South-west Queensland’s Nockatunga Station is holding its own, despite the drought, thanks to three water sources, organic-beef production and experienced, dedicated staff.

Story By Fiona Lake

After several dozen kilometres of nondescript scrub, the gently curving road to Nockatunga’s Nockabarrara yard reveals a spectacularly red sandhill, the vivid colour contrasting dramatically with the muted browns and greens of the surrounding countryside. Another curve unveils a perfectly preserved bronco yard sitting on a stony claypan, waiting in eerie silence for the bronco horses that will never come again. Yet another bend in the road reveals huge beam pumps, chugging and groaning as they drag Jurassic Oil up from more than 1000 metres below the uninhabited landscape.
The Cooper/Eromanga basin is located between South Australia’s Innamincka and Queensland’s Thargomindah, and it is Australia’s largest onshore oil-and-gas field. Nockatunga is one of several pastoral leases in the thick of this mining and exploration.
After 118 years of ownership, the Hughes family sold Nockatunga to Kerry Packer’s Consolidated Pastoral Company (CPC) in 1990, nine years after Santos discovered commercial oil and gas in the area.
The 8500-square-kilometre station is one-third each of open gidyea plains, mulga country and river flood-out country. Every paddock except the Cooper paddocks have a mixture of channels, blacksoil plains, mulga and gidyea, and ‘red’ or sandhill country. Manager for seven years, Rob Teague, waxes lyrical about the unusual good fortune of having three separate sources of water – Wilson River floods, from rain south of Eromanga; Cooper floods, from rain up to 800km away, north of Barcaldine and Longreach; and local rain. While the local average is only 200 millimetres a year on the northern end of the station and 150mm at “Bransby” in the south, situated less than 80km from the New South Wales and South Australian borders, the feed produced is very good quality. “It’s not how much you have, it’s how it falls,” Rob says. “We only had 100mm last year and we had a good year. A fall of 25–50mm with follow-up at the right time results in a good year.”
In December 2007, Rob handed the reins over to his successor Jock Warriner. Rob now has his hands full as general manager of Ellerston Station (near Scone, NSW) and as Queensland and New South Wales pastoral inspector. Seventeen years earlier, on his first day at Nockatunga at age 21, Rob realised he was in his element. “There was a chopper hunting up a mob of about 40 horses, right by the gate here,” he says. “There were also a few blokes on motorbikes. It was all action, with dust flying everywhere. I said, ‘Oh, are these some brumbies?’ but they said, ‘No, these are the working horses’. I thought, ‘Beauty. This is the life for me’.” Rob beams, and it is obvious that his enthusiasm for being in the thick of the mustering action – first on a horse then in a plane – hasn’t dulled.

This story excerpt is from Issue #60

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2008