray River steamers put an end to long bullock treks to and from stations along the Murray.
In other places where there were no navigable rivers, bullock wagons continued to plod slowly until the railway line finally came.
When they were first sighted in the vicinity of Lake Albert (where they had probably strayed from NSW) natives called them "Wund-wityer" (creatures with spears on their heads).
And from that day the name was given to all horned cattle by the Aborigines. They considered them demons and ran from them in terror.
One old native woman told how frightened she was when, as a small girl, she saw the first 'red' men come into the district. With them were creatures whose head bore spears.
As they walked two smaller creatures ran around and around, and the 'red' men swung sticks which went "Crack! Crack! Crack!". The 'Red' men yelled "Get up you great lazy b . . . b . . .".
Sometimes the spear-headed ones said "Boo,oo,oo". She learned later that these were bullock teams accompanied by dogs and sunburned drivers with their bullock-whips.
Another interpretation of these strange new beings was that they were the wives of the 'red' men. Among the tribes it was the women who were the burden-carriers -- so the conclusion was natural enough.
One-time bullockies were specialists in their field and knew at a glance if an animal would make good. They looked for an intelligent steer (about 2 years old) and most often a red, roan, or brindle shorthorn.
Some of them were too wild ever to make the grade, but some of the quite skittish ones came good. The animal, once trained, was used until it was about ten years old --once finished it usually went to the butcher.
About 100 years ago, bullocks fetched between £10 and £15 each, quite a good price. The wages which the bullock-driver received varied from 20 to 25 shillings a week.
If he were employed as a station-hand rations were added to this amount. These were 10 lbs flour, 12 lbs of meat, 2 lbs sugar and ¼ lb of tea being allowed per week for each adult.
In the team were usually 10 to 12 pairs of bullocks. Across their shoulders were placed wooden yokes (most often made by the driver) while across their chests were iron bows (made by a blacksmith) and these two were pinned together.
A chain was fastened through a ring and each bullock was chained by the animal behind him.
If the animals were needed to work on rough country they were shod, each beast being fitted with four pairs of 'cues'. These were rather small shoes, in pairs, which were fitted to each cloven hoof.
When working in soft, swampy country it was not necessary to equip the animals.
Above: Last bullock team in Melrose SA
Bullock whips were made of greenhide, mostly about 7' long. The drivers made their own whips from bullock hide and used them mainly for sound effects.
Once the young steers were selected their training began.
A pair was coupled together with straps joined by a swivel around their necks. They were let run for a fortnight until they became accustomed to the strap.
To start with, two old bullocks were used as leaders, young ones placed between, and then another two old steers as back stops.
"We usually worked with one young bullock linked to a more experienced worker. After a while we took the most intelligent of the young ones, and put him with a leader up the front, and there he stayed until he was worked in. When that young leader came good we cold put another in with him" remembers one old bullocky.
"The older bullock was put on the offside and when the whip cracked over his head, with a "gee-off" he turned right.
"Come here" brought the team to the left. The bullocky walked on the left side, and held the whip in his right hand. When he stopped the whip went to his left hand. The experienced old bullock usually caught his eye and stopped. If he didn't, then a "Whoa-back" nearly always brought results.
Failing that, the whip was dropped over his ears. Bullocks were often quite intelligent, "but not nearly as much as horses," is the opinion of one of the old-timers who had worked them for some years.
A Bullocky Described
The following description of one of the early-days bullockies shows him as anything but romantic:
"While strolling on the outskirts of the town above a cloud of dust, I saw approaching a huge, lumbering mass, like a moving haystack, swaying from side to side, and I heard the creaking of wheels in the distance, and a volley of strange oaths accompanied the sharp crack of a whip.
"Presently the horns of a pair of massive bullocks appeared, straining solemnly at their yokes.
Then another and another followed, until I counted five pairs of elephantine beasts, drawing a rude cart, composed of two high wheels and a platform without sides, upon which was stacked and piled bales of wool full fourteen feet in height.
"Close to the near wheel stalked the driver, a tall, broad-shouldered sun-burnt, careworn man, with long shaggy hair falling from beneath a sugar-loaf shaped grass hat, a month's heard on his dusty chin, dressed half boots, coarse, short, fustian trousers, a red silk handkerchief around his waist, and a dark blue cotton shirt, with the sleeves rolled right up the the shoulders of his brown-red hairy arms."
Horror stretch -- 'the abomination of desolation'
"In his hands he carried a whip, at least 20 feet long, with the thong of which, with perfect ease, he every now and laid into his leaders, accompanying each stroke with a tremendous oath."
