Cockatoo Creek is nearly ninety square miles and mostly bush, which is plenty for a pommie jackeroo to get well and truly lost in. But in Australian terms we're barely a blip on the radar.
Some of the really big properties are so huge and so isolated you might well find them named on the map of Australia in your world atlas, but you have to look at a very large scale local map before you find our name.
On the other hand, although we’re only two hundred and fifty miles from the eastern coast it still feels as though we’re a long way out in the back of beyond here. About ninety-five percent of Australians live in a necklace of cities and towns looped loosely around the coast of this vast country, and in Queensland the outback starts just a few miles inland from this thin ribbon of urban ‘civilisation’.
The nearest homestead to us is either Yeramba or Kilarra, which are both approximately six or seven miles away. The pub at Noree Hill is about thirty miles away, and the nearest place you could buy anything more durable than a beer or a bag of crisps, or drive on a tarmac road, is another hundred miles or so past the pub in a north easterly direction.
If you walked due west from here in a straight line, said Ben on the verandah the other evening, pointing towards the little girl’s bedroom, once you climb over the boundary fence onto Yeramba the chances are you wouldn’t see another house or human being until you fell into the Indian Ocean, more than two thousand miles away. You would have to cross a couple of highways and about six hundred miles of the Great Sandy Desert, but on the whole you would be on your own.
So we’re just a tiddler, but right next door we have a reminder of just how big a cattle station can be in this area of the outback. Before blocks like Cockatoo Creek were knocked off its edges, Yeramba was by far the biggest station in this neighbourhood. A decade ago it was nearly four thousand square miles, or two and a half million acres. Today it’s a tenth of that size, whittled down to a mere quarter of a million acres, or four hundred square miles. This is still a sizable patch by most people’s standards, but not in Australia.
About a thousand miles to the south west of us in northern South Australia there’s a station called Anna Creek that makes Yeramba look like a suburban back yard. Anna Creek is twenty-four thousand square kilometres, or six million acres. That’s the same size as Massachusetts, New Hampshire or Vermont, a bit bigger than Belgium, and quite a lot bigger than Wales.
Anna Creek is so enormous because it’s in one of the driest places in this dry country, and the grazing and water it offers are consequently extremely sparse. It carries just over eleven thousand head of cattle, which works out at nearly five hundred and fifty acres per head. The biggest cattle ranch in the USA is six thousand square kilometres, a quarter of Anna Creek’s size, but on good grass I’m sure it carries far more cattle than Anna Creek does on its parched red dust.
Anna Creek is the biggest single cattle property in the world, but even this is just a small part of the area of Australia under the control of the Kidman family company. Kidman & Co run about twenty stations including Anna Creek, carrying a combined total of over two hundred thousand head of cattle. Several of these stations are almost as big as Anna Creek, and two groups of stations run together to form massive, contiguous blocks of around thirty-five thousand square kilometres each. When you add a scattering of smaller properties, Kidman & Co runs a total landholding of nearly thirty million acres, or one hundred and twenty thousand square kilometres.
This enormous enterprise is the legacy of an Australian legend called Sid Kidman, and in his heyday around a hundred years ago Kidman controlled or owned more than twice the company’s current landholding.
Sidney Kidman started his working life as a sheep drover in 1870, aged thirteen, with five shillings in his pocket and a one-eyed horse called Cyclops. He turned out to be a brilliant outback entrepreneur, running mail coaches, trading horses and cattle, opening butchers’ shops, shuttling supplies by bullock wagon out to remote mining communities, and snapping up cattle station leases by the dozen. But his big vision was to build a chain of stations along the three main rivers that run (sometimes) down into the centre of Australia. This would allow him to raise and fatten cattle in the north, and then drove them on his own property down through the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, to the big urban markets of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
He was well on his way to realising this ambition when the big dry of 1901 nearly wiped him out. The Kidman stations lost over seventy thousand head of cattle during this devastating drought, but that only confirmed in Sid Kidman’s mind the absolute need to control access to the ‘Channel Country’, and well before he died in 1935 he had achieved it.
It was said that Kidman could drove cattle from the Gulf of Carpentaria right down to Adelaide without leaving his own land.
If you read just a small part of the list of stations that Sid Kidman owned or leased, you can hear the history of the Australian outback in their names, with its undertone of emigrant nostalgia, and the awkward echoes of the much deeper history that lies behind that.
Owen Springs. Alton Downs. Cowarie. Caryapundy. Mount Nor’West and Pandi Pandi. Roseberth. Tickalara, Eringa and Austral Downs. Sandringham, Lake Albert and Victoria River Downs. Lake Elder. Bullo Downs. Glengyle and Peake Downs. Yancannia. Carandotta and Tindara…
The outback is sprinkled with place names that hark back to the British origins of many 19th century station owners, and Kidman & Co still run many of those stations, including Sandringham, Glengyle and Peake Downs. But perhaps there is a sense of guilt or guardianship, or maybe a respect for much older traditions, in the widespread use of Aboriginal names for so many outback stations. Alongside Anna Creek and Durham Downs, the Kidman roll-call today also includes Banka Banka and Innamincka, Nappa Merrie, Morraberrie and Macumba.
Back in the early 20th century, it’s reckoned that Sid Kidman and his family controlled somewhere between one hundred thousand and one hundred and twenty thousand square miles, more than three percent of Australia’s total landmass, an area roughly the size of the whole of the UK and nearly as big as New Zealand.
He must have been a remarkable man, and when he visited England in 1908, wherever he went crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of the world’s largest landowner. Always alert to a business opportunity even on holiday, Kidman took the chance to recruit the drivers of horse drawn London buses who were losing their jobs as the internal combustion engine gave an entirely new meaning to the concept of horsepower. They were among the best horse handlers he’d ever seen, said Kidman, and twenty of them took up his offer and left the streets of London for the wide open spaces of Kidman’s outback empire.
A teetotal, non-swearing exception to the normal stamp of stockman, Kidman gave huge amounts of money to many different causes during and after the first World War, and he was knighted in 1921. For his seventy-fifth birthday, Adelaide threw him a special rodeo, but at heart the man known as The Cattle King remained a down to earth bushman, and he clearly never forgot his roots. “I’ve had a wonderful life,” he is reported to have said not long before he died. “When the good Lord gives me notice, I’ll pack my swag and go.”
Back at Cockatoo Creek, I was trying to explain to Buckle the other evening the kind of English countryside that Sid King would have seen on his visit, but try politely as he does, a lifetime in the colossal landscapes of the outback makes it impossible yo imagine fields of just a few acres, stone walls and hawthorn hedges, and the vivid greens of spring.
But it did put our size here at Cockatoo Creek into a different perspective, when you look down the scale towards England rather than up the scale to Anna Creek.
Taken together, I think I’m right in saying that the two small Campbell properties, Cockatoo Creek and Straight Creek, are bigger than the biggest single private landholding in the UK. And at six hundred acres our tiny horse paddock here on Cockatoo Creek is twice the size of the average farm back home in England.