THERE MUST BE a hundred or more Sheep Station Creeks in Australia. The one I know is in Kamilaroi Country, and I recently went back to find it because I’m working on a novel about a town that disappeared.
My exploration was a reminder of just how quickly such a thing can happen.
As a kid I regularly traversed the black soil lands west of Delungra, and I recall being told that Dufty’s Lane, on which our farm ‘Paxton’ stood, once ran between the Bingara Road and another place deeper in these blue hills, decades before we moved in.
That destination was Sheep Station Creek, a generous watercourse that often flooded, according to the oral history, cutting off residents of the village with the same name once too often.
Their solution was to head up into our valley along Dufty’s Lane, which runs straight to the Bingara Road crossing creeks close enough to their source to let most of the water get away. From there, it’s a short run into Delungra where there was a railway station, school and post office.
Armed with a map and memories of landmarks (there’s no phone signal out there) I headed west from Delungra to Kaloona. Here, I turned south onto Reserve Creek Road where Gragin Peak sits distinctly almost directly to the north.
After slowly and subtly dropping into a valley, a crusty signpost pointing to Sheep Station Creek greeted me not far south of where Reserve Creek flows into it. The water was flowing beautifully, creating wide, shaded pools as it winds through the district. With plenty of properties along the way, it seems the perfect place to put down roots; but there’s little sign this was once a place with a name.
‘This little spot’
It seems the closest Sheep Station Creek ever got to being recognised was in century-old reports. One, published in The Inverell Times three weeks after the Australian Imperial Forces’ landing at Gallipoli in 1915, called the region “this little spot” in “the corners of Inverell, Warialda and Bingara districts”.
The write up reads as though it was penned by a local, speaking of a rifle club and tennis meets; and thousands of sheep, cattle and horses agisted in the valley during a “recent dry spell”.
The annual minutes of the local “F&S Club” branch were reported, mentioning the arrival of the telephone service, a rise in rates, the plan for a local polling booth, and various road repairs.
“The Shire Council has effected an agreement with St Clair Bros, in regard to the road through their properly, which, though not final, puts residents, on a more satisfactory footing,” the report reads.
The St Clairs were Percival and Harold, second joint owners of Paxton. A 1916 report in the Tamworth Daily Observer mentions the success the brothers were having in the cultivation of various grains on Paxton, with a particular focus on Sudan Grass, a highly nutritious fodder sorghum they were selling as seed. Harold was also doing well out of breeding horses for the track.
The writer of that report didn’t mention Dufty’s Lane by name. They called it “the Road to Sheep Station Creek”.
It certainly sounded like a place that was burgeoning, so what happened?
A changed world
The day I passed though. the weather-beaten pointer to Sheep Station Creek was hidden in the shadow of a signpost to a place with a more notorious name.
I followed it and soon ended up at the old Myall Creek Hall, where, with my siblings and friends, we once played on the swings and performed on the raked wooden stage at Christmas. I’d arrived at this place by another route in 2015 for the annual memorial of the Myall Creek Massacre.
A local volunteer was mowing the lawns, so I got to have a slow look inside.
In the dusty light, I noticed an honour roll, which likely goes some way to explaining the disappearance of Sheep Station Creek. Two of the four St Clair brothers – Harold and Christoper – appear on it. After enlisting late in a war that no-one knew would end soon (a similar board at Delungra was embossed “1914-191_‘), Harold returned but his younger brother did not.
The weekly papers of the New England region are filled with the lists of the war dead and wounded across these years. Harold St Clair’s bushman’s skills were exploited in Palestine, not the racetrack. He returned to a changed world in 1919.
If the residents of Sheep Station Creek – just getting a foothold on their lands in 1916 – were impacted at the same rate of loss as the rest of the New England community, is it any wonder the hopes in those branch minutes were blown away like sorghum seeds no-one was around to harvest?
Out of place
I continued on the Myall Creek Massacre memorial site, taking the short walk to remind myself of the story of the Wirrayaraay women, children and old men whose lives ended so brutally at the hands of colonial settlers in 1838.
The Wirrayarray’s custodianship of Myall Creek was forever interrupted by this episode of Australia’s Frontier Wars. It’s not clear what the residents of Sheep Station Creek knew or understood of the massacre, although I was told about it as a child while playing at the Myall Creek Hall in the 1970s.
War stories tend to get handed down the generations. The loss of large parts of some generations due to conflict is something all cultures have in common. Hopefully we can remember all the fallen on the one honour board before long, by including the Frontier Wars in our ceremonies.
Despite my hunt along every rut, track and open gate, the road down to Sheep Station Creek from Dufty’s Lane appears to be long gone.
Perhaps Sheep Station Creek survives in other memories and family stories? These remote hills and valleys are filled with place names that exist only on maps, or remnant signposts standing by old roads to nowhere, travelled by dreamers like me who are drawn by legends and century-old meeting news clippings.
In that sense, the fictitious town that disappears in the manuscript I’m currently reworking is hardly out of place. It’s just another bend in another creek somewhere.