When copper was discovered at the Burra in 1845 it brought Welsh and Cornish miners half-way around the world to the mines.
At the height of mining in this area, bullock-drivers hauled the ore between Burra and Port Henry (today's Port Wakefield) and Port Adelaide.
Most of these bullockies were Irish -- poor, landless, and illiterate. Their work was grindingly hard.
They walked hundreds of miles (at a speed of about a mile an hour) besides their teams in all weathers. With a bit of luck, after paying all expenses, they might clear about £6 a month.
Posterity has not ignored them.
Near Halbury on the road to Port Wakefield the local scouts have erected a cairn to their memory. The muddy road known as 'Devil's Garden' was the most hazardous part of their long and tedious journey, and was over when they finally made it to the top of the sand-hill signalling the end of the “Devil’s Garden.”
From there to the coast the outlook was bright, so it became known as “Bright Outlook.” This notorious stretch of sand dune country also brings into our history the “Corduroy Road.” Colonial history was neither glamorous nor pretty.
Sometimes they were bogged for days on end in the heavy mud.
A visitor to the mining area in the early 1850's wrote "we this morning left the Black Springs for Kooringa and the Burra Mine .... The only diversity for some distance was a small winding pass among the hills and then came the 'abomination of desolation'.
Dead bullocks began to exhibit their skeletons or bloated carcasses at frequent intervals, dying where they dropped, victims to over-driving, under-feeding and cruelty to say nothing of the want for water.
Without any wish to be particular we counted 24 carcasses within the immediate borders of the roadway between Black Sp[rings and Kooringa."
Old bullock watering troughs can still be seen at Black Springs today. They are a little known relic of those days of harsh living --- harsh and tough for both man and beast.
Bullockies travelled in long convoys, and where they made camp little inns sprang up. And around these developed small townships, each about 10 miles apart, the distance the average team travelled in a day.
Many of these little hamlets have disappeared, but some have survived --- towns such as Hamilton, Marrabel and Waterloo are still there beside the North Road between Burra and Gawler.
All that remains of others are heaps of tumbling, crumbling walls. (If stones could only speak, what a tale they would have to tell.)
At the end of the dreary, weary day the bullockes were ready to rest for the night and their tired beast were set free. Bullock-bells about their necks revealed their location in the morning.
Read more: at claremuseum.com
Read more: at clarehistory.com
Bullocks also had other uses. Threshing rollers, made from red-gum logs, were operated by bullocks. Two of them rolled one in a circle to crush the heads of wheat and so prepare them for winnowing.
In this, large quantities of wheat were threshed with only a fraction of effort needed for hand-flailing. To make the roller, pioneer workmen, using had tools, patiently and laboriously chipped away tons of wood.
The floor on which the threshing took place was made of flags, laid close together on the ground, which would otherwise be too sandy to permit the successful flailing of heads.
The small gaps beween the stones were left, and this area was soon filled in with soil and dust from the heads. The roller, ribbed and tapered to a finer end, was attached to a centre post by an iron band.
The heads of wheat to be threshed were spread on the ground inside the circle made by the roller as it travelled.
During the Murray River floods of 1917, bullocks were used to hold back the waters of the swollen river. From these flood times comes a story to prove not all bullockies were masters of invective.
There were several small asbestos and weatherboard houses which had to be shifted to above flood level.
The ganger in charge of the men and their bullocks promised the houses would be shifted without swearing (from the bullockies).
The steady, slow gait of the bullock enabled the job to be completed as promised --- no breakages, no abusive language --- all to the pleased surprise of the housewives concerned.
South Australians have always congratulated themselves that their State was founded without benefit of convict settlement.
It did not take long for the new settlement to attract undesirable elements from the eastern Colonies.
Nor for some among the new settlers themselves to run foul of the law.
As ealy as 1839 long-term offenders were 'exported' to the Sydney (and Hobart) penal establishments. In August of that year four prisoners were taken to the Port and placed on board the 'Christine' bound for Sydney. They were conveyed to the Port per medium of the Police Bullock dray.
The day of the bullocky and bullock-wagons have gone, passed into the limbo of our pioneering history. But throughout the countryside from time to time one finds examples of wooden yokes, iron bows and wagons. Sometimes one even come across some the cues.
Pioneers owed much to bullockies and bullocks, those 'patient, weary slaves' that first drew their wagons, and with their strength, helped carve homes out of the wilderness.