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Halamus Publishing - Archived Articles - # 9, December, 2002



The Articles from the Monthly Newsletters

Written by

M. Lesley Halamek

December, 2002:–

SONG:"The Overlander", or "The Queensland Drover" – Traditional, Australia

Q: What is an Overlander ?

A: Overlander is another name for a Drover, from Queensland, or wherever.

Q: What is a Drover?

Q: Where is Queensland?


As sheep and cattle production have been a major factor in the Australian economy since the first days of white settlement, the movement of sheep and cattle from place to place has obviously been very important. Despite the developments of road trains and the building of beef-roads, droving stock on the hoof along the 'half mile track' (or through the 'half mile paddock') is still a common method of moving them.

Pioneering Overlanders

When, in the 19th century, exploration opened up the (Australian) inland, "overlanding" sheep and cattle - that is the droving of them over long distances, and usually across undeveloped country - was the only method of stocking new lands. By 1835 New South Wales squatters had reached the Murray River; and the first overlanding of stock was from pastoral stations on or near the river to the recently opened Port Phillip district (Melbourne).

In 1836 Charles Bonney marked a track from C. H. Ebden's station, near the present site of Albury (on the Murray), to the Ovens River, which eventually became the main route to the south. Shortly afterwards John Gardiner and Joseph Hawdon drove a mob of cattle from Yass, NSW, to the Port Phillip district, reaching Melbourne in January 1837; and in the same year Bonney overlanded 10000 sheep from Ebden's station to the Goulburn River.

Others followed with increasing numbers of stock. In August 1840 about 20000 cattle were on the track between Yass and Melbourne. In one period of three months more than 100000 sheep crossed the Murrumbidgee on their way south. (In the late 1880s my own great grandfather drove a herd of Dairy Shorthorns (Big Reds) on the hoof from his farm at Cootamundra (NSW), (and possibly via a family farm at Broughton Creek, now Berry) to the Lismore area, finally buying a farm at Rous Mill and pioneering the dairy industry on the NSW North Coast).

Joseph Hawdon and Edward John Eyre (a famous Australian explorer) were the first and second respectively to overland cattle to Adelaide both in 1838 and both by following the course of the Murray. They were followed by Charles Sturt (another famous Australian explorer) who in May 1838 brought cattle from the Murray above Albury, and by John Hart, who arrived in Adelaide in March 1839 with a mob of cattle from Portland Bay.

In 1838-9 Eyre pioneered a new route and overlanded the first sheep to South Australia, leaving Limestone Plains NSW (now mostly in ACT), with 1000 sheep and 600 cattle to follow the Murrumbidgee down to the Murray, and thence to Adelaide. Subsequently a route from the Namoi to the Barwon and thence down the Darling to the Murray was opened.


The route from New South Wales to the Moreton Bay district was opened up by Patrick Leslie who in 1840 drove sheep from the New England (NSW) district to take up land on the Darling Downs (in southern Queensland). Seven years later David Perrier reached the Darling Downs with 10000 sheep he had overlanded from Bathurst, NSW. The Jardine family made a famous overland journey in 1864 when they moved cattle from Rockhampton to Cape York (about 1200 miles, or 1900 km).

South Australia, Northern Territory, Western Australia

Overlanding from South Australia to the Northern Territory began in 1870 when Ralph Milner set out with 1000 sheep and 300 horses; he completed his journey in March-April 1872. Nathaniel Buchanan pioneered the Murranji Track (see below) when he set out in 1881 to drove 20000 cattle from south-west Queensland to Glencoe and Daly River stations in the Northern Territory.

Overlanding across the north of Australia also began in the 1880s when the Durack family began a series of treks to establish stations in the Kimberley district of Western Australia; three separate expeditions took nearly three years to move sufficient cattle from Queensland to the Ord River to form herds at Rosewood, Argyle and Lissadell stations, often under conditions of great hardship and danger.

In the world's longest overlanding trek, in March 1883 the MacDonald brothers left Goulburn, in NSW, with 500 head of cattle. Three years and 5600 kilometres (3500 miles) later William Neil MacDonald, who had been assisted in the final stages of his trek by Michael Durack, established Fossil Downs station in Western Australia.

Overlanding and Stockroutes

Along the routes pioneered by the overlanders, towns such as Gundagai and Albury, NSW, grew up at points where police detachments had been stationed to protect overlanders from Aborigines. Later, as stock-buyers bought sheep and cattle on speculation to sell to settlers wishing to stock their newly established runs, these stockroutes were increasingly used.

