Monday, March 26, 2018

Sidney Kidman, the Channel Country and the 2018 Davenport Downs Flood

The Davenport Downs homestead perched on the edge of the Diamantina River flood in mid-March 2018. Photos by Ross Myhill. From Queensland Country Life. .

At 1,500,000 hectares (15,000 square  kilometers), the Davenport Downs aggregation is Queensland's largest cattle station.  It lies 350km south west of Winton in the Channel Country. The Channel Country features a a flat arid landscape with a series of ancient flood plains from rivers including the Diamantina which only flow intermittently towards Lake Eyre. in the south west.

In the generally flat terrain, the Diamantina does not have a single course but rather flows through a series of rivulets that progressively fill as the river rises.When the rains reach the catchments especially in the north, the Diamantina and other rivers can flood sending water to the south west. In wet years, the waters can reach as far as Lake Eyre.

There has always been a certain romance attached to the Channel Country. Growing up one of my favourite books was Ion Idriess's The Cattle King (1936), a significant best seller. This tells the story of Sidney Kidman.

Born in 1857, Kidman built a huge pastoral empire. Central to this was the concept of chains of cattle stations that would allow Kidman to move stock across Australia from property to property as climatic conditions changed. By the time of World War I he controlled station country considerably greater in area than England or Tasmania and nearly as great as Victoria.

The Channel Country was central to Kidman's plans. In Kidman's Australian Dictionary of Biography entry (link above), Russel Ward describes Kidman's concept in this way:
Long before his thirtieth birthday he had conceived the idea of buying a chain, later two chains, of stations stretching in nearly continuous lines from the well-watered tropical country round the Gulf of Carpentaria, south through western Queensland to Broken Hill, and across the border into South Australia within easy droving distance of Adelaide. Many stations on this 'main chain' were watered by Cooper's Creek and the Georgina and Diamantina rivers which sometimes brought northern tropical rain-waters to the centre even during droughts. By the 1890s he had begun to acquire his second chain of stations strung along the Overland Telegraph line from the Fitzroy River and Victoria River Downs in the north to Wilpena station in the Flinders Ranges near Adelaide. Thus, by moving stock from drought-stricken areas to others, by selling in markets where the price was highest, by his detailed knowledge of the country, and by his energy and bushcraft he withstood the depression of the 1890s and the great drought of 1902. 
I was reminded about the Channel Country and Sydney Kidman by an interesting piece by Sally Cripps in Queensland Country Life, Queensland's largest cattle station benefiting from Channel Country flood (25 Mar 2018). This describes the effects of the latest Channel Country flood on Davenport Downs. It's an interesting piece not just in its description of the floods but because of the insights it provides to managing a property the size of a small European country. Some of the approaches would seem familiar to Sidney Kidman. 

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