Two Cattle Stations – Banka Banka NT

Less the two km from Banka Banka is Cutjenbra waterhole, which for thousands of years before white men bought their cattle, provided all the local inhabitants needed to survive.

‘Youngsters on this station look the picture of health, and this is entirely due to the unremitting personal care and attention given by Mrs Ward’. Statement in the 1950s by a native affairs branch inspector


This Cattle station, 100 km north of Tennant Creek, was the first operational pastoral station established in the Northern Territory. It was first settled soon after John McDougall Stuart’s epic successful crossing of the continent from Adelaide to Darwin, on his sixth attempt in 1861. On his 4th attempt in 1860, just 25 km south of Banka Banka, at Attack Creek, his party were forced to retreat south by very hostile members of the Warramunga Aboriginal people. They raided his camp, threw boomerangs at the horses and used fired to drive them back. Stuart had usually been able to negotiate with aboriginal people and got on well with them previously but on this occasion he was forced to retreat the 2400 km to Adelaide.

Isolation from markets meant that, despite the grasses on the Barkley Tableland being perfect for producing cattle, mustering the cattle all the way to Markets thousands of kilometers was not economic until WW 11 changed that, with improvement in roads and railheads. The development of the “road train” (reputably first used by Philip Ward on Banka Banka station) meant that stock could be moved to wherever feed was plentiful and to markets and abattoirs.

Modern road trains like this  can carry hundreds of cattle enormous distances to abattoirs, changed the entire economic basis of the cattle industry

The most successful station owners, Philip & Mary Ward ran the station from 1941 to 1970. During this time they employed up to 300 aboriginal people on the station. . Mary Ward was passionate to see the local people educated, and first funded personally a private school on the property and made attendance compulsory for the aboriginal children.She and her husband did not agree with the policy of removing part-Aborigines from their mothers. They sent children to school at Alice Springs at their own expense until 1961, when due to her efforts a government school opened at Banka Banka. She also provided scholarships for older children who wanted to continue their education in Adelaide and housing in Tennant Creek for sick aboriginal people who needed Hospital treatment. These “indulgences” were not at all common at the time and Mary’s actions were disapproved of by many local white folk. Forty years after their deaths, local people still speak highly of the Wards – they were renowned as “good bosses”.

When Mary, who had run the station for 11 years after her husband’s death became too ill, she sold the station to the American silver billionaire, Howard Hunt, with the proviso that all aboriginals continue to be employed. When he became bankrupt and sold the property, this policy was abandoned. The property now belongs to the Kidman Company, the largest pastoral company in Australia and employs no aboriginal workers locally. The Caravan Park which occupies the site of the restored original homestead continues to honour the memories of the pioneering Ward family.


6 thoughts on “Two Cattle Stations – Banka Banka NT

  1. Disclaimer
    These last two posts were written with the possibility that they could be used with Aboriginal Education lessons at a variety of levels depending on the direction of questions/discussions.
    I do not claim to be either an anthropologist or an expert in aboriginal education in the north. However, I have experience of teaching aboriginal students throughout my career and at Gymea THS, students who have been living at the Kirinari Hostel, far from home. These are my own personal opinions. Feel free to respectfully offer alternative views.
    I believe that students benefit from considering differences in lifestyle choice and also the unintended consequences of public and private policy

  2. thanks for these posts, Gary. It has helped me understand something of the early development in Western QLD and in the NT. I am glad to hear that you are both enjoying yourselves and not missing cold, wet Sydney.

    • Thanks for the weather report Ross – a consistent high thirties here and now humid with it in Darwin. So warm last night that we would have slept with air conditioning on except we find it too noisy.
      Glad you appreciated the “educational” posts about the background up here. Even union types like myself forget that the labour movement ignored aboriginal people because they were taking white people’s jobs and that the stockmen on Wavehilll Station were on strike for nine years – then it was a pyrric victory – got wages but no jobs and shutout of their traditional lands! No wonder so many turned to drink.

  3. Nice pic of the road train…ta for that. Now to be blonde- I never realised they transported cattle for the beef industry (der!)

    I think that story about the Cattle property owners and their passion for Aboriginal education scored a gig on Australian Story in 2009?

    Great historical view of our nation….keep up the great work.

    • Hi Paula – not blonde!
      Road trains were first used for cattle but now are used for all sorts of things.
      Today, driving on the Highway 20 km from Darwin I was passed by a B Quad carrying petrol South to Alice – i.e a prime mover and four full size petrol tankers linked behind. Julie got overtaken by a B Quad doing 110 km prominently labelled EXPLOSIVES.
      Since your question I have been looking for an opportunity to talk to a truck driver and write a blog interview – haven’t had the chance yet.

    • Hi Paula, found a nice postcard with road trains to send a message to school for those who can’t use a computer. Speaking of slackos – would you show John Artuphel the blog entry with the combi van that actually names him and tell him I expect a reply defending the venerable Kombi and it’s position in motoring history. What was with the bike helmet pic in Facebook?

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