The goldrushes of the 1850s increased the traffic, and Dubbo, Hay, Narrandera, Deniliquin, Balranald, and Moama, as well as many other towns, grew up on the main routes from New South Wales to Victoria. By the 1880s stock were being droved to Deniliquin, thence transported by rail to Victoria.

Droving today is carried out mainly along well established stockroutes on which camps and watering places are spaced out at regular intervals. In the 1880s, however, before government bores were provided, drovers required considerable initiative and bushmanship.

For many years after stations were taken up in the far outback, the droving of stock to railheads and markets along routes pioneered by the overlanders presented many difficulties and dangers. Cattle were often driven for distances of 3000 kilometres (1800 miles) or more, and drovers had to rely on scattered and uncertain natural waters and often to cope with droughts, floods, crocodile-infested rivers, dust-storms, poisonous plants, and hostile Aborigines.

During this period three main routes were used - the Murranji Track, the Birdsville Track (500 km, or 300 miles) and a third route linking northern Queensland with north-western New South Wales and Victoria.

The Murranji Track (400 km, or 250 miles) runs from the Victoria River in the north-west of the Northern Territory eastward to Newcastle Waters, where it joins a route across semi-arid country to the Barkly Tableland and Camooweal in western Queensland; today it has government bores (providing drinking water) every 30-40 kilometres (18-25 miles).

The Birdsville Track runs southward from Birdsville, Qld (which is linked by another stockroute to Camooweal), to reach Marree, SA, on the Central Australia railway; today it is provided with bores.

The third route runs from the Gulf Country of Queensland to the Darling River at Bourke, NSW, then downstream to Wilcannia and south-east overland to Hay, and to Wodonga, Vic (2250 km, or 1400 miles). Many sections of this route are still used but railway extensions and new meatworks have ended the need for very long droving journeys.

In addition to the three routes mentioned above, the Canning Stockroute in Western Australia (1400 km, or 900 miles), completed in 1906 and today used only occasionally, connects the Northern Territory and the Kimberley area of Western Australia to Wiluna and the railway line which carries stock to the coast.

Methods of Droving

The movement of large mobs of sheep or cattle is usually undertaken by contract drovers travelling with their own equipment. Fat cattle bound for the meatworks are moved in mobs of about 650, store cattle being taken to pasture for fattening in mobs of up to 1500, and sheep in mobs of not more than 3000.

The standard number of men employed in moving 1200 cattle is seven, while for moving 3000 sheep two men suffice; in moving both sheep and cattle, dogs are an essential part of the droving team. On the move in back country stock may spread about 800 metres (half a mile) on either side of the road so that they have sufficient space in which to feed. Normally they are watered every day.

Sheep droved on stockroutes are compelled by law to travel a minimum distance each day, usually just under 10 kilometres (6 miles). At night they are kept in temporary enclosures known as brakes. When they have been on the road for a time sheep tend to lose their timidity and become cunning and difficult to move other than in their own time and at their own pace.

Cattle are droved at about 13 kilometres (8 miles) per day, sometimes for distances of up to 500 kilometres (300 miles) or more, thus a "camp" of drovers may be months on the road. During the night the cattle are unfenced, and a continual watch - usually of one drover riding all the time around the resting mob - is kept. Care has to be taken in case some sudden noise or movement should cause the cattle to stampede, in which case the man on watch will gallop to attempt to turn the mob, and the other drovers will come to his aid as soon as they are mounted. Almost invariably the boss drover takes the last watch himself so that he can supervise the start of the day's operations.

Modern Developments

Since the 1950s the development of railways, road-trains and meatworks has reduced the extent to which droving is used to move stock. Where rail transport is available it is usually favoured, since it is faster than droving, and not much more expensive; and it is considerably cheaper than road transport. Road-trains consist of up to four stock-carrying trailers pulled by a diesel-powered prime mover, and have been widely used to move cattle since the development of beef-roads in many parts of northern Australia. Large numbers of new meatworks in northern and outback areas have reduced considerably the distance stock must at the present time travel to reach abattoirs.

Despite these developments there are no signs at present of droving dying out. Railheads are frequently hundreds of kilometres from outback stations, road transport, as well as being expensive, is confined to bituminous surfaces if heavy road-trains are to be used. Droving is necessary where there are no sealed roads, where cost is an important factor, and particularly where stock must be shifted because of floods or drought.

