The old joints are a bit stiff these days and getting in the saddle isn’t as easy as it used to be, but Wally Atkinson and his droving mates are too content to notice. They’re camped out under the stars again and are as free as the wind that still whips down through the gullies in the distant hills – just like it did 50 years ago.

Story By Kerry Sharp

It's 5am, pitch black and chilly and camp cook Penny Shaw and her husband David already have the campfire crackling and porridge simmering. It’s time to eat up, roll the swags and get on the road again.
Wally Atkinson, Pic Willetts, Rodney Watson, Dave Allworth and Keith Luscombe are all in their seventies and eighties and are among Australia’s dwindling league of legendary horseback drovers. They’re camped at majestic Jasper Gorge on the Buchanan Highway in the Northern Territory’s Victoria River cattle country, and are nearing the end of a 1600-kilometre commemorative ride held to relive the heady days and freedom of the outback stock routes. They’ve lost none of the passion they first shared as strapping teenage cattlemen riding in the 1940s with the biggest names in droving then going on to become legends in their own right. Even a 2.2-metre king brown slithering through their camp one night hasn’t dampened their spirits.

Queensland horse lovers and droving heritage devotees Jayson and Vikki Watkin, their children Jaymee and Tim and a support crew of friends and sponsors have brought these bush heroes together to lead A Ride to Remember, which takes in historic stock routes from western Queensland, across the Northern Territory and into Western Australia’s rugged Kimberley.

“This project has given these men from a bygone working era a chance to relive their memories of life on the stock routes,” says Jayson, a Malanda-based country singer-songwriter. “It’s also a fundraiser for a cause close to the old drovers’ hearts, the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS).”

Jayson told Rodney over a cuppa one day that Vikki had come up with an idea for a bush trip by horseback to promote his new album. “Rodney started filling my head with amazing droving stories and I thought, what a fantastic combination to get some old drovers along as well,” Jayson says.

“When it looked like becoming a reality, Rodney phoned his old mate Pic Willetts and he was keen to go, and when the others heard Pic was on board, she was full steam ahead. Wally lives in Malanda too and was so excited about coming along – but he’s a realist at 88. He told us if anything happened to him along the way, he wanted to be buried under the bridge on the Georgina at Camooweal. He’s had a permanent smile on his face for the whole trip.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #78

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sept 2011