Drover - Doug Hope

Monday, December 10, 2012

Doug Hope is a man of many stories. He began droving around the NSW Western Districts in 1946 and has farmed the area for almost 50 years. He has driven stock through droughts (both rabbit and weather-induced), floods and endless 40 degree days, and can recount every trip and every season.

These days Doug lives in a cottage in the centre of Condobolin. The whole town seems to know and love him, and when One Farm Day visited last week he rose to greet us wearing perfectly polished riding boots, a work shirt, jeans and battered hat. A stock whip was hanging by the door and books of clippings, stories and collected letters were set by the easy chair, waiting to be displayed as each story unfolded.

Doug has worked through conditions most of us couldn’t imagine; yet he says he’d do it all again and speaks of those days with the greatest of affection. Perhaps Banjo Paterson was right when he wrote, “the drovers life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.”

Doug's first droving job was in the summer of 1946 when he joined a small crew charged with bringing 2500 ewes from Goodooga near the Queensland border to a property in the Hillston area. In those days paddocks were measured in square miles and drovers could be on the road for up to five months at a time. Often the only fresh food they’d enjoy would be meat butchered as they travelled and occasional refreshments offered by generous station wives as they passed.

“It wasn’t easy getting started back then,” Doug says, “in the late 40‘s Condobolin had up to 15 drovers and I was still getting my ‘plant’ together”.

But it took just one big gig to establish a name and then he was off. Literally. That was in 1948, “I took 2500 woolly wethers from Bourke to Kimaculla that February, it was a hot and tough job that one. Some days we'd go up to 25 kilometres between water sources”.

Doug delivered the stock on time and in good condition, and after that was approached with steady job offers. Soon enough he had more than he could handle - this was around the time of the terrible rabbit drought that struck after WW11.

During the late forties and early fifties the Western District of NSW suffered from a unique set of circumstances; a run of boom seasons meant lots of feed growth but in the wake of WW11 there was a lack of labour to run the farms and shortage of wire netting. All of this combined to create a rabbit plague that ate out the entire region leaving barely a blade of grass behind. It wasn’t until the early fifties that the situation eased off and this was thanks to the introduction of the virus myxomatosis by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

During the rabbit plague, Doug and his crew moved stock all over NSW and into Queensland in search of grass. Many farmers had their animals out on the state’s network of Travelling Stock Routes’ (TSRs) for months at a time and Doug recalls a big job in 1952 which had him, his crew and a mob of sheep on the road for over 18 weeks. These big jobs were made more challenging by floods which, Doug recalls, “at times turned the whole region into one big bog”.

“Those TSRs could be real bun fight in those years” he said, “you’d have to always have somebody keeping an eye on who was ahead so the mobs didn’t get mixed up”.

They were long days in the saddle, and not always through structured TSR routes. Many weeks were spent droving through open unfenced country and in these cases, drovers were required to give notice of their approach 12 hours in advance, giving farmers enough time to move their own stock out of the way. Some the farmers phoned ahead to the next property but otherwise it was a long ride to give notice. In general they would stick to the state recommendations that drovers travel their cattle 10 miles a day and sheep 6 miles a day, but as Doug says, it always depended on feed, water and the condition of the stock.

When travelling with sheep, Doug explains, you were allowed one ‘killer’ per week. Fresh meat was kept in a calico bag for a day or two and the rest was thrown into a sack of coarse salt to preserve. There were no cool bags or eskies and as Doug says, “boy you’d need a lot of water after eating that meat”. When droving with cattle, they might catch a wild pig or goat and would often buy a sheep from property owners when passing through.

At night the crew would string up a tarp and listen to the radio. If a trough, tank or dam was nearby they’d jump in for a wash and then settle down for a supper of salted mutton, pig, goat or meat with potatoes and tinned vegetables, finished off with a cup of tea, damper and honey or jam.

These might have been the scenes Banjo Paterson dreamt of when he wrote those famous lines about his droving character Clancy, “And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, And at night the wond'rous glory of the everlasting stars.”

Doug's team was pretty lean but effective; he rode with an offsider and a cook, up to 10 dogs and three or four horses per person. The horses were all hobbled at night with bells around their necks to ensure they could be found in the morning. And the stock themselves were generally left unfenced all night (unless yards could be found), guarded by the dogs and clumped together by their natural herding instinct.

Like most good drovers, Doug had no time for alcohol while they were out moving stock. “You need to have your wits with you when droving,” he says, “I’ve heard of fellas having a few drinks at night then waking up to find the whole mob gone”.

It was a different story as soon as the stock was handed over though. And while Doug has never been much of a drinker, the crew would often make up for his moderate ways.

“I remember camping near a pub one night after we’d handed over a mob,” Doug says, “the boys had been at the pub for a few hours drinking then came back to camp - as drunk as owls - grabbed one of our ‘killer’ sheep and threw it over the bar to pay for the night’s grog. Boy it made a mess of them that night.”

Doug’s full time droving days came to an end after marrying in August 5th, 1954. His wife was a city girl and they settled at Redloum, a property about 60 miles from Condobolin. Here they welcomed their two children, Sue and Colin and with them, worked through floods, droughts and all the other highs and lows that come with living on a farm. Doug remembers the flood year of 1956, “it was so boggy that year, we had to muster for shearing with a borrowed pushbike.”

While he still did the odd droving job, Doug’s focus now shifted to life on the farm and his family. Daughter Sue followed him in the saddle so to speak, and grew up to become an accomplished camp drafter. Photos of the young girl helping to muster sheep on what looks to be an adults' horse at the age of three (below) are testament to her early start as a rider.

Professional drovers are hard to find these days, “stock just aren’t moved that way anymore," Doug says, "and if farmers need to take their stock out ‘on the long paddock’ in search of grass, they’ll generally do it themselves".

What does this mean for the network of travelling stock routes around NSW and into Queensland? They have become recognised not only as a source of emergency feed but also for their role as corridors of refuge for natural vegetation, threatened species and native woodlands. Because many follow traditional Aboriginal travel lines, they also still provide important connections on that front too. The entire network is currently under consideration for National Heritage Listing.

Speaking with Doug, you get the impression he’d give anything to get back in the saddle and ride along those stock routes again but for now he’s happy to keep telling stories and there are plenty of people waiting to hear them.


  1. A fascinating story. So happy i found your farm blog . We have a farm in the Hunter Valley and I love to see people saying 'nice' things about farmers ...thankyou for putting a positive spin on an age old profession. http://thelittleblackcowblog.blogspot.com


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