Further Reading:

Gordon Buchanan, Packhorse and Waterhole: With the First Overlanders to the Kimberleys (1933);
Mary Durack, Kings in Grass Castles (1959); H. M. Barker, Droving Days (1966);
Jeff Carter, In the Tracks of the Cattle (1968)

A: Queensland

is the huge North-Eastern State of Australia, with an area of 1,727,200 square kilometres, or 670,500 square miles. This is 22.4% of the area of Australia. (Queensland is equal in area to a bit more than the combined areas of Texas, California, Nevada, Oregon and Indiana).

54% of Queensland is North of the Tropic of Capricorn.

The population of Queensland (1996 Census) is about 3.39 million, about 15% of the population of Australia.

The Capital City of Queensland is Brisbane. Other major cities include Gold Coast, Ipswich, Toowoomba, Gympie, Maryborough, Bundaberg, Gladstone, Rockhampton, Mackay, Townsville, Cairns, Charleville and Mt. Isa.

The Queensland Drover

(The Overlander)

1. There's a trade you all know well,
It's bringing cattle over.
On ev'ry track,
To the Gulf and back,
Men know the Queensland drover.

Pass the billy 'round boys!
Don't let the pint-pot stand there!
For tonight we drink the health
Of every overlander.

2. I come from the northern plains
Where the girls and grass are scanty;
Where the creeks run dry
Or ten foot high
And it's either drought or plenty.


3. There are men from every land,
From Spain and France and Flanders;
They're a well-mixed pack,
Both white and black,
The Queensland overlanders.


  4. When we've earned a spree in town
We live like pigs in clover;
And the whole year's cheque
Pours down the neck
Of many a Queensland drover.


5. As I pass along the roads,
The children raise my dander
Crying "Mother dear,
Take in the clothes,
Here comes the overlander!"


6. A girl in Sydney Town
She says, "Don't leave me lonely."
I says, "It's sad
But my old prad
has room for one man only!"


7. Now I'm bound for home once more,
On a prad that's quite a goer;
I can find a job
With a crawling mob
On the banks of the Maranoa.


NOTE: Billy, and pint pot:

The main beverage in this version was tea - strong, black, and sweet, if the drovers had sugar. The artesian bore water was usually rather alkaline, and undrinkable unless boiled, and even then, not very palatable - tea both disguised the 'flavour', and was a better thirst quencher than even good water would have been, especially in the tropics.

The tune for "The Queensland Drover", or "The Overlander"
appears on Page 17 of

"Folksongs for the Violin", Part 2 : The Violin in Major Keys
(A Graded Selection of Melodies for Beginners of All Ages).

Details on the MUSIC PAGE

The Overlander

There is a trade you all know well, it's bringing cattle over.
I'll tell you all about the time that I became a drover.
I wanted stock for Queensland, to Kempsey did I wander,
And picked up a mob of "duffers" there and became an overlander.

Pass the bottle round, boys; don't just let it stand there.
For tonight we'll drink the health of every overlander.

When the cattle were all mustered and the outfit ready to start,
I saw the boys all mounted and their swags all in the cart.
I found I had all sorts of men, from Germany, France and Flanders.
They're a well mixed pack, both white and black, the Queensland overlanders.


From the route I fed them out where the grass was green and young,
When a squatter, with an awful shout, told me to move along.
I said, "Old man, you're rather hard, but don't you raise my dander,
For I'm a regular knowing card, and a Queensland overlander."


It's true we pay no licence and our run is rather large,
It's not often they can catch us, so they cannot lay a charge.
They think we live on store beef, but I'm no flaming gander,
If a fat little stray should come our way, "He'll do!" says the overlander.


Now, I would scorn to steal a shirt, as all my mates can say,
So if we chance to pass a town upon a washing day,
Those little brats of kids, my boys, they quickly raise my dander,
Saying, "Mother, dear, bring in the clothes, here comes an overlander!"


In town we drain the wine cup, and go to see the play,
And never think to be hard up, or how to pass the day,
For each one has a sweetheart there, dressed up in all her grandeur–
Dark eyes and jet-black flowing hair, "She's a plum!" says the overlander.


A little girl in Brisbane Town, she said "Don't leave me lonely!"
I said, "It's sad, but this old prad was built for one man only!"
So now I'm headed west again on a steed that's quite a goer,
I'll pick up a job with a crawling mob on the banks of the Maranoa.


NOTE: "..a mob of 'duffers'.." may refer to a herd of stolen cattle.

The Australian terms 'cattle duffing', 'sheep duffing', or just 'duffing' are local equivalents of the American term 'rustling'.

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